On Background Knowledge

Listen.

You don’t get to teach the kids you prefer to teach.

You don’t get to pick the ones who meet your ideal.

That isn’t who you were hired to serve.

You were hired to serve the kids who walk through your door each day.

Want to help them?

Watch them. Listen to them. Think about them. Create for them. Let them create for you and for others.

Teach them, and quit comparing them to the mythological students in your head. You know….the ones who don’t scare you or disrespect you or make you feel like a complete failure sometimes (or even most of the time).

They aren’t going to be like the kids certain professors may have promised you (and that might be a good thing).

They aren’t going to be like her students or his or hers or hers or his. They aren’t going to be like the ones I write about here. That’s okay…in fact, that’s the point.

They are their own, and you deserve to get to know them so you can teach them.

Now that I’ve spent nearly two decades listening to way too many teachers tell me that their students lack background knowledge–that in fact, some of them have NONE, (None! Do you seriously believe this?) I just have to ask…what background knowledge might you missing about your students? And what are you doing to fill that void?

They know more than you think they do.

Study them.

Pay attention.

They can teach you the things you might be missing.

They can build your background knowledge.

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10 Comments

  1. Tracy Rosen says:

    Angela, I absolutely love this. Absolutely.
    Reminds me of what I wrote yesterday in Lessons for the Classroom From a Newborn about listening and providing.

    http://leadingfromtheheart.org/2011/02/19/lessons-for-the-classroom-from-a-newborn/

    Ps – I finally got back to you on that great comment you left 3 (oy) months ago about acknowledging that social networking is not all positive. Sorry for the delay, 3rd trimester, childbirth, and finally my beautiful newborn took over!

    http://leadingfromtheheart.org/2011/02/20/social-networking-and-life-balance-do-we-even-know-what-that-is-responding-to-angela-stockman/

    • Angela says:

      No apologies! You’ve been a little busy, and I’ve hardly been keeping up here this year : )) It’s hard to try to do it all–believe me, I get that! I’m so happy for you and your family, and I appreciate any chance we get to touch base, Tracy. Thank you so much for dropping by here. Going to visit you later!

  2. Audhilly says:

    entirely agree, but hate the piety that presumes that we need this reminder. Use “I” statements. Also, don’t ask teachers to lie about the background knowledge their kids need to have in order to succeed in the content area. Growth requires truth telling, not fuzzy criteria and vaseline lenses

    • Angela says:

      I apologize that you took offense to this, Audhilly. Piety wasn’t my aim, but I can see how you interpreted it that way. My intention was to push a bit of thinking around the assumptions I hear many people make regarding what background knowledge is, which background knowledge matters most and serves learners in the long run, and even what it really means to be a teacher. I am frustrated by those teachers who tell me that kids have no background knowledge and then go on to assign them tasks that offer them no opportunity to show what they DO know or make use of their many varied talents and skills in a way that can help them make meaning of content. I work with a ton of teachers who have taken significant steps to learn more about who their kids really are, what they really love to do, and how they can create more opportunities for them to connect that to the content that often seems elusive to them. I tend to get a bit fired up when I watch those teachers come under attack for trying in this way…..particularly by peers who still have kids sitting silently in rows while they preach their content to them. Seriously? This post speaks to those who practice that kind of piety and who make no apologies for it.

      I’m not sure where I asked teachers to lie about the background knowledge kids need in order to succeed in the content area, though. I’m all about tight criteria, clearly defined purposes, and measuring the effectiveness of what we do. I spend every day of the week walking that talk, and I have to smile to myself here–most of the criticism I receive has to do with the fact that I’m too criteria and evidence-based in my efforts to help kids succeed. This is refreshing : )

      I agree with you—growth requires truth telling. The most important truths that need to be spoken are the ones that our students have to share. When someone tells me kids don’t have background knowledge, I gotta wonder how often they are asking kids to tell their stories and speak their truth, and I gotta wonder how much of an effort is being made to help those kids see the connections between their truth and what happens at school.

      I don’t presume that every teacher needs this reminder. In fact, many that I know don’t. This is a shout out to them…and maybe even for them and their students.

  3. Noelle says:

    I didn’t take offense because of the “you” that was used to write this wonderful piece on the assumptions that many teachers (myself included occasionally) have about students’ background knowledge. I actually took it as a reminder and as confirmation of what I already know. I always TRY to listen well to my students and I TRY to figure out how to access the background knowledge they already have so that I can build upon it and help them connect new knowledge to it in meaningful ways. But every so often there comes a student that I have a hard time connecting with or for whom I don’t seem to be able to find a way in to their inner world. Then I get frustrated and it’s easy to blame the child when I think that I’ve exhausted all other avenues. So I don’t take this entry as an assault on my imperfection as a teacher, but as a reminder not to give up and keep listening and searching for a new path in the hearts and minds of each child I have.

    • Angela says:

      “So I don’t take this entry as an assault on my imperfection as a teacher, but as a reminder not to give up and keep listening and searching for a new path in the hearts and minds of each child I have.”

      That’s what I was hoping for. This year, in particular, nearly every conversation I’ve had with teachers has been around the fear they are all feeling as a result of any number of things. I think this makes people less willing to take the risks necessary to putting kids in control of their learning, and this concerns and saddens me. When I help kids connect what they know and love OUTSIDE of school to the content I am trying to share with them, we’re all far more successful. I also know that real teaching involves assessing who kids are, what kids need, and creating spaces where learning happens. I don’t know how this can happen if teachers continue to live in fear of mistakes—theirs or the ones that their students might make. The best teaching I see is often an act of courage. It’s a willingness to try something new, something different, something that is truly meaningful and that will produce something that really matters. That is hard, exhausting work that is often riddled with error or the uncovering of what isn’t working. You speak to the importance of just listening….of maintaining some level of curiosity rather than feeling pressured to always “know” or have an answer. I really value this. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts here.

  4. Angela,
    Thanks so much for this post. Such great reminders.

  5. Angela says:

    @Karen–thank you for taking the time to comment and share. It means a great deal to know that others read and think about the stuff I share here. I learn a lot along the way too. This was a different “style” of writing for me–trying to get away from posts that are relatively informative but dry. It’s interesting to see how people respond to that.

  6. Angela~
    Great post! Very thought provoking, I often feel all my kids are missing my understanding of them. All my kids come to me just the way they are suppose to, perfect! It’s my challenge to see all they have to offer and help them grow. Seems to me I am the one who often lacks the background knowledge. i feel its our job as educators to seek this knowledge in order to serve the fabulous kids in our charge~I view my job as a privilege.

  7. Angela says:

    @Deb–I agree with you: it is a privilege. Sometimes, I think it is easy to lose sight of that, given the challenges teachers face each day. When I think of teaching in those terms though, and especially when I think of making an effort to connect kids’ real background knowledge to content area understandings, I’m reminded of how many times I’ve felt rewarded by that work. That’s when it feels like a privilege. I’ve noticed that challenging behaviors decrease when these kinds of connections can be made, too.

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