AP Teacher Q&A: Scott Horton from Williamsville South High School
The AP U.S. History teacher shares what he has learned from teaching online and working as a teacher through a pandemic
Since launching in early March, there have been nearly 18 million views of the Online AP Classes and Review Sessions that stream live daily and are archived on YouTube. More than half a million of those eyeballs have been on AP U.S. History classes. And when students tune in to prepare for their APUSH exam, one of the teachers they see is Scott Horton.
Horton is a 26-year veteran of the classroom (he has taught AP for 21 years) who normally teaches at Williamsville South High School, in Williamsville, N.Y.. But after the coronavirus pandemic closed schools across the country, his classroom became Zoom and YouTube. The students turning to him for instruction ballooned into the thousands. He has a co-teacher, Tonekia Phairr from Cambridge High School in Milton, Ga.
He says all of this has made him a better teacher and helped him navigate a turbulent period for everyone.
Horton spoke with The Elective about teaching AP classes online, and the challenges of not interacting with students face to face. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
AP U.S. History teacher Scott Horton
What has the live AP experience been like for you?
I am glad that I have something to keep me really busy. It gives you some focus every day and it makes me feel a little bit normal. But just to feel like you're helping other kids, what a great reward that is. If some student that I'll never meet benefits from something that I did, that's a great reward. The other reward is working with Tonekia, the other teacher. We've split the course up and it really forces you to get at what the marrow of the course is. Like, "OK, I really love teaching that, but what do they really need to know?" because you only have 45 minutes a day.
What has it been like collaborating with Tonekia?
She's great. She's young, she's working hard. Each day, we meet at 10:30 in the morning, about a half an hour before the class. It's been really interesting, and I think we're really getting good at the tag team thing. She'll mention, "Yesterday, Mr. Horton mentioned this in the video, if you didn't see it," that kind of thing.
What's the prep work been like?
I've been doing this a long time, so I cull through all the stuff I have already prepared. What do we have, how does it fit into the curriculum, and then adding in all the things they want us to include to practice skills. I'm probably spending between three and four hours for each of the sessions, by the time I'm plugging in all the slides trying to make it more interactive.
Does knowing that thousands of kids will watch these lessons change how you teach?
They advised us we can let our hair down a little bit and kind of be ourselves, but I find it really hard to do because you're reaching kids all over the place and you want them to take you seriously. I like to joke around with kids, and you can't do that in this environment. That interactivity is not there. Some jokes that you might make to your own students you might not want to do in a live lesson. So it does make me think, what's the bare bones? What do I really have to get across for the kids to help them practice for the exam? I teach just outside of Buffalo, New York, so I'm a Northeastern guy. Is a kid from the South going to get the same thing out of my lesson because they might look at something differently?
Does not having an in-person classroom change how you teach?
Sure. It's the weirdest thing. We talked about it in a debriefing meeting with the College Board recently. Normally, in a classroom, you're watching the kids for facial expressions, you're watching for who's paying attention, you ask questions, just to make sure that they're with you. And you can't do that with this. So what we did is we started, after the third or fourth day, a Twitter account, @virtualapush, just for this. The person that is not presenting on that day mans the Twitter.
We’ll put some questions into the presentation and ask the kids to tweet the answers at the account. And then we’ll do shout-outs to the first kid who gets it right. It's a little bit more of that interactivity, which makes it a little bit more interesting than, “Oh, there's a teacher talking for 45 minutes on the screen." It's still not the same as being in a classroom. This will never compare to that. I meet with my own students on Zoom; we try to do it a couple times a week, and I always tell them, I miss you guys, I miss seeing you guys. Because that's the best part, you know?
Have you heard from any students outside of your own and outside of Twitter who've been like, "Mr. Horton, this was great”?
We got a couple of tweets early on like that. We got a really nice email; I got one and I think Tonekia got at least one, from teachers who took the time to find us on our home school website and send us a nice email thanking us for what we were doing. They teach in California, so they get up every day and the two co-teachers do kind of a watch party at 8:00 in the morning. So that's very rewarding for other people to reach out and say those things.
Do you see these as potentially having a life beyond this moment that we're in? Assuming things go back to something like normal before next school year, can you see yourself pointing to a review that you're doing on YouTube and say to your students, “here, watch this”?
