Understanding the historical context of an NHD project is important. Students cannot fully understand the details they learn in their research if they do not understand what has happened leading up to the event in question. They also cannot understand it if they do not grasp what is happening in the world at the time of the event.
Consider this explanation from a Marianopolis College course on History Methodology:
Many students confuse the context with the causes of an event. A cause is something that brings an effect. The effect may be immediate and obvious, or it may be deeper and not so evident. In all cases, however, it generates a consequence that one can clearly relate to the factor that precipitated the action.
By contrast, the context is understood as the events, or the climate of opinion, that surround the issue at hand. They help to understand its urgency, its importance, its shape, or even its timing. What was happening at the time of the event or the decision that sheds some light on it? In what type of society did the event occur? An urban one? A rich one? An educated one? An unstable one?
It is important for students to understand both the causes of the event and the context. Looking at a timeline about their event will help them see events that lead up to the event in question, and it will help them identify other events that might have had an impact on their topic.
You might choose to present this lesson using classroom materials so there is a cross-over between your classroom work and the work students will be doing on their NHD projects. If so, create a contextual timeline for your event to share with your students. The timeline provided here is on the topic of The Emancipation Proclamation, compiled by Scholastic.
1850: Compromise of 1850 effected between antislavery and proslavery factions. It brought California into the union as a free state while Texas was admitted as a slave state. It also abolished the slave trade from the District of Columbia, though it was still legal to own slaves there. The compromise also states that New Mexico and Utah would decide for themselves on whether they would be slave or free states when they joined the Union. Finally, a new fugitive slave law made it a crime for anyone to help an escaped slave.
1854: Republican Party formed.
1856: Civil war in Kansas over slavery issue.
1857: Dred Scott decision by Supreme Court legalizes slavery in U.S. territories.
1858: Senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate slavery in Illinois.
1859: Abolitionist John Brown leads raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, and is hanged.
1860: Lincoln elected president; South Carolina secedes from Union.
1861: Civil War begins with firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
1862: President Lincoln drafts Emancipation Proclamation
1863: Emancipation Proclamation issued; Battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
1864 Sherman's army marches to the sea in Georgia.
1865: Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders at Appomattox, Virginia; Lincoln assassinated; Andrew Johnson succeeds him as President; 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery, ratified.
1868: 14th Amendment is ratified, granting citizenship to former slaves.
Obviously, with a topic related to the Civil War, a timeline could be created in much greater depth, but too much detail can be overwhelming. In addition, if students choose to include a timeline on their exhibit or website, each word counts toward the word limit, so caution your students about being too wordy with their timeline. (A timeline can be quoted, but no changes can be made from the original timeline).
Point out to students that the timeline begins several years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, and ends several years after. This helps build historical context. We can see the causes and the effects on the timeline.
Beyond dates and events on a timeline, asking questions about the climate surrounding their event. Doing background research can help students understand the event better. On the flash drive you will find a sheet that will pose questions for students to answer to better understand their issue.
Have students build a timeline of their event. (If you have students who are focusing on a person, have them look at the important events of that individual’s life, including world events.) Determine the number of entries students should have based on the age and abilities of your class. They can draw their timeline, create it digitally, or use a web-based service like timeline maker from softschools (easy to use) or http://timerime.com/ (more complicated but also looks really cool)
Also have students begin work on the Building Historical Contest worksheet. This will be a work in progress as they continue their research because they will learn new things as they go.