Understanding why events happen can be challenging for kids and adults alike. Historical context is the key to shedding light on why situations arise. This context allows us to dig deeper into the meaning of what happens in our world. It can be a challenge to teach the significance of historical context.
My sixth graders are in the beginning phases of a research project loosely based on the History Day theme this year: Taking a Stand in History.
I love this theme. When I first began discussing the project, kids became excited because they thought they were going to do another biography, just like in fifth grade. But I assured them that our focus is on the stand that the person took and what motivated the person to act, not the chronological events of their life.
This confused them. Understanding motivation is far more complex than just writing biographical facts.
Most sixth graders know about Rosa Parks and the stand she took by remaining seated on the bus that fateful day in 1955. They get the idea of segregated buses and the unfairness that existed on the buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Park’s actions are a good place to start as an example of taking a stand, but I knew students would struggle with researching the historical context of the time period. Trying to get to the motivation behind her actions is a complicated process. An idea came to me: my literature textbook is filled with great selections of historical fiction. Why not use a few of my favorite pieces to teach the meaning of context?
Enter the anthology that’s gathered dust this year.
For years I have been teaching a short story called “The Gold Cadillac”, by Mildred Taylor. It’s set in the 1950s, and the main plot revolves around an African American family from Ohio. The father purchases a Cadillac. This car is a symbol of pride and hard work. (Later in the story we discover that it’s also a symbol of freedom.) At one point, the father, Wilber, decides he wants to drive the car south to Mississippi, where much of his family lives. His Ohio relatives stop and stare when he announces his plan. One of them says, “Wilber, driving that car south is like putting loaded gun to your head!”
I had my class listening to this story on audio as we read along with the text. I stopped the audio right at this point. I knew it was a crucial moment in the story, but more than that, to understand why the relatives would compare driving a car to putting a loaded gun to your head was essential to grasping a key concept in the story and the context for the relative’s comment.
So I asked, “How can driving a car be compared to putting a loaded gun to your head?”
My students did not disappoint. They thought about it and came to the agreement that maybe the roads were in poor condition or the car itself was in disrepair. They didn’t understand the historical context of what was going on in the United States in the 1950s.
BINGO! I KNEW that I had the GOLDEN MOMENT at hand.
To understand the simile of the car and the gun, we had to understand historical context. And so we stopped the story and discussed what was going on at that moment in history that made driving a car a potentially deadly situation.
We discussed Jim Crow laws-legal segregation (and racism) in the South. We looked at a map of the U.S. and noted where slavery was legal before the Emancipation Proclamation. We discussed the idea that even though slavery was abolished in the 1860s, racism still exists.
My main point was that we couldn’t understand the comment about driving the car south unless we knew what was going on in the world during the time period. It’s logical to think that there is something wrong with the car or roads if you don’t know the historical context behind the simile. The class had set me up perfectly to teach the importance of historical context.
I continue to return to this example as we delve into our research. The idea of context is now a more personal experience than just something the teacher says the class needs to understand. I followed up this story with a nonfiction piece from the anthology called “Separate But Never Equal”, which dug deeper into the legal segregation that existed because of the Plessy versus Ferguson court case in the 1890s. Now the idea of context was becoming clearer to my students.
I love the fact that I was able to use literature to teach historical context. Sometimes it pays off to just stop for a moment and consider the resources you have around you. And I’m hoping that my students have had an experience which helps them remember that understanding history is key to beginning to grasp why events occur in our world.