Outdoor workshop will offer students the chance to create their virtual classroom backdrops

A 7th grader uses a tie-dyed backdrop while participating in online learning. (Photo courtesy of Ana Arias)

By Sky Wilson, contributor

Students from around Harrisonburg will get the chance next week to make their own classroom — or at least what others will see behind them when participating in virtual lessons. 

Inspired by a group of Harrisonburg High School counselors, the district is sponsoring an outdoor workshop after school on Friday, Sept. 25, at the high school for students to decorate sheets to serve as their backdrops for online learning via webcams. 

Most students in the city are participating in distance learning, including through Google Meets, which allows for teachers and students to see each other through their webcams.  But Google Meets doesn’t easily provide a virtual backdrop feature the way that popular service Zoom does, where users can choose from exotic locations, celebrities and even cartoon backdrops.  

With this new approach to schooling comes new challenges for teachers and counselors trying to engage students in the learning process, especially when it comes to being mindful of equity and student confidentiality. 

A few weeks ago, counselors at Harrisonburg High School were asking themselves a common question for many educators during the pandemic: how do we encourage students to turn on their cameras and stay engaged in the virtual classroom?

A group of high school counselors and the school district’s mental health counselors organized an event where students can decorate their own backdrops using sheets, curtains and drop cloths and some spray paint, sponge painting, tie-dye and more. 

“The idea was inspired from a group brainstorm. Sarah Sweetman and I were in the office hypothesizing about why students don’t want their cameras on,” said Anda Weaver, Harrisonburg High School counseling co-director, in an interview via email. “I recalled a student who I was meeting with who had a backdrop.”

So Weaver and Sweetman looped in counselors Lora Cantwell as well as Ana Arias and Andrea Skaflen, who were already planning “an expressive arts workshop,” Weaver said. “It was a great collaborative idea that sprung up organically.”

Since the idea’s inception in August, the counselors reached out to the community to collect supplies. 

Brandy Haden of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board helped provide some of the art supplies. 

Weaver also went online with an appeal to the local “Buy Nothing Harrisonburg, Va” Facebook group to ask for donations of sheets, shower curtains, cloth and canvas to use for the project. 

At the workshop, students will have access to many different options for creating the backdrops to cater to students of all ages and artistic abilities. 

“As we move into a world where students are learning virtually, we are expecting things of them that they never had to think of before,” said Ana Arias, one of the high school counselors. “We wanted to be a part of supporting students to feel good about turning on their cameras in class and feel in control of what others see.”

The counseling team is particularly excited to engage students outside of the virtual world with an art project that will allow them to showcase their creativity and uniqueness, Weaver said.

“We hope to create an event where students can get some non-screen time and build the Blue Streak community,” Weaver said.

Online learning is expected to continue at Harrisonburg High School through at least the fall semester. And school counselors continue to provide outreach and support to students during virtual learning, both via the usual means and more creative outlets like the Sept. 25 workshop.

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