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Tell me if this sounds familiar. You take a crisp 20-dollar bill to the dollar store, load up on a ton of background props and supplies for your online classroom, take some time situating them in your home office making everything look pristine. But, after a few months, you feel the desire to switch things up, so you go back to the dollar store and buy a whole new round of materials. Before you know it, you are spending a ton of money a year just in décor for your online classroom backdrops and props. For those like me who felt obligated to make those bi-monthly runs for new stuff, here’s a little money and time saver. Use a green screen! I know it sounds like green screens are complicated and exclusively for high tech wizard geniuses, but setting up and using a green screen is incredibly easy and super convenient. So, if you’re interested in learning how to create digitalized backdrops that are interactive and interchangeable, then keep on reading.

Online teacher with green screen
ALO7 tutor, Annette N., poses in front of her green screen.

According to ESL Job Exchange, “green screens can serve as an extremely versatile tool for you to project a wide range of backdrops and effects that will not only help you to engage your students more easily but can also help with illustrating different concepts throughout the lesson.”1 This sure is true, especially in teaching ESL. Students who are learning English as a second language depend on visual aids (hence why we use TPR so thoroughly) to grasp concepts and vocabulary. To best maximize the efficiency of the backdrops, there are three necessary facets you must have.

  1. A large, green cloth. I originally did not know that a green screen can be any piece of large, green cloth, material, or fabric. Any texture can work, although perhaps consider opting for ones less plastic based that would cause light reflection. You can easily go into your local A.C. Moore for green felt or the Dollar Tree for a green table cloth. As long as it is big enough to encompass the entirety of your camera frame, it can work! There are green screen stands you can buy, but I would suggest just hanging it on a plain, blank wall. There are also kits available online that come with the backdrop and a stand.
  2. Lighting. Proper lighting is crucial because illumination helps the webcam software differentiate between you and the screen behind. Ensuring the contrast between you and the green screen enables you to stand out in the image and keep colors you may be wearing or have on props separate from the cloth. Basically, the fewer shadows you produce, the better. Chances are we all use a form of lighting for our classes in the first place, so, whether it be a ring light or a large lamp aside your desk, keep it on for that virtual background!
  3. Green Screen Technology. There is downloadable green screen software out there to enable virtual usage. An option is OBS. OBS, or, Open Broadcaster Software, provides streaming and recording capabilities that are compatible with both Mac and Windows. OBS green screen capabilities are popular; however, some of the best green screen software comes already downloaded with class meeting platforms! For example, many ALO7 classes are taught using Zoom. Zoom has a default setting that allows tutors to easily manipulate their classroom backgrounds. Simply go to Zoom’s desktop client (the zoom homepage we all have downloaded), click on the small settings wheel in the top right corner, and select “virtual background” from the left side options menu (fifth down). This action will engage your camera and from there you can either choose from the virtual backgrounds provided or select your own, copyright-free image by clicking the small ‘+’ button on the right. Also, be sure to check the box on the bottom, stating, “I have my own green screen.” Then, voila!
Annette reveals her personal green screen set-up and
offers tips on how to successfully use green screen software.

Now, like anything else tech-related, I suggest fiddling around with using the green screen before bringing it into class. Experiment with different images, text, the lens focus, and camera depth. Scroll through reputable, stock image sites like Pixabay and gather pictures you would like to use. Make sure to choose ones with high enough resolution to be enlarged without appearing pixelated. (Please avoid trademarked or copyrighted images.). Then, when you can confidently bring the tech into the classroom, go for it and watch your students’ faces light up!

It is plain to see the benefits of using a green screen in your online classroom. Aside from spending money on props and decorations and taking the space in your home office to set up your classroom, green screens also help keep students engaged and attuned to the lesson at hand. As mentioned before, ESL students need visual aids. By using a green screen, not only are you providing that visual aid, but you are also incorporating it into the lesson, making it all the more memorable. For example, when teaching “SBS Travel Around America” classes, centering around the different US cities, do not be shy to use an image of that particular city’s famous landmark or skyline! Zoom’s auto background options include a still of the Golden Gate Bridge, which would be perfect for a class about San Francisco. You could also track down a stock image of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building for New York, the Sears Tower for Chicago, or the Hollywood sign for Los Angeles. It really can make the students feel like they are there. The same can be done when teaching New Concept English courses, which are British- centric. Having Big Ben or the Coca-Cola London Eye in the backdrop would prove to be wonderful additions for the lesson.

Aside from cultural applications geared towards a bit more advanced students, green screen backings can be used for younger students still grasping fundamental concepts, as well. A simple image of the alphabet, or numbers 1-10 could work wonders, as well as scenes showing animals, favorite foods or kinds of weather. Regardless of your class’ skill or age range, a green screen backdrop only adds to the lesson’s experience making for longer lasting impressions.

Citations for “Go Green: How to use Green Screen Software in the Virtual Classroom”
1 Hargrove, Devin. “How To Use A Green Screen In An Online Classroom.” ESL Job Exchange. May 31, 2019. Accessed June 19, 2019.

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