A writing prompt on epidemics in history

Today’s writing prompt could be used in social studies, science, or English classes. It requires some rather superficial research to show students that pandemics are not some misery deliberately inflicted on them. Their research will undoubtedly show that people don’t change much: the way politicians responded to an epidemic a few centuries ago is basically how they responded this year.

graphic representation of a coronavirus
Now-familiar imagery representing the Covid 19 virus.

Background for teachers

America’s earliest explorers brought diseases with them, which wiped out large numbers of native peoples. The smallpox epidemic of 1721, which came to Boston via infected seamen, played an important role in preparing the way for the American Revolution. And during the Revolution, North America’s first continental smallpox epidemic killed more than five times as many Americans as the war did. Casualties would have been even higher except that in 1777 George Washington ordered American soldiers to inoculated—a highly controversial move for the time.

Writing prompt background for students

As you’re well aware, we are in the midst of a pandemic. You may feel that what you’re going through is a totally unique experience. Actually, epidemics are not unusual. There have been epidemics throughout history.

Students’ assignment

Identify an earlier pandemic/epidemic to compare with the Covid 19 epidemic. Compare and/or contrast the response of government to that contagion to the response of government to the Covid 19 epidemic.
Based on your analysis, write an informative/explanatory text in which you explain how the earlier government’s response to its epidemic was better/as good/worse than America’s to Covid 19

Format your text for reading as a digital document, using hyperlinks to resources you cite. Please keep your text to under [650] words. Deadline for submission is [date, time].

Suggestions for success

It will probably be easiest to limit your analysis to one geographic area even if the governmental entity in charge at the time of the earlier epidemic may have been superseded by another government since them. Geography has a significant impact on the spread of contagions and geography doesn’t change quickly.

Depending on your interests, you might investigate similarities/differences with regard to such things as:

  • The initial reaction by government
  • Who/what did government initially blame
  • Whether the source identified by government was the actual source
  • Did the populace trust the government’s story
  • Actions taken by government to halt the contagion. Were they appropriate?effective? Why/why not?
  • Duration of the epidemic
  • Death figures, esp. as % of population

NOTE: You are not limited to choosing from those comparison points.

You could use this fill-in-the-blanks format to help you formulate a working thesis and writing skeleton™:

The government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time].

  • I know that the government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time] because [reason you know #1].
  • I know that the government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time] because [reason you know #2].
  • I know that the government[s] of [Place] in [year] has done [better/as well/worse] at responding to the Covid 19 epidemic compared to how the government[s] of [Place] in [date] did at responding to the [type of epidemic] at [time] because [reason you know #3].

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Writing prompt: Does health-care history repeat itself?

Today’s formal writing prompt is for use with teens and adults in social studies, history, political science, communications, and medical courses. It asks students to draw comparisons between the crisis Florence Nightingale confronted and the Covid-19 crisis in their own lives.

Photos of US Covid response plan and Florence NightingaleBackground for this writing prompt

In his 1918 book Eminent Victorians, the only woman author Lytton Strachey profiles is Florence Nightingale, whose 200th birthday was celebrated on May 12 this month. Nightingale won fame as a nurse during the Crimean War, 1853-56, which began as squabbling over the rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The war was fought in Ottoman Empire territory on the Crimean Peninsula, which is almost surrounded by the Black Sea. The United Kingdom, France and Sardinia joined the Ottomans against Russia, which was ostensibly fighting for the rights of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land.

Here’s what Strachey says about the terrible conditions Nightingale encountered in the British military hospitals near the front:

What had occurred was, in brief, the complete break-down of our medical arrangements at the seat of war. The origins of this awful failure were complex and manifold; they stretched back through long years of peace and carelessness in England… In the inquiries which followed, it was clearly shown that the evil was in reality that worst of all evils—one which has been caused by nothing in particular and for which no one in particular is to blame. The whole organization of the war machine was incompetent.… Errors, follies, and vices on the part of individuals there doubtless were; but, in the general reckoning, they were of small account—insignificant symptoms of the deep disease of the body politic—the enormous calamity of administrative collapse.

