Curriculum Historical Thinking History Uncovering History

Writing About Plague

Students used multiple sources to draw defensible conclusions about the plague

My plan for three days of plague inevitable expanded to four (and more, for many students). Blaming the pandemic and the hybrid, synchronous model that was my school’s current accommodation would be easy, not entirely wrong, but insufficient. Writing as historians does not come naturally for most students. I started with this group of students in December, and since then I’ve been nudging them toward understanding history as knowledge constructed from sources. But, communication is hard and the notion of history as a set of facts to be mastered has a strong hold on many students. We pushed on, of course, and many students demonstrated early proficiency with historical thinking by using primary sources to support an answer to the central question:

“How did people understand and experience the Second Plague Pandemic?”

Students could use textual or visual sources as evidence, but had to corroborate and analyze the sourcing. Class focus shifted to these disciplinary processes. Many students were ready to write on day three. Having students interpret documents and analyze their sourcing one day two contributed to this. The fabulous World History collaborative team—Ali, Bethaney, and Lomumba—at my school has improved student achievement on these tasks by having students write analyses of the sources as they read them. Pear Deck was useful here, because I could spotlight effective examples of sources for students to use as models. I’m sure that some students would have benefited from the small group discussions that would have happened in class. Either way the key to working with documents in this way is, as with all skills, practice.

Many students needed a lot of guidance to do a writing like this. This meant a fourth day of coaxing and prompting students to write, which probably would have also been necessary in a face to face classroom, but much less. Many students struggled with executive functioning in remote learning. Being remote puts the onus for this onto the students themselves, but it also allowed me to work with many students one-one, by voice or by text. Prompting students to start by writing about one document, and then connecting it to another helped many to get rolling.

The instructions and rubric are in the Google Document below. I pushed this out through Google Classroom, which made a copy of the document for each student. This format allowed me quick and easy access to students’ writing, so I could literally meet students where they were.

Overall, most students used multiple sources to draw defensible conclusions about the plague. Observations about religious interpretations of Plague, especially using al-Wardi and Sercambi’s illustration of the plague as arrows shot by cherubs, were common in student essays. Many students used the image of coffins in Tournai (below) as evidence that people experienced the plague as a time of great loss. I was most impressed by students who integrated sources that we had not discussed in class with sources that we had: excerpts from the Florentine Chronicle and Muisis’s illustration of Christians massacring Jews.

One of the earliest known images of the plague in Europe, 1349, shows people carrying coffins of those who died of the illness in Tournai, a city in what is now Belgium. (Credit: image and caption from NPR).

The deep look at a few sources only allowed students to consider the plague’s immediate impact in the Mediterranean and northern Europe. Students neither looked at mid- and longer-term effects in the focus area nor other areas of the world. Despite this I hope that students saw how understandings of diseases evolve. Our first impressions and theories are often proven wrong.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

Let me know what you think!

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