WMU instructor and education students make privacy screens for virtual learning

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Learning during a pandemic is hard. Many kids in K-12 schools across the country are taking classes virtually, seeing their teacher and classmates only through a computer screen. And while it's important for teachers to be able to interact with their students, the prospect of instructors and peers having a window into their home life can be daunting.

A privacy screen decorated for use as a virtual learning background.

"For students who have backgrounds with safe, mainstream things happening, it's not a problem," says Marcy Peake, director of diversity and community outreach initiatives in Western Michigan University's College of Education and Human Development. "But a lot of kids who are in pre-K through 12 don't necessarily have the luxury. Maybe they live at the mission and they don't want people to know that based on the background. They may have families fighting in the background. They may just want privacy, period."

Peake, a former Kalamazoo Public Schools board member, started thinking about how she could help solve the challenge in the district. She and her parents purchased dozens of privacy screens kids can set up to block out the background during their virtual classes. They also enlisted the help of Future Teachers of Color (FTC), the registered student organization Peake advises at WMU, to decorate the boards with words of encouragement.

"Some of (the FTC members) are in various stages of their education where they're actually teaching as well. They saw the struggle immediately, because half of the students they work with also were struggling with having their computers on or (distractions in) their background, so it was a nice fit," Peake says.

William Wright, a senior studying elementary and special education, works as a Title I tutor for KPS, helping low-income students build their reading and math skills. He's also completing a practicum experience for his special education major. Wright says many of his students struggle with distractions from multiple siblings or lack of parental assistance.

"A lot of the time students are hesitant to turn on their cameras—if they do it at all—for these specific reasons, which can make it much more difficult as a teacher to engage and interact in learning. But if you don't understand or never take the time to figure out the 'why' behind this, you will miss out and never realize that it is a much bigger issue," says Wright, FTC president.

FTC member Bre Moore displays some of the decorated privacy screens.

Peake, Wright and other FTC members are donating 60 decorated privacy screens to the Friends of KPS Supply Closet, which was created earlier this year to help get necessary supplies to students in need. More information about donating to the group is available online.

Thinking Bigger

The prospect of helping kids out with words of encouragement and a way to shield them from judgment aligns with Wright's passion for teaching.

"It helps out students, but it also helps us out as future educators to be part of the project as it will deepen our understanding and ability to recognize how we are able to assist our students in order to meet their needs."

Wright is a Future Educator Program scholar—a partnership between WMU, Kalamazoo Public Schools and the Kalamazoo Promise established to increase underrepresented populations in the pre-K-12 teaching field. He's also among a group of students who founded the Future Teachers of Color in 2019 as a way to raise visibility and encourage students of color to pursue careers in education. The group completes service projects and facilitates opportunities for student members to get classroom and networking experiences.

"I've always been in different leadership roles, but to actually build something on Western's campus and to invest in it day in and day out, it's really expanded what I thought my purpose was," says Wright, who says he's seen the impact he can have not just in the classroom but on his peers and on the future of the profession.

"Creating different avenues for students to get into the field of education has allowed me to really think outside acting so small. It has really expanded my professionalism, networking and many different things."

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