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Backstories + New Learning

One of the challenges to creating a unit chronicling our time of living through this historic pandemic was that we were already 4 weeks in. The big “reveal” if you would of e-learning, plans changing, and emotions high had already happened. We knew that what we all experienced prior to the beginning of the unit was important, but we also knew that we wanted to focus on the now and the what happens next. It was with this thinking that we came up with the idea of having students tell their “backstory” through an emotional timeline.

Backstories are often presented as prologues in the books students are reading and so we began there to gain buy-in and stress the importance of the work they would be doing.  I’ve used emotional timelines quite a bit in the past for students to analyze character change over time, identify defining moments in characters’ lives, as well as to identify and discuss theme. Students in my class were familiar with them and so we thought this could be a great entry point. After meeting with our amazing counselors, we decided to have students scale their emotions from when we first went on Chinese New Year break (Jan 22nd) until our current time (March 5th). We began with this question:

  • “How can we share and record our experiences of living through a historically relevant time period?”

We divided out our time into sections that were meaningful in some way to our shared experience: Jan 22nd (CNY Break)- Jan 26th (e-learning), then Jan 27th-March 1st (the date we began the emotional timeline), finally March 2nd-March 6th (when timelines were due). The final draft would end our journey into our backstories and bring us to current day.

To kick this off, I teamed up with our amazing teacher-librarian, Jessica Levitt. We met via Zoom as we were in two separate countries-each with 2 kids of our own to be caring for as well. I found these meetings to be helpful, not only for planning purposes, but also for my own mental health. Being quarantined and not seeing anyone has been the hardest part of this whole time. Jess was amazing and so supportive as she listened to my frustrations as we worked through, not only how we would teach these lessons together, but also my personal emotional state. (Side note: it is beyond important to have people you can trust and reach out to during this time!)

We began with having students plot their emotions using a 10 pt scale: 1 being horrible, terrible, no good to 10 being Amazing!

And providing examples of our own to help students gain an idea of how we were doing at first as well. We were encouraging students to use whatever they were most comfortable with: digital or analogue.


As we continued, each day provided a new focus. We had the students go back and use resources available such as: China Daily, Newsbank, CNN, etc to look up what was happening in the news during that time period of their emotional timeline. Students identified articles, cited them, and identified central idea. All were added onto their timeline to create a mix of narrative and nonfiction.

For each section added, students continued to look for articles to shed light on what was happening globally, as they shared their emotional timelines. We created lessons around naming emotions and had those added as well. At one point, I realized how I was choosing to share my timeline was not going to work long-term and so I made an adjustment. Every step of the way, the G6 humanities team shared their work and thinking with the students.

created with Visme

The final products included: articles cited with central idea, plotted moments with brief description, and clearly identified emotions. It was a mixed bag whether students went digital or analogue but every single emotional timeline submitted was telling. It painted an amazing picture of how our students were feeling along the way and what their backstory was comprised of. Frustrations I previously had with students who weren’t submitting work or were not communicating regularly were eased after viewing what life had been like for them over the past few weeks. Not only were the students creating a primary source of living through this time, but they were also offering us a glimpse into how they were doing emotionally. Feedback to students became more about making sure they were okay than the quality of the work they submitted. This week’s learning was not just on the students’ end, but also on mine. My thinking shifted and as a result, I hope I have become better for my students as well. It was also helpful for me to see that others are struggling and having extreme lows. I suppose I know that, I’ve heard it enough times, but it does take on a different power when you see it 40xs over from 11 year olds who are so open and honest. With openness and honesty comes vulnerability and as such, I did ask permission to share the examples below.




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