Schema: Why It Matters- Using Schema to Deepen Understanding

Boy lying in grass reading a book in a summer field

It was my favorite time of the school day.  I had called my students to join me on the classroom meeting rug and we were about to embark on our first reading mini lesson of the school year!  While I was looking forward to this cozy time with my students, it was obvious, after three inquiries about the proximity of recess, that they somehow weren’t feeling the same way.  Not to worry, I thought to myself, they just don’t know yet how special a time this really is!  I pulled out the book I intended to talk with them about that day, Blind Your Ponies by Gordon West.

Isn’t that a grown-up book?” a boy in the back asked.

“It is.”

“Are you going to read it to us?” a girl added.

“No.  This is a grown-up book that I have read.  I brought it in so that I could talk to you about my life as a reader.”

At this point the students seemed to be perking up!  A boy in the back who had been staring at the ceiling, now leaned forward, and made eye contact.  I could feel the weight in the room shift towards my chair.  Kids are accustomed to hearing adults tell them how they think kids should be reading, however, they have very little experience with adults authentically talking about their grown-up reading experiences, all of the messy parts included.  We don’t always finish the books we start.  We don’t always choose high quality literature.  This is a window into a world they are genuinely interested in.  

Blind Your Ponies is a book about a teacher who lives in Montana.  He is also a basketball coach.  I brought this book in because I wanted to share with you a time when I read a book and couldn’t finish it.  The first time I tried to read this book I was living in Japan.  I had just received it in a care package along with a couple Kit Kat bars and some hair gel.  I wasn’t teaching yet and I had only driven through Montana a couple of times as a kid.  I also wasn’t yet married to a basketball coach!  I read two chapters and abandoned it.  I just wasn’t interested.  Years later, I was moving into my first home.  I had been living in Montana for a few years and was teaching.  I pulled Blind Your Ponies out of a dusty box that had been sitting in my storage unit for years.  That night, I couldn’t find anything on TV so decided to give it a second try.  At two in morning, I was still reading.  I couldn’t put it down!  Now, I can honestly say Blind Your Ponies is one of the best books I have ever read.  Why do you think my experience was so different the second time?”  

Hands went up.

“Well, you said the book was about a teacher who lives in Montana.  The first time you tried to read it you weren’t a teacher and you weren’t living in Montana.  Maybe you weren’t interested the first time because you didn’t know anything about it.”

“That same thing happened to me once.  I tried to read Little House on the Prairie last year and didn’t like it.  Over the summer, I read it again and liked it,” a boy added.

“Maybe your schema changed.  Our schema is all of the experiences we’ve had.  It’s all the things we know about.  The first time I read Blind Your Ponies I didn’t have any schema for the things the book was about.  The second time I read it I had grown so much as a person.  My schema had grown because I had new experiences.  I could see Montana in my mind when I read the book this time and I could understand how the main character felt because I knew what it was like to be a teacher, especially a teacher in a small town in Montana.  We use our schema to help us understand what we read and because of this, it is important to think about our schema when choosing a just right book.”

Rosenblatt, noted Barnard English Literature Professor and author of Literature as Exploration, uniquely sums up my thinking about the importance of using schema to access text, when she writes, “Books do not simply happen to people.  People happen to books.” Every time we engage with a book we bring ourselves to meet the text.  It is through the meeting of our schema and the text that we embark on a unique experience that is completely our own.  Recent Common Core fueled arguments denounce personal interpretations of the text.  These arguments ask students to focus on the text itself without pondering their personal responses to it.  It is my opinion, however, that while the Common Core Standards are rightfully asking us to focus closely on what the the text says explicitly, they aren’t asking us to ignore our own personal interactions with it.  In actuality, the Common Core Standards indirectly urge students to use their schema when they ask students to refer to details and examples in the text when drawing inferences from it.  One of the most valuable strategies an expert reader uses is that of inference and reading between the lines.  Expert readers are able to make these educated guesses because they bring their previous knowledge with them when they read.  They must use details and examples from the text in conjunction with their own world knowledge to make sense of what they are reading.  Words are truly just marks on a page until we bring our minds and experiences to meet them.  

With this in mind, I spend a great deal of time talking with students about their schema and how to use it to better make sense of the text.  During class read alouds, I pause often and talk about the schema I have for a particular passage and how I am using it to make sense of what I am reading.  My students also create schema posters that hang on the classroom wall. These posters provide a place for students to record significant areas of personal schema.  This will not be a new activity this year, however, for the first time I am asking students to revisit their schema poster each quarter to make necessary modifications.  I am so excited for them to discover that their schema will grow and change throughout the year.   In turn, they will become better equipped and able to access a richer and deeper array of texts.  What an exciting journey teachers have the privilege of accompanying their students on!

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A Schema Mini-Lesson with free printable is available at our TPT Store! Enjoy!

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