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March 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 6

Lessons at the Kitchen Table

Home visits with recent immigrant families can lead to culturally relevant teaching—when solid preparation points the way.

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EngagementSocial-emotional learning
As Ms. Mason, principal of Iona Barnes Elementary, prepares for the new school year, she hears a knock on her office door. She greets translator Zanab Omir and the Hassan family, who have just arrived from Somalia. Looking at the family and speaking through Mr. Omir, Ms. Mason says, “We are so happy that you are here. Let me show you a book made by a Somalian student that shows photographs of our school.”
Ms. Mason is looking forward to learning about the Hassan family's experiences and expertise. Iona Barnes Elementary educates students from many parts of the world. Teachers frequently visit the families of new immigrants who have enrolled their children. Because teachers have put in the groundwork to make these encounters enriching, the school has developed warm relationships with immigrant families.
Ms. Mason learns from the families and values their contributions. Their personal stories have taught her lessons about struggle and determination, and their contributions have helped make the school's curriculum rich and relevant in terms of global awareness. For example, with input from immigrant families, teachers at Barnes recently created story problems for a math unit on double-digit division that originated in real-life situations these families had faced in the process of resettling in the United States.

The Impact of Immigration

As a consultant to schools like Barnes that have large numbers of recent immigrants, I have seen how visits to the homes of culturally and linguistically diverse students can lead to more relevant learning—for immigrant students as well as teachers. An increasing number of U.S. schools are opening their doors to families from myriad locations. Almost 30 million people who live in the United States were born in other countries. Forty-eight percent of students in New York City's public schools come from immigrant-headed households that represent more than 100 languages. In California, 1.5 million students are classified as English language learners. In Dodge City, Kansas, more than 30 percent of public school students are the children of immigrants (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001).
Educators are grasping the importance of bringing the life knowledge and expertise of immigrant families into classroom learning (Gay, 2000). Infusing the perspectives and talents of diverse cultures into the curriculum can enhance motivation and achievement (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1997; Veléz-Ibáñez & Greenberg, 1992). Just as significant, it creates a way to channel the voices of historically underserved families into our collective attempt to bring equity and excellence to schools (Valdez, 1996).
Working in urban and suburban schools, I have come to see how preparing teachers to visit with immigrants in their homes—and to thoughtfully follow up on what they learn from these families—contributes to increased learning for the school community.

Preparing the Ground

Why Home Visits

  • What might home visits teach us that would be hard to learn in another context?
  • What might we want to learn, with greater breadth and depth, about the lives of diverse linguistic communities to inform teaching practices?
  • As teachers, how can we dismantle our own deficit thinking?
  • How can we show respect when visiting with people in their homes?

Seeking Funds of Knowledge

The concept of funds of knowledge can be traced back to Veléz-Ibáñez (1988) and has been adapted by educators in a variety of ways (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 1995; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). This concept can help set the stage for approaching home visits positively. Funds of knowledge are strengths and talents—academic, civic, or technical—that are characteristic of families. The premise is that all people are competent and have worthwhile knowledge, often derived from sources outside of school. When educators approach home visits with the expectation of learning about each family's knowledge, these visits can reveal rich social fabrics, fascinating oral histories, ways of organizing complicated lives, and technical expertise that can enrich everyday curriculum.
Another source that can help teachers appreciate hidden cultural strengths is a report by the Center for Applied Linguistics describing a 1992 research project in which teachers and anthropologists in Tucson, Arizona, interviewed minority students' families. Teachers can read the following excerpt from the report and compare what the Tucson teachers learned from home visits with their own expectations about visiting with families.
[Viewing students' households as places full of knowledge] challenges traditional notions of culture as only being represented through dances, food, folklore, and the like . . . Teachers in the Tucson project learned, among other things, how households network in informal market exchanges and how cross-border activities enabled their students to act as miniethnographers. They also recognized that students acquire a multi-dimensional depth and breadth from their participation in household life. (National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, 1994)

