September 22 — 11:00 pm, 2004

Connecting students with the curriculum takes time

"Does North Philly have Olympics?" One of my third-grade students asked this as I introduced the new story to be covered in the District’s core curriculum for language arts.

I stood there amazed, not knowing what to reply. If I answered no, I might lose my students’ interest. If I answered yes, I would be lying.

I decided to ask my students who had heard of the Olympics. Only one hand was raised. I asked that student to tell the class what he knew about the Olympics, and he replied, "It’s a big sports competition where people all over the world participate."

Although I was happy with his response, the other students just continued to stare in confusion.

So I embarked on the journey of explaining the Olympics: what they are, why they are important, and other information I thought would capture their interest.

While most of my students still looked at me with confused eyes, I saw that I’d ignited a small spark in one – perhaps what I needed to make my lesson effective. He raised his hand, and I gave him a turn to speak.

"It’s like a big field day, Miss!" he said.

"Yes! Yes!" I replied gladly.

After that we had a great discussion. I offered important facts about the Olympics and encouraged the students to ask questions. They wanted to know how the athletes are chosen, how many years they train, and whether they miss their parents when they are away. These questions helped them anticipate what would happen in the story we were about to read and made them more interested in the lesson.

But it took about thirty minutes to ignite that spark. To my students – most of whom are Hispanic and live in the low-income Norris Square area – the Olympics were a foreign topic.

Many of my students rarely leave their neighborhood. Thus, what they know is shaped by these surroundings. Their experiences often have little to do with the topics and themes covered in the core curriculum.

However, this in no way means that my students are not able to learn about more than their neighborhood experiences. They are just as capable of high achievement as other children. But in order to achieve at high levels, they need the material they are learning to be relevant to their experiences. At the very least, students (and their teachers) need time to build new knowledge in a way that can be applicable to their everyday lives.

Like the example of my student’s knowledge of athletic competition in school field days, our students do possess knowledge that teachers can use as a starting point for a lesson. However, teachers need time to draw out this information and help students make connections.

Unfortunately, story topics in the core curriculum – like Alaska, deserts, and sea turtles – don’t connect to our students’ lives, and therefore, more time is required to access prior knowledge and make lessons more meaningful and effective.

When the literature in the curriculum does address Hispanic cultural experiences, it is by using ethnic names and national information. But including names such as Juan and Maria does not mean that the curriculum meets some multicultural requirement. Multicultural education needs to be seen as a way to address the needs of students from different backgrounds in the classroom – as more than heroes, holidays, customs and costumes.

During my drive home that afternoon, I reflected upon the day and wondered how different the outcome would have been if I had not taken the time to capture the children’s interest.

Would they have been as engaged and active in the lesson, or would they have been wondering about recess?

Activating prior knowledge does lead to better comprehension, but it creates an immense challenge for teachers who have super-structured schedules and mandated instructional topics. Teachers have 120 minutes during the daily literacy block to cover all the scripted information in the teachers’ curriculum guide.

I understand that standards need to be taught to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind, and teachers need to "teach to proficiency." But I once heard a colleague say, "When did we start teaching to proficiency instead of kids?" I couldn’t agree more.

In my two years of teaching, I have realized that if students cannot relate what is being taught to their lives, it will remain a distant concept. However, when teachers facilitate connections and open discussions, there is more room for students to absorb information.

Our students need time to make sense of the material being presented, which is the ultimate goal in teaching our children to read.

And doing so involves time to capture their interest, engage them in discussion, and guide them towards formulating questions on the topics presented.

Without this, teachers cannot ignite the spark.

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