“If you want to understand people, ask for their stories. Listen long enough, and you learn not only the events of their lives, but their sources of meaning, what they value, what they most want.” – Sarah van Gelder
During my teaching career I have witnessed how much students enjoy talking and writing about topics they choose or themes related to their own lives. Their writing becomes rich with testimonials of their own experiences and detailed narratives of their realities. Insightful teachers who are able to discern the hidden messages in their students’ work and decode the subtle richness of their content have a treasure in their hands. Bringing students’ realities to the classroom and taking advantage of the knowledge they acquire from their parents, from their streets and their neighborhoods, from real life situations and from adversities is always constructive. They are what Street (2005) calls “hidden areas of expertise”.
Teachers who are willing to deepen their awareness about students’ backgrounds and that dwelve into the relationship between students and parents, must be willing to invest time to get to know their environment, life style, upbringing, beliefs, values and experiences. This is denominated by Amanti, Gonzalez, Moll and Neff (2001) as Funds of Knowledge, and means “knowledge of the household”. The idea of getting to know the families must be seen not merely as an automated strategy to obtain data, but as a real opportunity to develop relationships and recognize the abundance of relevant knowledge available in those settings.
Students have innumerous stories to tell that may reveal surprising facts about them. Household learning occurs through social relationships and it is the roles these students play in their environments that equip them with an entire range of skills that are not taught and developed in classrooms. This is the type of knowledge students learn actively. Classroom knowledge is in most cases absorbed passively.
Talking about people’s experiences and people’s lives in a classroom requires conscious and constant mediation from the teacher to guarantee that stereotypes will be re-evaluated and critically discussed as they arise. Every story should have more than one version taken under consideration, since it is told and retold by many people to other people, in various versions, with different emotional and psychological hues, conveying distinct messages with different meanings in varied settings. A single narrative shows people, places, and stories from one point of view, and repetition tends to make it become the only version. It is necessary to ensure that more stories about the same subject are told.
Acknowledging not only students’ narratives of their own lives, but their families’ as well, different versions of the same story can be told. Bringing the richness of their knowledge into their own learning process allows them to comprehend the beauty of their experiences and fosters reflection about their household expertise. I believe that by incorporating students’ realities in the classroom a teacher not only values them as human beings, but also incorporates the necessary tools to foster conversations where every person will have a voice and every idea will be heard, allowing knowledge to be built and re-built, enriching all those involved through collective input.
There are riches in every story and some dose of novelty in every discourse. I hope I will be lucky enough to work in a place where I will not only be allowed to but also encouraged to establish such relationships with my students’ families. A place that will value not only the endless lesson planning and reports and tests and content, but that will also reserve some time for the human element of teaching – the time that we need to dig deeper into our students’ realities and bring this treasure into the classroom as an important resource for learning.
Amanti, C.; Gonzalez, N. Moll, L; Neff, D. (2001), “Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms”: http://www.sonoma.edu/users/f/filp/ed415/moll.pdf
Gelder, S. (2014), “How Stories Shape Our World”: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/the-power-of-story/how-stories-shape-our-world
Street (2005). “Funds of Knowledge at Work in the Writing Classroom”: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ759618.pdf
TED TALK (2009), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story”: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story