Applying frame of reference to history
1. To give a visual example of how frame of reference influences our study of history, engage students in a brief scenario. Excitedly tell the class that it is the anniversary of an important event in their community. Explain that there was a “great fire” in one of the local buildings and draw a building on the chalkboard. Dramatically show flames coming out the windows on one side of the building. Then tell students that there were eye witnesses to the event: draw stick figures on each side of the building.
Have students describe the fire from the various perspectives of the eyewitness. For example, those on the side of the building with the flames will focus on that while those on lookers from the other side do not have the same view, but may describe the smoke or what they hear. Dramatically describe what the direct onlookers see and explain how this has been passed down through family stories (oral history).
Depending on the class and age range, provide more detail about how many people perished, how the fire department responded etc. Go further and tell students that this event shows up in several historic diaries of local townspeople, as well as the newspaper from the time.
2. Now ask students to pretend they are historians interpreting this event. Have students list the sources available such as: oral histories, diaries, fire department report, morgue report, building records, census, newspapers etc. Then bring students through each source, explaining how each has its own “point of view”. Tell them that historians call this “frame of reference”. Ask students what they think is the frame of reference for each source. For example, imagine a diary entry for the event and solicit questions from students such as: how old was the writer? what was the motivating force behind this diary entry? was this someone who survived the fire or knew someone who perished? How might that connection influence what they wrote? Imagine the newspaper reports. What was their point of view? Are those subjective in any way (trying to sell newspapers, shape opinion, etc.)? What motivates and shapes media portrayal today?
Let students know that this was an imaginary event, but one that simulates actual events through history.
Applying Frame of Reference
3. Apply the idea of frame of reference to an historical source from the colonial period. Distribute the handout Understanding Frame of Reference. Read the selections out loud and have the students answer the questions individually. Go over their responses.
4. Concluding Question: Ask students if everything has a frame of reference? (yes) and how will knowing a source’s frame of reference help them understand history better? (helps them determine bias, objectivity, accuracy etc.) Is this a skill that applies to our study of other time periods? (yes) How? (For example, in looking at a Civil War diary it will be important to ask if it is from a southern soldier or northern soldier).