How to kill a chicken:
Valuing local knowledge in a second grade ESL/sheltered classroom
When I was student teaching in a classroom for English Language Learners, the students and I read and discussed Amelia Bedelia Helps Out (Parish, 1997) as an introduction to realistic fiction writing. After reading that Mrs. Rodgers asked Amelia to give her lunch scraps to the chickens, a student told about his experience with chickens; “When I was in Puerto Rico, my abuelo took a chicken and cut its head off…” He then explained how his abuela cleaned and prepared the chicken for dinner that night. This set off a fury of raised hands. Many of the students told about how they had seen something similar in their countries with their family. I did not know that my students know this sort of information! They were all currently living in Atlantic City which is an urban jungle compared to the farms and villages in their home countries. Most of the students, with the exception of two, had been in the United States for at least two years. By reading and discussing a book with them, I had tapped into vast amounts of knowledge that I otherwise would have never known about. That semester I encountered many other examples of the rich backgrounds of my students. For example, a student from Haiti looked at an illustration of a little girl riding a horse and told the class how he used to ride ponies and horses in Haiti all the time. This caught our inclusion teacher, off guard. The teacher lived on a farm, had horses and talked about them regularly. She had been working with the student all year, and he had never mentioned anything to her.
It was clear that the students were making connections between our academic work and their lives. I began to understand that when I encouraged writing, drawing, talking, or communicating in any way about their lives outside of school, they had a great deal to contribute. They could write pages and pages about the topic, whereas I did not acknowledge their histories and local knowledge, most would have mental blocks and say things like, “I can’t write any more” or “I don’t know what to write”. I also came to understand that for many students, home referred to where they or their families were from, not where they currently lived. Home was “the place or region where something is native or most common” (dictionary.com).
Connecting classroom curriculum to my students’ lives became a centerpiece of my planning. As a result, I learned more about the students than I had ever imagined. Among other things, they taught me about similarities and differences in schools around the world. The students from Vietnam and Haiti said that the schools in America were much easier than at home. Drice also said that teachers in Haiti were not as nice as in America. “If you are bad in school, the teacher hits you with something, either on the back or feet.” The students from Bangladesh agreed and said this also happened in their country.
Tapping into a child’s local knowledge and valuing is just as important as the academic material a teacher presents to students. Inviting children to talk about them and about what they know honors them for who they are. “When teachers shed their role of teacher and “expert” and, instead, take on a new role as learner, they come to know their students and their families in fresh and distinctive ways. With this new knowledge, teachers can begin to see that the homes their students are growing up in are full of cultural and cognitive resources. These resources can and should be used in the classroom to provide culturally responsive and meaningful lessons that tap students’ prior knowledge.” (Kier Lopez, 2006) Classroom opportunities are endless once a teacher taps into what a student knows through experiences.
Bell, A, & Dy, S. (1984). Tales from the Homeland: developing the language experience approach. ERIC Digest, retrieved on March 4, 2010.
Kier Lopez, J. (2006). Funds of knowledge. Retrieved from http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/939 on December 6, 2011.
Parish, P. (1979). Amelia Bedelia helps out. New York, New York: Greenwillow Books.
Ritch, W. & Benjamin, K. (2002) County Profiles I: Demographics of New Jersey Communities. New Brunswick, NJ: University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Public Health.
http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/home retrieved on March 22, 2010
We gratefully acknowledge Dr. Diane Stephens’s ( University of South Carolina) mentorship in this article.
Jessica Kerley Gaeckle was the first graduate from the Urban Elementary Education five-year masters program at The College of NJ in Ewing, NJ under the supervision of Dr. Tabitha Dell ‘Angelo. Jessica is a K-5 E.S.L. teacher at South Main Street School in Pleasantville, NJ. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.