Complete with two beds, a toilet, and a place to conduct class, science teacher John King converted a shuttle bus into his very own classroom on wheels.
King, a sixth-grade teacher at Lowell Public Schools in Massachusetts, said when the pandemic forced the closures of schools nationwide, he didn’t have reliable internet his home about 30 miles away in West Townsend.
King noted that from March until June, he taught via his computer while sitting in his personal vehicle, which he parked at the local library for internet access.
A 27-year education veteran, John King said he loves working with the kids and fostering relationships. He added that he is teaching generations of students, which he enjoys, adding that his favorite subject is earth science.
He recounted struggling in the tight space with the positioning of his whiteboard so the students could see it. He said the experience put into perspective what children must be feeling as they struggle to access online courses.
In fact, last year he saw students using their parent’s cell phones to attend virtual class.
King noted that Lowell Public Schools, which serves the community located on both sides of the Merrimack River not far from the New Hampshire border, has since provided hotspots to the students that don’t have internet access at home.
But as the months of King sitting in his car conducting lessons in the parking lot of the library went by, he decided he needed a more conducive teaching environment. He purchased a 15-passenger 2007 Ford E-350 bus through an online auction.
The bus came from a retired senior center, where it was used as a shuttle bus, and King named it “Aubrey.” He installed a power inverter on the wheelchair lift so he can charge his computer. He also purchased a camping toilet and a propane heater.
He said it cost him $2,600 to purchase the bus and a couple thousand more to retrofit it to meet his needs.
The biggest advantage, besides having more room to teach, is the bus also serves as a camper for his and wife Kim’s road trips, King added. He also drives to students’ houses, parks out front and offers them the support they need to succeed.
“I [was] just stuck sitting in the car the whole time, so [the bus] makes it so much more dynamic for me,” King shared. “And then the biggest [benefit] is because we have it set up as a camper, we decided that as long as we have an internet connection, all we have to do is go somewhere. So, I’ve been able to take my kids [virtually] and do field trips that I would not have been able to do if we were in person.”
He noted that he’s taken the bus to Cape Cod for a lesson on beach erosion and weathering. He also traveled to western Massachusetts to show his students fossilized dinosaur footprints that date back 250 million years. King added that he camps in Aubrey for one to two weeks at a time and has traveled upwards of three hours from his home to broadcast lessons.
“…[Y]ou can’t haul kids for two and a half hours to do a field trip on the banks of the Connecticut River with trains going by,” he explained. “I just can’t do that on the side of a highway. But if it’s just my wife and me, then we can go anywhere.”
King said he is able to use his phone or computer and report back to the students in his class. His students respond by asking King to visit various areas so they can see all of the surroundings.
“When we went to the beach, they were like, ‘We want to see to see how the waves are coming in. Can you go closer?’ So, I got closer and closer, and the next thing you know I’m getting wet and they’re laughing,” he chuckled, noting that it’s been nice to have fun interactions with his students despite the shutdown.
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He said that he has two more trips to take before school starts back up in person. One of the excursions he’s planning is to a zoo in Rhode Island.
“It was coming up with making the best of a bad [situation] making lemonade out of lemons because this year has certainly been a pretty sour lemon,” he explained. “Having the bus made it fun for the kids and made it fun for my wife and me. It helped on many levels.”
King noted that the school district is currently transitioning to a fully in-person instruction model, as all staff has been offered the COVID-19 vaccine. But he doesn’t plan on giving up his travels in Aubrey. He said he hopes his principal will allow a substitute teacher to watch his class while he streams the various field trips. Regardless, he said, he’s keeping the bus.
“It’s all been overwhelmingly positive,” King said of the feedback he’s received from community members and students. “First of all, they couldn’t believe that there were parts of Massachusetts that didn’t have internet. People said, ‘What do you mean you don’t have cable?’ … But the kids have thought that this was an absolute riot, and I’m kind of a big personality anyways. So, the comment that I’ve heard in school is, ‘If anybody’s going to do it and get away with it, it’s John King.’”