A Questionable Schema

by Robert Pondiscio
November 12th, 2012

Here’s a charming group of second graders singing the “Background Knowledge Song” to the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine.

The words are a little difficult to understand, which might indicate the kids themselves aren’t entirely clear on the lyrics.  But the ditty seems to be a reading strategies lesson, reminding the kids to “check my schema” when they read to ensure comprehension.

“Think about all the things I know about the text before I read.
Building schema really helps me comprehend the words I read.
While I’m reading, I keep thinking ‘Does what I read make sense to me?’
If it doesn’t I check my schema, then I re-read carefully.

“Building schema, building schema
I do it every time I read.
Because it gives me background knowledge
For the next books that I read”

I don’t wish to be overly critical of an earnest attempt to make kids better readers.  But does it really help second graders’ comprehension to toss around (let alone sing about) terms like “building schema?”   I’m skeptical.  The word itself is more jargon than vocabulary.  Call it the Lipnicki Effect.  It’s cute, funny and sometimes impressive to hear arcane facts and fancy words come out of the mouths of small children, but is there any educational value?   Perhaps the better question is what’s the better use of instructional time:  teaching kids to activate their background knowledge when they read? Or actually building background knowledge?

Sorry, I meant schema.



  1. Robert, you are being far too kind. This song combines elements of the laughable, the banal, and the revolting. And as you point out, all they’re getting from this is jargon.

    They’d learn more if they sang about a “miner, forty-niner” and “herring boxes without topses.” Plus they’d be singing a good song.

    This is part of your point, I realize. But it’s a situation that, in my view, does not call for tact.

    This is no reflection on the kids, who are cheerfully doing what they’ve been taught and are probably welcoming the opportunity to sing.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 12, 2012 @ 11:17 am

  2. Diana — I always thought it was “WEARING boxes without topses.” Thank you for increasing my background knowledge!

    (Agree with everything you wrote — this is horrid.)

    Comment by Ann Wexler — November 12, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

  3. I too thought it was “wearing boxes.” And something else that never occurred to me until I went to look up the lyrics based on Diana’s post: I never connected the fact that poor, dear Clementine’s feet were so big (her shoes were Number nine) that her wearing (herring or otherwise) boxes without topses was the cause of her untimely death. The song clearly states she “Hit her foot against a splinter/Fell into the foaming brine.” So the splinter was INSIDE the box.

    Poor girl.

    And you’re both right. The song really is horrible and indefensible (the background knowledge song, not Clementine). I’ll try not to be so nice in the future.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 12, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

  4. Truth be known, all music teachers worth their salt LOATHE being forced to teach such tripe. We would much prefer kids learn the original as well.

    Comment by Miss Friday — November 12, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

  5. Personally I like to make beauty –along with truth and goodness –a criterion for judging curricula. This song falls short –of all three criteria. Blech.

    Comment by Ponderosa — November 12, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

  6. This is a prime example of how much time can be wasted in an educational setting. Just think how much good literature read or science experiments conducted that could have happened during the time it took to learn and recite this drivel.

    Comment by DC Parent — November 12, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  7. I think I’d almost take it as a rule of thumb that if students are interacting with educational jargon, something is going wrong.

    Comment by Rachel — November 12, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

  8. Sounds like the language experience bullsh*t I had to sit through in “grad school” back in the 90′s…

    Comment by Kev — November 12, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

  9. Getting them ready for Mind Mapping exercises when they get a bit older.

    Maybe 4th Grade.

    Such a shame that teachers can explicitly teach reading strategies but can get written up for laying out the letters as a symbol for sound logic behind the alphabet.

    Robert-you are not going to like the Literacy Learning Progressions either.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — November 12, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

  10. What do people think of the trend of posting the standards to be learned in the classroom? Or is that still a trend?

    Comment by Ann Wexler — November 12, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

  11. Yet another class all on the same lesson?

    Could there possibly be some youngsters in this class of 22 already with a solid reservoir of background knowledge while others with but a skeletal resemblance to same? Of course there is.

    Guaranteed there are one or two kids in this second grade class with enough background knowledge to sit comfortably with ten and eleven year olds. As well, there are three or four kids in this class with the background knowledge (or lack thereof) of many three year olds.

    Yes, I know. It’s the same old same old from Paul Hoss. When, boys and girls, will it ever be addressed and remedied? Or would that be too much for teachers to do?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 12, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

  12. This is the ridiculous, but logical, end result of the multiple intelligences movement… teaching reading strategies through song. What a waste of teacher time to write this thing and student time to learn it.

    Comment by Linda — November 12, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  13. Should we keep telling kids to use their background knowledge or actually build up their background knowledge?

    Should we keep telling kids to think deeply and critically? Or give them literature worth thinking deeply and critically about?

    Why, why, why is balanced literacy the main method of teaching literacy in this country? Why won’t this thing go down in flames already?

