“That’s won-chu-ri. You can eat that. It’ll bloom flowers that are either white or purple.” Mom pointed to the side of a small hill not far from my dad’s gravesite. I looked over and didn’t see anything significant, only overgrown green plants. Mom regularly points out different plants that can be eaten and how it can be prepared when we’re out walking or hiking. Each time, I look at her and ask myself, “How does she know that?”
While growing up in Korea, neither of my parents went to school beyond the elementary level. Their families could not afford to send them any further, so instead, they worked at home, doing chores, cooking, cleaning and working out in the fields. They would do all that while finding time to play and invent games with other kids in their villages.
Mom and Dad immigrated to America when my brother was 6 and I was 1. They worked tirelessly to build us a life here. They didn’t speak English when they arrived and often life was too busy with work to have the time to learn. So as children, my brother and I translated for them in our everyday lives, at the bank, at doctors’ visits, and at parent conferences. They could not help us with things like homework, field trip permission slips or beginning of the year paperwork that was sent home. We filled those out and handed them over to Mom or Dad to sign. Mom worked at a factory that made ramen and Dad was a tailor. Growing up, my parents would often tell us, “Because we didn’t go to school, we work using our hands. We work like this so that when you two get older, you’ll go to college and find jobs where you’ll work using your heads.”
The four of us were very interdependent in the way that we navigated day-to-day life in America. It felt like we needed each other in order to make it through. As a consequence, I underestimated the knowledge that my parents used to enhance and fill our lives. As a child, whenever either one of my parents would share a “fun fact” about a certain topic, like a bug that we had in our backyard garden, or what kind of stitch would be the best for a particular type of alteration, I would roll my eyes and say, “Okay…” and wonder what that had to do with anything in my life.
Back then, I thought of knowledge as solely academic learning that one acquired in school. As a result of my narrow understanding, I mistakenly minimized the wealth of knowledge my parents brought to my world. I didn’t see the true value in the knowledge Dad accrued by being a tailor and altering clothes. He could tell right away if taking in a garment the way the customer wanted would compromise the intended fit or how to correct an error when he had made a miscalculation in measurements on a pair of pants he was creating a pattern for. Such rich knowledge that I took for granted.
Luis Moll (2019) discusses the sociocultural approach he and others developed called funds of knowledge. By getting to know students’ and their families’ funds of knowledge, teachers can “re-present [families] on the bases of the knowledge, resources, strengths they possess, thus challenging deficit orientations that are so dominant, in particular, in the education of working-class children.”
For me, school was not a place where my parents could participate fully. They worked days and evenings and spoke mostly Korean. They didn’t have the time to come to activities, and even if they had, they would not have felt like it was an inclusive space. What would it have done for me as a young girl if my teachers had taken the time to re-present my parents, after discovering their funds of knowledge, seeing them beyond people who didn’t come to school functions and spoke mainly Korean? If teachers had taken the time to learn more about my family dynamic and re-present it in a way that showed its assets? What impact would their re-presenting have had on my learning, and more importantly the worth I placed on my own identity and that of my family?
As I got older, I learned to re-present the gifts of my parents and of our family on my own; to hold our gifts in a new light, with new positionality. As I spent more time in the world beyond school, I realized I underestimated the significance of the funds of knowledge my parents possessed and how expansive their knowledge base was. Far wider than mine, someone who had graduated from a masters program.
Moll goes on to say how in the context of a classroom, “It represents one could say, an opportunity for teachers, as part and parcel of their pedagogy, to identify and establish the educational capital of families often assumed to be lacking any such resources.”
As I reflect on my time in the classroom and the students and the families I served I wonder, “Whose educational capital was overlooked because I didn’t fully understand what constituted knowledge? What resources and strengths did they bring to the classroom that I did not take the time and the energy to uncover? Whose educational capital did I not value enough?”
In my current work in supporting teachers, we have been studying and examining identity, our own and those of the students’. We’ve been thinking about how getting to know students more fully can build authentic relationships. Are we getting to know our kids beyond their scores on i-Ready and district mandated assessments? How are we getting to know the complexities of their identities and their full humanity? How will we shed light on their existing funds of knowledge, and the educational capital they already possess?
By broadening my understanding of what constitutes knowledge, it has become easier to see the assets students and families already have before they step foot in a school. When I’m having a one-on-one conference with a student who talks excitedly about playing Roblox, rather than glossing over the topic because it’s a video game, I can ask questions and unearth the intricacies of what it takes to create on that platform. When I learn about a mom who crocheted a colorful flower pattern on a towel for a teacher gift, rather than appreciating it solely for the aesthetics, I can appreciate the level of planning and precision she had to demonstrate for that flower pattern to be spaced so that it ends up exactly centered. I can re-present what they already know and honor their knowledge as gifts.
And now, when we’re out walking in nature and Mom says, “That plant over there, the plants that look like that, you can pollinate them like squash blossoms by using a Q-tip in order to get them to fruit,” I don’t brush off what she says, instead, I listen, I learn and I see her brilliance.
Moll, Luis C. (2019) Elaborating Funds of Knowledge: Community-Oriented Practices in International Contexts. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice 2019, Vol. 68, 130–138.
A special thank you to Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul for her support and nudging me just beyond the edges of my comfort zone.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Ashley Tucker (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).