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How These Film Students Look at COVID-19 Through a Different Lens

Six student leaders share how they’re shifting their focus during the coronavirus quarantine.

By Alexzandria Cormier-Hill

April 22, 2020

TFA Alumni Rob Garza's Film Class - Student Leaders

The big day had finally come. After months of 12-hour Saturday practices and thousands of dollars from fundraising efforts, 20 audio-visual students from McAllen High School in McAllen, Texas, finally arrived in Washington, D.C., for the biggest national film competition for high school students. Ready to compete against nearly 3500 students, they were motivated more than ever, setting their sights on the new challenges ahead. That is, until the coronavirus hit. 

Despite optimistic updates from the event coordinators, Rob Garza (R.G.V. ’02), a film teacher and the program’s competition coach, eventually received a call stating the inevitable: sitting in the contest venue while attending a sponsor meeting, Rob found out their long-awaited contest was canceled due to increasing concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Unsure of how his students would handle this news, Rob braced himself for the worst. 

As it turned out, he didn’t have to. After receiving the news about the cancellation, the team quickly brainstormed other places to visit, activities to do, and ways to pass the time safely until they could return home. Their ability to embrace change and transform disappointment into determination is something that would carry them in the weeks to come as their face-to-face interactions quickly shifted to distant online engagement. 

In the latest installment of our series “COVID-19: Community Voices,” we caught up with six student leaders from Mr. Garza’s film class to see how they’re handling the changes forced on them due to the COVID-19 pandemic and how the transition has impacted their lives. Here’s how they’re coping with this time of uncertainty. 

Seeing COVID Through a Different Lens

Rob Garza’s (R.G.V. ’02) film student and high school senior at McAllen High School, Karla Villegas is finding her own unique ways to beat #COVID19. She’s putting her skills to work as she takes us behind-the-scenes to see what her day entails, including a fun surprise at the end.

Readjusting to Being Around Family More

For many families, the once-regimented routine of engagements has now turned into a daily dose of twists and turns. As the students adjust to being around family members during and after school hours, they’re redefining quality time with their loved ones and finding unique ways to create fresh bonds with a familiar tribe.

Damian Uribe (12th grade): I know this seems like something small. But I like sitting at the table, talking and eating with my family. We hadn’t done that since we were little, so it’s really nice.

Leo Garza (11th grade): My dad and I started playing chess together. I’m trying to get ready for my rematch with Mr. Garza!

Cesar Garcia (11th grade): I love sitting down and discussing movies with my dad. Going over things—what they mean and what they represent. Me and my brothers like discussing what’s going on in the movie. My mom is tired of it though. She just wants to watch the movie!

The students have also used this time to implement the leadership skills they learned in class. 

Cesar: I shifted my responsibility to be a leader in the house. I keep the house clean, picking up after myself and taking out the trash if I see it needs to be taken out.

Finding the Silver Lining 

As traditional classrooms shift to digital spaces, learning and engagement expectations also change. Damian, Leo, and Cesar, along with three other student leaders—Karla Villegas (12th grade), Hermino Mendez (12th grade), and Kaitlyn Polvado (11th grade)—have the honor of leading, coaching, and supporting their fellow film students not only with the class material but also through this digital transition. 

They use feedback from their classmates as material to help Mr. Garza create the curriculum for the class. Each student is responsible for a cohort of classmates. GroupMe, Google Hangouts, and Whatsapp are the platforms they use to check in with each other, share class updates, and help with homework assignments. With all this responsibility, we asked how they were feeling about their new reality.

Hermino Mendez (12th grade): This class has taught us how to deal with the unexpected. To pivot quickly and redirect our focus in a positive way.

Karla Villegas (12th grade): It’s not really different from what we were already doing in class. As advanced students, we use GroupMe to help first-year students with their questions and concerns. We want to make sure they understand what is going on. We still use it to keep up with each other and answer questions. We make sure they know we’re here to help.

Thanks to Mr. Garza’s early introduction to Google Classroom pre-coronavirus, students are able to ease into digital learning more quickly. Some even prefer it. 

Hermino: I’m able to complete my assignments faster and I don’t have the extra distractions. I can just finish my homework and move on to something else. I like the self-pace and the freedom it gives me.

Cesar: I agree. Now that I finish my homework faster, I get to do things I probably wouldn’t have gotten to do before. I get to do things like run more, meditate, pray. It gives me time to learn about myself.

Revitalizing Their Talents

Like most people, this time has turned into an opportunity for self-reflection and self-discovery. We wanted to see if the same thing was taking place for Mr. Garza’s student leaders. We asked if the class has helped them develop any new skills during the quarantine.

Hermino: This class has definitely made me feel more confident. It’s easier for me to reach out, talk to people, and communicate the ideas. I also regained interest in an old hobby of mine. I love Legos and way back I used to do stop-motion animation. I stopped at some point. But now I have time. I thought about the things we learned in class and thought it’d be interesting to pick it back up. I love stop-motion. I get to be really creative. 

