My Brain is a File Cabinet

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SWBAT: metacognitively identify when they have schema about a certain topic as they read independently.

Big Idea

When students are able to use background knowledge when they read, the ability to comprehend is drastically improved. And that's a good thing!

Guiding Question

5 minutes

In my district, students come to middle school understanding the thinking strategies, but I was finding that they weren't able to answer the "why." My Guiding Question addresses that:


When my students respond to my Guiding Question (it's on the overhead each day), they spend no more than five minutes answering the question or prompt in their Writer's Notebooks. These are regular Composition notebooks students keep in my classroom. Each day, they jot down the date, but don't have to write the question. I want it as informal as possible. Sometimes a student will just write a bulleted list, and that's okay with me. The purpose is to get students in the mode of the lesson and the Guiding Questions is meant to, well, guide them.

At the end of 5 minutes, we have a quick share-out and jump into the mini-lesson.


15 minutes

Unfortunately, having children, I've seen way too many episodes of Spongebob. Fortunately, so have my students! 

Here's what I tell my students: When I think of background knowledge, I think of our brains being like file cabinets. Each file in the cabinet is full of information. In thinking about our read-aloud book right now, Ninth Ward, I'll use the example of "hurricanes." I have a file folder in my file cabinet brain marked "hurricanes." When I'm reading a text, and it mentions hurricanes, I get that file out and go through the entire file (this happens, by the way, at the speed of light!).

When our book first mentioned hurricanes, my brain was connecting to the time I was in a hurricane. I was at a hotel, and I can still visualize the pool chairs blowing all over the place. In the same file are news stories about hurricanes, news images of weather maps showing hurricanes, and on and on!

And then I saw a Spongebob episode that reiterated this notion!

I can't upload the actual link, but I can refer you here to the episode, entitled "Squilliam Returns."

In the episode, SpongeBob must empty his mind of everything. The visual is perfect for what I'm trying to get my students to understand: little versions of Spongebob are opening file cabinets and dumping out files.

The episode is about ten minutes long and I want my students to really only connect to the visual, so I don't have them record anything about the show. Afterward, we have a quick talk about how what SpongeBob was doing was erasing his Background Knowledge. Eek!

It's important for students to be metacognitive and to notice when they have a connection to something. Metacognition is a way for students to self-regulate: they may understand when to go full-steam-ahead with a text if they have a lot of schema, or when to slow down through a text because they need to fill in those gaps. Common Core wants students to be able to understand what texts say both explicitly and to draw inferences. Connecting to background knowledge is really the base of that, I think.

 For the second half of the Work Time, we read aloud from our book, Ninth Ward. As I'm reading students have their Writer's Notebooks, and are working hard to make those connections to self, or using background knowledge.

Work Time

20 minutes

For the work time, I give students time to practice using Background Knowledge during their independent reading. During this time, I'm conferring with students and beginning each meeting with a question like, "What text-to-self connections are you able to make in this book?" If the student is unable, I'll read from their book until I'm able to make a connection and model it again. Then, it'll be the student's turn. I won't leave the conferring session until that child is able to demonstrate making that connection.

For the kiddos that I'm unable to meet with, I ask that they read their books through that Background Knowledge lens, and if they are able to make connections, to quickly jot it down in their notebooks.

If a kid cannot make a connection, here's what I attempt:

Wrap Up

5 minutes

Students choose a Reflection stems each day that will jump start their reflection. After a lesson like this, one that will help with their self-efficacy, students will usually use something like, "Today I rocked Language Art because I made a ton of connections in my book." Or sometimes they'll capture some of the thinking related to our Read Aloud, and they'll say something like, "I think Lanesha is going to find her father."

They really have a lot of freedom using these stems. I literally only give them 3 minutes at the very end of class to choose a stem and write a one-sentence reflection in their notebooks.

Here's a reflection stem from another lesson: