Caught by COVID-19
The unprecedented school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has many educators scrambling to adapt their methods and materials. Finding instruction that is meaningful for students is of paramount importance, as many of them are engaging in self-directed learning. In other words, if kids aren’t engaged by it, it’s probably not happening. Or at least, not in an educationally useful way.
Plus, as we all know, it’s important for educational tasks to be authentic. The more authentic the task, the more likely it is that learning occurs. But figuring out what’s relevant to students during this extended absence from school can be extremely difficult.
Simplifying for Students
In addition to potential problems with student engagement and authenticity, educators are bombarding students with tasks. They’re getting emails, Google Classroom posts, videos, and more from every one of their teachers. It can be chaotic and overwhelming for the adults involved, nevermind the students!
With this in mind, I proposed to the English and social studies teachers a cross-disciplinary unit for our middle school students. While we teach grades seven and eight, this activity could be used with students at just about every level.
Pandemic Journal: What It Is
The central idea is for students to keep pandemic journals — writings about their experiences during this historic crisis. In addition to requiring students to use many different learning skills, such an activity also creates primary sources for future historians!
I first encountered this idea in an online post from a historian. He was asking people to keep written journals so future historians would have primary sources about this historic crisis. The second time I came across this idea online was in an article by Lauren S. Brown, and it captured my mind! It offers the possibility of authenticity for all students, no matter their location or circumstances. It is potentially extremely engaging. And if done as a cross-disciplinary activity, it reduces the scope of electronic bombardment students face.
I immediately resolved to have my students write their own pandemic journals. I laid out the many reasons why I thought this would be an important lesson to help my seventh graders see the bigger picture. In short: It’s ironic that in the Communication Age, so few publicly visible repositories of personal information are available. A journal is a chance for students to record their thoughts and experiences for posterity!
But before I got started with my students, I realized this might be a task that the entire school could benefit from.
What We Did
I sent a short e-mail introducing the idea to both the English and social studies departments and received enthusiastic replies. Once I saw people were interested, I created a shared Google document with “Can edit” permission and sent it to the teachers. I seeded it with some ideas, then stood back and watched as the teachers dove in!
Within minutes, there were comments and new ideas and suggestions popping up all over the document. As more teachers checked it out, more thoughts were added. Soon, we had an entire document filled with thoughts for possible lessons.
As the ideas flowed, we began discussing resources students could use. We also discussed implementation strategies.
In about an hour, we had gone from a general e-mail to a multi-page document that collected feedback from nearly every member of both departments. And we had the rough outlines of a cross-disciplinary lesson ready.
The Power of Working Together
While we still have steps to take before we roll out this project, it has already expanded the thinking of a dozen teachers from two departments. We are now considering bringing in math and science teachers as well.
There’s more work to do, but teachers are as overwhelmed as students. Seeding their space with ideas can produce lightning bursts of creativity and collaboration. Helping each other consider lessons and resources provides a great chance to socialize professionally. It also can result in some outstanding lesson ideas! In a time when lots of people are feeling overwhelmed, something as simple as some ideas for a journal can be a huge help.
As we prepare to implement these ideas with students, we’re feeling good. We come up with interesting, engaging instruction for our students. We also are improving our students’ remote learning experience.
Author: Steve Tetreault
Steve has been teaching for over 20 years, mostly middle school English Language Arts. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!