Connecting with Student Interests, Backgrounds, Cultures, and Prior Knowledge

Part 2
Not Simply for the Sake of “Interesting”

Connecting with Student Interests, Backgrounds, Cultures, and Prior Knowledge
It is important to note that in high-performing schools, lessons are rarely designed or pursued simply because they are likely to be interesting to students or because they are likely to relate to students’ backgrounds or cultures. In contrast, teachers are keenly focused on getting students to master key academic concepts and skills. Almost always, these concepts and skills are rooted in state and district standards. Teachers approach the teaching of these concepts and skills in ways that relate to students’ interests, backgrounds, cultures, and prior knowledge.

The first priority is teaching the content students must learn in order to succeed academically and in life. A second consideration is how teachers might deliver the content in ways that resonate with their students. In other words, teachers are not likely to teach a unit on hip-hop music just because students would find it intriguing. They would, however, be more likely to use hip-hop music to teach a state standard that focused on the use of rhyme and meter in poetry.

Teachers were focused on the same challenging academic standards that we see addressed in more typical schools. In fact, in the high-performing schools we visited, teachers spent more time and energy focused upon rigorous academic standards than is typical for urban schools. They also, however, approached those rigorous standards in ways that integrated the interests, backgrounds, cultures, and prior knowledge of their students.

We know they [our students] can achieve anything. We just have to find a way to get them to learn it.

Assumption of Student Ability

Teachers at the schools we studied evidenced a strong belief that their students could learn challenging concepts. We heard several teachers echo the sentiment of a teacher at Escontrias Elementary in El Paso, Texas, who explained, “We know they [our students] can achieve anything. We just have to find a way to get them to learn it.”

In fact, the assumption that students can achieve at high levels may be essential. It is difficult to imagine teachers working diligently to find more effective ways to teach a skill if they assume their students are destined to fail or incapable of learning. Unfortunately, some teachers may perceive that they have conclusive evidence that their students are not likely to succeed at learning rigorous content. Sometimes, these teachers possess multiple years of experience observing their students fail. Apart from placating their administrators, they see no reason to try different instructional approaches, because they already know the outcome will be failure and frustration.

In contrast, educators in high-performing urban schools have learned to share effective lesson strategies that are tailored to the strengths, interests, and backgrounds of their students. One teacher’s success in ensuring that students master a concept in biology leads another to apply a similar strategy in the teaching of a chemistry principle. Successes snowball, creating a culture where teachers assume that their students can achieve academic excellence if they create the appropriate learning opportunity, taking best advantage of their students’ strengths, culture, interests, and prior knowledge.

What It Is

Pursuing interesting or fun lessons because they relate to important academic objectives

Example: A teacher is trying to help students practice the challenging vocabulary they are learning in economics. The teacher engages students in creating Jeopardy-like questions/answers that require knowledge of the economics vocabulary learned over the past several weeks. After the questions/answers are developed, the students divide into teams and play the game using the questions/answers they created.

What It Isn’t

Pursuing interesting or fun lessons that will not help students learn important academic objectives

Example: A teacher decides that students need a break from the challenging economics curriculum and decides to engage the class in a game of Jeopardy. Immediately, the students are excited as they divide themselves into teams and begin responding to the various items across the different answer categories.

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