Monday, March 13, 2017

Outbreak! Teaching Yellow Fever and a Zombie Apocalypse in the Classroom

Part of our 7th grade American history curriculum includes the examination of the three colonial regions, New England, Middle, and Southern.  This year in History Lab!, we satisfied the standard by focusing on one particular element/event/invention/etc. of each region.  In New England, we analyzed the First Great Awakening and how puritanism shaped the region's culture.  In the Southern colonies, we investigated life on a tobacco plantation and how the region's trade connection to England impacted the direction of the colonies within the region.  In the Middle region, however, we steered away from grain and focused on a defining event in 1793 Philadelphia, a Yellow Fever outbreak.

We chose to investigate the outbreak of Yellow Fever for three reasons:

1. We could create an interdisciplinary unit with ELA by utilizing the book, Fever, 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson
2. Two of the major elements we decided to explore in History Lab! this year are virology and epidemiology.
3. Yellow Fever lends itself to zombie comparisons.

Now, I'm not normally a fan of shtick within education, but I am a fan of movie monsters and of connecting with kids on a level they understand.  The Walking Dead fans were ecstatic, let me tell you.

How can I seriously make a connection between the fever in 1793 Philly and zombies?

Let's break it down:


  • Discoloration of the skin
  • Blood around the mouth
  • Disorientation
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Usually holed up in groups
  • Blood-borne transmission 

Yellow Fever Victim
  • Discoloration of the skin (jaundice)
  • Blood around the mouth
  • Disorientation
  • Cold, clammy skin with fever
  • Usually confined together in crowded wards
  • Blood-borne transmission (mosquitoes)

How did we approach the unit?
I worked with our ELA teacher to create a rubric for a research paper over the colonial regions, which students completed during ELA.  It was graded for mechanics as well as historical content.  Upon completion, she began Fever, 1793 with the students and based much of her direction on free resources found online (here, here, and here).

For the history component of History Lab!, students analyzed a variety of primary sources to get an idea of what Philadelphia was like in the 1790's by viewing a presentation online with accompanying questions.  They then investigated treatments prescribed by Benjamin Rush through an engaging lesson plan from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  We explored treatments and success rates, proposing and testing hypotheses of the cause of Yellow Fever throughout our investigation.  Finally, we looked at outbreaks of Yellow Fever in the 19th and 20th centuries and answered accompanying questions.

The STEM component of History Lab! kicked off with my co-teacher giving students high-fives as they entered the room.  They then had to high-five several other people.  What they didn't know was the teacher had a transmittable chemical on her hand that was only visible under UV light.  She used this as a way to show how disease can spread and help pinpoint who carried the disease to who.  The kids then built on that knowledge by testing their new detective skills on a Zombie outbreak at a fair.  We brought in Dr. John Snow's mapping of cholera in London to test them one more time.

This was the first time History Lab! partnered with another class, but it won't be the last.  There were a lot of moving parts and it took an open mind, but it was rewarding.  We have big plans for next year and plan on expanding the unit beyond History Lab! and ELA to include science, FACS, math, and art.

I would be happy to share more information about our little experiment with anyone interested and I want to encourage you to take a chance.

Think of a unit you currently teach that could cross disciplines, find a teacher in your building willing to join you, and build something that will allow the staff and students to dig deeper into an issue, topic, or event.  
Keep education weird,

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