Today, I debuted a new lesson on the Second Plague Pandemic. While it is definitely a work in progress, I was excited to do more than survive the day. For this lesson my goal was for students to understand more about the medieval Eurasian plague, while also wrapping their minds around how the construction of historical knowledge evolves to incorporate new information.
Like many teachers, I’m sure, I struggle to decide how much and when to incorporate the pandemic. My students are in 11th grade and many have not directly felt the effects of COVID 19, but have had their lives shaped by the restrictions over the past eleven months. Many have the sense that they are living in historic times, and I know that I could do more to help them to use the past to understand their present. So, despite being behind the scheduled pacing for World History A, I extended our “Expanding Interactions” unit, which covers the middle ages, to spend two or three days on the plague.
I dedicated today to student understanding of how we know what we know about the plague, while showing them that misinformation, such as images inaccurately labeled as medieval depictions of plague victims, remains rife. I used the Pear Deck add on for Google Slides, which allows students to answer questions, written in yellow (some are multiple choice for quick checks of understanding and others free response). My goal was for students to see how the first answers to questions are not always correct, and that this is true for our understanding of COVID 19 as it was for medieval people and the Second Plague Pandemic.
One of the primary inaccuracies in understanding of the second plague pandemic is cartographic. Current editions of prominent World History textbooks feature plague maps that show plague bacteria somehow traversing 4,000 miles of Eurasia from northeastern China to the Crimea. As I offered Monica Green’s claim about the central Asian origins Yersinia Pestis, and it’s divergence into “Four Black Deaths.” I also shared that that the popular plague map was based on the important work of William McNeill, and that his son, John McNeill, is very confident that his father would want as work corrected in light of new evidence. This is how historical knowledge is constructed.
I am grateful for Monica Green’s public facing scholarship, particularly her explanation of how genetics and the study of ancient DNA both confirms and alters narratives of the Black Death as they existed at the end of the 20th Century. I’ve also learned a lot from the Infectious Historians—Merle Eisenberg and Lee Mordecai—via their podcast, which I found after their article on plague as a concept in interpretations of the Justinianic plague in the American Historical Review. The article is worthwhile read, too. (Related: I’m nearly able to pronounce Justinianic on the first attempt!)
Tomorrow, students will examine primary sources to answer the question: how did people understand and experience the Second Plague Pandemic? I am starting with sources and organizing question from the Stanford History Education Group’s Black Death lessons (but without the inaccurate map in their powerpoint), along with the depictions of plague in the slides and a source depicting anti-Jewish violence. On the third day, the students write.
I highlighted these influences with my students today in order to model how my understanding of the past shifted when confronted with new information and reasoning. Today’s lesson was more “sage on the stage” than my usual practice, but I hoped to display the sagacity of reevaluating our understandings in light of new information.
Teachers and scholars please chime in with suggestions and criticisms in comments!
Citations for articles: Am Hist Rev, Volume 125, Issue 5, December 2020, Pages 1601–1631 and 1632-1667, https://academic.oup.com/ahr/issue/125/5 .