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:

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1rEmgPYSgcp6XMeTSoAo5VFIleBsonAr8U8uoAzs9ptk/edit?usp=sharing

Visit a century-old pandemic here: What We Can Learn from the 1918 Influenza Diaries by Meilan Solly, Smithsonian Magazine, April 12, 2020


Lauren S. Brown

Lauren S. Brown (@USHistoryIdeas) has taught U.S. history, sociology and world geography in public middle and high schools in the Midwest. She currently teaches 8th grade U.S. history in suburban Chicago. Lauren has also supervised pre-service social studies teachers and taught social studies methods courses. Her degrees include an M.A. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her blog U.S. History Ideas for Teachers is insightful and packed with resources.

55 Responses

  1. Elizabeth says:

    This is absolutely outstanding. Thank you so much!

  2. Lauren Brown says:

    Thanks. And, you will actually enjoy “grading” these! How unusual is that?

  3. Andrew Budris says:

    I am a high school Social Studies teacher (and a doctoral student) and I posted the following project for my own community last Sunday. I encourage any person to personalize it and use it locally. I would love to get an email to hear how it goes in other communities. My university has already shared it to some degree and I hear that it will be used in Santiago, Chile in at least one classroom. Thanks so much! Here is a link for the flyer:

    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Fc8e3PDfswod4tBuWenaI2M2sExK4UBr2QX0nITH7xs/edit?usp=sharing

    And here is a link for the full project:
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1MrC3D_GOLLvI00QbUHn0hJMY7UqN8oFpcwVDNOA3zGU/edit?usp=sharing

  4. Lance Yoder says:

    Hello! Love your ideas! I created a Google Slides template with several of your prompts. Feel free to share away!
    https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1X44CUJY-6ZmGl7gZYHzSUtMyil2Aui3QjoQPCwMWrHU/template/preview

  5. Rachel Kanz says:

    This is exactly the inspiration I have been waiting for!!!!! Thank you SO much!!!!

  6. Jo Rose says:

    I am so excited that other educators have launched a project on this pandemic. When I talked to my students, one by one, as they came to get their books at school today, I told them to keep a record with a journal, quotes from parents, and drawings/comics that are germane to this event. I am going to use everyone’s ideas & I will give feedback later. I have just moved to my new teaching town this year. It is a small rural district in Colorado near the Utah border, so we are somewhat isolated (I hope that helps to keep infection rates down). We have about 200 kids in our school, k-12. So, our community’s response might be different from those in urban areas. Thanks for all of the wonderful ideas!

  7. Lauren S. Brown says:

    Thanks so much for your comments. Andrew, your project makes me think I am thinking too small. But I don’t know that I have the energy to expand this right now. We are heading into spring break next week, which I will use to plan for post-break e-learning.
    Lance, I love the slides template! I plan to use this on my webpage for students. Great for the ones who hate writing! Thank you.
    Jo Rose, sounds like you were thinking the same thing. Good luck!

  8. Tonya says:

    This is so thoughtful! Thanks for sharing.

  9. MiddleWeb says:

    One idea we heard for pre-writers… a daily portrait, perhaps with notes added by caregivers based on the child’s explanation.

  10. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    Great ideas. Thanks. Am going to check out your blog now!

  11. Senta says:

    Is there any way we could have contact info for your colleague who is having a question per day journal? Would love a copy of the questions??

  12. Haley says:

    Ooh, thanks for this, it’s a good idea. :)

  13. This is wonderful to see! I’m the VP for Education at the New-York Historical Society and we’re about to launch something similar as a part of our “History Responds” program. We’ll encourage young people to keep and donate their diaries to our library so they officially become part of the historical record for future researchers and historians to access. Would you be interested in inviting your students to do that? We’re work out the logistical/admin side of it and should be able to announce details in the coming days.

  14. Tyler Slostad says:

    Thank you! These are excellent ideas and I will share them with my colleagues!

