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Opinion: Teaching history in a historic moment

A Denver East High School teacher wonders what student yearbooks will tell future generations about the coronavirus and social justice movements

“Is this a yearbook?!” the student called out as she pulled down the large booklet that was casually propped on top of the collection of embossed, leather-bound books that dated back to the early 1900s.

Inside East High School’s museum, my students were perusing one of the school’s glass display cases, and trying to discover subtle details about the lives of the students who had walked the same halls before them. 

“It’s held together with string!” the student exclaimed. 

Advising her to check the year, I smiled and explained that there was likely a good reason that this one was different. On the side of a hand-drawn P51 Mustang fighter plane was the year: 1943.

Matthew Fulford

As she paged through, she thought that the short collection was more reminiscent of a scrapbook than a yearbook. Yet this historic grouping of pen drawings and black and white photographs contains more than the limited pages would suggest.

Together we guessed that the yearbook team likely had no real budget that year, or that the idea of spending money on mementos may have seemed crass amid the war effort.

Perhaps the yearbook’s abridged format also shows that many of the typical student events did not take place that year. “Did they still have prom during the war?” students asked. I confessed that I had no idea. 

As I begin the most unusual semester of my career, I am reminded of this very normal moment from just one year ago. As a historian, my students also remind me of the importance of understanding context and finding meaning in what has happened. 

Our inferences about the 1943 yearbook have now developed a sense of significance that did not exist at the time. The context has shifted. While my students are fortunate not to be anticipating a graduation followed by active military service as many young men were in 1943, they’re experiencing their own moment of interruption — one similarly defined by yearbook pages that weren’t.

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As we start the school year remotely amid a pandemic, my students predict missing out on several rites of passage and the social world they depend on. Also absent are many of the connections they need with their teachers. 

Teachers are currently mourning this absence. Distracting ourselves with hours of professional learning, we show genuine excitement at new online tools that allow us to mimic some level of connection with students.

There is a Google Chrome extension that actually allows us to make breakout groups in Google Meet! It takes attendance, too? Cool! In my case, the enthusiasm is real when it eases the discomfort I feel about being unable to truly build strong relationships with new students.

When I show them the PDF I hastily made of the 1943 yearbook, will I still hear a sense of excitement in a student’s voice as they realize its significance? Teachers tend to file those brief-yet-electrifying moments into a “why I do this” collection in our brains. I just hope I can continue to fill up that folder as I video chat with my students.

Yet, as with the 1943 yearbook, it’s worth taking note of absence, as well as presence. Historians discuss “voices” and “silences” in historical sources, and I’m endlessly intrigued by the silences.

“What does it tell us that this is the only yearbook we have seen without a single page depicting a school dance?” I asked students, not knowing that their own prom was weeks away from being canceled. While many of us view 2020 as a year defined by omission, these silences will tell their own tales to future generations. 

Demanding social justice and craving social connection, our students have recently contributed to the history of East by assembling six-feet apart amid the pandemic to march in protest of the police killing of George Floyd.

They painted the words “Black Lives Matter” on a wall facing 17th Avenue, and returned to redo the work after vandals painted it over. In 2020’s yearbook, sad photographs of empty athletic fields fill the pages originally reserved for spring sports.

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Our new yearbook team will likewise puzzle over how to portray a fall semester lacking its typical concerts, plays, speech and debate tournaments, or pep rallies.

While they continue to miss out on so much, photographs of masked students assembling for the cause of racial justice could find their place in the school’s museum, ready to resonate with future students curious about the meaning of the masks, the signs, the space between students, the lack of prom photographs.


Matthew Fulford is a social studies teacher at Denver East High School. He has taught in Denver Public Schools since 2010. @Matthew_Fulford


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