K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Bridging Spanish language barriers in Southern schools
These articles provide background on Latino immigrants in North Carolina, administrative challenges in binational education, and strategies through which teachers can build on what Latino students bring to their classrooms to create a learning environment that meets the needs of all students.
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North Carolina classroom demographics are changing at a rapid pace. In the last four years 57 percent of the public school growth has been attributed to Latino students (Kasarda & Johnson, 2006). These Latino students are often immigrants or are born to immigrant parents who have grown up in another country and have very different experiences than their American counterparts. In order to provide the best possible education for all the students in a classroom teaching practices must reflect an authentic sense of caring for a child in a way that recognizes the importance of knowing about Latino students’ funds of knowledge. Such practice would provide teachers with the tools necessary to better understand and build upon the strengths of their students. For many teachers in North Carolina, who have in the past not worked with students from backgrounds different from their own, this requires a concerted effort. Such effort must be supported by the administration through better teacher training and support. They must make this a priority and provide guidance and funding for teachers to develop deeper understandings of their students’ rich cultural linguistic backgrounds. One way to do this is to increase teachers’ understanding of the funds of knowledge that students from immigrant households possess.

In this unit we will help to answer the following questions:

  • What does the term “funds of knowledge” mean?
  • Why is it important to understand the background of my students?
  • How do I find out what my students’ family backgrounds are and what funds of knowledge come from their households?
  • How do I use funds of knowledge in my classroom?

What does the term “funds of knowledge” mean?

Funds of knowledge is defined by researchers Luis Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez (2001) “to refer to the historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being” (p. 133). When teachers shed their role of teacher and expert and, instead, take on a new role as learner, they can come to know their students and the families of their students in new and distinct ways. With this new knowledge, they can begin to see that the households of their students contain rich cultural and cognitive resources and that these resources can and should be used in their classroom in order to provide culturally responsive and meaningful lessons that tap students’ prior knowledge. Information that teachers learn about their students in this process is considered the student’s funds of knowledge.

Why is it important to understand the background of my students?

While it may seem like a silly question to ask why it is necessary to understand the background of each student, it is important to remember that as teachers it is your job to understand something about everyone in your classroom. For students who come from similar backgrounds as your own this will not be a hard task, but for those students who have had an upbringing vastly different than your own this may be more difficult. Funds of knowledge is one way to help you connect with your child and with their family. It is the responsibility of each teacher to attempt to learn something special about each child they teach.

How do I find out what my students’ family backgrounds are and what funds of knowledge come from their households?

In order for teachers to gain this kind of knowledge about the households and social networks of their students, teachers must be willing to go into the homes and communities of their students to observe and learn not simply about, but also from and with their students and the families of their students. Most of the literature on funds of knowledge involves teachers collaborating with ethnographers and conducting ethnographic fieldwork. These teachers must learn ethnographic methods as well as reflexivity (Moll et al., 1992; Gonzalez et al., 1993; 2005).

For a school with new immigrant students, where teachers may know very little about the lives of their students outside of school, an attempt to come to know their students and better understanding that the households of their students contain rich cultural and cognitive resources is a critical first step. Many teachers care for their students, but unless they care enough to attempt to learn, understand, and know their students’ political, historical, and personal situations — their funds of knowledge — then they are not taking the important steps to use what the students bring from their own backgrounds into the classroom.

In order to become “researchers” about students’ funds of knowledge teachers must be willing not only to talk more to their students but to be willing to travel to the homes of their students to meet and visit with the family members of the child’s household. An example of how a teacher might go into a household to learn more about a child’s background appears below. This example was adapted from the Moll et al. article “Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms” (2001).

Studying household knowledge

Working in bilingual teams teachers conducted household interviews with several parents from Spanish-dominant immigrant households. Many of these teachers had not had any experience conducting “fieldwork” so they were nervous to go into strangers’ homes and also to try to conduct research. After being invited into the households by the parents, teachers first spent a lot of time discussing the child (his/her school activities, different school events, etc.) to help ease the transition into a formal interview. Parents were very happy to hear and talk about their children and this initial activity broke the ice for both parties involved.

Teacher teams worked off a set of established questions regarding the family’s life in their country of origin, the school systems in their country of origin, and their family life both in the United States and in their home country. Asking questions about family history including questions about education levels which helped teachers establish a baseline for discussing literacy, parenting styles, and attitudes towards school. Teacher teams also asked questions regarding the family’s labor history and were able to learn the jobs and skills that parents held in their countries of origin and what jobs they occupied here in the United States.

After teachers completed the home visits they got together to compare fieldnotes and discuss what they had learned. They found that immigrant students in their classrooms were often international travelers, that the social networks of the families in the communities were vast and could be used to help spread the word about school events, and that parents had several skills and knowledge that could be used for future class lessons. An example of a lesson that was developed around the information that was gained when teachers went into homes and conducted interviews appears in the following section.

How do I use funds of knowledge in my classroom?

Once a teacher has taken the steps to understand a child’s funds of knowledge they can utilize that knowledge to connect with their children in the classroom. Below is an example of a creative lesson plan that was developed around Mexican candy.

Learning Module on Mexican Candy

Once teacher teams had visited the home of one of their students and had seen the child exchanging Mexican candy with his neighbor, the lead teacher came up with a creative lesson plan to incorporate the child’s background in Mexico with a classroom activity. In order to do this the teacher interviewed a parent from Mexico to learn all about the different kinds of candy that were made in Mexico.

To focus students on the theme, the teacher asked each child in the classroom to free associate on what types of treats “count” as candy. Students had to use analytical skills to decide whether snacks like picalimon and saliditos (Mexican snacks that are salty) counted as candy. Once students had identified different types of candies the teacher had students organize the candy into what candy types they wanted to know more about. Since many of the non-Mexican students had not had several of the candies that the Mexican-immigrant students mentioned these candies were selected.

The next day students were asked to hypothesize about the ingredients in each candy. After they had created lists of ingredients teachers passed out candy wrappers and had students identify what ingredients were in American candies and what ingredients were in Mexican candies. This gave them an opportunity to compare and contrast differences in the candy. Students learned that Mexican candy had fewer ingredients and used less artificial color than American candy.

The following day the the mother of the Mexican child that had been interviewed came to school and taught a lesson on how to make pipitoria (a Mexican candy treat). Students utilized math skills when measuring out the recipe. During the time the candy was baking the mother, through the help of a translator, was able to tell the kids about some of the differences in food habits between Mexican and Americans.

The final day students made advertisements and posters for their candy and were able to actually wrap and price their candy to sell during the school’s talent show. Students were also asked to write a summary of what they had learned and to formulate new questions about candy and the foods of different countries. From the questions the students came up with the teacher was able to continue investigating using the children’s research questions and help to develop critical thinking skills for a considerable part of the year.

Utilizing the original interviews the teachers had conducted in the homes of the immigrant students and the new relationships that were built between teachers and parents this plan demonstrates how to create a lesson plan which not only utilized immigrant students’ funds of knowledge but benefited the entire classroom and served as as a unique learning experience.

References

González, N., Moll, L., and Amanti, C. (2005). Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers

Kasarda, J. and Johnson, J. (2006). The economic impact of the Hispanic population on the state of North Carolina. Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise Report. Kenan-Flagler Business School-University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D. and Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, XXXI, 2, 132-141.