  15. Barbara DuRocher says:

    These are wonderful ideas and resources! Thank you all for sharing. I teach 7th grade in the Chicago suburbs. We may be in for a long haul of social distancing, so a project like this will help to connect with students and keep things fresh. Thanks again.

  16. Elena Soffini says:

    Hi everyone, I’m Elena , from Italy, A colleague of mine sent Lauren’s article to me and I’m sharing Lauren’s idea with my colleagues in our school in Bassano, a small town in the north of Italy, not far from Venice. We work with children from 11 to 14. We’re trying to share the project with the Art, History, English , Technology , Geography teachers to involve the pupils in what we consider a “meaningful assignment”. Thank you so much for sharing . Here the situation is really serious but we all believe that everything will be fine, if everyone helps. Thanks a lot, stay well Elena

  17. Arin Hunt says:

    I’m a 2nd grade teacher in CA.We’ve been out for two weeks and we’re just settling into the knowledge that we won’t be going back this school year or maybe even in the fall. Several teachers at my site have been talking about doing a version of this with elementary students (right now we have 1st-4th grade teachers who are on board). One of the things we’re doing this next week while we’re on spring break is working on doing some of our own writing in whatever format we’ve chosen for our students. It’s really cathartic to be writing about what we’re experiencing. Sharing it with each other is really bringing us closer together and helping us negotiate the challenges we are experiencing personally and professionally. And, by doing this we are generating some great examples of different kinds of writing, documenting with words and pictures, writing strategies etc. to use with our students. If anyone knows of anyone who is working on implementing this idea with elementary school kids either on or offline, I’d love to get in touch and share ideas. ahunt@losd.ca

  18. Lauren Brown says:

    Thank you all so much for your ideas and comments! Keep them coming. Arin, I too, am finding this cathartic. Elena, your comment gives me chills–I love that in this moment of tragedy we are connecting around the world. I have a dear friend named Elena who is Italian. She is here, in Chicago, but her extended family is in Italy. My heart goes out to you.
    I have at least 2 or 3 other ideas for blogposts about this moment, but I’m so busy e-teaching I don’t have time to write them!! Here is a link to what I decided to create for students. I keep adding new slides as I read their work, and listen to the news, and live through this time, so check back and see what I add. Feel free to make a copy and adjust and use as you’d like. I hope to eventually share what my students have done.
    Link: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1z-z-su2aD9mjr99EcVVM-Pozzie_o_eWVDdUN9FlvQw/copy?usp=sharing

  19. Linda says:

    Thank you so much for sharing!! I am quite excited about this project and should our closure extend yet again, this will definitely be my next unit with my honors English students!!

  20. Christine says:

    Hello, thank you so much for sharing!!! I am a middle school teacher from the Central Valley of California. We implemented our distance learning about 3 weeks ago. I can’t wait to see the outcome of my student’s responses. This truly is a historical time.

  21. Kate Little says:

    This is AMAZING! I love it. Thank you for sharing so we could use and adapt for our students. Would you please give us permissions to copy your survey?

  22. Doreen Boone-Pitcher says:

    Thank you for the AMAZING resources everyone has shared. I, too, am SO busy trying to create meaningful lessons for my 6th graders in the Mid-Hudson Valley of New York. I already have my students journal writing about this historic time in history, but the slide presentations will take this activity to the next level. Stay safe and thank you again!

  23. Christine says:

    Is anyone getting any push back from admin on this project? I walk talking to my admin about this project and their response was that although this would be on a voluntary basis, they are worried about giving something else for students to do. Because it would still take time out of the day from doing other required activities for other classes.

    They are suggesting taking one day a week or 20 mins each day out of standards to have them engage in this journaling activity.

    I was thinking about creating a separate google classroom specifically for this project.

    What are your thoughts?

    • Mary Langer Thompson says:

      Christine: Here are the writing Common Core Standards for grades 6-12:

      From Common Core Writing Standards (6-12):
      Production and Distribution of Writing: Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.
      I would think this should cover it, even the “trying a new approach.”

