May 2nd, 2020

Teaching in the age of coronavirus: Week 5 — Testing…testing… Is this thing on?

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


By Sari Beth Rosenberg

We started Week 5 with news from Governor Cuomo sharing that the latest coronavirus numbers suggested New York State was on the descent of the curve. Yet, it was not clear how quickly the cases were coming down. New York, as well as the rest of the country, needed “testing, testing, testing,” Cuomo explained.

Meanwhile, “spring break” was over and it was time to start reviewing for the May 15th Advanced Placement (AP) United States History exam. However, the most important question was if my students were ready to get into test prep mode. Also, I was about to teach my first Google Meet class after Zoom was officially banned by the New York City Department of Education. (Spoiler: I spent all week on Google Meet bemoaning how much I missed using Zoom. One would think I had been teaching lessons on Zoom for a decade.)

Sari Beth Rosenberg in her classroom in the fall. Courtesy: Sari Beth Rosenberg

A global pandemic has put a lot of what we consider important in perspective. From the moment that the College Board announced that they were still administering AP exams, I grappled with how to prepare my students. Around the time of this announcement, we were all just settling into quarantine/remote learning mode. The process of deconstructing my curriculum and lesson-making process led me into a few existential rabbit holes about the education system in general. In non-quarantine times, “AP exam review mode” is an intense experience for my students. Most of the kids curse my name throughout the weeks of review, only to thank me for making them work hard after they take the exam.

I usually post this classic Seinfeld GIF to describe the experience when students visit me after the test to tell me how it went:

George Costanza Happy Dance GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

However, this year was going to be different. For one, we were definitely not going to see each other in person before or after the exam. Also, not only were students going to take the AP U.S. History exam online at home, but the entire test has been changed:

  1. The whole test will be one DBQ essay with five documents that students will have 45-minutes to write. Then they will have five minutes to upload their completed exams.
  2. It will be open notes and only on the time period from 1754 to 1945.
  3. There will not be any multiple choice questions, short answer questions or a long essay question. Just one 45-minute essay to assess everything we learned from September through May.

I would be lying if I did not admit that I had a moment questioning the purpose of going into test prep mode with my students during the COVID-19 crisis. By the sixth week of online learning, more and more students were revealing to me their struggles with the abrupt changes to the school year. In addition, many of my students were grappling with personal concerns related to COVID-19.

Without a standardized test on the horizon, I would have been tempted to continue our study of American history in a more creative way. That way I could potentially help students feel more empowered with a way to contextualize and analyze current events and the ongoing world crisis. With the backdrop of a global pandemic, it almost felt insensitive and crude to focus on test-taking strategies to master the new DBQ essay rubric.

Then I had an epiphany: Perhaps having this goal of preparing for the exam will help my students get through the next few weeks of online learning.

The best advice I have heard so far about how to get through this challenging time has been to “take it one day at a time and create achievable goals for yourself.” I am still not sure how I feel about testing students from home during a global pandemic. However, I theorized that having the goal of a test would serve as a beacon as we navigate the next few weeks of remote learning.

Then I had an epiphany: Perhaps having this goal of preparing for the exam will help my students get through the next few weeks of online learning.

When I polled my students in a recent survey on Google Classroom, their responses corroborated my theory. The majority of my students responded “yes” to this question:

Is having the goal of preparing for AP Exams in May helping give you a structure to get through this difficult time?

So, I forged ahead with my plan for “APUSH Exam Review.” After conferring with students, I decided that we would follow this schedule:

  1. For homework students will go over their review book notes and take notes on these videos created by educator Adam Norris.
  2. Students will write three full DBQ essays and I will grade it using the new 10 point rubric.
  3. We will review each unit for approximately three days (Period 3: 1754-1800, Period 4: 1800-1848, Period 5: 1844-1877, Period 6 1865-1898, and Period 7: 1890-1945) and then review enduring issues/themes (civil liberties, American foreign policy, reform movements, civil rights, etc.) right before test day.
  4. In those few days going over each unit, we will review the big picture of each time period, go over the important content and concepts, focus on important primary sources, and do some drills to prepare them for writing a DBQ essay.
  5. Google Meet will be our platform to use for the daily lessons and I will record (and post) them for any students unable to attend in real time.

After completing the first week of test prep (a.k.a. week 5 of remote learning), I felt validated in my decision to forge ahead with the plan. We checked in at the end of the week and students expressed that the workload felt manageable. I was pleased with their results on the first DBQ essay assignment, noting the progress that each student has made in their writing since September. Some students have been late with their work due to everything related to the quarantine, but they have been catching up.

Sari Beth Rosenberg teaching before the quarantine/school shutdown. Courtesy: Sari Beth Rosenberg

Even though I feel completely committed to test prep mode until the AP exam, I decided we still needed to check in about current events. Let’s just say I’m a bit infamous with my students, past and present, for finding ways to link current events to our history lessons. I’m determined to get as many students as possible interested and aware of what is going on in America today. Understanding the news is crucial for civic engagement.

Let’s just say I’m a bit infamous with my students, past and present, for finding ways to link current events to our history lessons.

So, during our last Google Meet class of the week, I told students that we would have an “after hours” session once review ended to discuss the news about the coronavirus and the recent protests against the quarantine. I always enjoy hearing their interpretation of the news and learning about what concerns them the most. Aside from fears about COVID-19, my students are really worried about college and the SAT. After all, they are juniors in high school. My students did not feel like they were going to have gaps in their learning, but they were concerned about their younger siblings who were in the process of learning basic skills, such as multiplication, when the quarantine started.

As they shared their fears and anxieties, I was happy that I could provide them with the space to vent. Sure, I might have most of the answers when we are reviewing for the AP U.S. History exam. However, when it comes to what happens next with the coronavirus and the New York City quarantine, my guess is as good as theirs.

So, for the next few weeks, we will soldier on with our review for the May 15th test. Maintaining continuity for my students is helping create a semblance of order in these uncertain times. As I told them the previous week, it is not about the end result, it is about the process.

Sari Beth Rosenberg is an award-winning U.S. History teacher and writer. Her most recent media appearances include TheSkimm’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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