Dressing up my Zoom Language Class Meetings

Last week I was in an meeting about online teaching, and one of my colleagues, Julaine Fowlin, showed us the new Zoom Studio features. They are FUN! So fun, in fact, that we stayed about 20 minutes past the end of the meeting playing with them. So, let’s review the three big video features you can use to pretty up your Zoom meetings, starting with a classic.

1) Virtual backgrounds

I hope you are making full use of virtual backgrounds already. I like to show up to my various meetings with a variety of unexpected backgrounds. My favorite is probably me as a non-canonical fourth member of the team in the movie “9 to 5” but I do try to keep people amused with my choices… choices which, I’ll admit, do tend to center of 70s pop culture like 9 to 5 or the Muppets or the Brady Bunch. (I am who I am, people!)

My favorite online design tool, Canva, recently released a series of Zoom background images and videos that are super fun, and there are lots of examples on the web of teachers having fun with backgrounds. You can find some cool stuff online.

I’ve read quite a few articles, tweets, and blog posts about using Zoom backgrounds in language teaching. For example, in this post on the Extempore website, Susana Perez-Castillejo describes a quick presentational task that students could do by choosing and then presenting their own Zoom background. Susana wrote that “one way to leverage [virtual backgrounds] for language classes is to have students find images of places in the countries that speak the target language. They can then share a few things (in the target language) about the image: what it is and why they chose it, for example. ”

Since my own language courses are usually novice to intermediate low level students, I would be more likely to choose a virtual background for myself and describe it for students so I am the one doing most of the talking. Novice interactions require a bit less language production. Note that doesn’t mean that students are just passively listening, though. If I have a set of poll questions set up ahead of time, I can ask students true and false or multiple choice questions about the image behind me, and they can then choose the answer from the choices in the poll. Low language production for them, but they also get to demonstrate that they are actively listening and making meaning. Bonus: I also get some evidence of their learning if I use a polling system where everyone is logged in and their answers are recorded. On my campus, we use TopHat, but any polling app or tool where students are logging in to answer will work for that.

I can imagine choosing photos from different locations in the Spanish-speaking world (since I teach Spanish), and giving clues as to my “location” until students guess the city and country. That could be a fun opening activity, especially for a second-semester or higher class where students have already learned to talk about buildings and city features.

There are innumerable activities you can do with a good background image. Take the image above from “9 to 5”. In my classes I would probably choose a target-language movie or background, but just as an example, I might take a few minutes to ask students what they see. I could get students volunteering to describe the objects or colors or personal characteristics of the women in the image. After we’ve exhausted the topic, I would start with my own questions. “Cierto o falso: Hay tres mujeres rubias en la foto.” [True or false: There are three blonde women in the photo.] I think I could come up with a few interesting questions that even my first semester students could handle, and the conversation the questions generate could be fun as well. Plus, as I mentioned before, if I can record students’ answers using the polling software, it would provide me with some great data about how students are progressing.

I am guessing this type of activity would not work for every single day, but I think I could use this as an opening activity once a week or so in a synchronous online or hybrid class. I also think that spending 20 minutes on an activity might be too much time for my classes. But if I make it an opener and give it no more than 10 minutes, this could be amazing!

2) Video Filters and 3) Studio Effects

Video filters work just a bit differently from backgrounds, but do more or less the same thing. While a Zoom background image goes behind you in the Zoom screen, the video filters actually get layered in front of and around you on the Zoom screen. I know those of you who have Snapchat or other cool social media will already be familiar with filters, but I haven’t ever had an account that offered filters as an option. So, I had a lot of fun playing around with some of the options and imagining how I might be able to use them in class.

In the picture above, I’m ready to give students clues about what TV show I am describing. Or maybe I will ask students to create clues about their favorite TV shows using guiding questions. How many minutes is an episode? What are the main characters’ names? If I give students a few leading questions on a handout (or a Google form or survey) as preparation, then we can all get in on the game of giving clues and guessing each other’s favorite shows.

Studio effects are in Beta, so I’m not sure everyone has them, but they are so much fun. Right now you can add facial hair including eyebrows, mustaches, beards, and lipsticks. My youngest son and I spent at least an hour just trying on different combinations of lips and eyebrows. Just for fun, I also tried to recreate a Frida Kahlo painting that I love (you can find the original here) using a green background, a filter with roses in a headband, and the studio elements that added Frida’s signature facial features. I didn’t make myself look like Frida for any pedagogical reason though, it was just to feel pretty. 🙂

On the other hand, I definitely can imagine using the studio effects in a unit on physical description to help students learn to recognize and apply some of the things we are learning. For example, I can imagine asking students to take the first 5 minutes of class to add Studio Effects or filters. In addition to adding the features to their Zoom profiles, maybe they also take a moment to write down what they look like with the studio features. “I have a red beard. I have purple lips. I have a flowers in my hair.” For really novice students, maybe I give them a handout (or Google form or survey) that has some options that they can choose from so they don’t have to come up with complete sentences on their own. I can ask questions like: Who has white eyebrows? Who has no beard? Really, just a huge number of simple, fun conversations that we can have about the fun studio features. (And, as someone who does not have a beard but has always thought I would like one, it’s fun to have a beard.)

You can find the video filters and the Studio Effects tools by clicking on the little drop down arrow next to the video camera on your Zoom screen.

More resources for making good use of Zoom

If you are looking for inspiration on using Zoom and Zoom backgrounds specifically, I love Diane Neubauer’s YouTube channel. She is very generous with her ideas and has been teaching online for a long time! Also, Justin Slocum Bailey, one of my favorite online teacher friends, has a fully online course all about Zoom just for teachers. Check that out here.

Hey!! If you are using Zoom backgrounds, filters, or studio effects in interesting ways in your teaching, I would love to hear how you are doing it! Please reach out on social media or post your ideas below in the comments. I look forward to seeing yall’s awesome ideas and re-sharing (with credit and permission)!

By staceymargarita

I am a language teacher and researcher. In any given term, I may teach beginning or intermediate Spanish courses, English for international students, and foreign language teaching methods for teacher candidates and future faculty. As a teacher, I consider myself pragmatic (not married to any particular approach), oriented towards critical pedagogies in particular, a technophile, and always on the prowl for new ideas.

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