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Bath, ME (December 14, 2020) – Eighth grade students in Tanya Pomerleau’s English Language Arts class had to do some detective work to find out the topic of their new unit. The students were presented with an antique suitcase filled with artifacts from an earlier time: necklaces, a poem, and, most strikingly, a porcelain doll with yellow skin. Using these clues, they were able to guess the theme: the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.
Pomerleau says the unit (or “expedition” as these cross-disciplinary case studies are called at Bath Middle School) is a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A quote from the book we are readying (Fever 1793) – ‘Will you fold or will you innovate?’ – is still so relevant today. What innovations will come from this current pandemic? What are we learning to do better? What are we learning about each other?”
Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson, describes the arrival of the disease in Philadelphia at a time when very little was understood about its transmission or how to cure it. This week, students were asked whether, given the chance, they would go back in time with the yellow fever vaccine to stop the epidemic before it spread. Some students said they would, even if it was only to tell people that the disease was spread by mosquitos, not human contact. Others said they wouldn’t, because vaccines were not yet invented and would be a source of fear and distrust.
This week, Pomerleau assigned each student with a different identity: doctor, entomologist, or historian. Before their next class, students will brainstorm items that they could bring back in time with them to the people of 1793 to help them better understand the epidemic.
All of this, Pomerleau described, is done while drawing careful parallels between the world of 1793 and the pandemic of today to explore how disease affects culture and community. For example, student Riley Walters noticed that people, in both cases, fled urban centers for the countryside in search of safety.
“We are using this case study to gather information and bits of knowledge to create a parallel to guide us as we overcome the challenges of our current pandemic,” she said. “I want the kids to understand that society has dealt with this before and that we will get through it. We can do hard things.”
Their epidemiology expedition will end at winter break, but Pomerleau wants her students to carry their learning forward with them as the world continues to navigate the challenges of COVID-19.
“I hope we can give them a sense of how extraordinary this is experience is for our community. I hope they can extrapolate some hope from this unit.”
Photo: ELA Teacher Tanya Pomerleau discusses a reading assignment from Fever 1793