Rachel Hansen, BHP Teacher
Iowa, USA

Christian and Muslim playing lutes in a miniature from Cantigas de Santa Maria of Alfonso X (13th century). Public domain.

Being able to periodize (that is, divide) the past into blocks of time is an essential historical thinking skill. Historians shape entire narratives based on the decisions they make about periodizing events of the past. In the Lesson 3.2 activity Timelines and Periodization, students get to practice periodization by creating timelines related to a topic many are passionate about: music. My students typically focus on the development of musical genres and musical instruments.

Here’s what it looks like in my classroom:

To begin, we have students work in pairs (although you could also have them work individually or in small groups) and supply each pair with two envelopes. In one envelope, students find small pieces of paper with music genres/instruments (one slip of paper per genre/instrument). In the other envelope, students find dates (one slip of paper per date). Feel free to steal our template of genres/instruments and their corresponding dates (bonus: the template doubles as your answer key!). Note that you’ll need scissors to cut the paper into smaller slips, placing individual genres/instruments in one envelope and individual dates in the other. Students then research and pair the genre/instrument with the date in which it began or was invented. Ultimately, they place them on a timeline in correct chronological order (a fun extension could be to have students create this timeline on butcher paper and space out the dates to scale).

Once students have their timelines created and drawn, they periodize the genres and instruments. We give students these three tips for periodizing history:

  1. Think about what the items on your timeline have in common.
  2. The name of the period should reflect an important theme, person, idea, or event from that era.
  3. Breaking history into time periods should help us better analyze it.

Music is an interesting discipline for students to periodize. Many classify and name their periods based on their opinion of the style of music or the type of instrument. As one student once said, “Most of those genres were made before we were even born. So, we don’t think those ones are cool since they’re old. We like the music of our generation.” He and his partner periodized musical history with terms like “Slow – Slower – Old – Fast – Electronic.”

Sample music timeline: History of the rock band Motörhead showing lineups and albums. Public domain.

The final step is to analyze and discuss how students periodized their music timelines. Students quickly realize some flaws in their methodology of periodization. As one student pointed out in his reflection, “You can’t always believe the way they categorize it because it’s just their opinion. Everybody categorizes their stuff different.”

It is possible to reframe entire stories of the past when we change the names and arrangements of periods to emphasize what we deem important. Historians are powerful influencers of our stories of the past! This activity helps students experience this for themselves, and drives home the necessity of thinking critically about the information we consume.

About the author: Rachel Hansen is a high school history and geography teacher in Muscatine, IA. Rachel teaches the BHP world history course over two 180-day semesters to about 50 ninth- through twelfth-grade students each school year.

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