Attending to students’ funds of knowledge in the mathematics classroom

There is divine beauty in learning… To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.      — Elie Wiesel

In this week’s post, I want to continue the conversation I started some weeks ago about attending to students’ mathematical identities with a focus on funds of knowledge. Vélez-Ibáñez and Greenberg (1992) first coined the term ‘funds of knowledge’, and later González, Moll, and Amanti (2005) built on their work to describe ‘funds of knowledge’ as the idea that “people are competent, they have knowledge, and their life experiences have given them that knowledge” (p. ix-x). 

As a student in a teacher preparation program, I learned about this concept in theory but did not think deeply about how I would put it in practice. When I finally became a teacher, I felt it was my duty to hold all of the knowledge. Afterall, weren’t students expecting me to know everything and then teach it to them? 

Looking ahead to a lesson on unit conversion I thought about how I would present the US (imperial) and metric measurement systems to my students. I felt grateful for my own childhood in the former Soviet Union and teenage to adult years in the U.S. for being able to use both systems. I thought about sharing this experience with my students. Then it occured to me – every single one of my students was either born outside the U.S. or had a caregiver who was! I knew this from the math autobiographies I asked students to write at the beginning of the quarter, where I asked them if they or anyone in their household spoke another language. As someone who is bilingual, this was interesting for me, and I thought it could be a point of connection between me and my students. 

This lesson was the first opportunity I gave my students to act as a teacher and a learner. Why had I waited so long? Students shared how the metric system was used in their households, how they learned either or both of the measurement systems, and when they used each.  This led to a conversation about money conversions and all of us learned something new from or about each other that day. It was one of my favorite lessons. It reminded me that I became a teacher because of my love for learning, rather than teaching. I have always loved being a student and would jokingly say that I wish I could find a job where I would be able to keep on learning forever. It turns out, teaching is that job. 

Every day we have the opportunity to ask our students what they know, and thus learn from, with, and about them. Starting a unit on quadratics? Ask students to submit pictures of parabolas, rather than use the examples found online or in textbooks. Students may bring in pictures of hammocks woven by family members and cherished over multiple generations, or they may show off their flexibility and ask a friend to take a picture of them doing a bridge. Both of these are a lot more engaging and meaningful than the infinite pictures of the arches, bridges, and rollercoasters I found when I searched for ‘parabola real-life example’ on the internet. By asking students to generate the example we engage in what Zaretta Hammond, and others, have called a “learning partnership” with our students.

Several weeks ago George wrote a wonderful blog post here about Parents as Allies that encouraged teachers to build relationships with families of their students by rejecting the common stories that families do not engage in mathematics at home. In fact, our students are learning from their families daily and if we view them and their families as partners in learning, we will expand our own knowledge of what it means to be a mathematics thinker and doer.

Do you ask your students to generate examples or scenarios when teaching mathematics? What new and exciting things have you learned from and about your students? Share them in the comments below! 

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González, N., Moll, L.C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. New York, NY: Routledge.

Vélez-Ibáñez, C.G. & Greenberg, J.B. (1992). Formation and transformation of funds of knowledge among U.S.-Mexican Households. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 23(4), 313-335. 


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