The NCTE recently highlighted a book by Sarah Brown Wessling called “Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: English Language Arts, Grades 9-12” that I wanted to highlight and discuss in the context of alot of the conversations we’ve been having both in this blog and in the classroom.
The Common Core standards are all in the execution, they can be carried out in any number of ways that lead to a number of different outcomes. Sarah explores how in her own classroom contexts and in the classroom contexts of her two contributors, the Common Core was mediated and interpreted in a way that not only lead to a deeper understanding of the texts, but a more complex and ambiguous one as well.
The thing that really captured me about the excerpt of the book that’s provided is how she positions text as being part of a larger conversation rtaher than a thing in and of itself: “I recognized that my centerpiece text was never as powerful without the benefit of other texts to provide context.” This to me, is exactly correct: context is how we make meaning of a text, as our last class meeting demonstrated, we could understand the words of a text in a literal fashion but not understand the actual text itself without outside context. I’d argue the converse is the case as well: we can understand text if we have the context to understand it even if we don’t understand the words.
Even from a mechanical “understanding words” perspective, for example, I can read very basic French despite not knowing the language at all because I have the context of knowing Spanish, a language with the same roots. I’ve been able to have conversations with Portuguese speakers, if slow ones, despite the fact that Portuguese has about the same relationship to Spanish as Chaucer’s English does to modern English.
This, to me, is what Sarah’s excerpt demonstrates: while there are various ways and means of making meaning, it is often the case that ones that take advantage of context are the most meaningful, powerful, and easy to understand. They are richer, more complex, and yet provide the student with a detailed enough “map” of the text that they can navigate it.
One final point, one that I think Sarah alludes to but that is left unstated as an explicit point. Part of the “context” that a text exists in, as well as our interpretation of a text, and our choice of what texts to have “converse” with that text is the political context. One can take various paths and attitudes towards this, but if there’s one thing the power of context demonstrates to me is that the act of teaching is political. The “context” much like the text itself, is not a thing that exists in a void, the context is informed by values, judgement, opinions, in short, by politics, ideology, and belief systems.