The rich get richer: 4 kinds of Capital

Jeff Zwiers, in his recent book Building Academic Language, talks about how there are different kinds of capital that we bring to the classroom setting: social, cultural, knowledge, and linguistic. And some of us are a bit richer in some areas than others…

In social capital, think of how pragmatics–or the how and when and where of polite speech–figures into your life. My co-teacher and I have been talking about this a lot lately, about how social norms could potentially get you into trouble if you don’t know the right way to behave. There is a great short course on pragmatics here, from UT Austin. And we’re thinking that an after-school club that teaches students how to navigate cultural norms could be quite helpful to some of our students.

I remember when I was an exchange student in Germany and had picked up the colloquialisms my host siblings were using. It turned out that asking my host father the equivalent of “are you seriously insane” (likely with an expletive or two thrown in) was not socially acceptable, even if he was being a bit crass in letting me know that I came across as being a bit daft in my German skills. Conversation stopper, right there.

We live and we learn…

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To determine your level of cultural capital, try your hand a geoguessr, an online geography game that asks you to place a picture on the globe. You score points by getting geographically close to your goal. For me today, I zoomed in on the sign here that said “Florestal.” I thought that sounded Spanish or Portuguese to me. And I saw the deciduous trees lining the road. I made a quick guess and was not incredibly far off. Got the right general vacinity.

But to know that, I had to bring a load of background knowledge to my game. And those students who grew up in refugee camps, likely never got much chance to study or move outside their own realms very much before being resettled here. And now the lack of monetary capital keeps them from even taking trips up to the Green Mountains or into the Adirondacks, either one less than an hour away from where our classroom sits.

Knowledge capital is how I know that Leonard Nimoy just died. Or that the election in our fair city is on Tuesday. Or that I really don’t want to spend any of my break in Boston because it has way too much snow right now. Or that school starts at 8 for students on Wednesday. My partner teacher and I went for a walk yesterday to the Mardi Gras parade (we play that game a bit later than the actual fete here), and we met no less than three students on the street, none of whom knew what day to go back to school or what time school would start. We usually start almost an hour later on Wednesdays.

And for linguistic capital, well, for my students–primarily children who grew up in refugee camps–they generally come up a bit short here. At least for starters. How well you can acclimate to the U.S. educational system depends a lot on how you were educated elsewhere. How many skills can you transfer over? How close is the language you speak at home and the language we use at school?

For many students, this chasm is really wide. They don’t talk about math terminology. They don’t talk about grammar or politics or science or social studies or the problems of the world at home over coffee or juice.

And so we need to teach explicitly. It’s a monumental task. But if we want to hear words coming out of our students’ mouths, if we want them to be able to succeed on Common Core State Standard assessments, we need to be teaching academic language to them daily. We can’t assume they will just “get it,” which is what my teachers thought in the 1970s in rural Kansas.

We live in a world where knowing how to talk can help you get places.

So we need to teach. With a vengeance.

More on the “how” of this later.


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