Column, Movie Diary

A remote chance

By Dom Cioffi

Like many children across the country, my son has been learning remotely for the better part of a year. Unlike some kids who struggled with staying focused amidst the distractions of home and the ease of slouching off during Zoom meetings, my son’s performance in school actually improved.

Of course, it didn’t start out that way. It took his mother and I several weeks before we caught onto the scheming that he and his friends were up to behind the scenes.

When his grades initially slipped at the start of the pandemic lockdown, we were quick to blame the strange environment that students were thrust into. But then, after a little analysis and some sleuthing, the truth started leaking out.

First of all, I was highly dismayed to find out that teachers weren’t requiring kids to have their video cameras on during class discussions. I quickly put the kibosh to that practice in our home. I even emailed a teacher to find out what the protocol was for meetings. I was told they didn’t require facetime since some students lacked the necessary technology.

I read the email answer back to my son and then dragged him over to the iMac sitting on his desk. I then pointed at the camera on his computer and commanded, “See that tiny lens? Every time you’re in a class, that puppy is on. Understood?”

He shook his head in agreement, visibly put-off at the prospect of having everyone in his class looking at him. I told him it’s no different than a regular classroom – you may look around at first, but after a while, you don’t pay attention to anyone.

I also had to trigger the Screen Time app on his phone in order to disable his ability to peruse Snapchat and communicate with his friends. He kept telling me he was using his phone for class projects, but then I’d hear a cackle or two and know something was awry.

His phone now functions only as phone between the hours of 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. The apps are still there, but his ability to access them has been disabled. It’s truly amazing how little attention he gives that device when Screen Time is functioning.

I even went so far as to remove all the color from his iPhone screen so it only displays in shades of gray. He told me that was beyond unnecessary and that it ruined everything he looked at on his phone (I took that as another sign of progress).

However, the most dramatic thing we did was move his desk out of his bedroom and downstairs into the dining room where both his mother and I can see him. During the day, the three of us form a triangle where none of us are less than 30 feet apart doing our respective jobs. If he even thinks about closing his eyes or flipping through a comic book, we’re right there to reign him in.

In all honesty, I hate having to play overlord to my son, but the level to which he slipped demanded a swift and suitable reaction. And from what I hear from the few teachers I know, our experience was not the exception, it was the norm. In fact, I can’t tell you the number of parents that I had conversations with who were suffering many of the same challenges.

I screamed and yelled to the point of a migraine trying to get my son to stay on task. I offered him bribes and special treatment to get his homework done. Nothing worked.

Finally, I sat him down and in a very calm and detailed manner, outlined why he needed to own this process like an adult, because neither his mother nor I had the time or mental bandwidth to play education manager. Sure, we’re here to help whenever there are questions, but for the love of God, stop fighting us every step of the way!

Eventually, I think he saw the utter exhaustion and exasperation on our faces and started to man-up. It was slow at first, but more and more we began to see him taking responsibility.

And now I can honestly say that he is the best student he has ever been. He’s more disciplined, resourceful, and more than anything, seems to care about doing well.

So, do I want him to stick with at-home learning forever? Not a chance in hell! He’s a social animal and he needs to be around his peers because, as we all know, there’s a lot more to learning than reading books.

This week’s feature, “The White Tiger,” is about another young man who is struggling to find his way and who uses an interesting work situation to change his life and take charge of his own destiny.

This is an intensely gripping drama set in India that uses the country’s norms and traditions as the catalyst for an amazing story of education and survival. Check this one out if you want to see a little guy rise to the top.

A prowling “B” for “The White Tiger,” available for streaming on Netflix.

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]

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