April 17th, 2020

Teaching in the age of coronavirus: Week 3 — The long haul

CoronavirusEducationOnline LearningSocial StudiesU.S.
Photo credit: Maximillian Re-Sugiura


By Sari Beth Rosenberg

This week my AP U.S. History eleventh graders and I began to face the reality that this strange new digital classroom ecosystem is for the long haul. The College Board was moving forward with an online AP test in May, while the Regents exams and spring break were both cancelled. By the weekend, Mayor De Blasio announced that we would not be returning to school. Meanwhile, the days and nights were punctuated by a steady stream of ambulance sirens as they careened through the New York City streets.

Sari Beth Rosenberg teaching in her NYC classroom before coronavirus. Courtesy: Sari Beth Rosenberg

Week 1 was characterized by an overall state of shock.

Week 2 was marked by a palpable stress among the entire student body.

Entering Week 3, student anxiety is combined with a sense of mourning and disappointment.

My challenge for the week was finding a delicate balance between soldiering on as their fearless AP U.S. History teacher, while also being sensitive to how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting my students’ daily lives. Many of their communities were the hardest hit by the virus.

As a teacher, my job was to still prepare them for the AP exam. However, as a human being, I had to rethink how I worded emails to my students inquiring about outstanding work. Each student responded to my “gentle reminder that your homework is past due” emails with an effusive apologies. Directly following their pleas for forgiveness (and an extension), each student confided in me that they had been either dealing with “a family emergency” or were having trouble “motivating.” After reading these messages, I was astounded by how much we have conditioned students, especially high-achieving eleventh graders, to prioritize homework and school over everything else in their lives.

This week my AP U.S. History eleventh graders and I began to face the reality that we were in this strange new digital classroom ecosystem for the long haul.

As a result, my students were authentically shocked when I responded, “Your health and family is more important than the assignment. Take care of yourself and complete it when you can.”

“Wow, miss. Really? Thank you!,” was how most of them responded to me.

Even though the content we had been studying (the civil rights movement) was not going to be on the new version of the AP exam, I decided it was important to complete the unit. I wanted to maintain as much consistency as possible. Also, it was important for my students to learn about the civil rights movement and provide them with a historical narrative of agency with young people at the center.

On Monday, my plan was to discuss what was considered “the Last Great March in the South” and compare Dr. Martin Luther King’s rhetoric and strategy with Stokely Carmichael’s, the young leader of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Then, we would cover the rise of the Black Panther Party and then practice synthesis by discussing the Black Lives Matter Movement. For homework, students had read and analyzed some primary source material, including speeches from King and Carmichael. They also watched a clip from the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series about the Black Panther Party.

To provide my students with a special treat, I invited Dr. Yohuru Williams, a noted scholar of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement as well as professor of history and dean at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, to my Zoom class. (You might recognize him from his History Channel Sound Smart videos or from Twitter.) He accepted my invitation!

Screenshot courtesy: Sari Beth Rosenberg

We started the class with Dr. Williams discussing the context of James Meredith’s 1966 March Against Fear.

Screenshot courtesy: Sari Beth Rosenberg

After playing Carmichael’s speech about “black power,” we asked students to share their homework analysis where they compared King and Carmichael. Dr. Williams shared more insight and complexity into the story behind both figures and this new beyond-the-textbook information excited my students.

Screenshot courtesy: Sari Beth Rosenberg

I also decided to use this lesson to empower my students who were feeling helpless in the face of the quarantine and the coronavirus. Dr. Williams and I emphasized the significance of the infusion of younger leadership in the civil rights movement. Then we invited students to discuss the role of young people in politics and activism today, including how their voices have helped shape the political platform of the Democratic Party. Williams emphasized how this was similar to how Carmichael influenced the messaging and actions of the late 1960s civil rights movement.

Color photograph of Martin Luther King on a march in Rise! The Road to Civil Rights (1940-1968). Courtesy: WNET

Then, Dr. Williams discussed the Black Panther Movement and also the impact of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Screenshots courtesy: Sari Beth Rosenberg

Students shared with me that they enjoyed the surprise guest as well as the opportunity to discuss their views about how to improve American society today. I knew the students felt anxious about the new AP U.S. exam format, but I thought it was important to deliver them a thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating experience that reminded them of the agency they still had in the world, even during quarantine.

After Dr. Williams signed off, our Humanities Assistant Principal, Heather DeFlorio, visited class to answer any questions students had about the rest of the school year. I am so thankful to work with a team of educators and administrators including Ms. DeFlorio at my school, the High School for Environmental Studies.

Everyone is committed to prioritizing the mental and emotional health of the students during this difficult time. Ms. DeFlorio has been supportive and helpful every step of the way. She corroborated my ongoing message that students should put themselves – and their families – first right now. “Homework and school still matters, but your health is the most important thing right now,” DeFlorio explained. Then I launched into this impromptu pep talk, that also felt like a pep talk to myself as well.

I could tell they were disappointed that we had been working towards one exam format all year, and like so many other parts of their lives, it had completely changed.

I used our Zoom class time in the middle of the week to go over the format of the new AP U.S. History exam (it is going to be a 45-minute DBQ essay with five documents) and went through a slideshow with my students salient information. I could tell they were disappointed that we had been working towards one exam format all year, and like so many other parts of their lives, it had completely changed.

I made this statement to them where I emphasized that although I want them to do their best on the test — “I would love for you to get 4s or 5s on the exam” — that’s not why I’m holding a review. “It is more so that when you take the test, you feel like you did your best.”

My philosophy about the reason for test prep (in the time of coronavirus) can also be used as an analogy for how students and teachers need to navigate through remote learning right now. We need to find a balance between maintaining the structure and demands of quality education, while also staying mindful of the reality of the world right now. We can only do our best with the resources that we have at the moment and we need to give ourselves the space and time to mourn the loss of a regular school year cut short, the spring break we never got, the cancelled exams we had been drilling for all year and those dynamic class discussions that spill out into the hallway after the bell rings.

This week (Week 4) was supposed to be spring break. Students are being given the time to make up missing work and I assigned one DBQ essay for them to complete by next Monday. We will have a check-in on Instagram Live and Google Meet (we have shifted from Zoom, like many other school districts) as a way to maintain connection and continuity. We are also compiling our third Spotify playlist: APUSH Picks Vol. 3. The theme this week is indie/underground songs and each of us will share our favorite hidden gems. This is similar to how we are all digging in deep to summon up unexpected moments of hope and joy as we brace ourselves for the end of a school year like none other.

Sari Beth Rosenberg is an award-winning U.S. History teacher and writer. Her most recent media appearances include The Skimm’s Back To School series and Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum.” Last year, she wrote the #SheDidThat series for A&E Television Networks/Lifetime, daily women’s history posts and videos as well as numerous other publications. Sari helped write the new Global and U.S. History curriculum for the New York City Department of Education with a small team of educators. She also recently contributed to a forthcoming edition of the Hidden Voices curriculum. Sari is also a frequent curriculum consultant at New-York Historical Society, recently contributing as the Teacher Developer for the “Hudson Rising” (2019) exhibit. In March 2019 she was awarded the Paul Gagnon Prize by the National Council for History Education.  Sari has been teaching U.S. History at the High School for Environmental Studies, a public high school in NYC, for nearly 18 years. Find her on Twitter & Instagram @saribethrose, her teacher Instagram @sariteacheshistory and at


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