As history educators we routinely ask our students to interpret historical documents such as letters and diaries.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.
- 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.