Cultural Capital: Drawing on Student Experiences to Inform Teaching

By Meghan Everette

Educators know that creating meaningful connections between the world outside and inside school is important for engaging all students in learning. Teachers draw on history and pop culture, English and first-languages, and even video games to help students make sense of academics and the world around them. A group of diverse educators from around the country met with ED Senior Advisor for Labor Relations, Montserrat Garibay, to talk about supporting the diverse needs of students and communities. Teachers offered insights that can be implemented in any classroom to foster welcoming environments and make school a safe, engaging place to learn.

Having families involved in school is critical. Research shows that engaged communities lead to higher attendance rates, fewer behavior issues, and raise levels of student achievement. Building relationships with parents, especially if it can be done in their home language, helps foster community and build support for the classroom and school. Illinois educator Brenda Mendoza recounted what it can be like to speak another language at home. “Growing up my parents didn’t speak English. Oftentimes, when parents don’t speak English, they are pushed out of education and their input is not put in the classroom.” That doesn’t mean that teachers have to speak other languages, but it does mean forging intentional connections. “I think any teacher should start by listening and learning more about our communities. When we aren’t a part of that community, we have to listen twice as much,” says Sandra Springer, a bilingual elementary teacher in Austin, Texas.

Knowledge, behaviors, and skills accumulate to form assets known as cultural capital that individuals rely on to make sense of and interact with all aspects of society. Drawing on cultural capital is more than celebrating select holidays or sharing ethnic foods, it is building on the strengths of students and families to further success. Elementary teacher Cody Norton says, ‘“I think it’s a shift in professional thought. Moving from this idea that teachers are transferring knowledge to students to students being able to co-construct knowledge with teachers through that liberatory frame.” It can be difficult for educators to address the diverse backgrounds of every child, especially if the community they serve is different from their own, but engaging with families regularly helps form an understanding of what the community values and brings to the table. Teachers shared that home visits and open-door policies have enlightened them about the strengths and needs of their students and their families. They also agreed that their students bring background knowledge from their own cultures and languages to the classroom that can help drive connections.

Garibay asked teachers to give specific examples of how they draw on student experiences to inform their teaching. Literature and storytelling are two key ways educators make connections. “In our culture, the Hispanic culture, it is super important to share stories. That’s how we connect,” said Mendoza. It’s not only finding book characters that reflect student experiences and identities, but how educators engage student thinking. Another teacher shared, “Something that we do every day with lessons is focus our instruction on critical thinking…

What points of view do the authors include or exclude? How can the work we do lead to us identifying issues of injustice that impact our communities or that impact the United States or the world?” These lessons, coupled with discussions about current events, emotions, and history help students connect in the classroom.

Connection is name of the game, educators say. As one teacher concluded, “I am the bridge to the school. If I don’t build a strong relationship with the families, they are hesitant about being part of our community.” Making schools a safe space that supports all identities and cultures is the first step in driving success for all students.