Leverage student identities to make learning meaningful

Leverage student identities to make learning meaningful


A student’s “funds of knowledge” are a compilation of accumulated life experiences, academic and personal background knowledge, ways of navigating everyday social contexts, and world views influenced by broader historical and political contexts (Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction). The premise behind this practice is that most school-based practices, curricula, and behaviors are based on mainstream, white, middle class norms and perspectives. Intentional efforts to connect learning with the knowledge and cultural identities that students bring into classrooms supports both brain processing and student engagement, improving a range of academic outcomes.

Everyone learns new information best when it is linked to what they already know, a concept known as “schema”. Using texts, materials, and examples that draw from students’ cultural schemas facilitates learning by leveraging students’ existing neural pathways and scaffolding their understanding of academic material (Muñiz, 2019).  Integrating patterns of learning, knowing, and doing that are familiar to culturally and economically diverse students makes academic content easier to understand and apply on a deeper level. Further, when teachers are able to make connections between academic content and students’ lives, lessons are more engaging, relevant, and meaningful.


  • When teachers built upon the funds of knowledge of their 3rd-6th graders, students felt valued, expressed pride in sharing knowledge with classmates, and held more positive attitudes toward learning. They also became more independent, better at collaborating, more supportive of their peers, more confident, and happier in class. Classes became more cohesive as students were better able to disrupt preconceived notions of one another and teachers developed deeper relationships with other students (Volman & ‘t Gilde, 2021).
  • In another example from research, teachers implemented an Hispanic-American culture unit to boost engagement levels among Latine 8th graders. As part of the unit, community members and parents shared their knowledge with students, leading to increased literary engagement (Brozo, Valerio, & Salazar, 1996).
  • A study of 1,400 high school students in San Francisco associated cultural affirmation with improved attendance and GPA gains (Dee & Penner, 2016).
  • English Language Learners (ages 9-13, Mexican and Chinese heritage) completed narrative writing assignments informed by their funds of knowledge, which teachers observed in home visits. As a result, student writing improved in terms of language production, support, organization, and elaboration (Chen, Carger, & Smith, 2017).


  • The Funds of Knowledge Inventory Matrix from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction can help teachers record what they learn and observe about their students and brainstorm potential lesson connections.
    • Check out one example of how a teacher organized four important aspects of her student’s life around core academic knowledge.
  • A variety of activities can help teachers add insights to the Matrix, including:
    • Home visits, completed either in-person or virtually with students and families.
    • Students take photos of people and events  they find meaningful inside and outside of school, allowing teachers to observe their values (Allen et al., 2002 summarized in Foote, 2009).
    • In a meeting with teachers, families bring photos of their children in their communities and participating in activities they find important. In a particular study of a math class, teachers asked parents to emphasize any activities involving numbers, which could point to mathematical knowledge (Foote, 2009).
    • Students create art, texts, or journal entries in which they choose the topic (Street, 2005 summarized in Llopart & Esteban-Guitart, 2017).
  • For a more detailed description of how to connect student funds of knowledge to classroom lessons, home visits, and student designed activities, read Enhancing Academic Investment through Home—School Connections and Building on ELL Students’ Scholastic Funds of Knowledge (Johnson, E. & Johnson, A., 2016).


Allen, J., Fabregas, V., Hankins, K. H., Hull, G., Labbo, L., Lawson, H. S., Michalove, B., Piazza, S., Piha, C., Sprague, L., Townsend, S., & Urdanivia-English, C. (2002). PhOLKS lore: Learning from photographs, families, and children. Language Arts, 79(4), 312-322. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41483246

Brozo, W. G., Valerio, P. C., & Salazar, M. M. (1996). A walk through Gracie’s garden: Literacy and cultural explorations in a Mexican American junior high school. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 40(3), 164–170. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40012125

Chen, Y., Carger, C. L., & Smith, T. J. (2017). Mobile-assisted narrative writing practice for young English language learners from a funds of knowledge approach. Language Learning & Technology, 21(1), 28–41. https://dx.doi.org/10125/44594

Dee, T., & Penner, E. (2016). The causal effects of cultural relevance: Evidence from an ethnic studies curriculum (CEPA Working Paper No.16-01). Retrieved from Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis: http://cepa.stanford.edu/wp16-01

Foote, M.Q. (2009). Stepping out of the classroom: Building teacher knowledge for developing classroom practice. Teacher Education Quarterly, 36(3), 39-53. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23479188

Johnson, E.J., & Johnson, A.B. (2016). Enhancing academic investment through home-school connections. Journal of Language & Literacy Education, 12(1), 104-121. https://www.k12.wa.us/sites/default/files/public/migrantbilingual/pubdocs/ADA-johnsonandjohnson2016-jolle.pdf

Llopart, M., Esteban-Guitart, M. (2017). Strategies and resources for contextualising the curriculum based on the funds of knowledge approach: a literature review. The Australian Educational Researcher, 44, 255-274. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13384-017-0237-8

Muñiz, J. (2019, September 23). 5 ways culturally responsive teaching benefits learners. New America. https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/edcentral/5-ways-culturally-responsive-teaching-benefits-learners/

Street, C. (2005). Funds of knowledge at work in the writing classroom. Multicultural Education, 13(2), 22–25.

Tatum, A.W. (2006). Engaging African American males in reading. Educational Leadership, 63(5), 44-49. http://www.missionliteracy.com/uploads/3/4/4/5/34456187/engaging_afammales_in_readingel200602_tatum.pdf

Volman, M., & ‘t Gilde, J. (2021). The effects of using students’ funds of knowledge on educational outcomes in the social and personal domain. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lcsi.2020.100472

Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. (n.d.) Funds of Knowledge Toolkit.  https://www.k12.wa.us/sites/default/files/public/migrantbilingual/pubdocs/Funds_of_Knowledge_Toolkit.pdf