Quiet isn’t usually a word that describes high school classes. But when classes shifted online, that’s what many of them became: a grid of slashed-out microphones in tiny circles. Listening in on a virtual high school class often sounds like the teacher monologuing, asking a question, and then pausing — for longer than normal — so students can answer.
Most students don’t unmute or turn their cameras on. Instead, the chat box comes alive. Words jump on top of words, and the discussion marches up the right side of the computer screen.
Casandra Sotelo-Rivera’s teachers have rarely, if ever, heard her speak. But they have heard her voice. The chat box has allowed introverted students like Casandra to speak up. The Denver high school freshman has found courage in her keystrokes.
“This year, I participated more than I have — ever — just because I’m not in person,” Casandra said. “Using the chat has helped me get more comfortable sharing my ideas. I feel like I can share my ideas ... and feel proud of it because I know what I’m talking about.”
About this series
Chalkbeat reporters are documenting the stories of high-school freshmen across the U.S. at telling moments throughout this unprecedented school year. How students fare in ninth grade is central to academic, and life, success. Read previous installments and an overview of the project here.
The school district Casandra attends, Denver Public Schools, has reopened high school buildings to students who want that option. But at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College, where Casandra is in ninth grade, all of the classes remain virtual. Students can go into the school building to do their online learning in classrooms monitored by teachers.
Districtwide data shows 46% of Denver high school students chose to go back into school buildings, while 54% elected to stay home. Casandra is one of them.
“I’ve gotten used to online school,” she said. “The thought of participating and being around people and people seeing me in person, it freaks me out. I feel like when I do go back, my anxiety will be worse. I’ve gotten used to not talking to people in person.”
It’s different online, Casandra says. If the 15 year old is prone to answering questions with a single word when she speaks, she’s the exact opposite when she types. She regularly types in full sentences, conveying confidently that she’s done the reading.
She’s so prolific in the chat that Esmeralda Orozco, who was a student teacher in Casandra’s geography class this past fall, didn’t know the bright freshman was shy.
“Personally, I didn’t think she was shy,” said Orozco, who is now a teacher at the school. “I thought she was one of our most outgoing students because she was answering everything.”
Remote learning is often criticized as inferior to in-person learning for valid reasons. It can be difficult for students with spotty internet access to log on. For those who do, online learning can be isolating. Many students report feeling detached and unmotivated, or confused and frustrated. Schools across the country have seen an uptick in failing grades.
Casandra’s experience illustrates one of the bright spots of remote learning. Her geography teacher, Matthew Taylor, has been thinking about this upside lately and how he can continue to allow students to share their ideas through text when the pandemic is over.
“For everything that is terrible with online learning, there is something that’s okay,” Taylor said. “One way that it has been better has definitely been that there are a lot of students like Casandra who feel more comfortable sharing their responses.
“If they speak up [in person], there are going to be five people that turn around and look at them, and that creates anxiety. For some students, it’s hearing the sound of their voice, or being conscious of making an error when they speak. For students who are more meticulous with what they want to say, typing it out in the chat is helpful.”
Online learning has created a safe space for some students to open up, Orozco said.
“The students, they feel safe because they’re in their own space,” she said. “When they come into our classrooms, they feel like they’re in our space. And with remote, I can definitely see them coming from their space, sharing their experiences through that lens.”
Casandra said she gets anxious when speaking in person, especially if her classmates turn to look at her. Online, the words she types — the ideas in her head — can take center stage.
And they do. Even in ways she can’t see.
This quarter, each of the students in Taylor’s geography class, including Casandra, has a digital notebook: 70 pages of Google slides that go over everything they’ll learn, the questions they’ll have to answer, the videos they’ll be required to watch.
Taylor was scrolling through Casandra’s notebook one day when he saw something he hadn’t seen in any other notebook. At the bottom of a slide, Casandra had written a note to herself about how she could apply the idea on the slide to the end-of-unit essay.
“It was hidden away on the bottom of this page,” Taylor said. “Just that experience of seeing that — it’s not something I would have thought of to tell students to do. She created this system to give herself feedback and reminders for future work in her notebook.
“Seeing that was one of the highlights of online teaching.”