An Option for the First Week of Class
Last spring, all of us had the opportunity to teach history while living through it. Suddenly, my next unit on the Great Depression was at once profoundly relevant, but at the same time, hard to focus on as we all grappled with the strange new reality of quarantining. So I came up with this journaling assignment as a way to connect history to my students' personal experience.
Now, as I approach the first day of school (see my previous post on the first day of class), I am thinking about how to leverage the historic significance of these times in a way that intrigues students and makes them want to work in my class. At the same time, I need to start connecting to students and finding a way to forge a relationship with them in an online environment.
Here's what I've come up with for a first day activity that will allow me to learn a little something about my students, their recent experiences and give them an opportunity to connect with each other while still building a foundation to teach historical themes and content. It is highly adjustable (groups, not groups, how much time it takes) and would work either remotely or live.
The Pandemic Artifact Project
Intro: We'll start with a brief reminder of the definition of an artifact and primary source. Then I will use the face mask as an example of an artifact that defines this time period. We will discuss that for a few minutes: what can they tell us about this time in history? How were they used previously? How are they used now? What different kinds of masks are they and what can we tell (or not?) based on the kind of mask one wears. Likely, it will come up that some people don't want to wear them, which is perhaps a good spot to consider raising the question of rights vs. responsibility in a democracy, which you could also tie to voting.
Part 1: Choose an Artifact
Put students in breakout rooms of 4-6 people (or in groups if you are live) with the following task and instructions:
- What artifact might represent the larger experience of this time period and why? What is "universal" about it? In other words, why might a large percentage of people in this country or in the world identify with this artifact? In what ways does it speak to their experiences?
- You must reach a consensus in your group about ONE item.
- Develop an argument; you must defend your choice by being able to explain why this item represents something about the pandemic/what experience does it reveal.
You can choose to provide them a template for explaining their item, such as this one in Google Slides. They don't have to have an actual item; they can find a picture online. For example, maybe they came up with idea of PPE, but they don't actually own any. Or maybe they have the idea to have a newspaper article about the rising unemployment levels--I wouldn't make them find an actual article (unless the artifact they come up with is a meme or a video; in that case they would want to be more descriptive or include a link to it).
Part 2: Larger Discussion
One option is to put all the slides together (you can instead offer up one link to a shared Google Slide presentation and each group drops in their slide). Or you could simply ask students to share with the larger group. I'm thinking students might not be keen on doing presentations on Zoom within the first few days of school, so another option is to create a large group slide show, and either on their own or back in the breakout rooms, simply have students look through the choices of other students. You could offer up the following questions to discuss:
- To what extent or in what ways does this choice represent a more personal experience vs. a more universal experience?
- In what way(s) is this artifact represent of the experience of ALL Americans, only SOME Americans (if so, who?), people all over the world?
- Did this item come up in your group, too?
- If it did come up, but you rejected that as your final choice, why did you reject it?
- Is this item more reflective of the OVERALL problem of the pandemic i.e. the virus itself, or it does it represent a "byproduct" of it, i.e. the financial crisis, or something like a cancelled event, like a wedding or graduation?
- the experience all over the world
- the U.S. experience
- the local experience of each state and town/city
- and perhaps most important to consider this first week, students' individual experiences
A few additional resources:
- #sschat on Object-Based Learning - a recent Twitter chat that led me to the source below. Lots of other useful sources in this chat.
- History Responds: Collecting During the COVID-19 Pandemic - how the New York Historical Society is collecting artifacts related to the pandemic. Interestingly, they started this project in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, in order to capture the history that was unfolding so quickly.
- Look up your local/regional historical society. Mine: Chicago Historical Society's "In This Together" and examples of text, image and videos they've collected so far. If your community doesn't have a historical society, perhaps this is a project you and your students could coordinate on behalf of your community!
- See the Brooklyn Historical Society's project for a list of suggested materials.
- Lesson ideas from the New American History - A Public Calamity
- My Middleweb post on Journaling during the Pandemic
- and thanks to Matthew M. Johnson's post about what a distanced first day looks like for additional inspiration.