Under the circumstances of COVID-19, school is looking a lot different this fall. Most were disappointed to know that the 2020-2021 school year is starting online, and after three weeks only 25% of students and staff will return to each campus.
Teachers are currently struggling to get to know students via Zoom, but AP U.S. History and AP European History teacher Cathy Cluck is making the best of a difficult situation.
“I had this idea at like 9 o’clock on a Friday night two weeks before [Eanes staff] had to go back [to work],” Cluck said. “What if I just went to the places where I taught history? And so, I texted [principal Steve] Ramsey, and I said, ‘Okay, I have this crazy idea. I don’t know that it’s not awesome,’ and initially I was thinking about getting an RV. And [Ramsey] said, ‘Check into it.’”
After teetering with the idea, Ramsey explained what Cluck needed to turn this idea into reality.
“I [asked] what I [needed] to make sure that [this would work], and Ramsey said all [I] needed was Wi-Fi access or internet,” Cluck said. “He said I had to be synchronous with [my] classes, but it can be from anywhere. I was like, ‘Well, why not? Let’s give it a shot.’ I had to work out the logistics, so I went and got a hotspot for my phone. And it worked, I mean, sort of weirdly all the little details that I was like, ‘I don’t know how to make this work,’ they all kind of worked out.”
On Aug. 22, Cluck embarked on a two-and-a-half-week long trip up the East coast, and she is virtually accompanied by roughly 140 AP history students. This trip is a one-of-a-kind learning experience, and COVID-19 made it all possible. Since masks and gloves are the new norm, Cluck is taking extra precautions to stay safe.
“I don’t have plans to go anywhere indoors; every place I’m going is outdoors, and that was part of the plan,” Cluck said. “I didn’t want to go into buildings. I put on gloves whenever I get gas, I’ve got the mask on [when] going in and out of hotels. That part has been pretty seamless: checking into hotels and most of the places that I want to go, there’s not any need for me to go indoors.”
COVID-19 has been beneficial in some ways, and thus far her trip has been smooth sailing.
“Positively, there are no crowds,” Cluck said. “Negatively, it’s just putting on gloves every time I have to fill my car up with gas or touch door handles. I’m sanitizing a lot and putting my mask on, [even] when it’s hot, but all of that is worth it.”
School is looking far different this year than it has in the past, and Cluck saw this trip as a way to enhance students’ learning experience.
“I [thought] if this gives kids a memorable experience, then it’d be worth it,” Cluck said. “I just want to go into this year, as weird as this year is, and make it fun. [COVID-19] is not normal, and it’s not easy, and so I was like, ‘How can I make it fun and still teach?’ and I thought, ‘Well what if I try this?’ and it has worked out so far.”
Cluck wants her students to learn on a deeper level, and she believes this trip allows for her students to connect to the lessons they will learn this year on an emotional level.
“For my students, I just want them to get a sense of history in real life, that it’s not just in the textbook,” Cluck said. “I would love for [my students] to look forward to class and to figure out where I’m going to be that day. It’s like “Where’s Waldo.” But also, I would love for them to have this sense of exploration and to learn.”
Various other Eanes teachers saw online school as an opportunity to get out of Austin, but Cluck saw this as an opportunity to teach in an awesome way. Students can truly understand history and connect with the events all thanks to Cluck’s expedition.
“I think it’s really cool to see the places where history actually happened because you can see where settlers arrived in Jamestown, for example, and you can see what they saw when they first got there,” junior Joyce Wu said. “By having a teacher show us where all the history happens, I think the reality of these events really hits harder. You can kind of imagine yourself there, looking on at those events.”
From planning to actually commencing this trip, Ramsey has been Cluck’s biggest supporter; he encouraged her to figure out how to bring this amazing idea to life.
“Ramsey was super encouraging from the get go,” Cluck said. “[At first], I couldn’t find any RVs, they were all booked up. [Ramsey] texted, ‘How’s the plan for your trip?’ and I said, ‘I can’t find any RVs. I don’t know if it’s going to happen.’ And he said to keep looking. He was always encouraging me to keep [exploring the idea] and so then I thought, ‘What if I just drive my car?’ He said, ‘I love it, it’s perfect.’”
Although Cluck is traveling solo, she has tons of supporters all over Westlake. Through her Instagram account @whscluck and other forms of social media so students and community members can follow along as well.
“I don’t feel like I’m in this alone,” Cluck said. “I think this is a really cool trip, but from my own perspective, it’s super weird that people want to interview me and that people want to follow me. I’m just kind of a nerd out there, just driving around and showing people history things.”
COVID-19 has physically divided people, utilizing Zoom and talking over the phone is not the same as interacting with people face-to-face. Above all else, Cluck wants to bring people together through her travels.
“We’re in this weird place in society that’s super divided,” Cluck said. “The more that I travel and meet strangers, the more I realized we’re more alike than we are different. I would love for kids to see that it’s okay to step out of your comfort zone and embrace people who look different and live differently [because] underneath it all, we’re more alike [than we believe].”