Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s in front of us.
Instead of gaining an understanding by looking closer, we need to look around to truly understand what is right before our eyes. I first learned this valuable lesson when I traveled to Europe in my sophomore year of college. For the majority of my life, I knew American culture. I knew what it meant to grow up in suburbia, where all the houses looked the same, where I was ignorantly and blissfully safe, and where my seemingly prescribed life would land me back in the town where I was born. In fact, I always dreamed that I would–or maybe I always feared that I wouldn’t–end up in good, old, wholesome Mount Prospect, where “friendliness was a way of life” and where I knew the comfort of home. I didn’t realize what was right in front of me–what that might mean–until I was able to get out.
I specifically remember the moment, riding through the countryside of Spain in a megabus, when my perspective changed. The red and orange of the dirt startled my eyes, creating a picturesque scene that I never could have imagined or even dreamed of. This startling moment coupled with my fatigue led me down an existential path of thoughts, opening my eyes to how truly big the world, the universe, and my life could be. It was the moment I decided I could do something more than live in Mount Prospect, and it was the moment that I decided I would be just who the universe intended me to be. In fact, it was the moment where I decided I’d come out. But I truly believe it wouldn’t have happened, had I not something to which I could compare it.
It would not have happened had the context been absent.
So today, my students and I embarked upon a lesson on context, for the power of context lies in what’s outside our periphery. And I wanted my students to begin to learn this as well.
I started with this provocation, from a painting I saw at the deYoung just a week prior. You can see the colors mixed effortlessly, a blend of warm and cool colors, stunning to the eye.
Their thoughts were fascinating–the different ideas they pulled from such an obscure mix of color, light, and darkness humbled my own imagination. Nonetheless, we continued, my pictures providing more context each time.
As we zoomed further out, their thoughts transformed, and suddenly they saw more things forming. The context was changing their view right before their eyes, and I could very tangibly see my students’ thinking change, almost like I could grasp and mold it in my hands.
And it continued to change even further with each piece of context that I revealed. They began to see beaches, mountain peaks, waterfalls, and nature. They began to develop an image that tied to their background knowledge. They began to make meaning.
The momentum of the lesson moved us forward, as layers of meaning built upon conversation and the images that suspended themselves in their minds. Until I revealed the last picture.
“Oh, it’s a guy fishing!” one of the kids said.
“Totally,” I replied. “Did you think it was going to be that when we started?”
Most replied with “no.”
“And why was that?” I queried.
“Because of the context!” several of them said, having heard me utter the word several times throughout the lesson.
Incredibly enough, not only did my students develop a working definition of context, but hopefully, they saw that they need not a teacher or adult to help them build that meaning. Instead, they learned that they can use observation skills, they can use context, and they can use themselves to uncover meaning… one layer at a time.
I truly believe that we can’t make children learn–just like no one could have ever made me realize just how big the world is. Instead, it took a signal experience and the tricky hands of fate to reveal the greater context of the world and the greater context in which I was placed.
But once we recognize the context of our situations or the greater context of the provocation in front of us, it has the power to change our perspective.
It has the power to change our lives.