Context

Do you know how this is played?

As the son of immigrants, I often notice how the lack of context can handicap perceptions, understanding, and success.  In addition to a new language, immigrants must learn the subtleties of a new culture without the aid of a textbook.  Compounding this problem is the utter lack of recognition in the natives.  We can recognize someone struggling with the language, but we are less likely to notice if someone doesn’t get the joke, understand the custom, or realize their faux pas.  In our minds, it makes sense to hang around the water cooler,  or sarcastically speak about our love of the post office, or some other American thing.

Yet this isn’t just occurring in immigrants.  It happens to people from different backgrounds based on race, age, and location.  One of my most vivid memories of getting in trouble at school happened in 3rd grade.  After moving to a southern state from New England, my first day at the new school involved indoor recess (it was raining outside).  After the allotted time, the teacher called everyone’s attention to the fact that we needed to clean up.  Almost near the end of our game, we played one more turn.

Finally, she came over to us and said, “It’s time to put it up.”  I stared at her for a moment, not quite sure what to do.  She said it again, “Put it up.”

With that, I took the game and the pieces, and raised them over my head. With not the least bit of confusion on my third grade mind (Put it up, means put it away, for you non-Southern folks).  The teacher was none too pleased, thinking that I was sassing her on my first day.

Later that evening, my mom got a call from my teacher.  I can still remember the conversation.

My mom in her Indian accent, “What did he do? . . .  Wait, what did you ask him to do?  . . .  Put it up?  What does that mean? . . . Didn’t he do that, he put it up in the air, just like you asked.”  For the next few minutes, my mom defended my actions.

Now realize, I can think of no other occasion when a teacher called home and my mom took my side.  But, as my southern teacher tried to explain to my Indian mother why I was in the wrong, it became clear to me that context and background were key to this dispute.  I had no idea what “put it up” meant, and my teacher assumed that I would just know.

In education terms, it often translates into bias in testing.  The best example of this came during my wife’s student teaching assignment.  She taught second grade in a metro school.  One of the questions on a standardized test asked the following question:

Describe the motion someone makes while playing a violin.

Seems pretty straight forward, right? Describing the motion shouldn’t be hard, even for a second grade student.  Assuming they know what a violin is?

Unfortunately, the majority of the class had never heard of violin, let alone seen one played.  Coming from poor and uneducated families, these children were never exposed to violins as they grew up.  In addition, my wife was not allowed to demonstrate the motion herself, rendering it impossible for most of the students.

Perhaps you feel a child should know how a violin is played.  I would argue that people in India might expect you to be able to describe how a Sarangi is played.  How would you answer that question?   Perhaps you’ve seen one either at a friends house or on TV.  More than likely though, you would come up with a creative answer or skip it all together like the kids in my wife’s class.

Now did the test maker intend to have this result.  Probably not.  The restriction to keep the teacher from acting it out was to prevent an overzealous adult from compromising the test, not just on this question.

But the question is, how do we remove the bias from our tests?

The simple answer is, we don’t.

In the long run, these kids need to know how the motion of the violin works.  They need to know that the pyramids are associated with Egypt.  They need to know who Ben Franklin is and how he influenced our history.  They need to know context and school is just one of the places they can get it.

So how do you do it?  You do it by reading stories out loud.  You do it through discussion of historical fictions.  You do it through field trips.  You build life experiences through school.  Some of these kids will never get that exposure at home or from their community.  Shouldn’t our schools try to remove some of these handicaps.

My wife used to try and address this in her classroom.  She worked tirelessly on teaching her kids background knowledge.  Making sure they knew history and geography, and how things worked, through all the methods above.

This year she can’t.  The schedule doesn’t allow it.  Reading from the textbook doesn’t allow it.  Even the field trips don’t allow it.

So are these kids better off?  Perhaps it is time to take the current education policy employed in this district and “put it up.”

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