Students’ writing prompt

In an informative/explanatory text, defend one of these two positions:

  • America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events.
  • America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events.

Format your text as a digital document. Please keep your text to under 750 words. Your deadline for this assignment is [date].

Suggestions to students for getting started

To respond appropriately to this assignment, read Strachey’s entire section on Nightingale in the Crimea looking specifically for conditions she found in the Crimean hospitals that were known to have caused problems elsewhere. (You can read it free at Bartleby.com) This reading will help you identify conditions that might also be factors in the Covid-19 response.

But before you do any research into why the response to Covid-19 was feeble, prepare a writing skeleton™ like one of these with placeholders for points you need to make. This trick saves a lot of time. If you’re research shows your original position is not well-supported, all you need to is argue for the opposite position: You’ll already have evidence for it.

If your initial response is that America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events, your writing skeleton would look something like this:

  1. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events because [first factor’s contributing to crisis] could not have been anticipated.
  2. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events because [second factor’s contributing to crisis] could not have been anticipated.
  3. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows the impossibility of preparing for unforeseeable events because [third factor’s contributing to crisis] could not have been anticipated.

If your initial response is unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events, your writing skeleton would look something like this:

  1. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events because [first factor’s contribution to crisis] was predicted by experts.
  2. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events because [second factor’s contribution to crisis] was predicted by experts.
  3. America’s unpreparedness for the pandemic shows political leaders’ failure to prepare for inevitable events because [third factor’s contribution to crisis] was predicted by experts.

Suggestions for success

Your evidence must come from reputable news sources.  If you don’t have access to a reliable national news outlet, try one of these national news organizations that are giving their resources at deep discounts to help people weather the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Chicago Tribune has a Memorial Day sale going on now. It is selling two months’ online access for $1 through Monday, June 1, but I discovered if you appear to be leaving without buying, they sweeten the deal to three months online for $1. After your come-on rate expires, the regular charge will go to $1.99/week billed every four  weeks, but you can cancel any time.

The Los Angeles Times is selling four weeks of online access for $1.

The Boston Globe is selling 4 weeks’ online delivery for 99 cents.

The New York Times is offering all its content online for $1 a week for a year. It bills subscribers $4 every 4 weeks, but you can cancel any time.

The Washington Post slashed the cost of a daily all-access digital subscription to $29 a year. (Premium Digital is $39 a year.)  Its Coronavirus Updates Newsletter is free.

If you prefer to listen to news, try the free National Public Radio news feed. (Transcripts of many of their items are available.)

Or watch PBS News Hour  (Transcripts of many of their items are available.)


Note to teachers

Teachers are welcome to use this prompt with their students providing they display the copyright notice. If you use this prompt, please drop me a note about how well it worked, or what went wrong. Thanks.

The final Friday of each month, I plan to post here at PUSHwriting, formal writing prompts for teachers of teens and adults in courses other than English language arts. Watch for them.

Graphic sources

U.S. Government COVID-19 Response Plan, March_13,_2020 Public domain

Florence Nightingale by Henry Hering (1814-1893) – National Portrait Gallery, London, Public Domain,

2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Lesson resources & essay contest

The Bill of Rights Institute makes lesson plans, activities and sample student essays available on its website for teachers to use in engaging students in discussions of civic values.  The materials can be useful for both English and social studies teachers and their students.

The Institute annually sponsors the nation’s largest high school essay contest. The Institute’s website says an announcement about this year’s contest will come out Wednesday, Aug. 31.

You can find a link to the Institute’s scholarship contest on its website’s programs and events menu.

Homework: Folly or missed focus?

In a blog post today, David Brooks,  op-ed columnist at The  New York Times, gives a brief overview of a forthcoming study in the Economics of Education Review that seems to suggest more homework has no value for students in any subject but math.

The study entitled “Are we wasting our children’s time by giving them more homework?” is certain to be taken out of context, with the result that babies will be washed out with the bathwater like farms below the Morganza Spillway.

