Meghan Buchanan and Laurie Beaman talk to LBJ Early College HS and LASA HS students and staff about their Virtual Prom Event which took place on Saturday May 2nd via Zoom and Instagram live. This prom was important in so many ways, not for prom king and queen or who “wore it best” but because a community was able to come together with the music they love, the people they miss, and a celebration they won’t soon forget.
This story is also available on the Connect Design Learn Podcast.
On Saturday night May 2nd, 2020 no one knocked on Ella Thompson’s door to shake hands with the grownups, take a few pictures, pin corsages and/or boutonnieres or take part in any other potentially awkward, sometimes archaic traditions central to most high school proms. However, Miss Thompson did end up with a crown by the end of the night and, while she didn’t join hundreds of classmates on a dancefloor, she did join them in a zoom.
When Austin ISD schools first closed on March 13th, many high schools were well into planning for events like proms, talent shows, graduation parties, and other year-end celebratory events. For the student councils at LASA and LBJ high schools there was never a question of whether they would have their 2020 prom, the question was only how they would have it. I was lucky enough to sit down with a group of students and staff (well, to be clear, I sat in my dining room on a zoom call) to hear about their Virtual Prom.
Nick Dellas, LBJ science teacher and student council sponsor, and Mellisa (MJ) Driscoll, theatre teacher for LBJ and LASA and also LASA student council sponsor, both contacted one another to figure out prom. Initially they were exploring three possible scenarios with their student groups:
1) Delayed return to campus requiring adjustments to previously scheduled prom
2) Possible summer prom if there is no return to campus for the current school year
3) Virtual prom
It quickly became clear that we are working with an ‘option three’ situation. The first idea was to host prom via Instagram live where they could feature a DJ and students could tune in together. The more the groups talked, the more they felt the priority should be supporting connection and providing at least some level of interaction. At this same time the LBJ Principal, Jon Baily, came to the council and said he really wanted to create something unique and memorable for the students, especially if we didn’t get to go back to school. Administration fully supported the idea of a virtual prom.
Everyone agreed there needed to be a way for students to see one another and “dance” or share space together…enter Zoom!
Mr. Dellas, or “Dellas” as he is known on campus, immediately dove into learning Zoom. They realized there were some exciting Zoom features that could help make this virtual prom experience extra special. The most notable of these features is the option for breakout rooms. One of the challenges with prom (or any school dance) is the music. – Trust me, I thought I had a solid back up career as a DJ until I did my first gig at a middle school dance… Let’s just say middle school dance goers are a tough crowd and I kept my day job. – Student council members had the idea that they could offer multiple DJs and set up breakout rooms by genre so prom attendees could select the music they wanted to experience. Mr. Brancaccio, LBJ film and video teacher and DJ Club sponsor, helped recruit several student DJs as well as a DJ Todd from RAZI 88.7 who was recruited by LBJ Project Specialist John Fletcher The zoom prom dream was one step closer to reality!
Once the breakout room plan was in place, organizers began recruiting teacher chaperones for every room. They also set posted expectations for digital citizenship and “prom” behavior that would automatically greet students as they entered the zoom waiting room for the event.
In addition to the “traditional” prom considerations, the student councils came up with activities and competitions to run throughout prom and also a spirit week leading up to it. This included dress up days, “scavenger hunt” type games, celebrity shout outs and cameos as well as other games with prizes all throughout the night
They were able to hang on to some prom traditions. One of which was crowning Prom Royalty. LASA Royalty was Ella Thompson, Ari Wagen and Lucas Stockton. LBJ crowned Khadijah Turner and Jordi Villatoro.
In addition to wearing a crown, Ari, who is a senior at LASA, was the DJ in the “Indy” breakout room. Here is how he described his experience:
”I think it was really cool because, like, as a group of students in my breakout room, we formed our own little culture that was different than prom as an events culture.
It was really heartwarming to get to see everyone’s faces on a little screen and say, “hey we’re all here we’re all listening to the same music in our bedrooms at the same time.” I think having breakout rooms made it less overwhelming because there were so many people on the zoom that having all the different rooms with the different genres meant that you could still like on the people and have a more personal experience.”
As Ella Thompson, also a senior at LASA and prom Queen, so eloquently put it:
“When everything sort of like fell apart and everything devolved into chaos I hadn’t really thought of prom because there was so much stuff going on. The first thing on my mind was, like, ‘wow, what if I never see a lot of people again?’ and so then as things sort of started to get more normal and I started hearing about virtual prom I was like, “Oh, that’s like fun”. I didn’t think there was gonna be anything, you know? So even having something at all was nice. I tend to be pretty good at rolling with the punches and I had prom last year as a junior so I got to go to a real prom and I didn’t feel like I was missing out a ton. Being able to have something to go to was still really nice for me. A lot of people are like ‘oh, I feel like this is so unfair or I feel really cheated…’ but I just feel happy that something got to happen.”
