This week’s post comes from Thomas Fulbright, current KCSS president and history teacher at Hope Street Academy, a public charter school in Topeka since 2008. Thomas intends “to spend my entire life convincing them how exciting and important history is.” His bio picture is daughter Claire and Thomas meeting President Lincoln.
In my last blog post, I shared with you a description of my pedagogical approach and provided an example. A quick refresher – at the start of the semester, students identify the purpose of learning history, (summary: they agree with George Santayana) then throughout the semester they do comparisons between policy debates of the past and policy debates happening today.
While some of these lessons are pretty easy to modify from semester to semester (there will always be debates over immigration, the connections may just be different), sometimes a major event requires the creation of a new lesson. My class spans the eras from Reconstruction through the Great Depression. It just so happens a current event which is drawing my students’ attention has a pretty good connection to the past.
Previously, the Spanish Influenza was part of the larger conversation about the League of Nations’ clause about an international agreement to study and prevent diseases. But the development of the Coronavirus required the creation of a whole new “case study.” What I found during my research to create the lesson drove home the whole purpose of why we teach history and why I teach history the way I do.
The lesson I frantically pieced together over my spring break was intended to be used right after we returned to class. Students were going to study the debate over “closing orders” that were created in response to the spread of the “Spanish Influenza.” They were going to connect those arguments to today’s debate over social distancing and closing orders.
I was very excited to have them reflect on these documents and then create letters to send to policy makers advising them on the situation. Based on the compelling arguments in those past documents, I was sure students would be suggesting that policy makers shut things down. Turns out, policy makers didn’t need to be encouraged and school was “closed” (at least physically) before we returned from spring break.
So now I sit at home guiding my students through the assignment from a distance watching them craft advice that at least our state and local policy makers don’t need to hear. One student’s letter clearly showed their frustration with social distancing when they wrote,
In conclusion, you should support Government restrictions due to the Coronavirus. This is because we need to get rid of it faster so we can be off of lockdown already.
But enough about my lesson plan – we are history nerds, let’s just dive into the documents I found during my research so we can see just how close the connection is between the public reactions are to the “shut down” orders in response to both pandemics.
Many states and municipalities issued shut down orders in response to the Spanish Influenza in 1918. I was able to locate Topeka’s “shut down” order through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America. The order read:
Because of the experience of cases of epidemic influenza, also known as Spanish Influenza, in Topeka, all public and private schools, Sunday schools and churches are hereby ordered closed, and all public gatherings, dances, shows and entertainments are hereby prohibited until further notice, in order that the spread of the disease may be limited and the health and lives of the citizens of Topeka may be better protected from an epidemic which now seriously threatens.
I can’t say I enjoyed many of the cartoons I was able to locate without sounding too morbid – but some of the cartoons published by Public Health organizations back in 1918 would be useful today. Check this one from the U.S. Public Health Service titled, “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases – As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells.”
The only change to the U.S. Public Health Service poster titled, “Use the Handkerchief and Do Your Bit to Protect Me!” would be to replace “Handkerchief” with “social distancing.”
However, it was this cartoon by Jim Nasium titled “An Unwelcome Visitor” that I really connected with as a KU fan mourning the early end of the basketball season.
Anyway, the creation of this lesson led to a number of thoughts throughout the process:
- History isn’t repeating itself, but gosh-darn the way people behave in reaction to historic events is awfully similar.
- While the past may not hold all of the answers to today’s questions, it certainly has a lot of clues.
- While I am missing my students and classroom terribly, social distancing is absolutely the right thing to do. Studies show big differences in mortality rates between cities which implemented “shut-down” orders early, as opposed to cities, such as Philadelphia, which did not. In case you want to read more about those findings as one way to make you feel better about the decision to end school as we knew it for the remainder of the Spring Semester, visit JAMA’s journal here.
Please remember to practice social distancing and wash your hands. I will leave you with this 1918 poster from the Virginia State Board of Health titled, “Save Yourself from Influenza . . . Follow Two Simple Rules.”
(While my website page of historic documents is located in the assignment linked above; here is a direct link to the page.)