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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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