Margin Notes



In Why Do I Have to Read This?: Literacy Strategies to Engage Our Most Reluctant Students by Cris Tovani she shares her use of Background Knowledge Placemats.

What it is: A collection of images, statistics, infographics, quotes, and excerpts of longer pieces of text placed together on a large sheet of paper (legal or ledger) that can be used to both build and assess students’ background knowledge on any topic of study.

Here is one we made for the beginning of a unit on homelessness.

Students can be provided with individual copies of the placemat, or placed in small groups, and are invited to read whatever it is that grabs their attention on the placemat. One of the beautiful things about this activity is that it is accessible to a wide range of readers because students students can choose to read a single item on the placemat or they may choose to read everything on the placemat.

Students are then asked to respond to their reading on two sticky notes. On one sticky note the students are asked to write one thing they think they “get” from the information on the placemat and on the other they write one thing they are wondering.




Here is an example from Cris Tovani’s students studying Syria:

After students read the placemat and complete their sticky notes, here is what happens:

  • Students can leave their stickies around the placemats and groups can rotate around to see their classmates thinking and wondering before the teacher collects them.
  • Once they are collected, the teacher can use the sticky notes to help determine texts that answer the questions that students have on the topic.
  • Teachers can then create a handout of the students thinking and wonderings for the next day for students to read through (the goal being to include a response from every student).
  • Students can then respond to one or two ideas that stand out to them on the handout.
  • In the goal of building community, students can then be asked to find the students who wrote the annotation(s) they chose to respond to and tell them why it stood out to them (maybe it echoed their own thinking, made them think differently, etc).

Here is an excerpt of the handout Cris Tovani made after collecting her students’ placemats on Syria:

Tovani, Cris. Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Stenhouse, 2004.

The placemats and sticky notes can be displayed to remind both teacher and students of the questions that need answered as they move forward with the topic they are studying.

To read more on the use of Background Knowledge Placemats we recommend reading Why Do I Have to Read This?: Literacy Strategies to Engage Our Most Reluctant Students by Cris Tovani.

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