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

Building Connections

Building Connections

As usual, the conversations in this sophomore English class at one high-performing urban school we studied, were intense. Groups of three or four students (mostly Latino and African American) were leaning in, talking to each other with an air of urgency. Everyone was on task. The teacher floated from group to group, offering suggestions, but the students clearly were self-directed. Each group had the task of rewriting a scene from Shakespeare’s King Lear. The students had to rewrite their scene in a manner that would be easily and completely understood by any of their peers. Students were using their notes from the prior class conversation, as well as the well-worn pages of the play, to help them confer, discuss, and even argue about the appropriate language that would best communicate the scene’s meaning to their peers. A student in one group read from Act 4, Scene 1, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” Instantly, another explained, “The dude is bummed out. They blinded him” “Yeah, but how should we rewrite his line?” prompted another student. “Kids aren’t going to get what ‘flies to wanton boys’ means” The student who had read the line offered a suggestion. “How about if we rewrite it to say, ‘Life is messed up!’“ “That’s good,” one of the students offered, “but he needs to say something about how he’s blaming the gods” After thinking for a minute, a student suggested, “Life is messed up! The gods are just playin’ us!” The others nodded in agreement. They wrote the line and went to the next paragraph in the play.

Teachers in high-performing urban schools help more students achieve mastery, at least in part, because they teach concepts in ways that resonate with their students. Often in collaboration with their colleagues, teachers ask themselves, “How can I get my students to understand this challenging concept?” As a result, teachers are more likely to produce lessons that connect with the interests, backgrounds, cultures, and prior knowledge of their students.

The teacher in the aforementioned example could have just as easily taught Shakespeare in a traditional manner, but would his students have been just as likely to understand, internalize, or remember? In high-performing urban schools, we observed lessons in which teachers made new concepts seem familiar to their students. At another high-performing school, we saw elementary students learning and practicing Spanish vocabulary by performing skits in which students acted out restaurant scenes and ordered familiar foods. Teachers at another high-performing school employed a variety of visual, hands-on, and cooperative instructional methods to make sure their students succeeded. They regularly used learning games, manipulatives, technology, flow charts, hands-on projects, and graphic organizers that helped students connect their prior knowledge and experiences to the content their teachers were endeavoring to teach.

Gay (2010) argues that underachieving students from various racial/ ethnic groups would achieve much more if teachers taught to and through their students’ personal and cultural strengths, prior accomplishments, and experiences. In the award-winning schools we studied, we saw many examples of this type of instruction.

If I just have them [my students] do what’s in the textbook, they probably won’t understand. I’ve got to figure out how to make it come to life for them. Somehow, I’ve got to make it real to them.

At several schools, we saw innovative uses of art, music, dance, physical education, and drama to reinforce important academic concepts related to mathematics, reading, science, writing, and social studies. Teachers cleverly tapped into student interests and backgrounds in ways that helped students relate to and understand important academic concepts. Teachers used art to help students learn geometric concepts related to symmetry, rotation, and parallelism. They used sheet music to reinforce concepts and skills related to fractions. They used games played during physical education to help students practice multiplication facts.

While it is important to note that not every lesson was innovative or inspiring, at the high-performing schools we visited, we saw many examples of teachers presenting challenging academic content in ways that helped students relate the concepts and skills to their prior knowledge, interests, backgrounds, and cultures.

Teachers shared that the development of intriguing, powerful lessons took time and energy. Teachers shared that they worked in collaboration with their peers to build lessons that would create “aha” experiences in which students made sense of new concepts by connecting the new ideas to things they had experienced or things that interested or excited them. Often, teachers used collaboration times (e.g., department meetings, grade-level planning meetings, professional learning communities) to pool their best ideas and generate lessons that students would perceive as interesting, relevant, or even exciting.

Building Connections

Rarely did we see teachers relying solely upon textbooks or workbooks to teach challenging concepts or skills. In fact, we saw far fewer worksheets in high-performing schools in comparison with what we typically see in struggling urban schools. In contrast, we saw many more manipulatives, we heard many more real-life examples, and we heard many more student discussions about the connections between the academic standards they were learning and their interests, backgrounds, and concerns.

A math teacher at Franklin Towne Charter High in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, explained, “If I just have them [my students] do what’s in the textbook, they probably won’t understand. I’ve got to figure out how to make it come to life for them. Somehow, I’ve got to make it real to them.” Many teachers in the high-performing urban schools we studied evidenced a similar commitment.

Perhaps, it should go without saying that it is difficult to “connect” with someone you do not know. In order to create lessons that connect with students’ backgrounds, interests, culture, and prior knowledge, teachers must know their students. Teachers need to know what students find interesting and exciting. They need to know how students spend their time and what piques their interests. They need to know what students are most eager to read and what they stay up late to play on their technological devices. Teachers in high-performing urban schools take the time needed to learn about their students. They do so because they care. But also, they do so because they want to learn how to best tailor learning experiences in ways that spark the interests of their students.


What It Is

Getting to know one’s students

Example: A middle school teacher stands at the classroom door and greets students as they come into his science class. Before he asks one student to remove the headphones from his ears, he asks the student what song is playing. Quietly, he asks another student how his evening went. Then, as students are sitting down, he asks, “Who likes their music loud?” When almost all of the students roar affirmatively, he asks, “How loud is loud? How do you know how loud you like it?” Students can’t figure out how to respond. Then, the teacher explains that by the end of the class period, the students will know how to measure volume and pitch and assess risks to hearing.

What It Isn’t

Not taking time to get to know one’s students

Example: The middle school science teacher presents a lesson on sound volume and frequency by covering a worksheet that displays the typical decibel range of various types of noises and the sound frequency range of various symphonic instruments.

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