Identifying Questions and Practicing Note Taking

  • What does your child talk about when he or she mentions school?
  • What things about schools in the United States seem different from the learning opportunities you had as a child?
  • How did your life in other communities differ from your life here?
  • What do you particularly enjoy about this community? Follow-up: For example, what have you discovered that makes family life easier?
  • Can you tell me a little about your skills or talents? Follow-up: Are you able to currently use many of the skills or talents that you developed in your home country in this community?
  • What have you learned or experienced since coming to the United States or moving to this community that you never imagined experiencing?
  • What gives your family strength?
  • What regular household routines does your child participate in? Follow-up: What contributions to the family does your child enjoy making?
  • What things at school make your child feel included?
  • What are you most proud of about your son or daughter?
  • We are developing a unit/learning experience about ____________. What do you think might be particularly important or interesting for your child to learn in this unit?
  • Are there any ways you would like to participate at school that you may not have had the opportunity to try?
Nuances of language are important, and sometimes the idea behind a question is difficult to communicate. Ideally, teachers should work with interpreters throughout the process. Some families may wish to keep certain experiences private. If translators join in an initial review of questions, they can signal to interviewers any questions that might be problematic.
Give teachers an opportunity to practice these questions through role playing. With the understanding that teachers will eventually pose questions through an interpreter and likely visit students' homes in teacher pairs, let teachers take turns posing these questions to each other. Becoming familiar with the questions makes it easier to converse authentically.
  • How can we promote respect and a feeling of connection among all participants? For example, families often appreciate it if teachers bring a small gift of fruit or cookies. In addition, teachers should look at the family member to whom they are speaking rather than at the interpreter.
  • How can we make each visit a relevant learning experience and give families choices in the visiting process? For example, teachers might share questions they plan to ask up front, tell families to feel free not to answer any question, and assure families that they can stop the interview at any time. To respect the family's schedule, try to keep interviews to 45 minutes or less.
  • How can we create a positive, challenging, and engaging experience for everyone? For example, teachers might start with easy questions, ask follow-up questions that encourage in-depth responses, look at family photographs and keepsakes with the family to draw out stories, respect the need for silence when it occurs, and accept emotion as a part of the process.
  • How can we identify what has been successful in a visit? For example, before leaving, share with the family one or two responses that were particularly informative or interesting. If possible, tell the family at a later date about something you learned from them that you applied in your teaching and saw reflected in student work.
To promote accuracy and reflection, have teachers practice observing and taking field notes. Use a notebook that provides space for a two-column chart, noting on one side a family member's response to a question and on the other side the thoughts or feelings that response evokes in the interviewer. The goal is to distinguish between personal thoughts and observable data. Both of these can be informative in developing culturally relevant curriculum, but it is important to remember that teachers' notes are filtered through their own cultural lenses. Visitors to students' homes must be cautious about making assumptions. Their own perceptions from a single visit may be informative but don't provide sufficient evidence to enable them to speak with certainty about the rich and complex lives of the families they visit.

Applying What Teachers Learn

Analyzing the Findings

One of the challenges of making home visits is the time it requires of teachers outside the classroom. To ensure a smooth process, schools should put in place a reasonably efficient way to analyze data from the visits. I generally ask teacher pairs to follow these steps after completing home visits:
Fill in field notes. Once you have left a family's home, sit quietly somewhere together, read through all the data you have collected, and round it out together. Write down parts of the conversation you may have missed—as well as personal reflections—as soon as possible after a visit.
Reread completed notes. Read the notes a second time, making a conscious attempt to note your own assumptions. Be as clear as possible about your personal feelings and thoughts.
Share your thoughts. Discuss what you learned with other members of your teaching team who are also doing home visits or with whom you share students. Although the focus of your analysis is identifying household funds of knowledge, insights may also emerge from exchanging general thoughts and feelings.

Creating a Funds of Knowledge Chart

A funds of knowledge chart is a visual representation of the specific knowledge the family you visited possesses, grouped into general categories. A chart might reflect the knowledge or skills of an individual family (as shown in the sample chart in Figure 1) or the knowledge of a cultural group.
FIGURE 1. Funds of Knowledge Chart

