Lessons From Teaching United States History in the Age of COVID-19

I have struggled to finalize a topic to discuss this month. The chaos of the semester coupled with the state of our nation and the world, in general, has made it difficult to consider what teaching techniques I can share. As I scoured my mind to identify a topic that I feel is relevant, I kept thinking of my students and how proud I am of their work and dedication over the past several weeks.  For this month’s installment in teaching United States history, I would like to share with you what I learned from my students during the semester of COVID-19.

As you all know, the study of history requires a skill set that applies to every discipline and to personal and professional life. My main take-away from this past semester is that our current health crisis helped my students find value in the history of the United States. They discovered the value of history by completing course work and studying weekly recorded lectures.

When my institution transitioned to remote learning, several of my students found their lives disrupted by the quarantine. Some of them lost jobs,  and two had a family member become ill with the virus. The biggest challenge to student lives was learning how to find the time needed to complete work.  Several students explained that the quarantine meant that they had to watch children, siblings, or cousins, or that their family members were always home. With everyone in the house at the same they, they rarely could find a quiet place for uninterrupted study.

To say that my students met their challenges head-on is an understatement.  The students who attended regularly before we moved to remote learning continued to work hard. Additionally, those class members who could not carve out the time needed to complete course work contacted me to explain their problems. Together we found solutions to their dilemmas. What became evident as the semester continued was that my students found more value and purpose in completing course work.  There is something about the current state of affairs that helped my students see the value of education.

I also discovered that for most of my students, studying United States history became a coping mechanism. (This may be true of other courses as well. I can only speak from my experience) Several students told me that the assignments and lectures helped distract them from the consequences they faced because of the pandemic.

Student questions also became more detailed as the semester went by.  Each week I received inquiries about how past events relate to today. More specifically, students often asked me to continue to connect past events to current political and cultural divisions. In my answers, I described how to locate information to understand the present day and cited primary and secondary sources to help them see how historians use evidence to understand the past.  For example, I received several questions asking about the Second Ku Klux Klan and to discuss KKK membership about their interaction with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Mapping the Second Ku Klux Klan, 1915-1940 project found here. They wanted me to elaborate on the KKK’s use of political power to push their anti-immigrant agenda. They also asked how the KKK contributed to white supremacy and how the movement applies to race relations today.  What I found was that the more I used evidence in my answers to my students, the more that my students modeled my behavior. Because our interaction became text-based instead of face to face, my students adapted their way of communication to my example.

During the first semester of 2020, my students found value in studying and writing about historical events. I am encouraged by the quality of work and the connections that my classes made to the study of United States history. They took a chaotic situation and used it to expand their knowledge of history and to improve their written and verbal communication and analytical skills. Their dedication to their education pushed me to think of new ways to help them understand the importance of studying the past. Their choice to challenge me by asking deep questions provided me with the opportunity to teach them how the history of the United States can help us tackle and understand contemporary issues.

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