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Building Knowledge in Our Youngest Learners

By Joy Cantey

Building Knowledge in Our Youngest Learners

So much of the national discussion on the science of reading is focused on phonics, and while teaching the code is critical, what’s not talked about as much is knowledge building. Building knowledge must be acknowledged as an imperative part of teaching reading, especially in the early grades when teachers can share rich information about the world through read-alouds.

But what happens if the curriculum we are asked to teach inhibits our ability to help students build coherent background knowledge? How do we address barriers that hinder students’ understanding of concepts that enable meaning-making? Consider the disconnects in shaping background knowledge in the following real-life examples from my own experience as a parent and educator.

  • My daughter’s class was doing a reading unit on kings and queens, and there were no stories or pictures of rulers of color. My daughter was a kindergartner, a Black girl, experiencing this content. The teacher’s not explicitly saying that queens are only white women, but when every woman is white and blonde in every picture in the read-aloud, what’s the takeaway for a young person of color?
  • I live in North Carolina. We had an English Language Arts curriculum resource aligned to state history standards, which we teach in fourth and eighth grade, that did not include any information about the Greensboro Four, who staged the sit-in at Woolworths. No mention. This is a significant historical event celebrated in our community that launched the sit-in movement to integrate lunch counters, and it was completely overlooked in a resource on the importance of our state on the national stage.
  • Where I taught, we have an indigenous population of students who represent several local tribes. Yet, the narrative about their communities in our curriculum was in the past tense. I had students sitting right there in my classroom who were very much a part of those tribes and very much alive, but the curriculum would lead children to think that these communities were historical and didn’t exist anymore.
  • In a second-grade unit on immigration, students had a homework assignment to ask where their families came from. This could be problematic in general, but what was worse was that the teacher’s guide essentially said to ignore it if students came back and said that their ancestors had been enslaved. The guidance was to tell them: “we’re not focused on that right now.”

The curriculum used to teach our young people to build their knowledge about the world has power that is “legacy building,” leaving an imprint on students’ lives. But how can curriculum connect to and build background knowledge in healthy and holistic ways when young children receive messages about themselves and others that are incomplete, inaccurate, and potentially harmful, resulting, in some instances, in misconceptions that can create barriers to future learning or worse long-term negative messages about their identity?

While the written curriculum is a helpful tool that gives us a basic scope and sequence for building content knowledge, educators need to understand the written curriculum is not enough as is. When I was a teacher, we regularly had to take a step back and look at how the curriculum was building background information for our students. We needed to look at the messaging and accuracy in texts that could impact our students’ ability to make meaning. We worked with our students to write publishers to provide feedback. We supplemented, enriched, and connected content to students’ lives and community knowledge.

Then, when I was a district curriculum director, we brought teams of teachers together as a formal practice to analyze curricular content to create resources and tools to help teachers in our schools consider how to navigate, expand, and contextualize units for the specific community of learners they served. We developed structures for Professional Learning Communities to do some of this work together with ideas and suggestions for making modifications aligned with the particular needs of their school and community.

When I was a teacher, we regularly had to take a step back and look at how the written curriculum was building background information for our students.

It wasn’t just about expanding access to the curriculum; it was about enhancing the quality of the curriculum in terms of knowledge building for all kids, not just students of color. It was about creating curricula that provided, to borrow Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor, windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors so that young learners could recognize themselves, learn about people who live differently, and embrace the possibility of stepping into new ways of being when their teachers read to them. It’s what we need to do, as Django Paris tells us, to sustain and extend “the richness of our pluralist society,” a richness that “includes all of the languages, literacies, and cultural ways of being that our students and communities embody — both those marginalized and dominant.”

And the best part is, doing this kind of collaborative curriculum analysis work provides exceptional professional learning opportunities for teachers. There’s immense value in coming together as a diverse group of professionals with different perspectives to strengthen the student experience of the curriculum. It is powerful when teachers consider the content, who their students are, and who they are to shape what will happen in the classroom. There are also opportunities for BIPOC colleagues to share stories, knowledge, and perspectives that might not be captured in the curriculum as written, elevating their voices as leaders in our professional communities. And so often, in my experience, there are those beautiful moments where everybody’s thinking together to build something greater, and we all get smarter together.

This type of intellectual preparation for teaching exemplifies the dynamic relationship between knowing the content and knowing students, which is so central to the vision for education outlined in NTC’s Elephant in the (Class)room. It enables educators to work in and build community in service to our students. Deconstructing and reconstructing the narrative being prioritized and putting it back together enhances the implementation of the curriculum, providing the rich learning experiences our students, especially our youngest learners, deserve as they build knowledge of themselves, each other, and the world around them.

Joy Cantey is senior director of Program Design at New Teacher Center.