Austin Teachers Ditch The Syllabus And Ask Students To 'Do What They Can, When They Can'

Apr 24, 2020

The transition to online learning has presented a new challenge for teachers: how to help students deal with the emotional turmoil of living through a pandemic. 

Andrew Gonzalez, a U.S. history and ethnic studies teacher at Travis High School, says he’s just trying to talk to students, rather than replicating the usual school schedule.

“The challenge is that there are so many kids that have been thrown into this scary place that they’ve never been in," he said. "They’re having to take on a lot more responsibility in the family than perhaps they did before."

 

In terms of classwork, he’s telling students to go at their own pace – which doesn't leave room for adhering to a traditional schedule.

“Rather than penalize kids for that, I want to extend them grace to check in when they can and do what they can, when they can," he said.

Gonzalez said he's checking in on them – but also worried about them. A lot of his students work at H-E-B, restaurants that do takeout now or fast-food places. He knows learning must be hard when you’re also a front-line worker.

“They’ve all been impacted beyond school,” he said.  

"Instead of focusing on testing, we are able to focus now on having conversations and discussions about things going on in the world."

  He said he's happy to have more flexibility; there will be no STARR test this year for U.S. history students, he doesn’t have to take attendance, and he doesn’t have to give letter grades. 

Pedro Berlanga, a world history teacher at Akins High School, also appreciates that flexibility.

“Instead of focusing on testing, we are able to focus now on having conversations and discussions about things going on in the world,” he said. “Things that might scare you, that might confuse you. Being able to be OK with it. Understanding that confusion and frustration is perfectly human and normal.”  

He said he wants to discuss the 1918 Spanish flu, so he and his students can learn about the last time the U.S. went through a pandemic. He also wants them to start keeping journals – whether written, audio or video – so they can be the historians of this time. 

"We depended on people like you and me, normal people, talking about what they were going through" to learn everything we know about the past, Berlanga said.

Like Gonzalez, Berlanga focuses more on being another adult the students can talk to during this confusing time.

“[I'm] kind of just making sure that everything is OK," he said, "and if they do come to me for life advice – which they did, a lot, a lot, during the semester – I’m able to still provide that help. It doesn’t have to be about school.” 

He said the hardest part, though, is when they ask him questions about the future, because he doesn't know the answer.

Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at claire@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.

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