Easing Student Anxiety: A Lesson on the History of Epidemics, Pandemics and Vaccines

Posted by Erez Zobary on November 24, 2020

Why a Lesson on the History of Epidemics, Pandemics and Vaccines?: A Response to Hopes and Fears

As a new teacher, hearing I was going to teach the first few weeks of grade 12 World History (CHY4U) was both exciting and terrifying. I had no intention of bringing in the history of epidemics, pandemics and vaccinations into my classroom until after the first day of school when I asked my students to share their hopes and fears for back-to-school and the course. Starting my course with hopes and fears was particularly important this year as I recognized that before engaging in curricular content, students may need to share their experiences and feelings regarding back-to-school. This important opening routine helps me build genuine relationships with my students grounded in trust, honesty and care at the forefront.   

The fears they expressed gave me an indication of the kind of support I would need to offer to make the classroom an intentional space for students to learn. Many of the fears they expressed were of the unknown:

  • What will happen next? 
  • Do we as a society have the tools to survive this? 
  • Will things ever go back to normal?
  • How do we navigate these unprecedented times?


When I read their responses I felt a responsibility to facilitate a lesson that would bridge academic and curricular learning with meeting students’ emotional and psychological needs.  I crafted a lesson on the history of past epidemics and pandemics with a focus on how humans worked to overcome these moments. My intention was to help ease some of the anxiety my students were facing during these difficult times, and I turned to history to help give me some guidance. The lesson connected perfectly to our course question: How did we get here?


I was worried about bringing in this difficult history and therefore I was cognizant of my framing and of my focus. This was my framing at the beginning of my lesson and clearly outlines what my hopes for the lesson were:

Pandemics and epidemics have existed in history. Knowing that they exist does not take away from the pain, frustration and devastation of what is currently going on. However, by looking at the history of epidemics/pandemics and vaccines I’m hoping it brings us some hope as we see that:

  • Humans have been and still are resilient and have the tools to survive
  • Humanity has been through similar situations and things have gone ‘back to normal’
  • There are designated groups/entities who are skilled, knowledgeable and responsible for both the prevention and treatment of diseases/infections 
  • Technology has advanced and due to past experiences with viruses, we are better equipped than ever before to understand COVID-19, approach prevention and treatment through quarantine and vaccination 

The Lesson

Duration: 1 hour 15 minutes
Format: Online Google Hangout call (this lesson was part of a hybrid class model)

1. Framing & Entering with Care Into the Content (15 minute class-wide discussion)

Before beginning, we discussed as a class that this topic is both highly relevant and also personal to all of us as we live through the pandemic. I told students that if the information they were reading ever became too overwhelming for them, they could ‘tap out’ and send me an email or personal message on our Google Meet as I stayed on the video call monitoring the chat and my email while students were working through the virtual gallery walk independently. It was important to me that students knew I would be there if they needed my support.

After expressing my support, setting my intentions and outlining my hopes for the session, I projected relevant quotes from the New Yorker article “How Pandemics Change History” which is an interview with Historian Frank M. Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. I read them aloud while students followed along and paused for students to raise questions and comments and begin considering how to understand the moment we are in now within a history framework. These are the quotes and questions I used to frame our learning:

How this relates to our course question…

“Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning,” he writes. “On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, it's standard of living, and it's political priorities.”

I chose to begin with this quote because it's about helping students see that what might on the surface feel like a question that would typically sit in a science class, is also a question about society. It is important to learn about and understand the determinants of health like standard of living, wealth distribution, political priorities - which is something that we as individuals can influence (As Facing History likes to say: People make choices, Choices make history).

What we learn during these times…

Epidemics like the coronavirus outbreak are a mirror for humanity, reflecting the moral relationships that people have toward one another,”  

As a class we discussed our answer to the following question: What are moments when you were/were not proud of how Canada/the world is dealing with COVID-19?


Connecting to Historical Thinking Concepts… 

“And I think epidemics have shaped history in part because they’ve led human beings inevitably to think about those big questions. The outbreak of the plague [the Black death (bubonic plague)], for example, raised the whole question of man’s relationship to God. How could it be that an event of this kind could occur with a wise, all-knowing and omniscient divinity? Who would allow children to be tortured, in anguish, in vast numbers? It had an enormous effect on the economy. Bubonic plague killed half the population of full continents and, therefore, had a tremendous effect on the coming of the industrial revolution, on slavery and serfdom. Epidemics also, as we’re seeing now, have tremendous effects on social and political stability. They’ve determined the outcomes of wars... So, I think we can say that there’s not a major area of human life that epidemic diseases haven’t touched profoundly.”

I posted the following questions into the chat to ensure we revisited the historical thinking concepts explored in the previous class and connected the concepts to this quote:
    • Cause & Consequence: Where do we see example(s) of cause and consequence in this quote?
    • Historical Significance: What is the historical significance of this quote? How does it relate to our situation now?
    • Historical Perspective: How does this quote make us consider historical perspective? Which perspectives are present and which may be missing?
    • Continuity & Change: What was the situation like before the plague occurred? What was different afterwards? What were some of the direct causes of the changes as outlined above?


