Monday, March 30, 2015

Background Knowledge

Last week I hurriedly grabbed a non-fiction book I thought would be perfect for teaching that we can make inferences with non-fiction texts. VGLA binders (the alternative to the state assessment for students who are learning English) are due in less than a month and we are frantically trying to get them completed. I was really focused on getting a text that would lend itself to inferences and would be at the right reading level (which is harder than you think. Inferring from non-fiction turns out to be not nearly as simple as with fiction.)

So I sat down in my group of two and explained the worksheet in front of them. In the first box they would need to record their background knowledge on the book's topic, then record what the text said in the next box, and then write the inferences they made in the last box. They nodded along until I handed them the book, titled "Africa". One student messily scribbled, "Africa is big," as his background knowledge. Fair enough. I don't know what other background knowledge a fourth grader in Virginia would necessarily  have. Yet the other student stared at me awhile before she wrote, "Africa is a wonderful place to live but you can't go into the forest by yourself or you might get hurt." Then her pencil hovered over the paper for awhile as though she couldn't decide to write next.

That's when I realized. In my frantic focus on teaching nonfiction inferences I'd forgotten about the actual students I was working with. She was from Africa. A year ago she was still living in Africa. And here I was asking her to tell me her background knowledge on the entire massive continent. You know, just write a few sentences in this tiny box to pretty much sum up the place you called home until a few months ago.

She looked at me and began to tell me a story about her and her mom back in their kitchen in Africa. The other member of the group stopped reading and we both sat and just listened- her insights about how different her kitchen was there were far more interesting than what we could find in the leveled text book I'd chosen. Slowly I took the worksheet away and replaced it with a piece of blank notebook paper. She didn't need to worry about fitting her story into a box- just write what comes. We'll figure out non-fiction inferences another day.

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