This teacher turned remote learning into a road trip: 'What if I teach history from the places where it happened?'

Erin Donnelly
·5 mins read
History teacher Cathy Cluck has racked up about 3,000 miles on her remote learning road trip. (Photo: Cathy Cluck)
History teacher Cathy Cluck has racked up about 3,000 miles on her remote learning road trip. (Photo: Cathy Cluck)

A history teacher in Texas is giving new meaning to distance learning, racking up roughly 3,000 miles and crisscrossing the country as she conducts lessons from significant sites like Gettysburg and the Lincoln Memorial.

With her school’s in-person classes on pause until after Labor Day, Cathy Cluck, an AP U.S. History and AP European History teacher at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, got the green light from her principal to embark on a project she calls her “Great American History Road Trip.” Since Aug. 21, the 27-year teaching veteran has been visiting notable landmarks, greeting her students over video chat from a new location each day.

“This is something I’d never be able to do in a normal school year,” Cluck tells Yahoo Life. “I was just trying to figure out, how can I make this school year interesting and fun for kids? I mean, I don’t know how to do [remote learning]. I wasn’t trained to be an online teacher ... So I figured, what if I teach history from the places where it happened? Maybe that would at least make them want to log in to find out where their teacher is every day.”

Part Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and part Amazing Race, Cluck’s stops have included Washington, D.C., the settlements at Jamestown and Williamsburg and the grounds where Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met for their famously fatal 1804 duel in Weehawken, N.J. (yes, she’s a “huge Hamilton geek”). Sometimes her students know where she’ll be logging in from, sometimes it’s a surprise or last-minute pivot subject to driving conditions.

“It’s been fun,” she says, speaking from the road as she makes her way back home via Tennessee. But it hasn’t been without its challenges. An attempt to rent an RV which could double as an ad hoc classroom didn’t pan out due to their high demand during the pandemic, and so she’s driving solo in her own SUV and taking contact-free precautions at hotels and rest stops along the way. To ensure she’s able to connect online to her students back in Texas, no matter her location, she set up a hotspot for her phone and uses a tripod and other equipment to help her get camera-ready on the fly.

“I’ve had class from my car, I’ve had class from a battlefield, I’ve had class from rest areas,” says Cluck, marveling at her recent success administering a history test online while in a parking lot in Tennessee. “As long as I have a hotspot that connects ... we’ve made it work, weirdly.”

Cluck, who is also posting footage from her road trip on YouTube, started her journey in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which neatly coincides with her class’s unit on colonial U.S. history. Where possible, she tries to devise a route that fits with her lesson plan, though the Civil War and civil rights points of interest are also being folded in.

After stops in Jamestown and Yorktown, she continued on to Washington, D.C., teaching two classes from the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

“I just pivoted my screen around, like, ‘Look, there’s the Washington Monument, there’s Lincoln,’” she says. “That was cool for me. I don’t know how cool it was for my kids. They said they liked it ... “

A trip to see Revolutionary War sites in Boston had to be scrapped due to Massachusetts’s pandemic-prompted restrictions on out-of-state travelers. And so it was on to Weehawken, then Gettysburg, Pa., then the Antietam Civil War battlefield in Maryland. Her next big stop will be Memphis, where she’ll dive into the civil rights movement before coming home in time to do laundry, catch her breath and get back in the classroom by Sept. 8. That’s when her high school will resume in-person classes for the first time this school year, beginning with 25-percent capacity.

It’s a school year like no other, and not simply because of the pandemic. The upcoming election and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests have provided a poignant backdrop to Cluck’s explorations into American history. Two stops, in particular, have stood out: One is visiting D.C., and the Lincoln Memorial, on what happened to be the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington; “it was a powerful moment to be there at that time,” Cluck says.

Stopping at Jamestown, where the first enslaved Africans arrived in 1619, also helped her put the recent protests decrying racial injustice into “historical context” during class.

“I was talking to my classes, and I’m standing 15 feet from the banks of the James River, where they would have been unloaded,” she says. “And I told my classes that the racial issues in America, they’re not based on something that happened last weekend or five years ago, or 50 years ago. ... Slavery was always a part of American history. The racial issues in America are so complex and so ugly because of this depth ... This is way deeper than something that’s just happened recently. “

Adds Cluck, “It’s sort of a reality that history still matters.”

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