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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Is It Possible to Teach Background Information?

School age children coming from low income homes or from homes of different cultures have difficulties in school because their background knowledge is different from the knowledge that is required in mainstream American schools.  We know that students coming from impoverished homes enter school with thousands of fewer words than students from higher socio-economic levels.  I am always mindful of those educators who say believe that students do not have background knowledge.  They do have knowledge.  It is just different than what is expected in school.  

Developing background knowledge is time well spent.  Students will increase their engagement and and success.

So, how can we promote background knowledge?  Here are some strategies:

1.  Teachers:  Know your material!  Teachers should read through material that is presented in any way and anticipate knowledge that will need to be developed.  I refer to direct and indirect knowledge.  Direct knowledge refers to specific references from the concepts being taught.  A simple example would be that apples, oranges, and pears are fruit.  If we are teaching the food groups, students would increase their understanding through the actual instruction.  An example of indirect knowledge is the ability to recognize an apple, orange or pear.  Indirect knowledge refers to information that we would expect students to know.  We expect students to be able to identify basic fruits.  But, if students don't have those fruits in their country, then we need to back up and make sure students understand the fruit we are discussing.  So, we bring in pictures and allow students to taste samples.  We might also bring in some fruits that are native to other countries besides the United States as well.  

2.  A picture is worth a thousand words:  At the start of each unit, I like to do a needs assessment.  I may ask a thought provoking question such as, Why could the North have been predicted to win the Civil War?  The students would then, do a picture walk through many pictures and with their partner list key information that they observed from the pictures. Then, they would try to formulate an answer to the question.  A less complex strategy asks the students what they learned from looking through the pictures and the questions they have.  

3.  Keep a running list posted of what students learn each day.  The list is started with the above activity.  At the end of class each day, the teacher would ask the students to share anything new they learned that day.  

4.  What are the Conclusions?  At the end of each week, the teacher takes the running list.  She can do either of 2 things.  She can ask the students to group and categorize the items from the list.  Or, she can have them already grouped.  The students then would apply a category label.  Then, with their categories, they would draw some conclusions.  Example:  Well, we know that the North had a more industry than the South.  We also know that there was a large growth in the use of machines.  This would have given the North an advantage over the South.  

5.  Talk and Talk:  One way students develop background knowledge is by talking to other people.  Students who are second language learners or from lower socio-economic backgrounds can benefit from talking to others.  Talk and Talk is a strategy that allows students to engage in very brief conversations around a central concept.  The question is posted on Monday.  Each day, the students meet in different pairs to gather input from their peers.  On Friday, they would work with a partner to draw conclusions and to apply what they have learned.  While students are reporting out each day, the teacher uses paraphrasing to frontload key vocabulary within the context of the student's report.  She also asks clarifying questions to help build understanding.  

6.  Word Walks:  Word Walks help students think about important words in a piece of text and how those words contribute to the meaning of the text.  Given a piece of information based text, on the Civil War, for example, the students "walk" through the text circling important words.  The words are then connected with a line.  The students then draw a conclusion or share what they have learned as it applies to a central question.  When doing a Word Walk, students need to be taught how to identify important meaningful words before they attempt this activity.  

7. Act It Out:  The most powerful lesson that I have observed was in a middle school classroom studying American History.  The teacher was trying to have the students understand the meaning of slavery.  He did a read a loud from Roots and the conditions on the slave ship.  Then, he had a group of students lay under two tables.  He had another group of students lay on top of the tables.  He took a large rope and wrapped it around each student's ankle symbolizing the chain.  Then, he encouraged all of the students to begin asking questions or making comments.  Soon the students began to get the idea of the dehumanization that occurs in slavery.