    Comment by alamo — November 12, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

  14. I am kind of surprised at the hostility directed at the song. I assume that the students know what building schema is and how it works as a reading strategy (I don’t; maybe that is what is offending the readers here). I thought this blog was ground zero for the background knowledge advocacy community. As far as valuable class time lost, please, it is just a song.

    Comment by Jim — November 12, 2012 @ 7:41 pm

  15. I just now realized that I was taught a highly sanitized version of “Clementine” growing up. Totally lame!

    Comment by Crimson Wife — November 12, 2012 @ 11:12 pm

  16. I could not agree more that children should be taught real classic children’s songs not this horrible, horrible junk. Being a lifelong New Yawker, I would love to have all New York City children learn the anthem of New York City children,” The Sidewalks of New York”.

    Comment by David J. Krupp — November 13, 2012 @ 2:40 am

  17. Perhaps it is time to to run a contest asking for entries for song lyrics or poems about Core Knowledge principles that children in 2nd grade can relate to. Then there would be something of value to offer the teacher concerned.

    Comment by Sujata Krishna — November 13, 2012 @ 10:14 am

  18. Let’s start with, “Oh My Darling, Clementine.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 13, 2012 @ 10:15 am

  19. Really? Aren’t ‘Oh My Darling’s’ lyrics too tongue-in-cheek for a 2nd grader? Also, one point Clementine is forgot when a younger sister is kissed. I think even my 4th grader would find it hard to understand the lyrics on her own unless the teacher bothered to explain it. I’m not sure how many could do that well.

    Maybe just a touch of nostalgia here in wanting kids to learn what we grew up with? I’m all for material that is relevant to a kids life, using words and concepts more-or-less at their level.

    Comment by Sujata Krishna — November 13, 2012 @ 11:39 am

  20. I just checked, and Clementine is actually in the Core Knowledge Sequence in 2nd grade. There’s certainly value in knowing the tune (those second graders in the video did). And tongue-in-cheek or not, there’s some good vocabulary and historical knowledge embedded in the song that students should know. (What is a 49er, kids, and hey — text to world connection! — why is San Francisco’s football team called the 49ers?

    Here are the other songs in the 2nd grade Sequence:
    Buffalo Gals
    Casey Jones
    The Erie Canal
    Follow the Drinking Gourd
    Good Bye Old Paint
    Home on the Range
    I’ve Been Working on the Railroad
    John Henry
    Old Dan Tucker
    The Star-Spangled Banner
    Swing Low Sweet Chariot
    This Land Is Your Land
    When Johnny Comes Marching Home

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 13, 2012 @ 11:44 am

  21. @ Crimson – A lot of the best American folk songs have to do with some pretty gruesome topics (death, sickness, accidents, etc.) so music teachers have to modify lyrics all over the place. Otherwise parents will complain.

    @ Sujata – We do not need songs *about* Core Knowledge topics. We need the actual songs. Believe me or not (I’ve been teaching music for over ten years), but even if young children don’t quite understand the words, they do recognize – and vastly prefer – authentic music. Pedagogical music such as you suggest, may be tolerated, but there is no enthusiasm for it.

    @ Robert – “The Star Spangled Banner” for 2nd grade? I understand the patriotic/historical reasons for introducing it in second grade, but it is completely wrong musically speaking. Forcing that wide a range on such young kids is vocally dangerous.

    Comment by Miss Friday — November 13, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

  22. I sang nearly all the Core Knowledge songs in elementary school, more than 50 years ago. We were partial to railroad songs. We also sang The Ship Titanic (learned about the Titanic and technological hubris), Marching to Pretoria (South Africa), Git Along Little Dogie (dogies and mavericks) and My Knapsack on My Back.

    Re Clementine, I remember thinking that people must have been poor back in the day if they were wearing herring boxes as shoes. Also I got the joke about kissing the little sister.

    Comment by Anonymous — November 13, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

  23. I’m torn. I was in a first grade classroom where a first grader, when asked how she new the answer to 7 + 8, replied “I used automaticity.” She knew what the term meant and understood the difference between using a make ten strategy and having worked so much with it that 7 + 8 was now a fact for her.

    On the other hand, I was in a different 1st grade classroom where the the kid used the term “com-moo-tive” property, which I’m pretty sure he didn’t totally understand. Why not just call it “Any Order”?

    Comment by Cassyt — November 13, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

  24. [...] second graders sing the “Background Knowledge Song” to the tune of Clementine. Does singing about “schema” help second graders understand what they read? Core Knowledge Blog’s Robert Pondiscio is [...]

    Pingback by Singing ’bout my schema — Joanne Jacobs — November 14, 2012 @ 10:28 am

  25. American folk songs are not too grisly for American children. It’s the same principle oft cited when discussing the value of fairy tales: The child knows there’s a dragon. What he needs is St. George.

