April 10, 2006

Context and Perspective?

Context and perspective are two gifts that we can give our students that they cannot get by themselves. Of course content and standards are important, but without putting the subject matter into a context that students can understand, and sharing our adult perspective on that context, then even the best “stuff” is meaningless to our kids. Who cares that there is a war going on in the Middle East unless we understand why that war is being fought, and why victory is so important? Kids, without the guidance of adults, don’t get it.

Again, I’m merging the roles of teacher and parent, and some people feel that to do so is inappropriate. It is inappropriate if the teacher tries to over ride or replace the parent. It is not inappropriate if the teacher compliments the parents’ efforts to raise their children right, as evidence by the fact that they send their kids to public school in the first place. I’m not talking about pushing one’s political views, or using the classroom lectern as a bully pulpit. Teachers who do (i.e. the Colorado Bush is Hitler guy) do damage to teachers and teaching as a profession, and that’s not cool.

However, there are times in our teaching day when it is appropriate for teachers, acting as mentors, to put the subject matter in terms the kids can understand. We have to. If the pupils are going to “get” what we are teaching, we need to package the content in a format they understand. We additionally need to put it in the context of their life experiences and understanding. Difficult at best especially when we teach such a broad range of kids from an equally diverse background. But without context, nothing makes sense, and how can we expect our kids to understand what we’re paid to teach them when it doesn’t make sense to them? We need to put it in context.

But how do we put anything we teach into an understandable context for everyone we teach? I am honestly unsure. It helps to get to know your students, learn who they are, what they know, and don’t know, how they think, and most importantly, how the learn. Relationships with students make the difference for many student groups. Some groups don’t require a feeling of connection with the classroom teacher; other groups require it if learning is to begin. Some teachers are very uncomfortable with the reality that their success in teaching is affected by their connectedness to their students. Some of us simply want to show up, deliver the goods, and get out. That simply doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did at all.

If we are going to frame our subject matter in a context that our students understand we need to understand our students. That’s not the same as becoming our students, or even begin compassioned for our students, but we need to study our student populations so that we can make adjustments that work for them so that we can teach them. Academic study helps, and there are trail-blazing teachers out there like Ruby Paine who have done a remarkable amount of ground work in the area and offer books and training to help us along. But nothing can replace the simple process of talking to our students. Take some time (impossible I know in the world of API, AYP, and CASHEE) to talk with your kids. Ask them about themselves, their families, their likes, dislikes, fears, joys, days, and even what happens when they go home at night. Not in an intrusive way, but with an approach that communicates you are genuinely interested in who they are as people. Sounds a little like drippy liberal drivel, but it works.

The other gift we should freely offer to the pupils is our perspective. Perspective is one of the major factors in addition to age and education and our unique life experiences that is different from our kids and that separates us for the other 20 to 35 (or more) people in the room everyday. It is our responsibility as the “adults in charge” to give our students the appropriate “adult” view of the content of the subjects we teach as well as the issues and concerns that the kids bring to the classroom. If we are teaching literature and we can identify with the character in the story then we should share our point of view to help the kids experience the story beyond the limitations of the printed page. If my English teacher had more than simply droned out Great Expectations and shared his reaction to the story, how he identified with the characters, and what he learned from their experiences then I might have actually paid attention, and not have regularly fallen asleep in his class.

I assigned students the task of getting rights clearance to a song recording to be used in their music video assignment. It’s not an easy task. Most large corporations could care less about a high school students’ classroom assignment. The students are easily discouraged. But I tell them to keep after it. Keep writing letters, sending emails, and making phone calls until they get what they need. To help encourage them, I shared my experience of once being assigned the task of finding in size 54 cal-trans orange jumpsuit. Not an easy task, but I was persistent, I didn’t quit, didn’t take no for an answer, and was ultimately successful. They will be too. Knowing that someone else has been down the path they currently travel, shared some common experiences, and lived to tell the tale is not only inspirational, but could just make the difference in the ultimate success of failure of the student.

Creating context and sharing perspective is not included in the job description of any teaching assignment that I‘ve seen. However many veterans working in the classroom today would agree that it is a big part of what we do. Teachers are like tour guides for life. We introduce kids to the many important concepts, ideas, facts, and tools that they need to survive and become productive citizens. Students models their lives after us so it’s our responsibility to give them good, positive, examples to live by that include the context and perspective of our lives.

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