South Orangetown Central School District

“When we first started doing virtual learning, I thought about how I wished my grandfather had kept a diary because he was 18 years old and lived in Kilkenny , Ireland, a town that was hit particularly hard by the 1918 influenza pandemic and I never heard any stories about it. He never spoke about it, and my father passed away a few years ago so I had no one to ask,” recalls seventh-grade ELA teacher Colleen Henry. “Then I thought of other times in history, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, when my students used journal writing as a way to process what was happening around them. For this project, we used the Wisconsin Historical Society Journaling Project as a source of inspiration. Students were surprised Civil War soldiers were asked to keep journals and how documenting history is important because these personal stories will describe what the world was like during the pandemic 50- 100 years from now, when people are really curious.”

To excite and engage her writers, Henry is also incorporating the “Write. Right. Rite.” video series hosted by Jason Reynolds, the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. “Jason Reynolds instinctively knows what writing prompts will work with this age group! This week they are pretending they wrote to their hero and they have to write what they think their hero is writing to them. By writing about contemporary heroes they are creating primary sources for those who will research this time in history,” she says.

Henry adds that whenever journal prompts are posted, students rush to do them before any other assignments. “Because these writing prompts are authentic, students are finding their voice. Students told me they wait for me to post the blog topics and they find it’s a way to express how they are feeling during this time,” she notes. “I compiled lines from their blogs and compiled it as a poem and gifted it to them. They were stunned how they were all thinking and missing the same things.”

One of those students, Isabella M., volunteered to share her thoughts: “This journaling project has been an incredible outlet of creativity during these times. I feel so fortunate that we are doing this, and I wish every student was given the opportunity to write these blogs. One thing I truly enjoy about this project, is that through these blogs, students and teachers get to keep updated on things beyond schoolwork. These blogs allow communication that would normally occur in a classroom, to happen outside of school. It is important to keep in contact with your teachers and fellow classmates during these times, because it is easy to feel trapped and isolated, especially right now.

“Another thing I really like about this journaling project, is that I feel as though I’m growing as a writer and expanding my skills. An example of this, is that in some of these blogs, students are pushed to write outside of their comfort zones, such as Blog #7: Haiku and Blog #4: Spine Poetry. These blogs in particular, push us to try new writing techniques that we may not have experienced writing yet. Along with these blogs, we are also assigned more casual blogs, that are, in my opinion, the most enjoyable to write such as Blog #5: What Do You Miss? In this blog, we got to write about what we miss while being stuck at home instead of school, which was something I had wanted to write about since the first day of this break. That blog was a way to get my feelings out and to share my thoughts with my teacher.

“Aside from all these perks of journaling i’ve already mentioned, I believe the most beneficial thing students will get out of this project, is the fact that we’re documenting history. Our world is looking like a scary place right now, but I know that one day when the streets are busy, the classrooms are filled, and the world has gone back to how we knew, we can look back upon our journals and share those documentations with the future kids. And maybe, these journals will help someone else, in the way they’re helping me, because in times like these we can only do two things. Keep writing, and hold onto hope!”

Student Isabella M. and teacher Colleen Henry