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Students’ Journals Could Be ‘Primary Sources’ (Updated)
Full body portrait of a student taking notes in the night sitting on a couch in the living room at home

Students’ Journals Could Be ‘Primary Sources’ (Updated) 

UPDATE: Lauren reports (4/10/20) on how her students are faring and what they’ve been writing in their “living history” assignments at the end of this post. “They give me a glimpse of how quickly some of them are growing up.”

By Lauren S. Brown

Several weeks ago – what is starting to feel like a lifetime ago – I finished grading 100 plus family history projects. Some were videos, but most were illustrated stories my students had written about someone they interviewed in their family.

Some kids interviewed parents or grandparents about their parents or grandparents. Some, who swore to me they had no interesting stories in their families’ past, wrote about a parent’s experience during 9/11 or how they felt during the last 2-3 presidential elections.

Now all of us, including my students, are living through a historical moment. If you are looking for a meaningful assignment that you can give students while we are all stuck at home, consider doing a “living through history” assignment.

Just a few days ago (which now seems like much longer ago, doesn’t it?), I saw a couple of dozen students. Our district had quickly rescheduled an institute day; teachers prepared for e-learning and students were able to get into the building one last time to pick up any belongings.

As students came by, they were eager to share their observations, questions and concerns.

  • Hey, Ms. Brown, do you think we’ll be out of school for longer than 2 weeks?
  • Do you think we’ll still have the Great American field trip at the end of the year? Will we still have graduation? ( I teach 8th graders).
  • My sister is a senior in high school. She heard there won’t be prom this year.
  • We going to pick up my brother at the airport today because his college closed.
  • We went to Costco this morning and the line was all the way to the back of the store.
  • My dad is worried that he will lose his job.
  • My mom told me a few days ago to stop putting the rubber bands on my braces so I don’t have to put my fingers in my mouth.
  • I think I’m going to go nuts at home.
  • Ms. Brown, have you ever lived through anything like this? This will be in the history books, won’t it?

Students can create “primary sources” for future historians

There are so many unanswered questions right now, but the answer to that last question is yes. So consider a simple assignment in which your students jot down their thoughts, questions, concerns and observations about what is going on. I suggested that they could do this as a letter, a diary/journal entry or just write.

Here are a few suggestions to get them started:

  • your family’s trip to the grocery store and “stocking up”
  • cancelled family vacations, cancelled field trips, cancelled school
  • how weird it is to have to “e-learn”?
  • how are you occupying your time?
  • how do you feel about this? psyched that you don’t have to come to school? bored? worried? bummed that you won’t get to see your friends?
  • what is changing for you because of this?
  • what kinds of things are your families thinking/saying/doing?

Or have them post short videos about what they are thinking. Flipgrid is great for this. One of my colleagues is posting a question each day for students to reflect on. I know I have enjoyed this glimpse into my students’ worlds, seeing the posters on the walls of their bedrooms, or their dog on the couch in the living room. You can come up with some fun questions to get the ball rolling:

  • What is your “must have” if you are going to be cooped up inside for awhile?
  • What are your “binge watch” recommendations?
  • Where is your new “desk”?

And then you can get into deeper questions, as long as you let students know that they don’t have to share anything they don’t wish to.

  • What is the #1 concern you have about what is going on right now?
  • What is a small way in which your life has changed right now?
  • What mattered to you a few days or a week ago that now seems irrelevant? Vice versa?

Things are changing very quickly now. This seems to be an assignment you could keep adapting as time passes. It doesn’t necessarily require the internet, should that availability become restricted in some way.

Remind your students that they are creating a primary source – documentation of what one student was thinking in March of 2020 during the global pandemic. Now we are all a part of history.

Stay well!

Click here to see a recent week of Lauren’s Google Slides for this assignment, with a note to teachers and a writing prompt for each day.

UPDATE (4/10/20) — “A Glimpse of How Quickly Some Are Growing Up”

Since writing this post, I have given this assignment to students. Their answers were, as I told them, the most interesting things I have EVER graded as a teacher. Some made me laugh, and more than a few made me cry. There is a poignancy to them, and a wonderful insight as to how middle schoolers see their world.

Students who are quiet in class have opened up. Some of the class clowns got serious on me. Some of the serious students were able to see the humorous side of things. One student wrote that her dog has never been happier–everyone is home and taking her on walks multiple times a day! They reveal sides of my students I did not always see. And they give me a glimpse of how quickly some of them are growing up.

Here are a few of the many responses I have gotten:

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