Knowing the Context

One of the early things I tend to talk about with returning Latin Family members is the importance of contextual background knowledge … the things you “just know” because you live in this place, at this time, with these cultural assumptions.  Those are the things you don’t have to explain to anybody when you’re writing or talking … because they, too, “just know.”  But they’re also the things that make it hard to learn another language, another culture … because you, the learner, don’t “just know.”

“What does barbecue mean to you?” I once asked as an example, and we talked about the significant geographic differences in our contextual background knowledge.  In These Parts, barbecue is a noun, and it means chopped or pulled pork with a vinegar-based sauce, and you serve it with cole slaw and hush puppies.  But travel a hundred miles west, and the sauce is different; travel to other places, and the meat is different; travel far enough, and barbecue is a verb, the action of cooking on a grill.  Knowing the context is important, but it’s also difficult because so much of the context is implicit and unstated.

I’ve been thinking about that because of all of the new contexts in which learners and their families will be using the Tres Columnae Project this fall.  Various ages, various places around the world … and each one has a unique set of prior experiences and implicit assumptions.  How can you know the context when, in important ways, every person’s context is different?

Ms. X and Mr. Y, bless their hearts, have “too much to cover” and “not enough time” to consider questions like that.  Besides, knowing the context doesn’t seem that important when you see your job as content delivery.  “I don’t have time to differentiate instruction,” One Ms. X said a few years ago, “and besides, these kids are so bad and lazy that they don’t even know the things they’re supposed to know coming in.”  I mentioned to her that pre-assessment, an important part of differentiation, might actually save her some time because she’d know what, specifically, her students “don’t even know” … but that sounded hard and complicated.  For That Ms. X, The Curriculum was clear: it said exactly what her students should “know coming in,” and it said exactly what she was supposed to present to them in her classes.  “If they don’t get it, that’s on them,” she said … and yet, at other times, she blamed “those awful teachers” at “those middle schools” for things her students didn’t “know coming in.”  And she saw no irony!

That Ms. X has moved on to other, better things, but where did she get that industrial, one-size-fits-all mindset?  She probably got it from her own teachers, her own school experience … from the very structure of the institutions in which she learned and, eventually, taught.  There’s some contextual background knowledge that you’re just supposed to have in any institution, and twentieth-century-style schools are no exception.  B and Mrs. D, who inspired my post yesterday, were good at helping new teachers (and students and parents and administrators, for that matter) develop the contextual background knowledge needed in That School in Those Days.  Somehow they were able to translate the unstated expectations.

And now I wonder how they learned to do it!  I obviously can’t ask B, but I’ll probably see Mrs. D at B’s funeral tomorrow.  If we have time (and we probably will, because folks in These Parts usually eat after the funeral, and you can expect fried chicken and deviled eggs and many other things), I might ask her … but I’m not sure if she’ll be able to tell me.  Maybe she was a “third-culture kid,” to bring back a term we used several months ago; there are a lot of military families in These Parts, and perhaps Mrs. D grew up in one.  Or maybe, somehow, she was just naturally empathetic, or developed her strong, obvious sense of empathy along the way.

However it happened, B and Mrs. D both developed a set of skills and understandings that I aim to help Latin Family members and Tres Columnae Project users develop for themselves.  They developed the ability to translate … but not in the mechanical, pencil-and-paper way that we Latin teachers often use that term.  B and Mrs. D could translate the contextual background knowledge of That School at That Time so that newcomers could understand it, so that there wouldn’t be clashes of expectations between what Powers That Be said and what Young Ms. X or Mr. Y (or Mr. S for that matter) heard.

We may be looking for a few good cultural translators like that as the joyful learning community of Tres Columnae Project users continues to expand.

But the thing about a joyful learning community is that there’s time and space for such translation … and for the misunderstandings that make you realize such translation is important.  There may be a lot to do and many things to “cover,” but deepening our understanding of ourselves and each other is one of those things.  It’s not a distraction or a waste of precious time the way it was for That Ms. X.

On this busy Friday, I wonder what new insights about our contexts we’ll all gain, and I wonder how we’ll go about translating those insights for the learning communities to which we all belong.


Published in: on August 29, 2014 at 10:39 am  Leave a Comment  

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