A World War and a Global Pandemic: How Did Students Make a Difference?

Celia Roskin, a senior at Elon University, wrote this during her work as the Fall 2020 Teaching with Primary Sources Intern in the Young Readers Center at the Library of Congress.

The 1918 influenza pandemic, commonly known as the Spanish flu, was one of the most virulent and deadly pandemics in recent history; that was until COVID-19. For details about the events of the 1918 influenza pandemic, refer to this blog post. The resources in this post are intended to give teachers tools to engage students in learning history from an English and Language Arts perspective through meaningful, memorable pedagogy.

Fifth Grade in a Plainfield, N.J., school, knitting on Junior Red Cross work

Contextualizing the time period when a primary source was created enhances student understanding. Prior to introducing resources about the 1918 influenza pandemic, you might activate understanding of World War I with this photo of school children knitting in an effort to support the Red Cross. Like today, the 1918 influenza pandemic came at a time of social unrest and change, and you might encourage your students to make connections to their own experiences.

Encourage students to interact with this primary source by beginning with an Observe, Reflect, and Question activity. Depending on the group of students, ask specific questions to prompt deeper observation and analysis. For example:

  • Who do you notice in the photograph? Why is this important?
  • What are the children doing?
  • When do you think this photograph was made?

Encourage conversation, use talk moves, and motivate students to engage in meaningful discourse.

The Back Yard Workshop, while School was closed for Influenza. Mountain Division, Denver, Colo, 1919

Incorporate multiple primary sources into a lesson with a jigsaw activity. Assign specific students to analyze one primary source in depth. After each student has had time to analyze their source, they will come back together and share their findings with peers who analyzed different documents. This encourages students to become an expert on their resource and teach findings to peers. Select primary sources from the blog post about the 1918 flu pandemic or use additional primary sources like this photo of school children who are learning at home during the 1918 pandemic, a letter from Alexander Graham Bell to his wife describing the consequences of the influenza, or a song about the bravery of the Red Cross during a time of crisis. By using several formats of primary sources, you will be able to reach more than one kind of learner in your classroom, making your lesson more universal and accessible to students.

You might also encourage students to create their own primary sources to document their personal experience with COVID-19. For example, writing a letter, drawing a picture, taking a photo, etc. Learn more about how to implement this activity from this blog post from Minerva’s Kaleidoscope.

Living during the age of a global pandemic can cause anxiety for many students. Giving them resources like those suggested here can help to put current events into perspective and show how an earlier generation coped with a similar situation.

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