Slice of Life: Contextualizing, Part 1

Here’s a slice of classroom life around the idea of context.

Context as defined as:

the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

When my students read, I want them to see the world of the story as if they were looking through a window, as an observer of a time and place. But also, I want them to understand literature on a human level. And to do this, they must also connect to the character’s situation. How can this be done with a text that is removed from their personal lives? How can we contextualize foreign ideas and experiences for our students?

Historical fiction and informational text present these challenges.  As literacy teachers, we don’t have time to teach background on all possible contexts that could crop up in their independent reading. So what’s the solution? Avoid? Ignore? Accept surface understanding? Or, is there a way to facilitate thinking about a foreign concept in an authentic way within our literary block?

Last week Emmalee Briggs and Dayna Wells brought their expertise and brilliance to my classroom to help think through some possibilities. Could their use of primary documents that instigate deep thinking about history, be used with literature? And if so, what would be the approach and protocol.

We decided to build on read aloud. By asking ourselves, what questions come up as we read? What information could we present to stimulate thinking and contextualize a subject for students?

On Friday, we read this from A Long Walk to Water .:

There was a big lake three days’ walk from Nya’s village. Every year when the rains stopped and the pond near the village dried up, Nya’s family moved from their home to a camp near the big lake.

Nya’s family did not live by the lake all year round because of the fighting. Her tribe, the Nuer, often fought with the rival Dinka tribe over the land surrounding the lake. Men and boys were hurt and even killed when the two groups clashed.

How can students, who turn on the water and drink whenever they want, connect to a life that includes fighting over water?

I searched Library of Congress for “Los Angeles water.”

On Monday, I shared this:

And said,  “This is a picture of the Los Angeles Aqueduct taken in 2008. Study the picture and when you’re ready, jot your thoughts, your wonderings.”

After a few minutes, I invited them to share their thinking. Here’s a sample of conversations:

Where is the water coming from?

A lake?

The ocean?

Not the ocean.

Where is it going to?

The ocean.  Look the blue.

What’s in the pipe?

Maybe recycled water.

Is it clean?

Of course it’s clean look at it.

It looks like a water slide.

Then we focused in on specific quadrants of the picture a la Smokey Daniels‘ work.


It’s dry.

Just rocks.


Then we focused in on this part of the photo.


It looks like a road.

It’s a freeway.

The water is going there!

Are those cars?

They jotted, talked.

Then we read.

Tomorrow, before read aloud, I’ll share these pictures taken when No Name Canyon was blown up in May 1927. The explosion destroyed 400 feet of pipe.

Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times

Students will look, wonder, and question.

Then think: How might this connect to our story?

What does this picture make you think?

Can you see doing something like this work in your literacy block?

Thanks to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Tara and Stacey for Slice of Life Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers. Read more slices here.

8 thoughts on “Slice of Life: Contextualizing, Part 1

  1. “Students will look, wonder, and question. Then think: How might this connect to our story?”
    This is such important work, Julieanne – you are giving them more than just context for this book, you are showing them the habit of searching for context.

  2. Marvelous to help your students make those connections, and right here in the US! Some of my students are aware of issues in our country & in others because their parents help with those conversations, but others are not. I hope you share more of the talk with your class, Julieanne.

  3. Collaboration with colleagues pushes the thinking forward to create excitement for the learning to happen. What a great plan you have developed! Can’t wait for part two.

  4. Your connections are so well thought out. Your students will be better and deeper thinkers when they leave your classroom. A wonderful gift.

  5. Great set up for discovery! I can hear students’ curiosity (and engagement) in those questions from here. You brought to mind an idea I’ve been holding in the back of my mind (a short piece about the number of faucets at home). Will have to look deeper into the LA pipeline, sounds so interesting and would make a great connection to conservation/environmental text set.

  6. Beautiful Julieanne. What a great journey you have begun. I know we will find great ways to help STUDENTS do the work of contextualizing as they read. This is such rich reading work – viewing text and life through the lens of a historian is critical to literacy and as Emmalee says, “being a human being”. The questioning grew their understanding! AWEsome.

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