Context (noun) - the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.
So what does it mean to contextualize history?
It means looking at and understanding historical context, piecing together major events, themes, and people that distinguish the era or period in which the presented document or text was created. We want our students to look at the issue presented and what shaped it at it's given moment in time.
Historical documents tell us information about the issue and the world in which it lived in.
When teaching our students how to contextualize, we are teaching them to build a well-rounded social context for the document or documents presented to them.
However, students first need to have a general understanding of any issues they are trying to contextualize. Meaning, what did people think about the issue at that particular time?
This means we need to provide our students with documents that provide them with varying viewpoints. We want them to keep in mind how they are similar and how they differ.
"[This] technique, which historians call "intertextual reading," involves reading each document with the others as backdrop, weaving them together to bring to life the world of the past"
When teaching how to contextualize, we want to ask our students to keep the following questions in mind:
When and where was the document created? What events were happening around this issue being presented? Is the issue being discussed social, religious, economic, political or all of the above? What are the motivations behind the issue?
How does the past differ from the present? Where did people live? What rights did they have? Who believed in what?
What was the same? Do you see any similarities in today's world?
How might the circumstances in which the document was created affect its content? Is there a bias?
Where do you stand on the issue presented? Given the context of what we just learned, would you have a different stance back then?
What is the author’s name? What was their position in society?
The following video shows us what contextualization looks like in the classroom.
Some tips for us teachers:
Provide your students appropriate background knowledge about the issue.
Model contextualized thinking to your students.
Have students use a graphic organizer to keep track important information.
Provide students a series of questions to keep in mind while they are reading any documents.
Give your students as many opportunities as possible to use their contextualization skills.
Remember, it is okay to challenge your students misconceptions.
And now... an example of what we would have our students do.