Oh, absolutely. I hope these don't go away. I hope they don't disappear them; that sometimes happens with YouTube videos. Some kids can read the textbook and get the story and they're great. But other kids need you to kind of walk them through it. So next year, I can see saying to a kid, when we get to the end of Unit Two, the colonial period, "Hey, listen, here's your review assignment. Go watch this review on YouTube because I built into it some of the practice things and the skill things that they need to practice." So it's not just me talking for 45 minutes. It's, hey, here's a document. Read through this. What's the point of view of it, what's the audience for it? And the nice thing is half the videos aren't me. It's Ms. Phairr from Georgia. Different voice, different approach, and that definitely helps.
Have you watched any of the other AP classes?
Yeah. I play guitar in a band, so I looked up the AP Music Theory teacher and I watched a lesson on modes. It was great. It's short and sweet and to the point. I thanked her privately after a meeting we all had, just to say, "Hey, your lesson on modes was really great. It helped me to understand that.". I'd love to take that class sometime. Every summer, I think, “Wouldn't it be great if I could work that into my schedule and just audit the class at school?”
A slide from AP U.S. History teacher Scott Horton's class AP U.S. History: Period 7 – 1890–1945 (Depression, New Deal, and WWII)
You mentioned you were happy to have this to keep you busy. What have your colleagues' experiences been like?
My department, we have a group chat going on. Each teacher has their own struggle. I just turned 50 a month ago. My older son is married and he's out of the house; my younger son, he's still living here because he just finished up college. I don't have the worries that some of my colleagues do. One has twin two-year-olds, so she's trying to manage her daily work with her students and her own two children who are at home, plus her husband, who has to work from home. I think it's a real struggle for a lot of people.
This situation forces you to really evaluate some things and recognize what's really important in your life and maybe what's not as important as you thought it was. I tell everyone I talk to do the best they can for students. I'm the vice president of my union, so I occasionally get some union questions. Like, "I'm afraid I'm not doing enough. I'm afraid I'm doing too much." Do what you think is right for kids. Do the best you can.
The flip side of that is to try to remember that kids are going through this, too. This is a traumatic thing for them. I had reached out by phone to a few students who weren't responding to stuff that I was putting online. Some of them have some really tough situations: Parents lost their job or they lost their income or there's one computer in the house and there's two other siblings trying to do their schoolwork. That's what's nice about that AP thing. It's great if people tune in live, but they can always go back to it later. So if a kid is more of a night owl, which a lot of teenagers seem to be, they can go on at 11:30 at night and watch a review thing.
Do you have any tips for parents in those difficult situations on how to be teachers, or better teachers, for their kids?
Right now, as important as anything academic is their emotional well-being. That has to be first and foremost, and then school can happen after that. You try to support your kids as best you can, and I think if I was in that situation, I would try to do the best I could to keep life normal, as much as possible. I think a schedule is really important. I kind of joke with my wife when I’m doing these online classes, “I'm going to work today,” but Saturday and Sunday, I don't do any schoolwork. I try to tell myself, “This is not a workday, so today I'm going to do other things I need to do, or I'm going to watch the movie I want to catch up on.” I think for a kid, especially a younger kid, that'd be really, really important. “OK, we're going to do school from 10 to 2 every day.” I have a couple of students that have autism, and routine is everything for them. I can't even imagine what their parents are doing to try to help them.
When things settle back into a normalcy, what kind of lessons do you think we'll take from this?
I think that's the million-dollar question. I think it's really important that we do learn from it. I think one of the takeaways is that there's the human and social element of school for high school kids. I'm sure that’s true for younger students too, but the kids I talk to on Zoom and over the phone, they miss school. They miss seeing their friends. Thankfully, we had our musical already, but kids are already talking about whether prom will be canceled. That’s all really important to kids. I always sort of knew it in the back of my head, but to hear them verbalize it made me realize the extent. To me, that's the big lesson I'm walking away with. And I miss my colleagues. We group chat, we’ve had a virtual happy hour, but it isn't the same. But I think this is a really great opportunity, too, for us to reach out to students and their families. I think for some people, it's a reminder that kids have a lot of other things going on in their lives sometimes. I think some teachers kind of get caught up in the, "Well, gee, you didn't do your 25 problems of homework last night for me. I can't believe you're such a terrible student." Hopefully, some teachers will walk away with, “Oh, they might have this going on at home,” and be more cognizant of that.
The most eye-opening experience of my career was having my own children in school. My older son took my class, which changed everything for me. It was like, "Oh, so this is the other side of that." I coach hockey, so we would have hockey practice right after school, and we'd come home and grab something to eat and he's doing four hours of homework. It makes you really realize, What am I putting on kids? What about a kid who is in the musical? What about a kid that does outside dance lessons? There's a lot more to their lives than just AP U.S. History.