AP Teacher Q&A: Jenifer Hitchcock, from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
The AP Government and Politics teacher shares what she has learned from teaching online and working as a teacher through a pandemic
Since launching in early March, there have been nearly 25 million views of the Online AP Classes and Review Sessions that stream live daily and are archived on YouTube. More than 650,000 of those viewers have checked out AP Government and Politics. And when students tune in to prepare for their exam, the teacher they see is Jenifer Hitchcock.
The classroom wasn’t always where Hitchcock saw herself. In fact, thanks to author Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan, she thought she’d graduate high school and enter the world of espionage. But life and experience took her away from being in government and toward teaching about it. The mother of three is one of seven AP Government and Politics teachers at her school. In December, she completed her master’s degree in political science at Virginia Tech, an experience she found enriching—and intense. And just as she was starting to feel listless without the excitement of grad school, she was recruited to be one of the teachers guiding daily AP classes and review sessions on YouTube.
Hitchcock spoke with The Elective about teaching live online, the challenges of not interacting with students face to face, and the inspiration she got from her dad. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
For someone who is as engaged with history and government as you are, this must be an interesting time.
It's funny because I hated history growing up. I went to high school from ‘92 to '96. My dad was intellectually curious about everything. He was a machinist, and he’d say, “I'm going to go back and get a political science degree while you guys are in high school.” He would come home and he would ask me questions.
I remember one of my first favorite readings was by John Milton, called Areopagitica, about the reason to have a free press. All my friends were reading—they weren’t reading, so let’s just start there. I remember sitting in a high school class thinking, “If I have to listen to another story about death and destruction, I’m going to cry. I hate wars. I don't like learning about them. They're not interesting. It’s a lot of noise, like, pew pew pew [imitating gun shots] , The guys in the class are shouting, “Yeah! Destroy!” I thought, “This is really depressing. Why do we talk about this all the time?” It’s been a very long road for me to come back around to history and realize, “Yeah, I want to spend thousands of dollars and just buy books.” I know that I teach government and politics, but that’s history, just in a different theme. I think that if we can find a story, if we can find an approach, to understanding what happened in the past, why it's significant, why it forms what we do today, and how the Constitution and previous actions of all kinds of characters have limited or expanded our horizons, we can ask ourselves, “Please, can we come up with better solutions that are good for everybody?” That would be nice.
I got tired of the same narrative in history class. The stories that you can find that tie into history and government and civics are earth-shattering. I'm obsessed with the podcast Scene on Radio. Hosts John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika—those are my people! They structure the show around themes, like whiteness or men or democracy. It's 14 episodes in this mindset: Here’s what you've been told, so we’re going to take you through a different approach. We're going to walk around the backside of that path and look at it from the flip side. That’s because the story that you've been told, and the ways that you’ve been advised to make a difference in your community, have always been from the front yard, never from the backyard.
How do you go from not being interested in history to teaching it?
Dad was really, really meaningful in terms of saying, “This stuff matters. You’re here for a bigger reason.”
Also, I was obsessed with Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. The Hunt for Red October is my favorite movie, where they’re on the Russian sub and they're scuttling the ship in the North Sea. I was obsessed with it as a kid. I told my parents that I wanted to study political science in college because I loved politics. I thought it was endlessly fascinating. I wanted to do international stuff, so I moved to D.C. and thought I was going to get my doctorate in security policy studies and go swindle the world and spy and fly around and stuff. Then I recognized that I hate risk. I did some work as a contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency, which was my first job out of college. I was assessing the emergency response team on September 11 in the basement of the Ariel Rios Federal Building, which is a block and a half kitty-corner to the White House. I watched the whole thing unfold on the screen. I was 22 years old and thought, “What’s going on? This isn’t a mistake.” I had to walk out of D.C. that day. I have this hilarious image of me running out of Ariel Rios. I've got my backpack with my laptop, and I'm thinking, “I need to drain my accounts! There's going to be a run on the banks!” I took out every penny in my account, which was $100, and then I walked across the bridge, out of D.C. I said to myself, “I can’t do this.”
So the next best thing was working with kids. I swam in college, so I was working with kids, coaching. I began to think, “Let’s just do this. I can talk about this stuff all the time.” I found that I loved it. Being around young people who have questions about where they are in the world, if they can they be more than what they think they are, how they can go about doing that, and what institutions are there to help push them along or keep them back, and how they can change those things. Those are some of the fun questions to tackle on a daily basis.
When the College Board approached you about teaching these live AP classes, did you have any hesitation?