Ethan Liu, another LASA student council member loved the flexibility of a virtual prom:
“What’s really great about virtual prom is that you can do whatever YOU are most comfortable with and still have a great time bonding with friends and with your classmates!”
Karen Reyes, LBJ Junior and Student Council Historian shared some of the conversations she has had with her friends who are sad and say, “it’s not the same experience as a physical prom” and her response to them is that “we can’t do anything about that because we’re going through a crisis right now…. This is what will have to do for now. THIS will be your forever prom and at least you can make the best memories out of it.”
The approach to the music was a little different than at a traditional prom. As one of the DJs in a very popular room (Indie music), Ari says he “made an effort to establish a friendly atmosphere and I think that helped a lot. People would come in and I would say ‘hi’ to them and they’d be like, ‘I’m recognized,’ and ‘someone’s happy I’m here.’ In terms of music I played a lot of really weird music that I don’t think a lot of people listened to. I played some Mamas and the Papas I played some Beatles I played some Police and then I played a bunch of new music like Tame Impala Sufjan Stevens and just a lot of weird music that you wouldn’t think people would like at prom. But because everyone was in their bedroom at home it actually worked because you’re not on a crowded dance floor. I could play some some really interesting music and I think that was really nice because people didn’t want to hear whatever, like, the top of the charts rap songs while they’re in their bedrooms at home, they want something a little different so I tried ‘different’ and I think it worked out.”
If you’ve been a chaperone for school dances or a prom before then you know that can be kind of stressful. You are stuck watching all the dark corners and guarding the entrance and exit and all of that stuff. We asked Peter Brancaccio about the how the chaperone perspective was different in a virtual prom context:
“ I noticed that the best chaperones are the teachers who, like, BROUGHT it. They wore their prom outfits, they were dancing, and they were really pumping up the crowd. I think that really made this a new role for a chaperone to have to be the crowd hype and if you watch the video you can see a lot of teachers are really… you know, they have lights behind them, they’re dancing, and I think that’s the best way to do it!”
Ms. Driscoll also had some advice for chaperones:
“…from a chaperone perspective, make sure you’re prepared and you have water and a snack because you don’t really have any down time. You can’t go walk away to use the restroom so you kind of need to have everything in your little desk area”
TDC Laurie Beaman talked about the amount of communication and effort it took to put on this event and the impressive partnership between the two schools:
“Nick’s first questions were about ‘what would this look like? Let’s explore this, let’s look at zoom settings’ and there are SOOO many zoom settings, it’s really daunting to try and figure out. I was like, this sounds crazy, it sounds cool, but will kids show up? There are so many different questions and then navigating two campuses and two administrations. There are a lot of really cool, special things about the LBJ / LASA dynamic and the possibilities that come together and so it’s really cool to see that in this instance. Hearing about it is really really amazing and so kudos to everyone for pulling it off and thank you so much for sharing your stories! It’s really powerful to hear and it’s really inspiring.”
As we ended our conversation I asked everyone to share their favorite part of prom:
“My favorite thing about virtual prom was just getting a chance to see everyone, you know, on my little screen.” – Ari
“I saw someone dancing while eating Takis. I thought that was pretty funny.” – Ethan
“My favorite part about virtual prom was just getting to see some of the people I hadn’t seen in a while and seeing how the students were having fun from both LBJ and LASA.” – Karen
“Having an excuse to dress up again after weeks of being in jeans and a t-shirt, you know it’s good to have an excuse to get fancy.” – Ella
Multiple people mentioned the special tradition with the song “Don’t stop Believing” by Journey.
Dellas explained, “It’s a classic, actually. Every year that MJ and I have done homecoming and prom, we always end with ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ and then we tell them all to go home. It’s a great way to clear the dance floor of most of the kids and then ALL of the faculty dance one more song. And then it ends. With [virtual prom] you can look at the video recording and hear Fletcher tell everyone that ‘we’re gonna sign off and go home’ …and then Mr. Baily says… ‘there are still 80 people in [the zoom]…’ Students didn’t leave.”
I don’t know why, but this is the part that gets me.
This whole thing is so heartbreaking and beautiful all at once. So painful while also restorative. There is nothing simple about it. And every time I talk to students right now I am struck by their wisdom and authenticity. I am struck by their commitment to the idea that we “don’t stop believing.”
Oh, and in the words of Queen Ella:
Stay fancy, yall.