In yesterday’s post, Building Background Knowledge: Who’s Doing the Work?, we shared a story of fifth grade students working with Cyrus Cassells’s “Soul Make a Path Through Shining,” a sophisticated poem about the Civil Rights Movement. Containing words like “minotaur,” “hydra-headed,” and “maelstrom” the difficult vocabulary presented itself as the most obvious obstacle to understanding the poem prompting the fifth graders to collectively share their knowledge of the hard words and look up others words they did not know. What we did not share yesterday, however, was that while this contributed to clearing up some confusion, most students did not emerge with a crystal clear understanding of the poem. They still felt like there were gaps in their understanding which meant that yet again, they were faced with a decision: Do I say “oh well” and call it good enough? Or do I continue to work to figure it out?
In fifth grade, informational reading standard seven requires that students “draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.” We have affectionately dubbed this “The Multi Media Standard” and are particularly drawn to the words “locate an answer to a question or to solve a problem efficiently.”
Yesterday we shared that the students thought of dictionary.com as a potential resource for solving the problem of lack of word knowledge. Surely, typing in a word and having the definition pop up is efficient. However, while lack of word knowledge was the only problem these children could identify, it was not the only problem these students faced. The other part of the problem was understanding the bigger context of the poem which required knowing about Elizabeth Eckford and her first day of school at Little Rock Central High School on September 4, 1957. But when Kim asked students what they might google in order to find additional information to help them construct greater meaning about this text, the students perseverated on words. In their minds, the best solution to figuring out this puzzle was making sure they knew every word in the poem.
As teachers, one of the daily dilemmas of our jobs is knowing when to let inquiry guide student learning and when to intervene with direct, explicit instruction. In this case, students needed to be taught how to further mine text for keywords that would assist their Google search for information to help them more thoroughly understand what they were reading. They needed to pay attention to the title of the poem and learn more about the poet. They needed the bit of introductory text that explained that Cassells wrote this poem after being inspired by the documentary Eyes on the Prize. And they needed a teacher to help them see their needs.
While many of our Common Core aligned lessons have students reading closely and carefully to cite evidence and make logical inferences, we can say that only a few have paid attention to standard number seven and the ways in which digital resources need to support students’ meaning making processes. As you consider ways to build background knowledge, we ask you to think about whether you, like us, have adequately addressed standard number seven and taught students to harness the power of the Internet. And as always, we ask you to share with us what you have done to support this effort!