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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Valuing student knowledge.

I know it is always mentioned, and it is an obvious but often neglected point, but I keep coming up with more concrete reasons why it is so very important to understand, or try to understand, where your students come from. Sometimes it is just a very minor thing, but still – having knowledge and understanding of some of the thoughts that may be going on in the students heads helps in little, perhaps unnoticeable, ways. Ways that aren’t going to change a student from one who cannot read to one who can, but which can give the students a little extra tiny boost. It can help the students to know that the teacher is on their side.

We were doing a 5-senses activity – learning about touch. My CT was going around with bags of different materials; marshmallows, fishbowl stones, cotton balls, and play-dough. When she went around with the play-dough, two girls were talking to each other. “It’s like masa!” they said. And it was. The play-dough was sticking up out of the bag so that they could see it and it was a light yellow color, much like masa, the dough used to make tortillas and tamales.

My CT must have heard the girls say this as she was standing over them holding the bag of play-dough, but either ignored it because she thought they were speaking in Spanish, or because she simply didn’t know what masa was or couldn’t understand what they were saying, and therefore didn’t know how accurate their guess was.

And again, like I said, this was a tiny, minuscule incident. In many ways, it is insignificant, a small thing that no one is any worse for. But it is also indicative of the many ways that these students are not understood by their teacher. And when worthwhile positive comments such as this one are made, and then ignored by the teacher, the students will slowly cease to make these connections to their own home life and culture. By being ignored when they speak of things that are unfamiliar to the teacher, they begin to devalue these aspects of themselves. They will learn what to say in school so that the teacher understands, and those topics will prevail in their school identity. For a while, it may be possible to keep separate school identities and home identities. But after a time, one of these two identities will grow stronger and take over. It’s exhausting to be two people throughout the day. The students may learn to value who their teacher wants them to be. In doing so, they may slowly walk away from their home identity and culture. Other students may value their home identity more. They may retreat more and more while at school, by holding onto who they are at home. Believing that their ways of being are not appreciated at school, they will begin to value school as an institution less and less, eventually loosing interest at all.

Of course these are two extremes. But they are also two things that do happen. One of my goals as a teacher is to create an environment wherein students feel comfortable sharing pieces of who they are when they are at home. I want my students to make connections between the topics they are studying in school and the cultural capital they possess outside of school. I believe in the sociocultural theories that all students possess valuable knowledge, and others can benefit from the knowledge possessed by their classmates. I want to construct a classroom environment where all students understand this concept – that everyone is different, everyone excels in their own ways, and when others are allowed to share what they know, everyone benefits.


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