Friday, June 10, 2011

Academic English Helps Kids Succeed Academically, But It Doesn't Make Them Better People

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.


  1. "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"

    But would you deduct points for the non-standard English? And how much do you weight that? Those are the relevant questions, I think pass or no-pass is sort of a straw man

  2. I am so glad you got it...students need to be told they are of value in the most important of ways...then, trust will develop and that student will be willing to learn...

  3. @Anonymous 9:31 - Thanks for commenting.

    Yes, when I grade essay questions (that is, ones that have not or will not go through drafting), I do include usage & mechanics on the rubric. However, if it's the content I'm after, it's just one criteria of many.

    I can see what you're saying about straw man, but the term makes me bristle a bit--this post is not meant to debate anyone. "How could a student pass his/her classes or graduate high school writing like this?" is a question that gets asked a lot. I think it's a valid question and worth a thoughtful response.

  4. Standard English is important if you want to be understood by people with whom you wish to communicate. People with money and power generally use standard English and perhaps the assumption is that you would want to communicate with them?

  5. My husband works hard with his second graders on this. When they say something like "ain't" in response to a classroom question, he'll tell them, "It's okay to talk like that at home or on the playground, but in the classroom, we say 'isn't'."

  6. It is always kind of funny that what, twenty years into our "standards movement" how few people understand the concept. The student does well on the historical content or process standard, not so well on the ELA standard, but if you aren't assessing the ELA standard, well, you aren't. That's using standards.

  7. You know, Rachel, the title of your post is true of almost all academic subjects, including the study of ethics. Just an observation.

    This is probably my favourite of all your posts that I've read. I like it a great deal. I've just got two small bones to pick.

    1) You say that your job isn't to make your students more like you. But I think that's exactly what your job is. If you weren't the sort of person that people wanted your students to be more like, you wouldn't have been hired. Indeed, you might think that a teacher of any kind cannot do anything else. now, there are certainly limits to how much "like you" the students should be. No one is, for example, suggesting that the gentlemen have sex changes. And you might think that they needn't adopt your values. So in some sense, I'm nitpicking words, not your point. But they're important words.

    2) Apropos of my comments on your arguments with Yglesias, it seems to me by the end of this post you've admitted that you're really doing what you've professed you're not doing. You're just doing it indirectly, subtly. If the students manage to pick up Standard English (and expand their vocabularies a bit), they're going to see what a useful tool it is (and how it can be used to express fine points that a lot of coherent vernaculars don't). You're still doing Missionary Work. You're just being sly about it because that gets you the best results.

    (Which, as you might guess, I'm entirely in favor of.)

  8. Thanks for the post Rachel. I think this is a very important topic. I think this draws a lot of attention to the importance of treating teaching as a profession and the great deal of professional knowledge necessary to meet students needs. There is incredible academic research out there surrounding language and in a perfect world I believe all teachers would be well versed in that. Below I copied a link to an interview with a 5th grade teacher in Oakland about how she approached this issue in her class. I think it is a vitally important read!!

  9. Excellent post, Rachel! I'm in total agreement. As one who loves to play with language, I realize that language is not static. It's an organic, breathing, living, ever-changing organism. How we speak proper English today is quite different from how English was spoken in the 1700s. Although I use, encourage and completely see the value in using standard English, I LOVE the creativity of street languages. I prefer to enjoy 31 flavors, not just vanilla.

  10. Except if you are teaching a testing grade in DCPS and you want the students to pass, then what?

  11. @Michael - Thanks so much for your kind words--they mean a lot. Perhaps my best writing comes out when I write about one of the things I feel most passionately about: teaching.

    I spent a lot of time this past weekend thinking about your comment. The "be like me" point is very complicated. I guess I meant to say it's not my job to make them culturally more like me. Of course we end up having things in common, but I don't want to pretend to be their peer or from the same place they are and I don't want them to feel like they have to be my peer or pretend they are from the same place I am in order to earn my respect. I've had many conversations with students about why I wasn't married with kids at age twenty or why I talk the way I do or eat the food I do. And I also learn a great deal from them and their "culture" (for example, respecting older people and the importance of family). If they cross a boundary I tell them, but I try to be as open & honest as possible, especially in the context of how greater American society works for them and for me--in both good and bad ways. If you're saying I want them to have the knowledge I have and to be able to write as decently as I can write and be able to read the books I can read, then, yes, I want them to be like me. In these conversations, it's important to define what "be like me" means.

    As for whether Ygelisas and I actually agree. That's hard to say. He's been vague and I'm being specific. Plus, honestly, he just doesn't have the background in curriculum and pedagogy (in education) that I do so I think it would be very hard for us to have a real conversation until he learned more about and really considered those things.

    Funny using words like "Missionary Work"--it's true education is the religion of my parents and of their parents and my religion, too. If educating kids is "Missionary Work," then sure, that's what I'm doing. But it's not that I'm being more subtle about it; rather, I'm explicitly outlining the dimensions and boundaries of that work.

  12. @MDS - Thanks so much for the comment & link (and for inspiring this post). I love RS.

    @tracey - Thanks so much for reading & commenting. I agree we should not limit our means of expression or our studies of language to One Way.

    @Anon - You describe perfectly the teacher's conundrum in today's classroom. High-stakes testing is ruining any thoughtful, intellectual, and appropriate approach to education.

  13. Kids of all backgrounds can benefit from the understanding that language use is flexible--successful members of a plural society change usage according to context.


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