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  • by Blaine Helwig

Background Knowledge – Needed at All Ages!

After a night out at a local comedy venue with friends, we sat down a restaurant for a late night breakfast and conversation. Of course, the comedian’s jokes were a topic of conversation since the headliner’s reputation was of national stature. As we were relaying some of the more comical jokes we had heard, one of the women asked why the joke about a Kamikaze was so funny to the audience. With a couple questions to her, it became clear that she had no personal knowledge of the existence and aeronautic finality of Japanese Kamikaze pilots during World War II, and a comedian’s reference to Kamikaze pilot not needing a parachute, of course, would not be humorous to her. What she lacked was background knowledge to understand the joke, and more importantly – why the joke’s punchline was funny.

A similar thing happened to me last weekend. I felt like going to a movie – any movie currently playing. I was in the mood for an action film, so my wife and I decided to go watch the movie, The Fate of the Furious. This movie is the tenth sequel in the Fast and Furious series, and unfortunately, I had seen but two of the movies in this series. The obvious Kamikaze outcome occurred. We were trying to piece together dialogue references, new main characters and their roles the best we could throughout the movie. If we were to completely understand the dialogue and flow of sequences in Fate of the Furious, we would need to view more movies in this series. Our lack of background knowledge in the movie theatre is not a marked difference from a third grader seated in Title 1 classroom possessing primary grade level academic skill gaps – struggling to make learning connections

The Importance of Background Knowledge in Title 1 Classrooms

In Title 1 classrooms, the absence of academic background knowledge is a serious impediment to grade level learning. The lack of prerequisite skill knowledge creates a gap – a skill gap that slowly blossoms into an achievement gap – and unfortunately, the gap increases unless base level rudiments are properly founded.

If the skill gap is not effectively and efficiently addressed, the Title 1 classroom elementary teacher is an analogous comedian at a late night comedy club. The teacher stands in front of her class telling curricular ‘jokes’ to a classroom of students with deficient background knowledge to understand the learning connections. It is a frustrating experience for all involved, but the negative affect on children’s economic future is dramatic.

How can the Title 1 Background Knowledge Issue be Addressed?

Incredulously, in Title 1 elementary schools, it is not as difficult to academically ‘fix’ these skill gaps. Of course, it becomes much more difficult as the students are in higher grade levels. But, academic relief can occur as late as fifth grade with the effective and efficient methodology and perspiration – of course, it will always take concerted and focused effort to change a situation for the better. There is no getting around the fact that perspiration is required.

The literacy and numeracy stop-gap resources will significantly reduce the academic background knowledge. The stop-gap resources implemented with commitment and accountability are difference makers - the literacy fluency stop-gap programs begins in kindergarten whereas the numeracy and non-negotiable stop-gap programs are introduced in first grade.

Classrooms also require highly structured discipline management to preserve student learning minutes as well as specific instructional resources that replicate the expected grade level rigor. As expected, teacher training is necessary to standardize the process schoolwide. But, it is a series of planned events that heighten student achievement – it does not happen by accident.


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