Damian: Before, when we first started (social distancing), it brought me back to a place where I was in a bad space. But with the class, I’m able to stay out of that place and build my confidence by talking and checking in with people.

Keeping the students’ workload, home life, and varied learning styles in mind, Mr. Garza gradually assigned fun, engaging homework assignments to keep their creative juices flowing. It’s been working. Listening to movie scores for two minutes and writing down whatever comes to their mind afterward has served as a cathartic means of escapism.  

When Mr. Garza asked the students to submit a 200-word critique of their favorite Netflix shows they were watching, the students went all in. 

Mr. Garza: It was so surprising! Students who didn’t even speak that much in class all of a sudden had so much to say! I mean, I received pages and pages of feedback. Some of them even entailed spoilers to some of the shows I was watching. They were seasons into the show and as I read, I was like, "OH NO!"

Practicing Grace and Patience

Learning how to navigate the digital learning space comes with its fair share of challenges. 

We asked what it’s been the hardest part about transition from a traditional classroom to an online learning environment.

Karla: Sometimes it’s confusing because we have to use different platforms for different classes. When you’re trying to learn the different sites at the same time, it can be a little confusing and overwhelming. It makes it hard to get started learning. 

Also, as leaders for Mr. Garza’s class, for the most part, it’s easy to keep up with our classmates. It’s not too different from how we communicated when we were at school. But when we have to reach out to students, sometimes it’s hard to get a hold of them. Sometimes we don’t have all their information. Like, we’ll have their name but we can’t reach them on the phone. Or we don’t have their social media. It makes it difficult to check in with them to make sure they’re on track and they’re okay. Especially when we don’t know any of their friends or people in their circle. 

Then, we have some people who we try to reach out to, but they don’t answer. Others may have a lot of things going on at home. It can be hard to keep everyone on the same page. We just try to keep all those things in mind and keep reaching out as much as we can. But we don’t have this problem often. 

Transitioning From a Social Life to Social Distancing

Like most people struggling with social distancing, the lack of physical connection with their friends is taking a toll. No more group selfies, quick conversations in the hallways, or mischievous glances in class when someone says something funny. How are they coping with all of this?

Hermino: It sucks because we can’t see our friends. We’re not at school with each other. Like we can’t hang out. With all this social distancing, it can make you feel really lonely. 

Karla: Yeah. It does feel really lonely. I miss seeing my friends. But I try to find different ways to keep in touch. I use Facetime and social media to stay connected with my friends. We use Facetime, SnapChat, GroupMe, or get on Messenger. When I see that one of my friends is feeling a little down, I might send them a funny TikTok to cheer them up.

Though Mr.Garza is present, he depends on his student leaders to maintain and cultivate their peer community within the film class. They keep him updated about how students are doing with their assignments, provide temperature checks on how students are feeling and coping, and demonstrate true servant leadership by serving as a listening ear and support. We pivoted to their classmates and asked how their classmates were dealing with all of this.

Karla: Other people are dealing with loneliness too, but they don’t know how to channel it in a positive way. Sometimes, I see people on social media doing things they normally wouldn’t do. Doing things that don’t put them in the best light—all for attention. I’m like, "What are you doing?" They’re not using social media in the best way and that’s sad to see.

Hermino: We try to check in as much as possible. We make sure everyone understands the projects. We take time to listen to what’s going on in their lives so we can figure out the best way to be there for them. Encourage them. We look out for each other.

Learning How to Check in With Yourself

As we wrapped up the interview, the students reflected on a two-part question: How are you practicing self-care and what have you learned about yourself during this quarantine?

Karla: It’s been interesting. I found myself getting short with my family members. I’m not used to being with them all the time and I noticed that about me. I also get bored easily, so I try to create a routine and find a quiet space. Sometimes, I switch things up a little bit every now and then. I started to journal to write down my feelings, my day, goals, stuff like that. It helps.

Hermino: I’m working on my stop-motion films and focusing on college.

Hermino and Karla were both accepted into the University of Texas’ competitive Moody College of Communication for radio, television, and film (and Mr. Garza’s alma mater). 

Cesar: I’m just running a little more each day. Playing football. Meditating. Just finding time to be more self-aware and to grow, you know?

Leo: This all feels like a movie to me. Seeing everything and what’s going on. I’m trying to take it all in. I use the assignments from class to think through things. Like the assignment where we had to listen to music and write down our ideas. I immediately started thinking about my character. I’m going to use this time for my character development.

More Community Voices

“COVID-19: Community Voices” offers a glimpse of life and learning during the coronavirus school closures, in the words of students and parents in the communities we serve. Read other stories in the series:
 

If you'd like to tell your story or suggest a story for us to cover, please email us. And find resources for educators supporting students through the coronavirus outbreak at Teach For America's educator resource hub.