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.)

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Social Studies: Reading to Foster Perspective-Taking

Perspective-taking is especially important as teachers and students think more deeply about the meaning of equity—how we might achieve it, and what might be standing in the way of social justice and fairness to all. Students must learn to pose essential questions: Who makes decisions and who is left out? Who benefits and who is left out? Who suffers? Why is a given practice fair or unfair?

There are many books available for teaching the importance of perspective-taking so students can begin to think about equity and respond to questions such as these. Some are light and humorous, like The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A. Wolf. Others are more thought-provoking, and explore personal issues such as bullying or sensing what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes. There are other books that examine historical events from perspectives that are different from the commonly held view. For social emotional learning, I have selected stories of a more serious nature, listed below, though each is intriguing in its own way.

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Social Studies: Integrating Social and Emotional Learning

Teachers have always known that they have a duty to teach students, not just content. Most of the skills taught beyond the core curriculum fit under the umbrella of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). CASEL identifies five competencies of SEL: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making. While all of these competencies should be practiced in the social studies classroom, I want to focus on two: 

Social Awareness

  • Perspective-taking
  • Empathy
  • Appreciating diversity
  • Respect for others 

Responsible Decision-Making

  • Identifying problems
  • Analyzing situations
  • Solving problems
  • Evaluating
  • Reflecting
  • Ethical Responsibility 
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Social Studies: Four Big Questions to Connect Then and Now

For many students, studying history can feel like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle has been dumped on their desk. How do they even begin to sort it out, much less make sense of a jumble of discreet events in the hopes of ever glimpsing the big picture?

Likewise, current events can seem like a carousel of unconnected facts, experiences, and impressions leaving them with a vague sense of déjà vu. This is particularly true as news cycles accelerate, volume goes up and it’s difficult to decipher what’s happening amidst the noise.

Faced with the challenge of wrapping their brains around what’s occurred in the past and connecting it to the history that’s being written right under their noses, can you blame kids if they’re tempted to throw up their hands and say, “Humans! Who knows what they’ll do next?”

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Social Studies: Teaching about Elections

How to teach politics without getting too political

The tricky thing about teaching politics to any grade level of students is leaving your own politics out of it. I always knew I had taught a successful unit if by the end, students still did not know which way I leaned politically. I have had colleagues who make it very clear which way they lean, even going so far as to have bumper stickers or signage touting specific candidates hanging in their classroom. This always bothered me because although I think teachers are responsible for influencing our students to be learners, there are certain topics we have no business influencing. I subscribe to the Linus theory:

“I’ve learned there are three things you don’t discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

Linus Van Pelt (Charles Schultz)
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