Kevin Mitchell Mercer is an adjunct history professor at the University of Central Florida who is now teaching two classes of “U.S. History 1877 to Present.” He has made it a practice to ask his students to select an artifact about their lives as college students that would explain who they are in the future — and now, during the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down most public life across the country, he has decided to adapt the assignment to the times.

“With covid-19 changing everything for us, I thought this would be a good way to process this experience,” he said.

So he asked them, for extra credit, to select one artifact that a historian 100 years from now could use in an exhibit, and he tweeted about it, saying that the responses were “moving and heartbreaking.” Many students suggested things that are “unfinished,” such as half-empty course notebooks.

“Collectively they show young lives in disruption,” he wrote in another tweet. “I can tell them this will be generationally defining for them, and they can nod in agreement over Zoom, but that realization is still years off. If you have students, just be kind to them right now.”

His initial tweet garnered more than 2,000 retweets, prompting a revealing Twitter conversation among history teachers in K-12 and higher education about this moment and how to capture it for students in class. Below are some of the tweets in that conversation.

Mercer said that he had to make a fast transition in March from in-class learning to online, and it has not been easy — especially for his students.

“I feel like so much of what I do is plant seeds early in the semester with themes and critical thinking skills that we develop over time. A succession of ‘aha!’ moments that are planted in the curriculum,” he said. “Moving online has left those moments unreachable for the most part, and I’m just trying to get my students to the end as best I can.

“Another assignment I gave earlier was to ask how they are engaging with the class, and I heard so many heartbreaking stories about students who are working in hospitals, restaurants and grocery stores and balancing school. A lot of students having to move back home across country.

“One student’s mom is a health-care worker in the Northeast and she came to Florida on her day off to move her daughter only to go back to work,” he said. “So yeah, it has been really tough for them."

This is what he said in the tweet: “I asked my students (for extra credit) to select one covid-19 artifact that they would suggest to a historian 100 years from now for an exhibit. The results are moving and heartbreaking. The only rule was they couldn’t say anything medical since that would be easy (masks etc).”

And here is part of the conversation he had with other teachers: