Creating an Inclusive Music Classroom

Honoring Students’ “Funds of Knowledge”

By NAfME Member Chiao-Wei Liu 

This article was first published in the January 2024 issue of Journal of General Music Education.

In this column, I shared my experiences of inviting students to bring in their “funds of knowledge” into the classroom. Acknowledging the diverse cultures in the classroom, I am interested in how students’ funds of knowledge can be celebrated, sustained, and potentially transformed into collective knowledge. Specifically, I am curious how different music traditions and styles interact and generate new conversations. Through this experience, I came to realize the importance of addressing the historical burden many minoritized carry and wonder, “Can I be more than the race you see on me?” I share my own experiences to encourage fellow teachers to continue reflecting and attending to the students in front of us. Creating an inclusive classroom requires us to go beyond the present and create space for the changing, the emerging, and the unknown, through which our students may be more than what we know and build a better world.

When my child started the new school year, I noticed myself attending to different aspects of school life with his “story-of-the-day” shifting from “what I did in class” to “what happened to me and my friends at school.” This year, the head teacher started the semester with a wonderful activity by inviting each child to bring in a book of their choice to share with the rest of the class. Each child was asked the rationale behind their choice (meanwhile, the head teacher emphasized that parents don’t get involved in their decision-making process). While some children chose books that represent their interest, some chose books that showcased their linguistic ability (e.g., because I can read the book on my own!). This act of sharing a part of their world through reading gently breaks down the boundary between home and school as children’s funds of knowledge (Moje et al., 2004) is recognized, further extended, and incorporated by peers in their dramatic play and beyond.

As a parent, I appreciate the space created to honor children’s perspectives, and the opportunity presented to observe similar and different interests. Listening to the fascinating stories my child shares about his friends, I can’t stop but reflecting upon whether the “honoring students’ funds of knowledge” projected into my own classes had reached what I set out to accomplish: a more inclusive classroom. Last year, I had the pleasure to work with some pre-service and in-service music teachers, in addition to students in my immigration and curriculum course. Although each class has its own course objectives, one thing that I wish to cultivate in all classes is the sense of inclusion and belonging. “How do I create a sense of ‘homeness’ while recognizing the unique and diverse histories of the students?”, and “When, where, and how do I incorporate their funds of knowledge as we work together to reach those course objectives?” were some questions that occupied my mind as I developed the project.

Happy siblings lying on carpet at home with lights in background at home during Diwali

Photo: triloks/E+ Collection via Getty

Acknowledging the diverse and rich cultures each of us brings into the classroom, I am interested in how students’ funds of knowledge can be celebrated, sustained, and potentially transformed into collective knowledge. As I flipped through my old notebook, I noticed a question, “Why does the music [that] students listen to only serve as a bridge to classical music?” This was from a workshop I attended over a decade ago on cultural diversity in the music classroom. I believe that this question remains relevant but now, I would respond to my old self, “No. Students’ music can do more than bridging home and school, especially if we consider the social, political, and cultural aims of music education.” While representation matters, I am also interested in how different music traditions and styles interact with each other and generate new conversations.

One theme we explored in the music course program centered on fun holidays in the household. Students were invited to choose a fun holiday that they celebrated passively or actively with their family members. The following questions and statements were posted beforehand as students prepared for their sharing in class: What do you know about this holiday? What were your past experiences of its celebration? Is music involved in its celebration (It doesn’t have to be!). If yes, how would you characterize the music (e.g., rhythm, instruments, mood, and so on) and its association with the holiday? What are other things associated with this fun holiday? costume? parade? other activities and food? In what context has this holiday been celebrated in the past and at present? Refresh your memory, ask other family members, or conduct a mini-research about this holiday before you share it with the rest of the class. You may want to bring in artifacts, such as photos, music, or other objects to help the class learn more about the holiday!