  24. Lauren S. Brown says:

    Christine,
    I would either make this assignment replace something else you would normally do or make it optional. I have opted to have students choose only 2 or 3 slides (their choice) and do that once every other week, because every week became too much for me to “grade” each week (I wrote a lot of comments for each student). The first week I did it, I made it optional. Hope that helps. I also like Mary Langer Thompson’s suggestion about the Common Core standards. The bottom line is students are thinking and writing. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

  25. Christine says:

    Thank you Lauren and Mary! I did incorporate this onto their Google Classroom as an optional opportunity to Journal and did list the Common Core standards. And you are absolutely right about getting our students thinking and writing. I explained this exact thing to my Admin., and she finally gave her blessings.

    Thank you for your advice, it is greatly appreciated.

    Christine

  26. Lynn Gevens says:

    Great article and ideas. I work for a local county museum in Wisconsin and we are looking at starting a virtual writing/journaling activity for students and adults. We want to get them documenting history through writing, art, and music for themselves and our museum. We are going to partner with county libraries on this project. Are you okay with us using some of your great information while putting this project together? Lynn

  27. Lauren S. Brown says:

    Absolutely, Lynn! Good luck.

  28. Christine Blakely says:

    This is so well done. I have told my HS History students to journal because it is their living history and they will be amazed when they look back and reread their experiences and feelings from this time.
    I would love to see the survey you created.

  29. Jason Schneider says:

    Your history journal slides were exactly what I have been trying to develop… and between the content and the technology it was taking a long time. The history journal slides are beyond terrific. I am so looking forward to following your page. I am really struggling with WHAT, as a Middle School Social Studies teacher in a high-needs, inner-city school in which my students’ families are either struggling or in crisis… I’ve sometimes received texts, sometimes in the middle of the night from students that just say “help.” And they don’t mean with assignments. So how relevant is Ancient Egypt (my current curriculum)? What is in the best interest of students? I could go on but I think you get the idea…

  30. Lauren S. Brown says:

    Thanks, Christine. Right before the update, within the post, there is a link to my slides. The 3rd slide has a link to that survey. Feel free to make a copy and adjust.

    Jason, thanks–I feel your pain. So heartbreaking to get texts like that. I could go on about Ancient Egypt and how I wonder if that is a topic better suited for younger grades or high school, but….
    Check out Sarah Cooper’s post in this blog about scrapping her Civil War unit in favor of a “resiliency history project.” Perhaps you could do something comparing leadership–great Egyptian leaders to leaders in today’s crisis? Or perhaps something comparing what our “takeaways” are about Ancient Egypt (the “why” of your curriculum) with what people will be taking away from our current crisis? I also highly recommend the websites Teaching Tolerance and Facing History for how to infuse cultural relevance into what you are doing. Best of luck!
    Sarah’s post: https://www.middleweb.com/42724/a-social-studies-podcast-project-for-right-now/

    • Jason Schneider says:

      Very helpful. Thank you. It’s quite something to adjust your thinking and perspective. This helps.

  31. Jen Barry says:

    Hi Lauren, Would you be able to directly share the copy of the survey included in the Living Through History slides. I was unable to open it. It says I need to be a part of your organization to view it. Love what you have created here! Thank you!

  32. Dionna Smith says:

    Lauren,

    This is so powerful to write our own history as we experience it. I asked some of my fellow educators to complete this with me. I am excited to see this through the eyes of a teacher. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful lesson!

  33. Lauren S. Brown says:

    Thank you so much Jason, Jen and Dionna. Sorry for not replying sooner.
    Jen, I made a copy with my personal email, so try this link: https://forms.gle/xGyMk7Kh76ZUeHkz7

    Also, I had another interesting idea that I did with students. I am wrapping up a unit on the Holocaust. I mentioned that the Holocaust was not called the Holocaust as people lived through it. And of course, World War I was not called World War I until after World War II. I asked students, what do you think our current crisis will come to be called? What are people calling it now? Might that change? I had them answer the question on Flipgrid, which is platform that allows students to record short video responses and view those of their classmates. It is so AWESOME to open it up and get to see all your students’ videos.

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