Contextualizing Global World War One Lesson Plan

This lesson builds on resources that curated for workshop presentations on the global nature of the First World War. Students practice contextualization with photographs illustrating the global nature of the First World War. These slides introduce global dimensions of the Great War.

Student pairs or groups of three then receive one of the photographs from these documents. They affix the images onto a larger paper, write a short title, and then annotate for elements of context: colonialism, industrialization, and/or geopolitics. Images are in this presentation for preview and sharing out after students annotate with context.


Understanding the role of broader context in thinking about the past is often a struggle for students. My colleague Lumumba Ismail used an image of Martin Luther King in police custody to introduce contextualization when doing this lesson. Here, the Civil Rights Movement provides useful context for understanding the image, and the recognizable face of Dr. King makes the connection visible.

Black and white photograph of white police officers arresting two black men
Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., right are taken by a policeman as they led a line of demonstrators into the business section of Birmingham, Ala., on April 12, 1963. (AP Photo)

In a World History class teachers usually need to be explicit about the broader developments that might serve as context. For this lesson I have used three, listed here in increasing order of difficulty:

  • Industrialization
  • Colonialism
  • Geopolitics

Industrialization is one of the most frequently taught topics in social studies and students typically recognize technologies such as trucks and machine guns as industrial. I also encourage them to consider less complex items that were clearly mass produced, such as steel helmets. In my class this activity follows more than a week studying colonialism, but many of my students still benefit from being reminded of how colonialism eliminated national choices for colonized areas. A map showing colonial relationships in 11914 also helps. Geopolitics is the toughest. Students confuse colonialism with alliances, and most do not have the war-time alliances mastered. They do not immediately know that the Ottoman Empire and Britain were at war with each other, for instance. Prompting them to look at the location of the photographs helps some to find geopolitical factors. Students do not need to find all three aspects of context in their image.

I generated this example to share with students.

Photograph with circles and descriptions
Annotated photograph from World War One