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Context Clues
by Will Hobart

As March rounds the corner, the Pennsylvania State Assessments are within two weeks and Sulzberger has gone into high gear. For an hour a day I teach just my inclusion students in my classroom. One recent lesson we covered was how to use context clues to figure out the meaning of unknown words in sentences. As I explained to the kids how understanding what comes before and after a mysterious word can give vital clues into decoding the unfamiliar, I began to realize my students and I uncover and use context clues as ways to better understand the unknowns of each other. My students always ask me questions about myself as a means to better comprehend their teacher and I use clues to better drive differentiated instruction and build individual investment.

It hasnt always been like this. I spent most of the fall hiding my age and first name as if they were big secrets. Somewhere along the road veteran teachers told me this stuff is personal information and revealing it could set up potential power struggles since Im 22 years young.

After the New Year, the students continued to pester me about my age and somewhere I caved. I also caved on my first name when Richard read it on a paper I had written for my graduate class. After the news got out I found the result harmless. In fact, the students seemed to respect me more whenever I purposely opened up about my life.

Sharing a personal story has become my new favorite tactic for classroom management. If we can all be quiet, Id like to share a short story about my childhood," or Id really like to hear about one positive thing about everyones weekends. I had an excellent one with my girlfriend. We went out for a nice dinner." My students have discovered my interests in music and sports as well as the seriousness of my relationship with my girlfriend. They understand how I have people in my life that mean everything to me and they see how I bring that into the class each day. The more they know about the context that surrounds me, the more I seem like a real person. A human.

As I begin to be more comfortable sharing clues about my life the more it seems they feel more comfortable sharing clues about theirs. While much of it is unnecessary, having it as a reference point often makes it easier to understand their behavior and their mindsets. The more I know the context to their lives, the more I am able to understand them as little people. As humans.

Markeetas constant tardiness and periodic absences are better understood when you know she has no living parents and lives with her 25-year-old sister and little brother. Nobody tells her when to get up in the morning or makes her go to school. Leroys constant back talk and difficulty with trust makes more sense when you consider his father is never around and when he does come home, he yells at his mother and ignores Leroy. And then theres Corey, a student full of misleading context clues. He suffers from a terminal illness -- a brain tumor. He is slowly losing his long-term memory. His happy nature, go-getter attitude, and smiling face would never make you suspect what he faces.

Knowing and understanding the contexts in which my students exist help me to be a more effective teacher. I am better able to recognize their individual motives and struggles. I know that I have to call Markeetas house weekly to remind her sister that her attendance and promptness is necessary for her to pass. I know that I have to respect the distance Leroy tries to put between us and discipline his inappropriate and disrespectful behavior, but show compassion in times of his subtle vulnerability. Corey and I both know he will never be able to do long division, but I must keep reminding him that his inner drive and amazing capacity for life will lead him to success and a fulfilling life.

My Teach For America advisor from last summer said it best. Will, you have the rules and the management down. You are firm and strict with your expectations. Make sure you give your students the opportunity to get to know Mr. Hobart. Show them you are a person too." As I continue to show my students the things that are important to me and also work to understand the things that get them motivated, we can all strive for the academic gains I know they are capable of and what they deserve.

Graduation is getting closer for the eighth graders and I want to take every opportunity to teach my students the skills they need to not only exist and succeed in the context of their individual lives, but also in the larger context of the increasingly complex and changing world they inhabit.

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Article by Will Hobart
Education World®
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Posted 03/21/2007