In the preparation stage of this project, I had considered the possible challenges of selecting a holiday as their decision pertains to identity issues and requires some level of openness about their family life and selves. It may also be important that since the beginning of the semester, we had numerous small group discussions and music making activities to build trust and create a sense of togetherness. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s song “I contain multitudes,” we contemplated the multifaced and rich cultures we came to interact with and explored the concept of becoming. We also read and investigated the concept of place-conscious music classroom, which invited them to consider the people, and historical and present context where they work (or intend to work), critically.[1] Meanwhile, I was also aware that there are many different compositions of home and various relationships with/within home (Bhattacharya, 2018). Although I did not assume one’s close relationship with family members and/or a particular ethnic heritage, I did hope that the openness of the project would create an opportunity for students to reveal a part of their identity that may otherwise be invisible or hidden.

High angle of Malaysian family having family reunion dinner assorted Malay food at home celebrating Hari Raya

Photo: Edwin Tan/E+ Collection via Getty

On the day of the presentation, students were invited to consider the partiality and situated context of these stories and attend to their own thought process as they listened to each other’s presentation. Questions to consider include: “What aspects did you choose to include and what did you leave out? What did you consider as you make these choices? How did these stories help you see/think anew? As a teacher, where would you go next with the collected funds of knowledge?” In the spirits of cross-cultural exchange, the extended activity was to take some of the elements presented and create music conversations based on the selected elements in small groups. As I listened to students’ presentations, I was reminded of Bhattacharya’s (2018) statement: Even with elements of familiarity, ethnic heritage does not reliably produce homogenized experiences with which one can bond and create friendships. I realized that as much as I had tried to avoid casting any assumed tie between culture and ethnicity, I failed to address the historical burden that many minoritized students were called on to perform throughout their life and wonder myself, “Can I be more than the race you see on me?”

As globalization and technological development continue, the relationship between language, ethnicity and cultural heritage also becomes more diverse. As a parent, I would hope that teachers create space for diverse cultures and languages to sustain in the classroom. And yet as I learned from my own experiences, I also long for open space to explore, to go beyond my ethnic self and learn about other cultures. H. Samy Alim and Django Paris (2017, p.9) address my concern adequately, as they call for educators to “attend to the emerging, intersectional, and dynamic ways in which they are lived and used by young people.” I share my own experiences here to encourage my fellow teachers to continue reflecting and attending to the students in front of us. Creating an inclusive classroom requires us to go beyond the present and create space for the changing, the emerging, and the unknown, through which our students may be more than what we know and build a better world.


Alim, H. S. & Paris, D. (2017). What is culturally sustaining pedagogy? In D. Paris & H.S. Alim (Eds.), Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world (pp. 1-21). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Bhattacharya, K. (2018). Coloring memories and imaginations of “Home”: Crafting a de/colonizing autoethnography. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 18(1), 9-15.

Moje E. B., Ciechanowski, K. M., Kramer, K., Ellis, L., Carrillo, R., & Collazo, T (2004). Working toward third space in content area literacy: An examination of everyday funds of knowledge and discourse. Reading Research Quarterly, 39(1), 38-70.

About the author:

Chiao Wei Liu PortraitChiao-Wei Liu is an adjunct assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research focuses on educational, social, and political issues faced by minoritized groups of students. She teaches the course “Immigration and Curriculum” in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching. This year, she is also the guest instructor of the following courses: “Creativity and Problem Solving in Music Education” and “Composing Collaboratively Across Diverse Styles” in the music and music education program at Teachers College.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.


[1]The readings that we use include the followings: David A. Greenwood, “Critical Theory of Place-Conscious Education,” in International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education, eds Stevenson et al., (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013), 93-100; and Jonathan G. Schaller, “Mapping Your Place: Developing a Place-Conscious Music Classroom,” Music Educators Journal 106, no. 2 (December 2019), 1-8.

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

January 18, 2024


  • Culturally Relevant Teaching
  • Culture
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA)
  • Race
  • Representation


January 18, 2024. © National Association for Music Education (

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