No. Originally, it was 10 sessions, and I thought, “Sure, that sounds like fun.” I teach online anyway. I have 124 students I see face to face throughout the day, and I have 21 kids who are in the online format. So online teaching doesn’t freak me out. I have a different take on what online learning should look like. You have to anticipate questions the students have. You have to keep it simple—although I don’t necessarily think I always do. Define stuff, walk through skills—hold their hands because kids can stop and practice and rewind and hear things over again. That’s another thing about online education. In a classroom, it’s a little cocoon, right? They're safe there. They can predict what’s going to happen. I’m not going to yell at them. We’re going to laugh. We’re going to talk. They’re going to learn. They’re going to walk out. They can go to the bathroom. They can eat if they want to. In an online environment, at any point in time, your kid can walk in, my kids can walk in, my dogs could bark. It’s unpredictable, more so for kids, and it’s distracting. I think that’s the craziest thing. Also, I’m not used to seeing myself talk, so I’m getting to the point where I want to put something over my face because I’m tired of looking at myself. I never wear this much makeup. This is so stupid. But I have to because I look like I’m dead if I don't.
Back to your question. I had no trepidation. It keeps me on my feet. I think it's joyous to wake up in the morning. I had 18 tweets this morning from kids who wanted me to grade their FRQs. I sat in bed, I graded the FRQs, I gave feedback, and I gave some GIFs. It’s great
Is it difficult to not have students to react to you, and you to them?
Yeah, it is. I like a noisy classroom. I want my kids to be laughing when appropriate. I don’t freak out if they’re all yelling at the same time—because then a kid’s engaged, right? When they’re not, when they get quiet, those are the moments I could take a snapshot of and put it in a little jar on my shelf of the good moments in life. Those are the moments I’ve said something that got an “Oh, wow.” Normally we’re loud and we’re playing off of each other and they’re asking questions and there’s good rapport. It’s a scenario that in this online environment obviously doesn’t exist. I have to make myself laugh. I’m the only person in the room. I’m staring at my basement, staring at my husband’s TV and the couches, and no one’s down here. I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to trip over my words. I’m going to get super paranoid. It’s one thing to talk about complex, hot-button issues within a classroom when you’ve established a relationship with kids and they know—I don’t tell them, but they’re not stupid—exactly where I am on the political spectrum. The thing that I’ve always told them is: “It doesn't matter what I think because this is about conversation, not about oration.”
I think the most interesting thing that has caused me a little bit of panic on camera is this: I’ve been talking about issues that are going into so many different communities I can’t control how they spin. I’m in a very diverse community. For the most part, it’s mostly liberal, mostly affluent. I can talk freely about issues of gender. I can talk about pronouns. I can talk about race. It’s uncomfortable and awkward for a short period of time at the beginning of the year as the kids get to know me, but I tell them, “Hey, we’re going to talk about this. This is the whole point of class. We’re going to make gross generalizations about race and gender and sex because we have to use that data to be able to make a prediction on how a political party is going to cozy up to that segment of the population.” Online, I’m constantly thinking, “This is going into the most liberal houses and the most conservative houses. I’ll trip over my words every time because I know I’m going to say something that’s going to irritate someone. If I say “minoritized communities,” if I say “black,” if I say “Hispanic,” if I say “Latinx,” if I say “they” or “she” or “he,” or I say “LGBTQ,” I know someone is going to be ticked. But I have to talk about it. It’s part of elections. It’s part of parties. It’s part of party coalitions. It’s part of understanding civil rights and civil liberties. I always get cotton mouth as soon as I know I'm approaching it because I think, “I’m going to mess this up. Doesn’t matter what I say, I’m going to say it wrong.”
Do you rehearse those things?
No. There was a discussion I was having around the question “Are we a republic or are we a democracy?” That’s a sleeper controversy. I assembled an argument based on primary source documents that we're not a democracy and we never have been. We’re a republic, and that’s a very different thing. When we look at our Founding Fathers, there’s just as much evidence to label them elitists as there is to label them democrats, with a lowercase “d.” They were into democracy. So that one I rehearsed a little bit because I wanted to make sure that I got the building blocks in place—that it's not just me saying these things. There’s something on a screen that comes from some old guy way back, and I say, "Look, this is what they're saying. So let me interpret this for you." But other than that, I don't rehearse. I'm going to make mistakes anyway, so I might as well have fun with it. Just laugh about it.
A screenshot of AP GoPo teacher Jenifer Hitchcock's AP Master Class conversation with Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
When you're building these classes, knowing that you have that wider audience geographically and politically, does that change how you structure things versus what you would do in your classroom?
Yes. I'm not going as much into some of the examples. I don't have time to because it's supposed to be a review. For instance, I love civil rights. That's my favorite part of history, getting the right to vote and getting the right to be in the courts and all that stuff. That's what I spend 90% of my time reading about for pleasure. I have corners that I take my kids into. My school, for instance, is a STEM school, and you have to apply to get in, have to take a test. They're nerds. They're my nerds. I love them. They're ridiculous. They’re published authors! They write. They have apps for the VA and built stuff that has been put up in space. I tell them all the time, “You guys are spoiled rotten because we’re also in a very low-income neighborhood, and the school next door doesn’t look like this.” That’s an injustice. It's 68% Asian, 24% white, and then 2% black, 2% Hispanic. Very minority, but not representative.
