The First ZooMX

Author and Historian Jonathan Alter Meets With Students


Photo credit: Ian Shayne

A screenshot of the ZooMX with Jonathan Alter.


The Parker auditorium, once home to almost 1,000 students, lies abandoned at 330 W. Webster without a soul to sit in its soft sapphire seats. Instead, pursuant to the mandatory stay-at-home order in Illinois and the nationwide call to practice social distancing, students have traded their seating for desk chairs, the auditorium for their homes, and a stage for their laptop screens. 

Given the remote learning schedule that students have begun to adapt to, several components of Parker’s traditional school week have paid the price for being too difficult to coordinate. Morning Ex, a period that traditionally meets three times a week to educate the student body with speakers and presentations, is one of them. 

On Tuesday, April 14, Upper School history teacher Andrew Bigelow created the first “ZooMX,” bringing in author and TV analyst Jonathan Alter ‘75. For an hour after remote learning classes ended, a group of eighth-grade students, juniors, and seniors got a chance to listen to and talk with Alter about “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope,” his latest book, and ask questions about FDR during his first term as President of the United States.

Principal Dan Frank suggested “ZooMX” after he sat in on one of Bigelow’s history lessons. After the lesson finished, Frank said, “let me call him to see if he would be willing to talk to your kids.

“So within seconds, Dr. Frank got back to me, and all of a sudden I’m emailing Jonathan Alter, and he emailed me back, and he said, ‘I’d love to,’” Bigelow said. 

“My thinking was, one thing we don’t really do well at Parker is getting kids ready for college in regard to the teaching style and the teaching format,” Bigelow said. “We go from this very progressive, student-centered, creative process of teaching, to a place that’s very antiquated when it comes to teaching methodology.”

A lecture-style presentation is not common among presenters for MX, but Alter told Bigelow that he felt it was the best style to format this ZooMX in a lecture-style format. “I told him, ‘when your students get to college, they’re not going to have professors that pander to short attention spans with a lot of photographs, and they’ll be listening to lectures,” Alter said.

Some attendees, like junior Spencer O’Brien, enjoyed Alter’s lecture-style of presenting to the group. “I actually did like the lecture style,” O’Brien said. “Sometimes I like pictures and videos, but as far as he went, he was very interesting. He was a very vibrant speaker.” O’Brien also enjoyed the additional half-hour designated for students to ask questions to Alter about FDR and his book. “I think that was a great way for students to ask the questions they wanted that they had leftover from the lecture.”

Alter believes that presentation formats like Powerpoint are overrated. “I think as a general matter that there’s a general reliance on Powerpoint in the business and professional world,” Alter said. “If you look at somebody like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, he’s banned Powerpoint presentations because he doesn’t think that they’re useful. He makes them write out what they want to say in meetings as a written document.”

During this second half-hour, Alter was asked a question by junior Olivia Lansburgh about comments he had made in his past regarding torture, but Bigelow felt he did a wonderful job explaining his mistake. “He faced a very challenging question from Olivia Lansburgh about a mistake he made about saying that torture might work, and he was great, he said, ‘let me clarify what I meant by that,’” Bigelow said. “I was a little nervous. I didn’t want to censor anybody, and Olivia had asked me ahead of time if she could ask that, and I said, ‘You know what? Why not?’”

Alter enjoyed answering questions from Parker students, and found that he was surprised with the content of the questions he received. “I was really impressed by the quality of the questions, and they were better than questions that one gets from adult audiences,” Alter said.

Once the meeting was over and Bigelow went over the success with his fellow history teachers, he realized the potential for these Zoom call discussions. “When we were talking about it as a history department, grades 6-12, everyone was excited about all the different people we could bring in and all of the opportunities,” Bigelow said, “so I have a feeling that we’re creating a tradition that we could do often because there are so many people who I wanted to come and speak at our school.”

Although this hour-long lecture was open to just the 8th, 11th, and 12th grades, O’Brien felt he learned so much that the invitation should have gone out to more members of the Parker community. “I think he’s a great resource and it was a really cool opportunity people had to experience somebody like that who we wouldn’t normally be able to hear,” O’Brien said.

Going forward, Bigelow plans to use Zoom more frequently in and out of the classroom. “I think it’s more, I know from now on, if there are people I want to have talks with my kids, I have this awesome ZooMX option to bring in speakers I want,” Bigelow said. “I’m going to use Zoom when we get back to school next year. If a kid needs to talk about a paper or the kids want to review, then let’s create a Zoom. I don’t have any problem with that.”

For the time being, Alter finds that Zoom and other similar conference platforms are extremely helpful during the stay-at-home order many are facing. “Imagine if the coronavirus had hit before the internet. Our criminal justice system and our education systems would have ground to a halt,” Alter said. “The development of Zoom and other conferencing software is a very positive thing and a real silver lining. I think you’re going to see a lot more use of Zoom after the distance learning.” 

After talking with Alter and watching his presentation, Bigelow knew that participants would be interested in what Alter had to say. “He’s just so engaging,” Bigelow said. “He’s so passionate, and the idea was to create an experience that was much more college-like in terms of passive learning, and then we left the second half an hour up to the kids to create their own questions and see how that went, and it was amazing.”