June 22, 2016

The Power of Memorable Learning Experiences

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Oftentimes, as teachers, we face the dilemma of wanting students to read an article or story when we know they have little or no background knowledge about the topic. For example, maybe we’d like to share Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say with students. We want them to marvel at the relationship between Pinkus and Sheldon, but without understanding the relationship between blacks and whites during the 1860s and a brief history of the Civil War, we know that our students won’t be able to fully understand the depth of its uniqueness. So what do we do? We fill in the gaps.  We begin talking about what life was like in the 1800s.  We describe slavery. We talk about the Civil War and then we read aloud or ask the students to read the text themselves, depending on their age and ability. When all is said and done, the burden of connecting this new background knowledge to the new text falls on us. We do all the work.

Furthermore, we must ask ourselves: Is this powerful enough for students to really understand? Just because we provide students this information, have we given them what they need to mine the text for its deepest meanings and ideas?

We suspect that more times than not, our attempts to fill in the gaps in this way are not memorable enough to act as the solid foundation students need to deepen their understanding of new concepts.  Building background knowledge needs to be an active process that requires students to “survey (know where to look), excavate (bring it to the surface), and analyze (examine it closely) (Fisher and Frey, Building Background Knowledge, p. 34, 2009). If our objective is to teach children what it means to set a goal and make plans to achieve it, we’ve got to create a learning experience that won’t be easily forgotten.

So, what constitutes a memorable learning experience? If you polled children about the parts of their school experience that they remember best, many would recount a favorite story that a teacher read aloud. Still to this day, Kim can remember sitting at the edge of her seat waiting with Ramona “for the present” while her second grade teacher read aloud Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest. Stories allow children opportunities to experience the unfamiliar while at the same time giving them a chance to wrestle with issues that remain universal in our lives.(Gallagher, p. 66, Readicide, 2009) Read aloud remains one of the most inviting and memorable experiences we know for building background knowledge so before you read aloud or ask students to read Pink and Say, don’t tax yourself with recounting a brief history of the Civil War.  Instead, consider channelling your efforts toward finding informational texts and other stories about slavery and the Civil War that serve as a companion to Pink and Say. Read aloud and help students BUILD the background knowledge they need to understand.

Fisher, Douglas, and Nancy Frey. Background Knowledge: The Missing Piece of the Comprehension Puzzle. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009. Print.

Gallagher, Kelly, and Richard L. Allington. Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2009. Print.


  1. “…we must ask ourselves: Is this (teacher provided background) powerful enough for students to really understand? Just because we provide students this information, have we given them what they need to mine the text for its deepest meanings and ideas?”

    As usual, B&Y, much to think about here. These lines help remind me to situate more complex texts (like Pink and Say) within a larger period of inquiry that might be supported by other texts and conversation. I can see how those would allow us to keep going back to Pink and Say to re-read as we get more and more information about a particular issue or event. Also, it would allow the children enough time to develop that emotional / intellectual connection that I think is at the root of “background knowledge” you cite. What’s cool about a good book like P&S is that it can “work” on many levels. The story is compelling enough without knowing everything. Yet, the questions it generates can take a lifetime to ponder.

    As we read Pink and Say this year in my third grade classroom, the kids kept a list of questions they had about parts of the story that didn’t make sense to them. My thought was to bring these questions to the surface so we could use them as we embarked on a study of slavery and post-CW segregation. Examples of their questions included these: Why was the master’s house destroyed? Where did they go? Why couldn’t Pinkus use guns to fight in the war? Who are the marauders and why did they do that stuff? What was Andersonville? Why did the people there treat the prisoners so mean? Why weren’t slaves allowed to learn to read, and why did Aylee teach Pinkus anyway? What happened to slaves after the war? And a bunch of other questions about slavery: how could anyone do such a thing? Where did slaves come from? What happened after the war?

    In another life, I taught a course on the Civil War and Reconstruction at the U of MN. Some of the questions the kids identified from a single, rich book have kept scholars writing for many, many years. If we can somehow help the children understand how important it is to ask and keep these kinds of questions in their hearts through the years, they will have rich and interesting lives, indeed.

    Thanks for helping me to think.

    • Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris says:

      Steve, the gratitude for pushing and stretching thinking is mutual. We look forward to and appreciate your comments as they always add another layer to our thinking about the topics that we are “on about”!

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