    Children are aware of the major themes of life, no matter how much the adults would like to shield them from sin and darkness. The children know about the sin and darkness because they live here,and they are vastly helped by processing their fears and feelings through singing with adults. A child is better prepared for the death of his beloved pet if he’s familiar with ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhody.’ He’s better prepared for a funeral if he is used to hearing his mother sing, ‘Train is A-Coming,’ or ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’ My own children have weathered very hard economic times through the help of such songs as ‘Hard Times Come Again No More,’ and ‘Life, Let Us Cherish.’ In the 1970′s recession I heard my own mother sing, ‘Gospel Plow,’ and we all learned together to ‘keep your hand on the plow, hold on, hold on.’

    American folk songs are full of the stuff of life–love, death, marriage, revenge, motherhood, travel, patriotism, loss, hope, joy…and they also contain a tremendous amount of historical context.

    I have always been glad to see traditional American folk songs in the Core Knowledge curriculum. They are the American child’s birthright, in my opinion, and I’m sorry for any children who find themselves bereft of the rich language and interesting imagery of folk songs.

    My husband and I are folk musicians. Our four sons are musicians, as well. We sing traditional music and play dulcimer, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, autoharp, and guitar. We give small performances in our city, in an effort to keep this humble part of our musical heritage alive.

    I just can’t believe American second graders are singing about ‘building schema’ to the tune of Clementine. Give them Clementine.

    Comment by Amy R. — November 14, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

  26. My kids had various Wee Sing tapes (now avail on CD?), which had many of the songs mentioned. Wee Sing, America had the patriotic songs, Anchors Aweigh, the Marine Hymn etc. They were great sing-alongs in the car. I still have – transposed onto the computer and ipod – a number of Sing Along with Mitch Miller and the Gang records, which also have these and other classic folk songs. They’re not nearly as well-known, but Johnny Horton recorded a number of songs with historical themes; Battle of New Orleans, Sink the Bismarck, Johnny Reb, North to Alaska (gold rush) etc. and they’re available on CD. All of these can be used by regular teachers, as many schools don’t have music teachers. My regular teachers did this and would have been insulted by the idea that they could/would not include this. (same for art/architecture history)

    Comment by momof4 — November 15, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

  27. I should have checked before posting – a number of the Wee Sing CDs are available, in combination with a book – from the B&N description, the books have some extras, in addition to song lyrics (and music?). Wee Sing America has Preamble to Constitution, Gettysburg Address etc. They are now on my to-buy list for the grandkids!

    Comment by momof4 — November 15, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

  28. Hooray for folk music! Good for teaching cultural context, language enrichment, and last but not least, music instruction (which in turn is very good for mathematics).

    The very best are the collections for children compiled by the distinguished American avant guard composer Ruth Crawford Seeger (Pete Seeger’s stepmother), who also wrote extensively on how folk songs should be used as pedagogy.

    Ruth Crawford Seeger’s work is curently used in the American Kodaly method of teaching music. The Kodaly method was developed in Hungary and aadapted by one of his followers in Finland. It is also being adopted by Singapore.

    No need to reinvent the wheel when the very best have already won world-wide recognition and been used for decades.

    Comment by Harold — November 15, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

  29. Ruth Seeger’s transcriptions were also the source for Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown” in his Billy the Kid ballet suite.

    Comment by Harold — November 15, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

  30. “Clementine” is not a grisly song – it is a parody – like slapstick or Warner Bros. cartoons It resembles “Springfield Mountain” – the first attested American folk song, which was popularized on the Boston vaudeville stage and which spoofed a real incident. I think such songs are more appropriate for third or fourth grader myself, rather than second graders. Very young children don’t really “get” parody, but older ones love it.

    Still both these songs have much to recommend them as part of the American musical heritage, as it were. They also function as memory “hooks to hang your hat on” — when you come to learn real history – about the gold rush or the puritan settlers of Massachusetts.

    Comment by Harold — November 23, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

  31. On Springfield Mountain there did dwell
    A lovely youth, I loved him well.
    Too-roo-dee-loo, too-roo-dee-ay,
    Too-roo-dee-loo, too-roo-dee-ay.

    One Monday morning he did go
    Down to the meadow for to mow (etc.).

    He had not mowed half ’round the field
    When a pesky serpent bit at his heel.

    They took him home to Molly dear,
    Which made him feel so very queer.

    Now Molly had two ruby lips
    With which the pizen she did sip.

    She also had a rotten tooth,
    And so the pizen it killed them both.

    Comment by Harold — November 23, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

  32. First attested narrative ballad, I should have said. Aaron Copland used the melody in his haunting “Lincoln Portrait.”

    The rationale for having kids read poetry and “good” literature was to provide them with what were considered the very best models.

    To give them inferior or trivial material to work with, such as the song mentioned above is akin to child-abuse, I believe. Anything we give them to sing or read or even ask them to make or do should be something of intrinsic value for them that they will treasure in years to come.

    Comment by Harold — November 23, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

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