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Teach Using the Lived Experiences of Your Students

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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Boy in a hoodie wearing sunglasses laying on the grass

In education, we discuss the importance of using students' prior knowledge. What is also important is learning about the "lived experiences" of the children we teach and connecting those experiences to the learning at hand.

Common Lived Experiences

Unearth any information that you can from your students. Take student interest inventories. Have them discuss their favorite musicians, song, sport, activity, video game, or food. Next, as their teacher, research any unfamiliar TV shows, films, singers, or video games that multiple students mentioned. Then ask yourself, "How might I integrate these interests in my daily lessons and units?"

Frequently ask your students questions that invite them to share their emotions and feelings about anything and everything happening in the world (their school, city, neighborhood). This will give you so much to work with as you plan lessons, and when those magical "teaching moments" arise, you can refer to something a student (or two or three) in the room has shared.

You can ask your students questions to uncover their lived experiences, for example, with technology. See what they know about digital citizenship, or certain software, or how many know about coding and how to do it. Also, what might they teach you? What might they teach other students in the class?

Writing is thinking, so giving them plenty of opportunities to journal and then share with each other and with you. "How many have felt afraid to try something new, yet you did it anyway?" was a question that I'd ask my high school language arts students and then relate their responses to a character or characters in the novel we were reading as a class. I'd also ask this question and use their responses when we were embarking on a difficult writing task or project.

Research Says. . .

Educator Lisa Delpit coined the term "culturally responsive teaching," and her research showed that students really need to see connection between learning and their lived experiences. Therefore, teachers need to create routine situations where students' lives are brought into the learning and connections are made between the stories they share and the content being learned.

Well known for his "funds of knowledge" theory, education researcher Luis Moll stated that these "funds" refer to the skills and knowledge acquired by individuals through cultural and historical interactions and are fundamental for thriving within her or his community. Funds of knowledge include information about any routines or activities within the home, such as cultural practices, finances, cooking, or family traditions.

According to Moll, when it comes to education, funds of knowledge can be utilized "to validate students' identities as knowledgeable individuals who can use such knowledge as a foundation for future learning."

How do you bring the lives and experiences of your students into the classroom and the learning? Please share in the comments section below.

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Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor

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Alina Moran's picture
Alina Moran
Curriculum Design & Edufeedback Specialist

As an English teacher I had the wonderful opportunity to engage students in a variety of creative mixed media projects that became profoundly meaningful to them. These projects were my privileged windows into their colorful worlds. As they learned how to properly express themselves I learned much of what made each one so intricately special.

cheryl Best's picture
cheryl Best
Fifth Grade Teacher from Bunker Hill,IL

We have a "Quiet Time" in my classroom each and every morning. We share something or someone we want the class to think about all day. It is a very revealing part of the day to everyone. At the end I quietly bow my head and pray for about 20 to 30 seconds and tell the kids this is something I choose to do that they can as well but do not have to. I believe this has created empathy, understanding and lasting friendships in our classroom. Kids are free to express their thoughts , feelings and concerns with the whole class which leads to a better understanding of what they have or are going through in their homes. I teach in a public school. I even have kids stop me from past classes, and ask me to share something with the class so they can think about it for them.

rmcgill's picture

As a new teacher, this is exactly the kind of connection I would like to make in my classroom. One concern I have is how to connect the kids whose interests and experiences are not mainstream but more unique, especially if they are hesitant to share. I would try to allow for this to happen in individual project work, such as feedback on journal writing. I would love to learn more about how others make these connections in their rooms.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.


The kids with unique skills and interest really interest me. They are the kids who are often overlooked, so I make a huge effort to connect with these kids to make sure they know that what they enjoy is valued. School schedules and routines can sometimes be very "tight" and it's hard to find individual time with students. That's why I enjoy teaching within a workshop model, so I can work one-on-one with kids, which really creates strong relationships and bonds between teacher and student. I really know my students because of the workshop model in reading/writing.

I don't have a desk. My students use tables and so do I. Sometimes I invite students to sit with me (I'm not really sitting often), which also gives me some opportunities to be up close and personal with individual students. Also, bus dismissal is a great time to connect in an elementary classroom.


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