I encouraged students to turn on their cameras and unmute themselves in order to share their responses.

2. Virtual Gallery Walk of the History of Epidemics, Pandemics and a (Very) Brief History of Vaccines VoiceThread (25 minutes of independent work) 

After our class-wide discussion I made the VoiceThread link live for students to look at the images and read the comments on the side. If you have never used VoiceThread I recommend this article to help you navigate the site.  Some students chose to stay on video while others left and returned at the agreed upon set time. I posted the following guiding questions (using Connect, Extend, Challenge) on the Google Classroom and told students to prepare their responses and be ready to share:

  • Connect: How do the ideas and information in this virtual gallery walk connect to what you already know about epidemics/pandemics/vaccines?
  • Extend: How does this virtual gallery walk extend or broaden your thinking about epidemics/pandemics/vaccines?
  • Challenge: Does this virtual gallery walk challenge or complicate your understanding of epidemics/pandemics/vaccines? What new questions does it raise for you?

Screen Shot 2020-11-23 at 9.40.41 PM

3. Class Reflection of Virtual Gallery Walk
( 30 minutes)

When students returned we had a brief conversation about the COVID-19 vaccine candidates, the race to a vaccine and what mass production and distribution might look like. When I facilitated this lesson in early September, we did not have as much information about the vaccine timeline, but I would recommend reading and discussing this article titled “‘Vast majority of Canadians’ could have access to a COVID-19 vaccine by late 2021, says public health deputy chief”. 

Before hearing their classmates respond, I reiterated the importance of active listening and showed them the participation exit card they would submit (see below 4. Exit card). The students had a lot to share and we had a hopeful conversation about human resilience and strength, and continuity and change. We also had an interesting conversation about biological warfare and colonialism. 


4. Exit Card: 3-2-1  (5 minutes)

The exit card  was expected to be submitted that night at 11:59 PM:

3 things that you have learned from your classmates comments, the lesson or from the texts
2 questions that you still have for myself or a classmate
1 aspect of class, conversation or the text that you enjoyed


Following Up After the Lesson

Students had many lingering questions about the content:

  • How did quarantine used to work? Are our quarantine efforts less effective? Why?
  • Is anyone or any place to blame? Is it appropriate or effective to place blame?
  • Will we ever be a pandemic free society or will this threat alway exist no matter what?
  • If technology has become more sophisticated, why do we still rely on vaccines to take years to develop?
  • What was the quickest recovery from a pandemic or epidemic in the past and how can we learn from it for our current situation?
  • In the virtual gallery walk it shows that those who were willing to get vaccines became immune. There is evidence of anti-vaccination fears since its inception in history; how have the fears of vaccination changed or stayed the same? What might this suggest for us today?


Some answers were easy to find while others were not but I did my best to find articles that responded to most of the questions. Before beginning our next session, I projected these questions and also showed students where the articles could be found in our Google Classroom. I felt it was important to provide as many resources as possible and give an opportunity to open the floor for more questions and comments so that students felt this was an ongoing conversation.

Screen Shot 2020-09-22 at 10.20.58 PM-1

We had a particularly long conversation about this idea of putting blame on a person, group, and/or place for originating an epidemic or pandemic. We concluded that placing blame is not a productive way to move forward and ensure both our individual and societal wellbeing. This excerpt on pg. 41 of Holocaust and Human Behaviour which touches on our instinct to separate 'we' from 'they' in times of distress helped me approach that conversation intentionally with students:

“Anthony Appiah, a professor who teaches Afro-American Studies... maintains that the idea of a collective identity is not inherently wrong. He sees a problem only when we begin to assign moral or social rankings to those collective identities. Then, he argues, we must rethink why we divide ourselves into [groups]. How do you explain the continuing acceptance of a meaningless idea? What kind of power do ideas – even mistaken ideas – have to shape the way we see ourselves and others?” 


We left the conversation with a common understanding that we need to separate the decisions and behaviours of those in power and everyday citizens, not just regarding COVID-19 but other world issues as well. History teaches us that group blame is both instinctual and politically manipulated, and we see its consequences throughout history. It is up to all of us to see choices as individual and to also intentionally reject easy answers during times of distress by avoiding group blame.

After two weeks of teaching the class, the school found an LTO to take over my position. During my short time there, I received some beautiful feedback- from a parent telling me that my lessons and approach to history (the FH approach!) were facilitating interesting dinner conversations and also from a student who told me they are now considering studying history in university. It was stressful to take on a class during a global pandemic, but I am so happy I took on the challenge as I left feeling very fulfilled thanks to the community we built together as a class. 

Do you want to learn more about how challenging times have been met with division, conflict and coming together in history?


Topics: facing history pedagogy, pandemic, world history, COVID-19


This is where Canadian Facing History and Ourselves teachers and community members meet to share reflections, scholarship and teaching practices that will inspire, challenge and improve teaching and student learning. Our stories provide a window into diverse Facing History classrooms in Canada, and invite you into the discussion.

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