On my most recent post about "bourgeois norms" being explicitly taught in school, commenters MDS and Matt and I got into a conversation, among other things, about the confluence of school, language, pedagogy, and culture. I would really recommend reading through both of their comments as they each offer much to ponder. In the meantime, these lines from MDS started this particular conversation:
"Minority students need to be taught that they live in a racist society and they will need to navigate that racist society by developing a fluency in Standard English and other mainstream norms. They need to understand that they need to learn this NOT because their culture and language are inferior, but because they live in a racist society. This cannot happen if white or middle class teachers come to the classroom with the common sense or taken for granted notions that Yglesias describes. The students are surely receptive to the messages that this gives out. Instead of reaffirming the stereotypes of the dominant society, the classroom should be a place where students are given a different story about who they are"
I was young, middle class, elite-school educated, progressive, and white (and still am, though no longer so young:) when I began my teaching career, though by the time I started teaching in an inner-city public high school I was twenty-five and had a master's degree in education with certification in social studies and ESOL. I was green as hell, but at least in ed school I had studied educational history, linguistics, language acquisition, educational psychology, special education, teaching methods, social studies and ESOL pedagogy/curriculum, as well as examples of real-world challenges in education. I had also completed several internships and done a semester of student teaching.
Nevertheless, as I have pretty much only taught non-white, non-middle class students, once teaching I had to really consider how I would come across to students and what it was I wanted them to learn from me. On the one hand, I had been academically successful and it was hard to resist the temptation of teaching my students to achieve my success by emulating me. On the other hand, that seemed patronizing, as if I were saying: I am in the place I'm in because I have superior habits, values, and behaviors; yours are inferior. What I figured out pretty quickly was that the difference between me and many of my students was luck; I was academically successful mostly because I am one of the luckiest people on earth--I was born into privilege. Ultimately, rather than teach my students to be like me, I decided the best thing I could do for them was to earn their trust, make sure they felt comfortable in my classroom, and to teach them interesting (okay, sometimes boring), essential content and skills.
Part of doing the above meant seriously considering how I would approach the teaching and use of language, especially considering the dilemma that MDS described. And considerations of language in the classroom are important not just with poor, minority or immigrant students, but with teenagers in general. After floundering a bit, I figured out it would be counterproductive to the enrichment and development of students' language abilities to stifle or discount any student's native language or vernacular. I decided to explain to my students that there's an English that most Americans use in school and in the workplace. My job is to teach them to have facility with that academic or standard English without frowning upon the way they speak or telling them it's is wrong. In many cases their usage is creative and rich in its own right, in fact, and as far as I was concerned was fine in school for peer-to-peer or non-academic interactions with me, and in some creative writing assignments.
I didn't instruct my students to speak to me in academic English, but I did remind them when necessary that I wasn't their peer. I didn't correct them, but I didn't alter the way I talked either. On assignments, I didn't always explicitly require standard English, but I told them I assumed they would do their best to use it. Especially in social studies, though, I was interested in the ideas. If a student could explain to me that the Vietnam War was different from World War II because for the first time Americans had it broadcast to their living rooms and that this changed public opinion, I was thrilled. Someone might look at some of my students' in-class essay responses on such a topic and notice the non-standard English and ask how I could pass those students. I don't know. All I can say is that if they did what I required of them, came to class, worked hard, and I could tell from their responses on my assessments that they had learned the material, how could I not pass them? I would also proffer that if I had them constantly reading and writing as much as possible, that their fluency in standard English would have to improve from beginning to end of the course.
As a bit of an aside, but a relevant one, I approach cursing in much the same way: I tell students that cursing is not wrong but that there's an art to it. There is also a time and a place for cursing and it's not appropriate in school. A lot of cursing from students is a signal that we need to work on adding lots more (non-curse) words to their vocabulary. (Although more bland than jarring, I would also say this about using the words "good" and "nice" too much--they're too common and not specific enough.) On the rare occasion that students cursed at me or at one other, I calmly but firmly pointed out that cursing was not appropriate in my classroom and moved on. Cursing was not something I allowed but it's not something I made a deal out of, either. I think that's one reason I never had many problems with it.
In short, I found that while I was most certainly responsible for teaching my students standard or academic English and for modeling its usage, it wasn't my job to make students elevate one form of English over another. Language and the way we use it, especially in less formal settings literally speaks for us; it's part of who we are. I felt that if I wanted students to learn academic and standard English, I needed to let them know first that I respected who they already were, that my instruction of and in standard English wasn't meant to replace any vernacular, but rather to build their language abilities and expand their expressive machinery. Use of standard or academic English is not a means towards any type of superiority; it's a tool, a means towards academic success and the broadening and deepening of language abilities. When students understand and trust that, they're much more likely to embrace learning it.