Texas High School Teacher Zooms Into Remote Classes from U.S. Historical Sites and Landmarks

History teacher Cathy Cluck wanted to make remote learning interesting and fun for her students, so she mapped out an American history road trip, hopped in her car, and taught from where history happened.

Like so many of her peers, Cathy Cluck spent the weeks before the 2020-21 school year started wondering how she could establish relationships with new students when teaching remotely.

“All of my friends who are in education, we’ve all been stressed about it,” says Cluck, a history teacher at Westlake High School in Austin, TX. “How are we supposed to do this? None of us are trained to be online teachers. We’re trained to have in-person relationships.”

Her goal, she says, was to make this “weird and different” year fun and less stressful in any way she could. One Friday night, she had an idea.

“What if I just taught history from the places where it happened?”

It would involve a road trip, and zooming into her five synchronous classes each day from historic locations. She texted her principal, Steve Ramsey, at about 9:30 that night to see if it was doable. Cluck would pay for the trip, but could she in fact educate students from the different locations, she wondered? Would that be that logistically possible, and would the principal agree to her request?

“He said, 'All you need is a Wi-Fi connection and to be able to log on to your classes,'” said Cluck, who was told it didn’t matter where she logged on while the district was all remote. She just needed to be back for the scheduled in-person start on September 8.

With her principal's support, she started looking to rent an RV. Unfortunately, renting the vehicles has become very popular during the pandemic, so there were none to be found.

She thought that was the end of her idea. But a week later, Ramsey texted her looking for an update. When she told him she had failed to find an RV, he told her to keep trying. That little push kept her from giving up. Still unable to find an RV, she decided her SUV would do the trick. She reasoned that she would sleep in the back if anything went wrong but otherwise, she could stay at hotels along the way.

The self-described history nerd mapped out the #greatamericanhistoryroadtrip (for those who want to follow along on Twitter or Instagram). She chose locations that connected with what she would teach her four U.S. history classes during the year.

"It's not going to work out perfectly," said Cluck. "But I tried to link (the stops) as close as I could to what we've covering."

When she arrived somewhere that students won't learn about until later in the year, she recorded videos there anyway, noting where she was and showing them what she could.

Before she left Texas, Cluck got tested for the novel coronavirus. When it came back negative, she was cleared to carefully hit the road. She continued to take all of the same health and safety precautions that she did in Texas.

“I’ve got gloves, I’ve got masks, I’ve got Lysol wipes, I’ve got all the things,” she said.

Cluck left on Friday August 21st with a goal of being in Jamestown, VA, by Monday. Two days of 12-hours drives (“I don’t recommend it”) brought her as far as Williamsburg, VA, on Monday for her five synchronous classes (four AP U.S. History with juniors and one AP European History with juniors and seniors). She taught from in front of stocks, and she interviewed workers.

Every day since has been a new place, a different lesson in U.S. history. Tuesday, Jamestown. Wednesday, Yorktown. Thursday, Washington, D.C., where she taught from near the Lincoln Memorial. Only students can sign into the classes, but Cluck is publicly posting videos on YouTube. 

“It was just the coolest thing to be talking to [students] and just pivot my screen and say, 'Look, it’s the Washington Monument, it’s the Capitol,'” she said.

She intended to move around the Mall during the day, recording video and teaching near landmarks such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Vets Memorial. But when she opened her laptop after one class, the battery showed only 11 percent. Panicking, she called a colleague in Austin who had agreed to back her up if she encountered technical difficulties. He logged into her Zoom class and then she called in as her computer charged at a Starbucks in Dupont Circle.

With the support of her colleague and the power of Starbucks, she overcame the only moment to that point that she wondered if this trip was a mistake. She departed D.C. that night en route to Boston, where she planned to record herself at various revolutionary war locations over the weekend. The ride home from there included planned stops in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, and Gettysburg, PA.

But it was a fluid schedule. As she spoke with SLJ driving north after a day teaching in DC, she sounded full of energy and eternally grateful to her supportive principal and colleagues. She was starting to reconsider a stop Manassas, VA, that was on the original plan.  Salem, MA, might not happen either, she thought. She’d see how it was going.

Part of Cluck’s trip has involved rolling with a changing schedule and the occasional mishap, like when she got lost in Jamestown and ended up Zooming into her first class of the day from a random spot in the woods. In an extremely stressful time for students, Cluck is modeling a calm, optimistic approach when things  don't go as planned.

“That is who I am, but there is a little bit of intention in letting them know it’s ok to screw up, it’s ok to make mistakes, it’s ok to not be certain,” she said. “I want kids to know that it is ok to struggle, to be like, 'This didn’t work out, this wasn’t the plan at all but whatever, we’ll just roll with it.'”

It’s tough for Cluck to gauge how much the students are enjoying her trip. They still don’t know her, and many are typically beginning-of-the-year quiet. But they do ask where she will be the next day, and she has heard from parents who say that students talk about her videos at dinner, or younger siblings are following along on social media.

“I have a captive audience,” Cluck said. “So they’re like, ‘ok, we’re along for the ride. At least we’re not staring at the same background every day.’”

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