Living History

Processing Today, Together

What’s it like to be a teenager right now? Schools are closed. Programs are cancelled. Students are asked to stay at home and, when they do venture outside, stay six feet apart from others.

A new English 9 unit at John Jay High School, called Living History, is finding a way to help freshmen find balance and meaning in these unsettling times—by taking a deep dive into the experience of living through social distancing and an unprecedented pandemic. 

From the first assignment, in which students were asked to identify the positives of this time as well as the negatives, insights have been personal and profound. “One student wrote that while she felt powerless because of the virus, it brought clarity to the fact that she wanted to be a doctor,” recalls Amanda Urban, an English teacher and co- creator of Living History.

Inspired by The Stories of 9-11

Living History found its inspiration in the annual 9-11 lesson at John Jay High School in which freshman ask a parent, sibling, relative, or neighbor for a memory of September 11, 2001, and share it with the class. The teenagers listen closely—each story illuminates a new aspect of the day they’ve grown up in the shadow of. 

"As the coronavirus was spreading across Italy and the first cases were appearing in the US, I remembered how my Global 9 colleague, Tricia Murphy, reminded me that 9-11 wasn’t always a history lesson,” said Torrisi. “I thought … wouldn’t it be amazing if, in 20 years, when we were teaching students who weren’t even alive in 2020, we had access to student voices who lived through this?”

“Just before schools closed, I was thinking about our next English unit,” said Urban. “We had a choice—to continue the curriculum as is, or to take a new direction.”

The Living History series became a passion project for Urban and Torrisi. Within days, they created an entirely new unit of curriculum that felt engaging, timely and important.

Students’ reflections so far indicate that they do, too.

“It’s crazy.  It’s like we’re living in a history textbook right now,” said freshman Olivia Stabile. “I think the assignments are really cool.  I like being able to gather my thoughts about on what’s going on and focus in on it.”

Living History will be used in all freshmen English classes at John Jay High School and, as Urban and Torrisi share the curriculum with teachers in other districts, it may also be implemented in other schools.