The question on the minds of most young readers is, “why does this matter?” I remember asking the same question when I was their age. As a high school English teacher, I have struggled with formulating a uniform answer to this question. I believe that the answer is five-fold: Who, What, Where, When, and Why? Without answers for these five integral questions, readers of all ages find it hard to connect with their reading material, whether it be fiction or journalism. In this internet age, how can a teacher connect students to stories of the past? My answer: contextualization.
Context matters for a multitude of reasons. For decades To Kill a Mockingbird has been a staple in high school English classes across the US. In teaching this text, I found that my students needed to know who wrote it, what the story was about, where it was set, and when it was written and when the story is taking place before they could ever begin to answer the question of why. This realization forced me to employ a cross-curricular approach and give my students a fair amount of background knowledge of the time period. Using photos from the 1930s and primary sources to offer perspective on the lives of real people allowed my students to build a bridge of empathy to the past. Without context, any reader would be adrift in a sea of words.
While literature of a different time period can be unwieldy for young students, especially, that speeches and nonfiction articles require the same attention. In this social media-driven world where anyone can seem like a journalist, it vital that students develop the necessary critical thinking skills to determine the validity of the source. Epistemology is defined as the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. It is also said to be the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Readers must all be vigilant in their quest for knowledge but be wary of its source. It is all-too-easy to read something online and quote it later only to learn that the information is false. For this task, I have my students employ the same Five W’s of investigation. Who wrote the article? What new facts does the article present, and is it easily verifiable through similar sources? Where was it written or, rather what is the journalistic source of this information? I might even suggest that readers consider where the funding for the article is coming from. When was the article written? Lastly, Why was the article written? In other words, was the article or speech written to persuade the reader to action, to inform the reader, or otherwise convince the reader of the validity of an opinion?
No matter the age of the reader, or the subject material, context matters. If one were to take an excerpt from an interview or speech and present it without any of the words surrounding it, it would very easy for the meaning to be lost. The same can be said of any piece of fiction that reflects the era in which it was written. Without knowledge of how that author lived, the politics of their time, or the cultural attitude of the time, it is extremely difficult to read with much clarity or at any great depth.