I’m the Writing Lab Instructor for Revolution School, a private high school in Philadelphia, and this is my first year as an educator. In fact, I only started teaching a month before Covid-19 struck. At that point, we knew our lesson plans and learning targets would have to shift in light of Pennsylvania’s school closures and stay-at-home orders, but in what direction? I decided to push my plans for teaching short stories to an unforeseen place in the future, and instead, assign the students a reading and writing project that might hopefully help them understand and process why their lives and those of their families were so suddenly upended.

So, I assigned our students to keep a COVID Journal with at least two entries per week. The journal was their way to share or examine their experience, and to create a document that perhaps future students would read to understand how rapidly, and probably permanently, the lives of students had changed. My hope is that students will save their journals to share with their children or students one day, as documents from a historical moment. In keeping with our school’s mission, the COVID Journal was an interdisciplinary assignment that took into account our educational targets for our units on social studies and health and wellness, such as building students’ understanding of the relationship between public health policies and their personal wellness and that of their communities.

To accomplish this, I tasked students to respond in their journals to at least one primary document from a civic or scientific institution and at least one secondary document in the form of an article or editorial from a respected publisher. Some of these documents were meant to inform students of the facts, and others about the personal experiences of other people. I wanted students to understand two important things — they could find and understand the scientific and political realities, and they were not alone in experiencing confusion, frustration, and fear.

The responses from students were inspiring, thoughtful, brave, funny, and heartbreaking. I’m pleased that several of my students agreed to share their work with the world.

Reflections of Students

“Last week, I noticed a problem in our plumbing. This did not serve as much of a problem, but when my mother called a plumber, most of them refused service. We tried three services. The first two refused service because of my mother’s allergies. When she said that she does not have the coronavirus, they said that they want test results. If we were to look for a test, we would encounter one of a few possible reasons for not getting one. All of these possibilities due to the shortage of tests. It would seem that there is a shortage of tests because of the moves our government has made. Trump fired a task force that could have contained the virus, or at least worked harder to mitigate it.” —Robbie, 3/24

“It is 8:46 pm, and I have just read two articles regarding the coronavirus and how the United States handles sicknesses in general. After reading the first article that was about prison sickness I was so sad. A survey proved that people in the outside world have a much better health than the people incarcerated. I know that they are in prison for structure and for punishment for the crime they have committed but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to have good health.” —Jaida, 3/24

“Today unemployment numbers are rising and more people are losing their jobs with nothing to provide for their families or pay bills. This doesn’t affect me as much my mom gets to stay home with me but my dad still has to go to work and associate with people so that’s hard on him but I’m glad that my family is healthy. It won’t be normal when people go back to work and school some people will have adapted to this way of living and this may change their way of life. I think that they could help the people in need because some people can’t pay their bills.” —Journey, 3/31

“In the report that is specifically about PA, it was interesting to see the map of Pennsylvania and see where the virus is. There are still some places in the state where it has not gone yet, or at least we don’t know about it again, in Forest County, Elk County, and Jefferson County. There have been no reported cases. All three of these places are next to each other, but they are surrounded by other counties that have at least one case. My question is, how have there not been any cases yet? Are these places more isolated? Are they less populated? Is it just because they are farther away from Philadelphia? These past couple of weeks, I have felt a little scared, but this week I haven’t been. Even though it has been coming out that younger and younger people are dying. This week I fell into more of a routine, and I have not been going outside almost at all. Plus, when we get groceries, my mom makes me wash everything. I think that my family has been careful and I believe that it will make the chances better that we don’t feel the full effect of this although I think that almost everyone is going to get it.” —Maria, 4/1

“I see that this quarantine is bringing out the entrepreneur/creativity in people. A lot of people have been starting businesses or getting artsy on social media, even me. I will leave some pictures at the end of the entry. But this is a really good time to do what you always wanted to do but never had time to. I actually started to practice on my photoshop skills, and I see a big amount of improvement because at first I knew absolutely nothing just looking at it, but now I’m getting the hang of it.” —Sodd, 4/13

After three weeks of journaling, I assigned students to write an editorial as the final piece of this project. I did this to teach a form of writing they had not yet practiced — one that specifically focuses on civic engagement and combines the students’ personal opinions with mastery of document research. I expected my students to mimic the editorials they had read, but they far surpassed mere mimicry — and wrote original, powerful editorials.

Editorial Excerpts

“Ramadaan is very important to my culture…We all count on each other and help us get through the days of fasting. We stay long nights in the masjid (mosque), taking turns bringing food/snacks for everyone there. We gather in late nights and early mornings to eat together. We stay all night praying to our lord. One of the conditions to pray is literally to stand heel to heel, and shoulder to shoulder. This completely goes against the guidelines of social distancing…If we don’t stay in the house and pay attention to the problem at hand, we will forever have this problem. I am very sad to have to be in the house during Ramadaan. It won’t be the same, and we will come out of Ramadaan very much different than any of the previous years.” —Tasneem

“Despite the politics behind the recent mistakes everyone is at fault here. There was a general lack of effort from the American people. I feel like a lot of people expected this to just blow over and there would be no problems from just doing whatever they wanted. Many people in Florida completely ignored the virus warning and still went to beaches and parties. Many of the systems that are required to check for the virus have also been sloppy in keeping track of the coronavirus. Due to the mostly hidden early stages of the virus it was already hard to keep under watch, but since the president is cutting WHO’s (World Health Organization) funding, it’s only going to get harder to track Covid-19.” —Anwar

“It’s hard to be a track runner who’s used to running every single day and working out outside to being forced to have to stay home and do workouts there. But I’ve grown to this problem and actually used this opportunity to grow my body and get stronger instead of looking at this the bad way. Lots of people need to know at this point and time that everyone should be trying to have high morals to give those people on the first line more motivation to keep fighting and wake everyday knowing their making a difference.” —Simon

An Opportunity to Connect

Covid-19 challenged me to change everything I was teaching and how I was teaching at the same moment, and I hope I rose to the challenge. We’re all facing ongoing challenges about how we grade students’ work and progress, and how we simply continue to function as an educational community. But I strongly believe that Covid-19 also presents an opportunity to connect with students of at least high school maturity on the difficult topics and questions that affect their lives and the people around them.

Now, I am teaching the short stories unit I had planned. But there is a whole new normal, and stories are taking on more present and powerful meanings. When I taught “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, our class discussed what’s an appropriate sacrifice to ask of a community for a healthy economy. When we did “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe, all the hands went up after I asked, “Does anyone else feel buried alive?”

Call to Action at #COVIDedu

Educators, I want to know, how have you changed your lessons in the wake of Covid-19? What lessons have you assigned and why? What are your goals, and how have they changed? Are you and your students succeeding, or are the challenges mounting up? What material has taken on new meaning? Let us all share our stories and images on social media with the tag #COVIDedu, and I hope you’ll include @wschooled and @rvltnschool.