The Approach is Different But Teaching Goals Remain the Same

Upper school history teacher Ronnie Robinson admits he had to re-think his teaching methodology to make sure students continued to engage in the distance learning environment, but he is up to the challenge.
“You have to be very thoughtful about your lesson plans in this situation,” says Mr. Robinson, referring to distance learning teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. "It’s all about how you construct a lesson plan to get a student to do what you want them to do.”
 
In his Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics and his AP and Honors U.S. History classes, that means asking students to lead discussions so that they avoid falling into the “passive learning” trap of a virtual classroom.
 
“I have found that it is hard to sense classroom learning without being in a room with students,” says Mr. Robinson, a 25-year classroom veteran who has served as chair of the history department at Hutchison and is a national consultant for AP testing. “I have started to target prompted discussions. The kids report to me that the class is about as interactive as it can be in a distance learning model. I try really hard to make it that way,” he says.
 
In addition to a broader reading assignment, Robinson assigns individual students specific questions or topics so they can lead a discussion.
 
“Currently, we are studying the late 1940s and the early 1950s. My topic was the ‘Iron Curtain,’ and I loved being able to take more time to find more context behind what I was talking about,” says Ava Dickson '22. “I love discussions in virtual classes, especially Mr. Robinson’s class because it is so interactive, and my peers are able to comment on what I say. I love that it still feels like we are in a classroom because we are all still together – even if it is virtually. All of those things together have given me as much of an in-depth understanding as I would have gained in the classroom.”
 
Mr. Robinson admits not everything is the same. “I always go through and say hello to everyone and then I’ll check back throughout the lesson, but it’s not the same sort of connection,” he says, adding that a silver lining of the distance-learning exercise is that students are becoming more independent.
 
“Sometimes in the regular classroom, teachers tend to do too much heavy lifting,” he adds. “I think distance learning can help students learn to work more independently.”
 
For students who are also in Government Club, the pandemic provides an interesting backdrop for their weekly meetings.
 
“I definitely feel like I’m living through a historical event. It is somewhat remarkable to me that this could be a teaching point in years to come or a chapter in a textbook,” says Grace Adams ’21, co-leader of the Club. “It’s also the information that I’m receiving on a daily basis that one day will be written for students like me in the future. On one hand, it’s really interesting to experience, but on the other hand, it’s quite terrifying. I just hope that we end up on the right side of history and respond in the most responsible ways to ensure the best possible outcome.”
 
Classmate Caroline Halliday who co-leads Government Club along with Grace, says the pandemic topic permeates every meeting discussion and many classes. “Whether it's reminiscing on what things were like before, or how the topic at hand connects to the pandemic, I find that it is always the topic of conversation,” says Caroline.

“In my AP U.S. Government course, we have had a discussion related to the pandemic nearly every class,” she says. “Federalism is written all over this pandemic because you've got local and federal authorities disagreeing at every turn, and it's fascinating to see how all of it plays out in the news. In my AP Human Geography class, we also talk about the effects of the pandemic many years from now.”
 
The historical magnitude of these unique times is not lost on Mr. Robinson’s AP students. “I feel that this is something that I'll be able to tell younger folks about in the future or that kids will read about in a textbook,” says Caroline. “My friends and I have said that the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic is going to be an FRQ (Free Response Question) on an AP exam in 20 years.”
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Hutchison is the leading private girls school in Memphis for ages 2 years old through twelfth grade.