This week, I asked my preservice English teacher students to think about context. When I did, I meant for them to think about contexts for learning inside their classrooms as they begin to design unit plans for the middle school students with whom they are working. Because I am writing with my students, I planned to blog about our classroom context, too, but I find myself struggling with the larger sense of context—sense of place and space that shapes who we are and what we know.
For example, when I taught public school in Morgan County, West Virginia, my students there (and I, too) were set in a particular context. It was a fairly rural community, so we might see deer on the hillside behind the school or a heron in the run that flowed through campus. A student might bring me a bag of morels in April or venison jerky in November. Berkeley Springs is also an art town, so we might make art in English class, or students might be involved in local productions of Shakespeare plays. The blend of rurality and creativity meant that I needed to consider a spectrum of diverse needs in my classroom: in the same class, I might have a student who brought me a gift from her trip to France, as well as a student who needed explicit instructions on using crosswalks during a field trip to DC.
In a small town it was easy to connect the community to the curriculum. My colleagues and I worked to bring county residents—writers, artists, legislators, educators, and officials into our classrooms. We also worked to bring our students out into the county to find learning there—in one interdisciplinary course that I helped to co-teach, we took our students to the recycling center, to the local soup kitchen, to the new courthouse construction site, and elsewhere out into the community to serve and learn, applying content in context.
This kind of learning that is centered in the particular of space and setting is explored in the work of David Sobel, The Place Based Education Collaborative, Foxfire, and others. They tell us that context matters—that people, place, and meaning-making are intertwined. We can help students understand the world if we emplace their learning in a context.
Now, in suburban Atlanta, I have to admit that I feel a bit out of context, myself. I get lost easily, and not in a meaningful way, driving past WalMart after strip mall after Target after strip mall and on into the city. The highway overpasses and four lanes of traffic offer little sense of community or purpose—except to keep moving past exits to the right and the trash in the median on the left. When I think about my students, I wonder about the contexts from which they view this world, how this context shapes the questions they ask, what they need to be taught. I wonder how to connect them to a context that I have yet to begin to adjust to or to understand myself. There must be a community at the center of this suburbia—in order to really teach and learn in a way that connects me to my students and to a clear sense of purpose and place, I know I must find it. I just need to keep exploring. Perhaps, if I ask, my students can help me to do that.