Economists Ozkan Eren and Daniel J. Henderson took a representative sample of US eight graders and correlated the amount of homework they were assigned in math, science, English, and social studies with their test scores in those subjects.  (Note that homework assigned does not mean homework done.)

The full study is worth reading. It is only 31 pages and a third is bibliography and appendices. If statistics make your eyes glaze over, you can skip the paragraphs with the Greek terms.

The researchers took great care to rule out all sorts of factors that might impact their results, including such things as:

  • Student characteristics, such as race, gender, and family’s socioeconomic status.
  • Teacher characteristics, such as race and gender as well as graduate degree and state certification status.
  • Class characteristics, including class size, number of limited English proficiency students, number of hours the class met weekly, the amount of time the teacher spent administering tests and quizzes.
  • Teacher evaluation of the overall class level, how much of the text the teacher covered, number of hours the teacher spent each week maintaining discipline.

The researchers apparently did not attempt to determine whether the homework activities and the test items covered the same ground.  I suspect that the reason the math homework had a positive correlation with test scores was that the math homework questions and the math test questions were very similar.

I doubt very much that homework in science, English, and social studies would correlate well with questions on the test used in the study. American education has standardized tests that are taken nationwide, but no standard curriculum that guides study nationwide. The lack of standard curriculum is less obvious in math than in science, history, and English. Without agreement on, for example, social studies topics that all eight graders should study, the likelihood of social studies homework boosting test scores strikes me as pretty remote.

Moreover, science, history, and English focus (or should focus) at least as much on the thinking processes used in those disciplines as on specific facts.  Those processes do not produce right answers in the same way that solving an algebraic equation produces right answers.

Homework in science, history, or English may be directed toward having students discover multiple options rather than toward one right answer. We tend to regard solving the math problem as mathematical thinking, but real mathematical thinking is as likely to result in several possible solutions as to find one “right” one.

Giving homework in which students develop a hypothesis to test empirically or having students write an essay about American history may be more important in the long run than giving homework on material that is more easily tested by blacken-the-bubble methods.

[11-27-2012 updated Eren-Henderson link]

Serious academic writing in middle school social studies

A couple years ago, Glenn Wiebe shared on his History Tech blog information from a conference presentation that I tucked away to follow up sometime.

Leslie Duhaylongsod, who at the time was teaching at the Winsor School in Boston, shared at the 2008 National Council for the Social Studies how she uses what she called argument writing with middle school students in her history classes. I’m not sure her students incorporated the refutation element that marks argument, but they clearly used thesis-and-support.

Duhaylongsod had students develop nonfiction thesis statements, find evidence for them, and explain how their evidence supports their thesis. From a writing teachers standpoint, it is useful to look at some thesis statements she shared at the conference:

  • The geography of Greece was an advantage of Ancient Greece.
  • The geography of Greece negatively impacted the lives of the Ancient Greeks.
  • Geography led to development of democracy.
  • Geography of Greece helped the ancient Greeks become powerful.

Wiebe reported that Duhaylongsod said the most difficult part of the work for her students was developing patience to deal with the frustration of writing on intellectually challenging topics.

Those of us who teach writing rather than history can learn from Duhaylongsod’s efforts. She  required serious intellectual work from middle school students. Granted, she taughts at a private school and didn’t have the hodgepodge of students that populate public school classrooms. However, that doesn’t mean the public school teachers shouldn’t be pushing their students for learning adequate only for blackening bubbles on multiple choice tests.

Also, instead of letting them choose any topic that interested them, Duhaylongsod required students to choose topics within her discipline. That kind of authentic writing rarely happens in the English classroom at any level from middle school through associate degree except for writing assignments about literature.

I believe Duhaylongsod is now in an education doctoral program at Harvard University. She has been presenting at various conferences this spring (NARST, AERA) on a team lead by Harvard Associate Professor of Education Tina Grotzer. The researchers are investigating how how children reason about the nature of causality.

Wiebe is a member of the Curriculum Development Team of ESSDACK (the Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central Kansas).

[Broken links removed 2/26/2014; updated link 2/03/2016]