Constable: Students write first draft of history in pandemic diaries
By Burt Constable
In addition to the usual facts and figures of the influenza outbreak of 1918, the students in Trinity High School's International Baccalaureate history class read the powerful first-person accounts of a teenager who lived during that era. So when COVID-19 sent her students home from the River Forest all-girls Catholic school in March, teacher Julie Klein asked her juniors to keep journals, write poems, record videos, take photographs, collect memes and find other ways to document their experiences during our current pandemic.
"This is history in the making! Let's think like historians!" Klein told them.
"I think about that a lot," says Leslie Zarco, 17, of Wood Dale. "This is history. We're living during an historical event that will be covered years later. It's crazy."
An artist, she captures some of those feelings in her drawings. On March 13, she drew the cover of "The Quarantine Logs, issue 1 of ?????" showing a student calmly sitting at a desk and saying, "This is fine," while the world behind her is in chaos.
"I think looking at those primary sources gave us a deeper understanding of the situation these people were in," Betsy Greenberg, 16, of River Forest, says about their readings for previous assignments. "By doing these journals we're acting as primary sources for the future."
Having made friends from around the globe at a summer camp in northern Wisconsin, Betsy's journal includes input from Mexico, Ecuador, France, South Africa, China, Australia and elsewhere.
"The pandemic is affecting everybody worldwide," says Betsy, who reached out to her old seventh-grade pen pal from France to commiserate about a lost chance for foreign study. "She was supposed to go to Italy in March, just like me. So we were going through the same thing at the same time."
Her Ecuadorian friend had a curfew from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. and told how license plate numbers determined what day you were allowed to venture out. Her friend in South Africa worried about people in poverty and wondered how to stop the virus from spreading when 15 poor people lived in one room.
"Talking to her helped me realize how privileged I am, and reminds me not to take things for granted," Betsy says. "I am so lucky to live in a supportive community of people who are all coming together to fight this pandemic and give aid to those we can."
Filling another void, Claire Costello, 17, of Glen Ellyn takes a different approach with her journal.
"I usually try to keep my journal entries lighthearted. In a time with such bad news, we need a little joy in our lives," Claire says.
"Claire has some good laugh-out-loud moments in her journal," Klein says. During online classes where everyone is on camera from their homes, "I usually like to add backgrounds just to make them laugh," Claire says. Her journal entries include "wonderful things," such as people recovering from the coronavirus, or that viral video of the Shedd Aquarium penguins out for an adventure.
"This journal is one of the only things that's keeping me going ... and the Shedd penguins, of course," she wrote in her April 17 entry. "I want to meet Wellington the penguin and the sea otters so bad after the pandemic, once things are normal again.
"However, I don't think life will ever be the same. Maybe there'll be progress? Will this experience lead us to opening the doors of new conversations?"
The students envision their journals being part of readings for students of a future generation.
"The facts are always going to be there," says Leslie, who notes that her drawings express more emotion than she could capture with words.
"So much of the content I teach is based on primary sources," says Klein, the school social studies department chair, who recently used those personal accounts to help her students understand the vast range of roles for women during World War II. "Primary sources allow us to bring more voices to the story and it also teaches critical-thinking skills."
The students and teacher originally envisioned the shelter-in-place order as essentially a two-week spring break, with Klein saying, "When we return to school, you will be asked to turn in your journal of daily observations for completion credit."
Trinity High School already has moved commencement to July 25 and rescheduled the senior prom for August. The students say their journals help keep them connected to each other and the school.
"It's so exciting to see students freely embrace this experience as an observer and a participant," Klein says. "It's what you dream about as a teacher."