South Orangetown Central School District

“My senior thesis as an undergraduate focused largely on the 1918 Flu Pandemic,” notes Tappan Zee High School Social Studies teacher Matthew Robertson. “The historical record shows that there are typically three pandemics each century: one major pandemic and two minor pandemics. There’s a clear pattern. And we’ve seen in the past that cooperation among nations is critical to an effective response and recovery. In the spring, I showed my AP European History students colorized photos from the 1918 Flu Pandemic and they realized that our efforts at mitigating the public health threat back then look very similar to the ones we’re using today. One hundred years is not a long time and the seriousness of epidemic disease is a reminder of how important it is to study the past.”

While studying history may be more relevant than ever, hybrid learning has changed the classroom experience. Since March, Robertson’s students have logged more than 280,000 minutes on Zoom through their participation in his classes and office hours–among the highest totals in the district.

“In the spring, my students and I had already established a seven-month relationship before distance learning began. The transition wasn’t ideal but it was made easier by the fact that I knew the kids really well. I bought a microphone and camera and four seniors helped me learn how to use Zoom. I’d never used a webcam before,” Robertson recalls. “My feeling was that for so many kids, I may be one of the only adults that they have interaction with outside of their parents. Kids need to talk–with me and with each other.”

That understanding has guided Robertson’s approach to teaching. “History naturally lends itself to online learning more easily than other subjects: I can lecture and tell the story. Discussion is harder to facilitate, so I don’t move as quickly with the curriculum to allow more time for discussion to flow, which is good for kids,” he says.

Personality plays a big role and Robertson misses the energy of having students in the classroom. “It can’t just be taking attendance and then getting right to notes,” he explains. “We start with ‘How are you?’ and maybe a joke or two. I can’t tell you the number of pets and family members I’ve met. The relationship is different, but it’s still there–it’s just through a camera.”

In addition to becoming Zoom-capable, the shift to Google Classroom has created opportunities to present content in interesting and engaging ways for his World History and AP European History classes. “I’ve learned to make Escape Rooms with Google Forms and we’ve had competitions such as ‘MVP of the Renaissance’ and ‘Race Through the Shang Dynasty Tombs in China.’ It’s got to be a blend of fun and content,” reflects Robertson. “I’ve moved beyond the notion that we’re going to cover everything. This experience has clarified what is really important and which battles are worth fighting. I teach because I really like the kids I work with. Their energy and enthusiasm sustain me.”

TZHS social studies teacher Matt Robertson