One U.S. history teacher used the challenge of remote learning to take her students on the virtual field trip of a lifetime.
Cathy Cluck would normally be returning to her Austin, Texas, classroom this time of year if it weren’t for the ongoing coronavirus epidemic in the United States. Instead, she found herself pondering how to transfer her 28 years of classroom experience to online teaching.
“All summer, I’ve just been trying to figure out, number one, how can I build a relationship with kids online that I’ve never met before,” the high school teacher explained. “I struggled in the spring, I think all of us were struggling. All of a sudden, our world shut down.”
As the fall semester approached, Cluck said she was feeling a “little bit panicked and overwhelmed.”
“I was just trying to think…what can I do now that I’ve never been able to do before?” she said. “I had this crazy idea of ‘What if I went to the places that we study?’”
She texted her boss — Steve Ramsey, the principal of Westlake High School — and he responded moments later to give her the go-ahead. Cluck started to formulate a plan.
About a week later, Cluck left on a cross-country journey, equipped with a wifi hot zone and laptop.
Cluck started in Williamsburg, Virginia, then headed to Jamestown and Yorktown before winding her way to Washington D.C., and then driving north to New Jersey to the spot where Alexander Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton.
She then headed west to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the Antietam National Battlefield in northwest Maryland.
“It was a whirlwind 15 days, a lot of driving, but it weirdly worked out for the most part,” she laughed. “It was fun.”
Cluck, an AP U.S. History teacher, said she would do her lectures from each historical place and on driving days, she would stop and teach from the road.
“It wasn’t just a teaching thing for me, it was more like a shared experience,” she explained. “That was a cool part of it. I was just looking for something to do to start the school year in a fun way and it ended up feeling like we were all on this trip together.”
“They’d ask me at the end of the class, ‘Where we going tomorrow?’” she laughed.
“It was sort of unexpected... there were things that I learned as well, they kind of surprised me,” she said.
As she stood in Jamestown, where some of the first slaves brought to North America arrived hundreds of years ago, she talked to her students thousands of miles away in Texas.
“It made history come alive for me again and I study this stuff,” she said, adding that as the protests and civil unrest unfolded across the country, she had been able to explain some of the nation’s darker history to her students.
“There was this moment I was standing in Jamestown and I was like, this is where the slaves arrived, like 15 feet behind me,” she said. “Our country seems so divided but you have to understand it goes back 400 some years. It’s not something that just happened over the summer or 50 years ago.”
“History isn’t just ‘chapter three of the book, and slaves arrived at Jamestown,’” she said. “It still affects us and everything.”
Cluck is back in Austin now, and her students returned to the classroom at 25% capacity on Tuesday. She said despite the grueling driving schedule, the road trip was refreshing because it inspired her to think positively about the future of the country.
“It was a really good refresher for me to kind of get that break in reality and get back to appreciating the country, and people and just everything,” she said. “It’s easier to see where people are coming from when you literally see where they’re coming from.”
“Seeing that and kind of realizing where we’ve come, what we’ve gone through… and now we’re still here,” she said. “That was reassuring to me.”