Building Background Knowledge

Our district has adopted a focus strategy this year of building background knowledge in order to help all learners access the content. I begin semester two teaching the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell. I take the following steps to help build background knowledge and increase engagement with the text.

I. Anticipation Guide: Class Discussion

I embed a Google form version of an anticipation/reaction guide that requires students to think about statements that link thematically to the novel. After filling in their initial reactions, students have a discussion about how they reacted to the statements; they are then required to complete the short answer questions related to their Lit Circle discussions. After submitting their Google Form,  I then open up a whole class discussion in which students talk about their smaller discussions.

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II. Flip Instruction w/ a W-S-Q

Typically, I would present a mini-lecture or show a short clip in class that provides some basic background on the Russian Revolution. However, now I link the video to my Haiku page and have students complete a W-S-Q via Google form (watch the video, summarize the video, and pose a question) at home. This is a strategy created by my DLC, Crystal Kirch. If you want more info see her blog!


I then get to school a bit early the next day and sort the Google Form results by their “Point of Confusion” questions. I take the top six most often asked questions and post them around the room at what I call their “parking lots” (since I have six Lit Circles per period, we have six parking lot locations). Students rotate with their Lit Circles reading, discussing and answering the questions. Once all groups have discussed all six questions, each group must share out the response to the question that is posted to their original parking lot.

We then play a review game with quizizz. I love quizizz because the game is self-paced and the questions pop up on the students’ screens. Depending on their responses, a funny meme will appear on their screen. The site tracks correct responses and time to give each student an overall score (much like Kahoot). Whoever has the highest score earns a participation point for each person in their Lit Circle.

III. Socratic Smackdown

I discovered the Socratic Smackdown one day while researching resources for Socratic Seminars. This creates a higher level of engagement with the seminars due to the competitive/game aspect of the strategy. Essentially, my students are posed with the question: what makes an effective leader? and they attempt to answer the question with peers in an inner circle. I do offer one article to start their research, but in Lit Circles students must do their own research and also reference the first two chapters of Animal Farm . In Lit Circles, they have about 1 full day to research and prepare questions on a shared Google Document.

The day of the Smackdown, there are six rounds of Socratic Seminar that are timed for six minutes. During each round, a Lit Circle must send up a new speaker for the inner circle. Each speaker is scored by a different student who is not speaking in the inner circle on a scorecard and Google Form. Each individual score is added to the overall team score. During each round, the outer circle is either scoring, giving feedback to their teams’ speaker via the shared Google Document, and/or participating in a discussion on the back channel with Today’s Meet. The winning teams each period earn 5 bonus points.

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Do you have a favorite, engaging way to build background knowledge before starting your units of study? Please share!!