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Steve Haberlin is a Ph.D student at the University of South Florida, where he also works as a teaching assistant, supervising and teaching pre-service teachers. Steve holds a master's degree in...
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Reconsidering Cultural Wealth in the Classroom: A Tale of Two Students

As teachers, we should carefully examine what we consider important in classrooms. For instance, what language, customs, mannerisms, and social graces do we value above others in school settings. The concept of cultural capital theory was proposed by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (1977) to explain differences in academic achievement among children in France’s educational system in the 1960s. Cultural capital can be thought of as the collection of elements—tastes, clothing, material possessions, mannerisms, etc.—acquired as part of belonging to a particular social class.

An assumption exists that certain students, such as minority students, lack the cultural capital required for social mobility, and thus, schools must provide opportunities to obtain this capital (Yosso, 2005). However, scholars (Yosso, 2005) have challenged Bourdieu’s traditional notion of cultural capital, claiming that these students possess community cultural wealth. For instance, students of color bring with them various forms of capital, including aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, and resistant (Yosso, 2005).

Yosso’s work reminds us to reflect on what we value as we strive to provide equitable opportunities for all students—to reexamine our “traditional thinking.”

To illustrate how cultural capital impacts students and plays out in schools, two “fictional” accounts are presented here. While the narratives hopefully resonate as true, both accounts are based on a collection of students observed over a number of years rather than one particular student.

The “Culturally Capitalized” Student

Alyssa, a fifth-grade, gifted Caucasian student at a public magnet k-8 school, strolls into class, a smile beaming across her freckled face. She’s wearing a Wonder Woman T-shirt.

            “Hi, Mr. Smith,” she says.

            “How was your weekend?” the teacher asks.

            “Great, sir! I went to Comic Con with my Dad.”

            “Wow!”

            “I dressed up in a costume.”

            “You and you’re Dad go everywhere,” the teacher says.

            “Yeah, this summer, we went to Europe. I liked Paris the most.”

            “Why?” Mr. Smith asks.

            “The food, I guess. I liked seeing all the artwork at the Louvre.”

Alyssa unpacks her backpack, removing her homework that her mother helped her with. She takes out an electronic tablet and begins reading a Shakespeare play while waiting for class to begin.

            “That’s going to help you a lot,” says Mr. Smith, peering over her shoulder. “When we read Romeo & Juliet later this semester.”

The “Cultural Community Wealthy” Student

Noel straggles into class late, his head down.

            “Take out your homework,” the teacher says.

Noel feels the pit in his stomach. He forgot to do it. There was so much going on, all the family over on Sunday.  Noel is a gifted, fifth-grade, African-American student.

            “I forgot,” he says sheepishly.

            “Again, Noel, really?”

            “We ain’t got a computer to look up the facts on The Holocaust” he said. “We don’t have Internet anymore. My mom said we hadda cancel it.”

The teacher shrugs her head.

            “You could go to the library,” she says.  “And stop talking like that—it makes you sound less intelligent.”

The teacher lectures on World War II, making references to Germany and other locations in Europe.

Noel feels confused. He has no idea where these places are, what the people are like there.  

One thing Noel knows is stories-how to tell stories. His grandmother tells stories every week to him. And he loves to talk in front of groups.

            “This reminds me of a tale my grandmother says about fighting and the two wolves,”

Noel attempts to speak, without raising his hand. He is immediately stifled by the teacher and reprimanded for not raising his hand.

            “We are not talking about wolves. We are talking about the Holocaust,” she says.

The above scenarios show that students, depending on what teachers value and emphasize, can significantly empower or limit students. I believe we must examine our teaching methods, our curriculum and our language to ensure we are not marginalizing certain populations of students. That as educators, we are encouraging all students to fulfill their potential, regardless of background, ethnicity, race, and socio-economic status. That we are truly “equal education opportunists.”

 

References

Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J. C. (1977). Reproduction in society, education and culture. Trans. R. Nice. London: Sage.

 

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community

            cultural wealth. Race ethnicity and education, 8(1), 69-91.

 

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