Robert Rueda and Carmen DeNeve

Reprinted from the Community Circle of Caring Journal

Vol. 3 Issue 2, pages 53-55. National Educational Service
Reprinted with the permission of the authors.

In their efforts to accommodate cultural diversity in the classroom, schools have taken a variety of approaches - few of them ideal. In this article, the authors examine how educators can use the "funds of knowledge" available in culturally diverse families and communities to build bridges between the home cultures of students and the cultures of their schools.

The student population of American public schools is rapidly becoming more culturally diverse - not in just a few states or in large urban school districts, but on a national scale. The evidence of this can be seen in the increasing number of public school students using English as a second language. Although the general school population in the United States increased only slightly between 1985 and 1992, the number of students acquiring English as a second language grew from fewer than 1.5 million to almost 2.7 million in that same time frame (Goldenberg, 1996). While diversity in the classroom is not troubling by itself ‹ and can, in fact, enrich the learning environment ‹ it is too often associated with low academic achievement. According to Kao and Tienda (1995) achievement differences in all academic areas between whites and Latino students appear early and persist throughout their school careers. How can schools accommodate diversity in such a way that they "level the playing field" for all children, regardless of cultural differences?

Common Approaches

Schools are often unsure of how to address these disparate achievement levels between students of different cultures. Some schools do nothing, following a "sink-or-swim" philosophy. Unfortunately, in this approach too many students "sink" into counterproductive and antisocial alternatives to academic success. Other schools presume deficits in the children, their families, or their cultural-linguistic backgrounds. This presumption puts the culturally different child at an immediate disadvantage and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Neither viewpoint offers a responsible, equitable approach to providing the best education possible for all children.

Some schools recognize and acknowledge cultural diversity as positive and strive to validate and celebrate it. Often, however, these efforts focus on the superficial, external traits of a culture such as its food, dress, music, or holidays. Still other schools recognize that language and culture are important factors in the learning process and attempt to make accommodations to linguistic and cultural differences. For example, some schools institute bilingual programs to help children transition into the English curriculum. In other cases, schools try to accommodate presumed culturally related learning styles - for example, using cooperative learning groups for students thought not to perform well in competitive, individually focused classrooms.

Although these attempts to accommodate cultural and linguistic needs of diverse learners are commendable, problems frequently occur with their implementation. For example, sometimes there is no empirical basis for the characteristics schools are trying to accommodate. In the worst case, a school's efforts can actually represent a continuation of long- held, vague, and invalid stereotypes. Other times, cultural values are attributed to an entire group of students, ignoring the tremendous heterogeneity that is found within any group. In addition to these problems, most schools have few teachers who are familiar with the sociocultural backgrounds of diverse students. In general, the very different experiences most teachers have had from those of the students in their diverse classrooms may make it difficult for them to make effective cultural accommodations.

There is little evidence that these approaches to accommodating cultural diversity have a significant impact on student achievements. Yet because cultural differences have such a tremendous influence on classroom learning and ultimate academic achievement, the situation cannot be ignored. We believe there is one alternative based on the work we and other colleagues have done in schools in high-poverty areas heavily populated by students who are recent immigrants and are learning English as a second language. This alternative is based on bridging the gap between the students' home culture and the school culture.

The School as Its Own Culture

Culture can be understood as a feature of human nature that allows us to make sense of our surroundings ‹ a framework through which we process and respond to new information. In school settings, culture is often discussed as a stable, fixed, and invariant characteristic of an individual. A more current view, however, suggests that because culture is learned rather than inherited, it is dynamic and variable, changing over time. It is important to realize that classrooms, like all other settings where people interact, are unique cultural settings, composed of the cultural characteristics of students, teachers, communities, and the school itself. In essence, the school becomes its own culture, with its own conventions, traditions, and values.

Not all students have equal practice in the cultural conventions traditionally embedded in schools. However, because school cultures are dynamic, they can be negotiated and reinvented. The culture of the school or classroom can be changed to accommodate the varying cultural perspectives of the students it serves. In some cases, especially where classrooms are comprised of students of many different cultures, this process can be made explicit and carried out collaboratively. For example, students themselves can contribute to establishing appropriate and acceptable codes of conduct that reflect the makeup of their culturally diverse school or classroom. This does not mean that schools should strive to recreate their students' home lives within the classroom. It does mean, however, that schools have a responsibility to bridge home-school differences.

Bridging the Home - School Gap With "Funds of Knowledge"

One promising way to bridge home-school differences is found in work on "funds of knowledge" (Moll, Amanti, Nett, & Gonzalez, 1992). This work begins with the assumption that all households, even those of students considered to be the most "deprived" or "at risk," are rich in sociocultural resources and thus have unique ways of shaping the minds of their members. Even families whose backgrounds at first seem highly incongruous with traditional school culture have funds of cultural knowledge that they use to navigate everyday life. These funds of knowledge are defined as skills, abilities, ideas, and practices essential to a household's functioning and well-being, and are abundant and diverse in nature. Put another way, every family is expert at something.

Moll and his colleagues have worked with teachers over time to help them catalog the funds of knowledge of their students and their families. Borrowing from methods familiar to cultural anthropologists, the teachers visited students' homes, observed and interviewed family members, and documented information of potential use for classroom instruction. They then used this information to design thematic units of classroom instruction that incorporated material familiar to the students and in which their families had special competence and knowledge. The researchers documented how this approach both validated and capitalized upon students' and their families' background knowledge and out-of school experiences.

