Creating the Historical Record for the Future, One Student at a Time

As history educators we routinely ask our students to interpret historical documents such as letters and diaries. We ask them to interpret these primary sources to gain insight into a specific moment or period in history. Students explore, among other things, the importance of perspective, significance, and cause & effect.

History may often appear to our students as something that happens to other people, but the present moment offers a unique opportunity for them to create their own historical record. Many of us are moving to remote learning, but while we worry about covering the curriculum, perhaps we can embrace the COVID-19 pandemic to have students apply what they are learning in our classrooms.

One approach is to have students keep a daily journal. They can reflect on how they personally are responding to the crisis, but they can also explore the responses of their family members, friends, broader community, and the nation. Ask students to think about what future generations might be interested in reading about when they study how Americans responded to this pandemic.

To reinforce the point, ask students to imagine their own children and grandchildren studying this moment in their history class and being able to share a genuine primary source with them.

NOTE: An activity like this can be stress/anxiety-inducing for some students, but it might also function to relieve stress as well. Plan accordingly.

Students should think about what form their journal should take. Give them the option to keep a traditional handwritten journal, but allow them to explore digital platforms such as blogging, YouTube, etc.

In addition to keeping a journal, students can write poetry, create art, and even conduct interviews—really anything that functions as a historical record.

A classroom reunion activity might be to have students bring in their diaries and other work to share with the rest of the class. This can be done anonymously if necessary. It might be interesting for students to compare what their peers focused on while they were separated. Have them explore common themes as well as ways in which their accounts and how they experienced the weeks/months differed.

Students might also try their hand at writing a more formal historical account of the experience based on these sources.

Finally, the class might design an archive of all the different types of sources created. A digital archive would force students to think carefully about a whole new range of questions related to how they want to present this material to the public.

  • Design
  • Introduction to the archive
  • Arrangement of sources

Let’s be honest. We are not going to cover the curriculum as we envisioned it in September. Our students are going to be distracted in ways that we probably can’t even anticipate right now. History may not and perhaps should not be high on our list of priorities right now, but an activity of this sort may be a way to encourage reflection and guarantee that students in the future have a rich body of evidence with which to better understand how one generation coped with a national and worldwide crisis.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my latest book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Order your copy today.

4 comments… add one
  • London John Mar 16, 2020 @ 0:21

    Presumably some of them will just make it up, which could I suppose provide a valuable insight into the reliability of historical sources.

  • Msb Mar 15, 2020 @ 0:12

    Brilliant notion! Such diaries will be of great value to both writers and readers.

  • Neil Hamilton Mar 14, 2020 @ 11:38

    Kevin,

    How many historical events we of this generation have lived through? The JFK, MLK, Bobby Kennedy assassinations, the Moon landings, the Vietnam War, Panama, Grenada, the Twin Towers 9/11 and all the conflicts that entailed. And I know I am skipping over quite a lot in my above list.

    My grandkids ask me once in a while what it was like in the “old days” and there are times when I feel I am not giving them much of an impression of those past events. What is one of my greatest impressions of the past events? A vivid recollection of no planes in the sky after 9/11. To look up and see nothing but blue sky and not a hint that man had once ruled the skies.

    I wish I had thought of this idea of keeping a journal during these events in my own lifetime for my grandkids to read one day.

    A good idea, Kevin. I hope teachers and students take you up on it. The future would appreciate it.

    Sincerely,
    Neil Hamilton

  • Billy Wetherington Mar 14, 2020 @ 8:26

    I read somewhere (I think William or Henry James) that a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost. Keeping a journal is good for both the journal keeper and the journal reader. It helps both understand themselves and the worlds into which they are thrown. It helps you become “someone on whom nothing is lost.”

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