The picture to your left is a representation of the students in your classroom and the background information that they have stored away before they even got to you. Information that has gotten them this far in life. Some of it is good, perhaps great in fact, and other information which is painful to leveled degrees.
If you open up the file drawer and peer into the lives of each of theses students, you will get a glimpse of what they know already and what they bring to your classroom to add to the discussion. Doing this creates a link between what they already know and what you are trying to teach. Their drawer might not be as organized as this picture. Depending on experiences like war, pain, death could be quite messy and they will come to us unsorted. Some will come sorted, and look pretty on the outside but really quite messy on the inside.
However, here's the secret..if you don't care what is in their file drawer, they will not attach themselves to what you are teaching them. That is why this step is a vital, do not miss part of teaching pedagogy, especially when teaching ELLs.
It is our job as we teach these students to build on this information. It is an acquired skill, it takes time and often we want to rush through this step, but it is this step that connects old learning with new learning.
Asking questions about what they already know about the people you are studying, or the place, perhaps the experience or whatsoever content shows to them that they matter to you, you have validated them. It is important to create a safe and respectful learning community so that the students will be able to share, especially when the background knowledge is painful.
Here is the blessing to you as a teacher, you will be able to look for gaps in understanding. You can make a fly by assessment of their background knowledge to look for even misunderstandings and you get a peek inside the minds of the students which is a sacred honor.
The following are some ways to build background knowledge, but the most important part is to be creative and vary your approach. Doing the same thing over and over will bore them as much as you!
- Prediction questions
- Using poll everywhere
- Post signs around the classroom about key facts, dates, people and have them write down what they know and then you have collected data you can go back and review
- Browse through the text book
- Use mentor texts
- Take them on a virtual field trip
- Show pictures and discuss
- Video clips
- Discuss past experiences or studies
- Hot potato one word association
- Post on Linoit.me and have them add to the post
- Create a Google Doc and have them add to the doc
- KWL chart. When I have done this , I put the K W L in different parts of the room. I actually move the W (what we want to learn) to the L (What we have learned) as we go about learning!
- Look for links to native languages (Greek, Latin)
- Draw or build by using pencils, markers, crayons, Legos or play dough
- Look for links to cultural experiences
- Look for links to all kinds of food and festivities/celebrations
- Play music
- Word walls
- Graphic organizers
The point is to make connections. Connect what you are wanting the students to learn to the student themselves, to other text, to other media and to the world around them.
The students do not come to us as a blank slate or as an empty file drawer. They come filled with so much background information, often to the point of overflowing. Discovering this and allowing the time it takes to look at each student and really SEE them, will be the key that unlocks their heart and mind.