In one example, a teacher visited a family that regularly made trips to Mexico and returned with products, such as candy, to sell. Building on this family's specific fund of knowledge, the teacher developed an integrated instructional unit based on various aspects of the nutritional content of candy. The class then made an inquiry-based comparison of U.S. and Mexican candy and sugar-processing operations. As an extension of this activity, they developed a survey and graphing unit on favorite candies. Members of the family the teacher had interviewed earlier became participants and "resident experts," visiting the class to share their knowledge and experience. Similarly, another teacher engaged in teaching a unit on math asked one student's father ‹ who worked in construction - to visit the class and explain how math was used in his work. Rather than merely acknowledging these families' funds of knowledge, the teachers used them as a tool for academic ends.

The "funds of knowledge" approach not only helps take into account the tremendous variation among individual students and their families, even from the same cultural, racial, or linguistic group, but provides a student-friendly bridge from home to school. In short, classrooms that draw on this approach serve as "comfort zones" where students of diverse backgrounds can acquire new cultural and cognitive information in a safe environment.

The Role of Paraeducators in Building Home School Bridges

Although much of the research at this point has focused on the funds of knowledge possessed by students and their families, there is another significant component in the classroom dynamic. Educators also bring their funds of knowledge to the teaching and learning process. Clearly, the importance of these funds of knowledge is indisputable.

In many cases, however, a teacher's fund of knowledge is significantly different than the "funds" of many of his or her students. While the cultural demographics of the student population may be highly variable, the demographics of the teaching force remain relatively stable, and a great many teachers do not share the same conversational styles, background knowledge, and everyday experiences with their students. This difference can be an obstacle to bridging cultural differences in the classroom. Even the best intentioned and most willing teacher cannot fully understand the intricacies of an entire culture by reading research materials or talking with students and their families.

A possible solution to this barrier is to incorporate into the classroom the services of paraeducators who share the students' culture. In some of our previous work in diverse classrooms, we observed a qualitative difference between the students' interactions with such paraeducators and their interactions with teachers. Because we were impressed and intrigued by the instructional activities of these paraeducators, we decided to study the issue more formally. Currently, with support from the National Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence at the University of California at Santa Cruz (CREDE), a team of researchers at the University of Southern California is systematically investigating the beliefs and practices of Latino paraeducators in classrooms of English-language learners in two inner city elementary schools in Los Angeles.

As in many other schools, the Latino paraeducators in our sample are typically part-time employees of the schools they work in. They tend to represent the communities where the schools are located and, as a result, to understand the community and the families of the students well. They are often quite young, and many have limited formal education.

In our project, we have hypothesized that paraeducators who come from the same communities as their students or share similar cultural backgrounds and experiences will have unique ways of supporting their students' learning processes. Although we are in the middle of this work, we are finding that these paraeducators exhibit interesting classroom strategies to reach students. The ideas and practices they use often seem to provide comfort zones for the students in learning and being motivated in the classroom. Sometimes these strategies are subtle, such as physical proximity to students or a hand on the shoulder at a strategic moment. Other times they are less subtle, such as the use of locally meaningful phrases, terms, or ideas that generate engagement and positive response from the children. For example, we noticed that paraeducators might often call their students "mijo," which is an affectionate term often used by Latino parents, meaning "my little one."

We have also noticed qualitative differences between the way teachers and paraeducators approach certain classroom practices. For example, teachers often seem to focus on "getting things finished on time." Whether it is an entire lesson or a simple activity, teachers often seem to operate by a built-in clock that dictates a certain number of things be accomplished by the end of a designated time. Paraeducators, on the other hand, sometimes exhibit a more relaxed approach, with less focus on completing activities in a certain time frame. ~ our observations, the paraeducators' approach often seems to allow students to be themselves with less stress and without the constant pressure of "finishing on time" or an "on-task" preoccupation. This more relaxed attitude is often found in many Latino homes and is demonstrated in their social events, general planning, and interactions. When Latino students encounter it in the classroom as well, they often seem to feel more at ease and comfortable about learning.

Clearly, the paraeducators' role in the classroom may make it easier for them than for teachers to have a relaxed attitude. Teachers are held accountable for different objectives than paraeducators ‹ that is, getting through the mandated curriculum and raising test scores. They may not have the option of exhibiting this particular cultural value. This very real "institutional fact" may explain some of the differences we see. However, over and above the differences in role, we do see intriguing examples of how these paraeducators can strategically draw on their own funds of knowledge, which resonate with those of their students, to promote student learning. Preliminary findings from our study indicate that paraeducators represent a potentially valuable resource for schools in meeting the needs of diverse learners.

Meeting the Challenges of Today and Tomorrow

Cultural diversity and the resulting disparity in student achievement are not problems that will resolve themselves. As we prepare for the many educational challenges of the next century, we must learn how to build bridges between students' home cultures and the cultures of their schools. These bridges are essential for student academic success, and without them, we do a serious disservice to both students and the larger society that will ultimately benefit from the development of their special talents. We encourage(e you as educators to draw on the bridge-building resources already at your fingertips ‹ the funds of knowledge of your students, their families, and the paraeducators from your community.

Robert Rueda is a professor and Carmen DeNeve is an adjunct professor and research coordinator at the University of Southern California. Both authors can be reached at the University of Southern California, School of Education, Division of Learning & Instruction (WPH 601), Los Angeles, CA 90089-003]. The work described here was supported under the Education Research and Development Program, PR/Award No. R306A60001, the National Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence (CREDE), as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), National Institute on the Education of At Risk Students (NIEARS), U.S. Department of Education (USDOE). The contents, findings, and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of OERI, NIEARS, or the USDOE.


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