The Spanish Flu versus COVID-19: Critical Thinking Activities for Social Studies

By Christine Boatman

As a social studies teacher, I am always curious about how future historians will view current events. Lately, I’ve found myself particularly interested in how the COVID-19 pandemic will be analyzed by generations to come—and, seeking a precedent that might provide some clues, I’ve found myself drawn to how history remembers the Spanish flu of 1918. This semester, I’ll be using this comparison to help my students contextualize current events by investigating a historical event. Furthermore, the three activities I’ve put together for this purpose will help my students develop their critical thinking skills. We will be investigating stories of individuals impacted by the Spanish flu, exploring primary sources related to the Spanish flu, and, finally, my students will write an account from the perspective of an individual living in 1918, based on these primary sources.  (Please note: it is important to take into account the ages and individual experiences of your students when planning these activities, and to be sensitive to any adverse reactions.)

Hearing the Stories of Individuals Impacted by the Spanish Flu

One of the most powerful ways teachers can make history come alive for students is through sharing with them the stories of individuals who were impacted by historical events.  These stories allow students to see history through the eyes of an individual that they can empathize with.

The University of Michigan created a fantastic archive titled Influenza Encyclopedia. In this archive, they compiled stories of individuals from all over the United States who lived in 1918 and were impacted by the Spanish Flu. These stories include a doctor who describes the hardships of overcrowded hospitals, a crewman on an oil tanker who describes life on a ship inundated by Spanish flu, and a schoolteacher who describes school shutdowns. All these stories are easy to locate on the website, and they are categorized by city and by subject.

As a teacher, you could ask students to look at how the Spanish flu impacted specific individuals, either from the city where your school is located or from around the United States.  The research completed by students could lead to a Socratic Seminar, a group discussion, or a student reflection.  Possible questions to ask students include:

•             What new perspectives did you gain from reading the stories of individuals impacted by the Spanish flu pandemic?

•             What are some of the hardships that people faced during the Spanish flu pandemic?

•             How were individuals from a variety of walks of life impacted by the Spanish flu?  Were some individuals impacted more than others?  Why?

Exploration of Primary Sources of the Spanish Flu

Exploring primary sources is valuable. Primary source exploration allows students to interpret historical events through documents that provide a contemporaneous view.

The National Archives put together a fantastic set of primary source documents and photographs from the Spanish flu pandemic. This collection is titled The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918. These documents and photographs show examples of how people’s daily lives were impacted by the Spanish flu.

There are many interesting photographs, documents, and artifacts that students can explore in this archive. This archive presents a wonderful opportunity for students to pick a couple of the images that they find most compelling and complete a primary source photo analysis. Once your students have carefully examined everything in the photograph (including the foreground, background, people, objects, and actions), you can then ask them to think critically about what they noticed. You might ask questions like:

•             What do you think is happening in this photograph, and why?

•             Does the caption below the photograph give you any hints as to what is happening in this photograph?

•             What does this photograph teach us about the lives of people who lived during the Spanish flu?

•             What three inferences can you make based on this photograph?

•             After looking at this photograph, what are three things you are still wondering about?

•             Based on this photograph, what comparisons might you draw between the Spanish flu pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic?

Writing from the Perspective of 1918

After exploring stories and primary sources from the Spanish flu, students can put their research to use by writing from the perspective of someone living in 1918. Ask your students to choose an individual from their favorite photograph from the archives and write an account from that person’s perspective. The stories your students have read can serve as a reference for this task. This activity can be a great starting point for a conversation about what we can learn from the Spanish flu pandemic and how this can be applied to our current national and/or global situation.


Christine Boatman is a middle school social studies teacher at Estacada Middle School in the small town of Estacada, Oregon. She is passionate about problem-based learning and promoting critical thinking in her classroom. Boatman regularly presents at conferences, including the Oregon Council for the Social Studies and Oregon GeoFest, and recently she gave a keynote speech at the Gates Foundation ECET2 conference. When Boatman is not busy in her classroom, she loves hiking with her husband, Daniel, and dog, Riley.

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