One of the best ways to get a lesson off to a solid start is by activating your students’ schema. Okay, let’s just pause right there…schema? Seriously? Yeah, that was my first reaction to hearing that word, too. But it’s just a fancy term for an old concept. You probably know it best as “prior knowledge.” I wasn’t too sure how the word schema would go over with my 4th graders, but decided to give it a try. Of course, they loved it. Now, every time I mention activating their prior knowledge, at least one student blurts out, “Schema!” No, I’m not exaggerating. Every. Time. So much for my concerns… 🙂
Making Schema Concrete
I first introduced the concept of schema using the excellent lessons described in Tanny McGregor’s book Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Thinking. Her lessons were perfect for my co-teaching class because they were concrete, hands-on activities kids could do to help them understand the “mind work” of tapping into what you already know.
Integrating the Strategy
Once the foundation for schema had been laid, it was time to integrate it throughout our lessons. The wonderful thing about teaching a strategy like schema is that you can use it all day long in any lesson. Very practical. Plus, so many repetitions reinforces the idea with students that this is a strategy with real benefits. Oh, and there’s really not any way to do it wrong. I mean, schema is just what you already know about a topic. If you don’t know anything, that’s okay. No right or wrong answers frees kids up to reveal just how much background knowledge they bring to the lesson.
Using Videos to Activate Schema
Schema can be activated in all sorts of ways, but I’m really enjoying using short videos found on YouTube. It’s no secret that we live in an information age, and a lot of that information is transmitted visually. Isn’t Instagram just a visual form of Twitter? Oh, and I know many of you are fans of Pinterest. We like to get our info through pictures and videos as much as possible. Kids are no different. Just this week, we started reading Eye of the Storm about a photographer who specializes in extreme weather conditions. The context was Hurricane Andrew that hit Florida in 1992. Ummm…1992. None of my students were alive in 1992. How can I help them make connections with this event? That’s where my 7-minute video from YouTube comes in handy.
Virtual Field Trips
We’ve used short videos (so it doesn’t take a lot of instructional time) to learn about the gray whales just off the shore of Mexico, visiting Yosemite National Park, the history of Veterans Day and to hear calypso music from the Caribbean. Watching these short video clips really engages my students in the lesson, too. It’s like taking a virtual field trip to another part of the planet or traveling in a time machine to the events of the past. When the video is over, I build on what we just watched by doing a Turn-and-Talk. Students simply turn to a partner and talk about what they just saw. This is also a good time to invite questions so they can help make sense of the video and how it connects with what we will be learning.
If you work in a school district that has blocked access to YouTube, you can get around that obstacle by using either SafeShare.tv or SaveTube.com. You can read about how to use those sites on a previous post I wrote – Videos: Saving and Sharing. Look through your curriculum and consider topics that your students may have weak background knowledge. That’s usually a good place to start. Before long, you’ll have a collection of short videos to show your students. Maybe they will even shout, “Schema!” when you press play!