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Tuning in to Student Assets

It is mid-August, and teachers all around the U.S. are setting up their classrooms for a new school year. Many are chomping at the bit to get their class rosters, to imagine what students will fill their classrooms this year and what those students will bring to the class community, and the lessons to be learned. It is during this time that, in the name of planning ahead, we teachers have a tendency to start to make assumptions about what our students will come knowing, or not knowing. We need to be very careful with the assumptions that we make or hold for culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Last April, I wrote about the need to understand the diversity of the English learners in our classrooms. English learners are often described in terms of deficit language: we talk a lot about what they can’t do and what skills they don’t have when compared to their monolingual general education counterparts. As we begin a new academic year, I challenge you to explore the assets that your students bring to your classrooms. In short, let’s take a close look at some of that “baggage” that our students carry around with them. You might find that your students carry skills, experiences, and knowledge that you can use to make connections that wouldn’t have been possible before. You can use this to elevate your lessons to a new level, despite what these same students seem to lack in the way of traditional classroom learning and skills.

Girl with Suitcase

All students have a “suitcase” of life experiences, cultural knowledge, linguistic skills, prior learning, and academic skills. Sometimes a student carries around their suitcase as if it was the clichéd “baggage” - a big clunky (mental) bag that is hard to carry around all day and that they never open and instead try to hide. Inevitably, this baggage gets in the way of exploring new worlds. This is baggage in the worst sense if the cliché. If students never open their suitcases, they are missing out on making many meaningful connections between their new learning and what they already know. Many students assume that what they have in their suitcases doesn’t matter because that learning was perhaps not done in English, or not in a traditional classroom. Instead, they may resent the “baggage” that they have to carry around, which appears to only be an annoyance and provides no help or support.

As teachers, we need to treat all of our students’ repertoire of skills, experiences, and knowledge as an important piece of the equation when planning our lessons. It is not “baggage” in the negative sense of the word. Rather it is “luggage” full of assets that students actively use to explore new concepts. We cannot assume that a student knows nothing about what we are teaching, simply because we know that this student has gaps in education or lacks some academic skills. This same student may have first-hand experience with the core concepts that you are teaching (let’s call it “field experience”). Just because it wasn’t learned in a classroom doesn’t mean this knowledge isn’t valuable. As teachers, we can capitalize on this experiential learning to provide concrete connections that will help students learn the complex academic concepts that we are teaching. We can only do this if we take the time to find out about it.

So, how do you tune in to what a student carries in their suitcase? The most obvious answer is to simply ask them! Have conversations with your students about their lives and experiences. Don’t force a student to share information that they are uncomfortable sharing, but see what you can glean from your everyday conversations with your students. Many times, during a run-of-the-mill conversation, a student would share a detail with me that gave me insight into things they carried in their suitcase and what possible connections they could make to build new knowledge in the areas I teach. Sometimes I wrote down what I learned about a student, so that I would remember it later.

Sometimes I learned powerful things about my students. Once I had to teach a Social Studies unit on water scarcity to 9th grade ELs. When I introduced the topic, I found out that several of my EL students had lived in rural areas without good access to running water before coming to the United States. I then went back and totally redesigned the unit plan in order to incorporate these students’ experiential knowledge. They were able to bring the problems of water scarcity to life! If I hadn’t bothered to find out that information, I would have missed a huge opportunity.

Another strategy may be to use visuals to help get a look inside those suitcases. Compile visuals that represent the core concepts to be learned in a particular unit. Send the visuals home for students to talk about with their parents (in the home language) and report back. Or post the visuals around the classroom and have students write or talk about what they see or know about what is happening in each one. While students are talking or writing, observe their conversations and make notes about the insights you gather.

The more we teachers try to make connections to all of our students’ experiences and prior learning, the more students will start to do this on their own automatically. Students from all walks of life and back ground experiences will feel valued and able to participate in the classroom. And, as with building background knowledge, making explicit connections to student knowledge, skills, and experiences is not giving students the answers. Rather, it is giving them a springboard for deeper learning. It is up to you whether students’ experiences and prior learning are treated in a deficit manner as “baggage” that only gets in the way, or as an asset as “luggage” that is cared for, opened, and used to facilitate learning.

Best wishes for a successful school year full of connections!

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