When we talk about civil rights and civil liberties, the phrase I've been told to avoid all year is "affirmative action." And I'm like, "What? I'm running right into it!" I've been looking for cases to juxtapose against Brown v. Board of Education that are interesting and unexpected and have to do with civil rights where they have to compare them. There was a case I had them read where the kids were on the verge of rioting. It's called Thind v. United States. It's a case from the 1920s. It’s a person of Indian descent, Deccan Plateau Indian descent, which is a ton of my kids. Thind immigrated here the turn of the century, worked, was in the military, and then he became this really upstanding citizen and had all these fantastic things that he did and he wanted citizenship. It goes to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court told him "no," that he wasn't the right kind of white, that that's not what they meant [when talking about who can be citizens]. There's a previous case that dealt with an individual who was Japanese who said, "Well, I'm literally white. I'm the same color as you." And they said, "No, it's geographic and scientific." And then when Thind came, he pointed out, "But I'm Aryan. I'm from the Caucasus Mountains. Your people went to Europe, my people went to the Deccan Plateau, and we're related." They said, "No, it's not scientific. You've got to be from the right place." My kids were so mad. They protested: "What? We're not good enough to be citizens?" I answered, "I just wanted to put it out there." We can learn about this with ways that are provocative but not ripping things apart. Baby steps.
You mentioned in one of your live AP classes that to try to get kids more engaged, you'll give them shout-outs on video.
Yeah, and I think it's simply liking to see your name up there. There are probably about 10 kids now who are tweeting me pretty regularly, and I'm assuming the reason why they're doing that is because they enjoy seeing their name on the video. If they're getting a shout-out from their teacher, they're getting a shout-out to their school.
Have you heard from any other teachers about these classes?
Yeah, a lot—and a lot of happiness, for the most part. I've had teachers email me. I've had teachers message me. I've had teachers tweet to me. I've had a couple of conferences with teachers asking questions or for clarifications. My department has seven AP Gov teachers, and I've talked to them at least once a week. They’re giving me feedback. When we get to civil rights and civil liberties, I don't have all my resources available for the court cases. I've reached out through my network for assistance. I've called out to the American Bar Association's public education desk, because I have a friend over there, and also Street Law. I’m pointing kids toward some of the stuff on iCivics, too.
That's really beautiful. If you start asking your community—I can't do this all by myself. I’m getting feedback. I’m overwhelmed by the constant ingenuity teachers have, especially on the Facebook group I moderate. It gives me hope. We should be working to improve the civic education in our country, because God knows that it's not something every state wants to invest in equally, and that's a shame. That's not investing in our future. But teachers are working around that. They band together like nothing I've ever seen. So much of what I've learned is from other teachers who are always there. One of the kids asked me yesterday what a four-by-four voter was, and I had never heard that term before. I put it up on Facebook, and it was answered in 20 minutes.
We're living through a weird time. Coming out of it, how do you think this will impact education and schools and how kids learn and teachers teach?
In particular with online learning, I hope it gives teachers the ability to have more resources at their disposal. I don't want to say stop reading the textbook because I think reading is critically important, just the physical act of reading. But maybe we'll have a better universalization in terms of what these skills and what these standards mean. And I'm praying that it gives teachers the courage to try things in their classroom that make the content more alive than just coming in and lecturing. The way I do this presentation is not how I teach in real life. In fact, there are whole weeks where I don't talk to the kids because they're doing a project and I'm walking around and saying, "OK, tell me about this." So now, when I'm doing my project on elections, I have this whole core set of videos that I can give the kids and say, "Here, go watch this. This will talk about the skill and the content, and then when you come into class, when you layer that with your reading, you'll do better."
The one thing I get nervous about, and I’ve seen teachers say this also, is that videos will be used instead of instruction. I’m very nervous about that because there’s something to be said for having teachers who are able to speak the language, the vernacular, that's in their classroom. It can be something as simple as "I want you to write a letter to a congressman," and getting a letter back, or "I want you to attend a school board meeting," or "I want you to write an op-ed." It can be to do something along those lines or go do research in your local community about an issue that's important to you and come up with a proposal, like a five-minute elevator talk with a local politician. I don't think kids see a role for themselves in the content, and when it's just rote instruction—me delivering, you receiving—that's passive. Kids aren't picking up the tools that have been laid down for them.
I'm praying, praying, praying that when students walk back in the classroom in the fall, if they’re concerned about their community or angry about something or they want to change things, let's pick up tools, let's learn the tools, and let's do something about it as opposed to just talking about it.