Lessons at the Kitchen Table

Family Unity and CooperationFamily sings together. Father and son fish together for family meals. Oldest son helps navigate bureaucracies. Daughters clean house and cook. Parents show regard for children's happiness.
ReligionFamily participates actively in church. Daughter directs choir and plays piano. Family discusses faith as the foundation for survival.
Household ManagementLarge family lives well in a small space. Space is efficiently organized (bikes and other items stored on porch).
ImmigrationFamily takes pride in hospitality (all children welcome guests). Family successfully navigated bureaucracies of two countries so family members could immigrate. Family found resources for traveling with limited income.
Principal Betty Cobb and teachers at Hawthorne Elementary School in Everett, Washington, prepared this report after visiting a family that emigrated from Russia.
Once teachers complete a round of home visits, they can create funds of knowledge charts. One chart, created by a team of teachers who had visited several Somali households, listed the strengths of multilingualism, household management, fabric design, knowledge of immigration policy and practices, development of social networks, cross-cultural knowledge, survival skills, and problem solving. Although teachers should be careful to convey that there is often as much variation within a group as between groups, such charts can provide a composite illustration of the range of expertise present in immigrant households.
To construct the chart, teachers should review their field notes looking for key words or phrases that give insight into the skills and talents of each host family. All categories and examples in the chart should be based on observable evidence—such as “family has ceramic sculpture in garden” or “family uses a single area in multiple ways.” Comments in field notes like “creative” or “resourceful” reflect the observer's own values and would not be appropriate to list.

Connecting Insights to the Classroom

Seeking out the strengths of immigrant families is a significant step toward developing culturally relevant and respectful curriculum. It can also lead to more engaging forms of family partnership. My observations in schools that encourage regular home visits reveal that teachers draw on understanding gained from visits to suggest ways for students to learn more about one another and their teacher, use examples from students' lives to bring curriculum to life, and provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their success to their families.
For example, as a follow-up to home visits, one group of 6th grade teachers shared with students the insights they had gleaned from being “home visit researchers.” Then, to encourage students to think of themselves and their family members as researchers, they asked students to think of a topic that they or their family had recently researched and to consider what knowledge they had gained. Each student described to the class one family research project. Their experiences ranged from downloading statistics on favorite soccer players to identifying people who might purchase homemade taquitos for a family business.

What Teachers Take Back

As teachers listen to stories about living in refugee camps in Kenya, negotiating the health care system in Seattle, and becoming self-sufficient by working three jobs, they are reminded of the strength and determination of the families they serve. Focusing on families' strengths is enormously motivating to educators. This is why the University of Washington requires all students in its doctoral program in systems-level leadership to visit with the families of students in their homes as part of learning to conduct research.
  • Oral communication is important in many homes, especially homes with rich oral traditions.
  • As mediators of language and culture, interpreters play a pivotal role in giving families opportunities to voice their opinions.
  • School leaders play a vital role. In addition to promoting warm home/school relationships, they can assess the extent to which everyone—including members of linguistic minority communities—participates in making decisions on school matters.
  • School is vital in maintaining relationships associated with learning, nurturing, and everyday coping.
Working with teachers who have visited families at home, I've witnessed how hopelessness about lack of parent involvement disappears as a topic of teacher discourse. As educators get to know students and families in new ways, respect emerges. Teachers become more likely to view households as contexts in which rich learning occurs. At schools like Iona Barnes Elementary, each time a new student arrives from a foreign country, the school staff meets not only the student, but also the family with determination to develop relationships and compelling learning experiences.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ginsberg, M. (2005). Cultural diversity, motivation, and differentiation. Theory Into Practice, 44(3), 218–225.

Ginsberg, M., & Wlodkowski, R. (2000).Creating highly motivating classrooms: A schoolwide approach to powerful teaching with diverse learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (1995). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1997). Dream keepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31(2), 132–141.

National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning. (1994). Funds of knowledge: Learning from language minority households. Washington, DC: Author. Available:

Suarez-Orozco, C., & Suarez-Orozco, M. (2002). Children of immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Velez-Ibáñez, C. G. (1988). Networks of exchange among Mexicans in the U.S. and Mexico: Local level mediating responses to national and international transformations. Urban Anthropology, 17(1), 27–51.

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

Wlodkowski, R. J., & Ginsberg, M. B. (1995). A framework for culturally responsive teaching. Educational Leadership, 53(1), 17–21.

End Notes

1 All names of individuals and schools are pseudonyms.

Margery B. Ginsberg has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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