As ELA teachers, we are responsible for delivering quite a few different types of content to our students. Of all the tasks placed before us, our primary responsibilities are to teach students how to engage with both narrative structure and the English language itself. However, it does not take many ELA teachers too long to realize that even those students who are ostensibly struggling with reading & writing are able to excel in the storytelling aspect of literature. So rather than writing-off those students who do not have complete mastery of the rules and conventions of Standard English, perhaps we should explore their areas of confusion.
Thus is the underlying premise of What Should Teachers Do about Ebonics?, an article by Lisa Delpit.
The piece begins by briefly reviewing feelings arising from the national debate about the legitimacy of Ebonics. Within just a few sentences, Delpit manages to stir up sentiments about the use of non-standard English in the classroom, which is surely an issue generating inner turbulence for many English teachers. I have often found myself engaged in internal debate – while I think an ability to command the English language provides tremendous levels of access, I cannot help but favor the literary aspect of the job, which encourages students to analyze texts (and the world around them!) critically. Then again, language and narrative are hardly mutually exclusive, the ideal would be foster growth in both areas.
Delpit approaches the “debate” about Ebonics from a similar position, arguing that it is a moot point whether or not the language is considered a dialect or a full-blown language. She writes,
“I can be neither for Ebonics or against Ebonics any more than I can be for or against air. It exists. It is the language spoken by many of our African-American children. It is the language they heard as their mothers nursed them and changed their diapers and played peek-a-boo with them. It is the language through which they first encountered love, nurturance, and joy” (242).
By first framing Ebonics not just as slang, but as a means through which an individual has come to understand the world, Delpit inspires the reader to think about the value of teachers’ willingness to interact with non-standard English. The article then runs through some of the angles from which a teacher may consider Ebonics in the classroom. Let’s take a quick look at those!
According to Delpit, it is somewhere around fourth grade that children stop emulating the speaking habits of their teachers, instead favoring the patterns of their home environments. One thought is that although the children are now more capable of handling Standard English, they eschew it as a favor of group identification. “‘These fourth graders had the competence to express themselves in a more standard form but chose, consciously or unconsciously, to use the language of those in their local environments” (243).
Once again, the inference here is that speech patterns are inherently connected to the speaker’s identity. In this sense, to be dismissive of the way a student speaks is, in many ways, to be dismissive to the student’s sense of self. While this doesn’t mean that all students should be given the pass and allowed to speak however they’d like to at any time (for better or worse, there’re very practical uses for mastering Standard English), perhaps recognizing the importance of their speech is a good first step.
The article makes good work of presenting different techniques with which teachers can interact with Ebonics. Most of these techniques involve a comparison of the how the students speak and how they are often expected to speak. If I’m not mistaken, these activities are designed to acknowledge the students’ language as legitimate while still recognizing that there are also more “formal” ways to express the same ideas. For instance, Delpit describes how some teachers in NYC have their students produce newscasts, which are followed by discussions “‘about whether Tom Brokaw would have said it that way’” (245).
Discourse Styles & Reactions to Children Speaking Ebonics
The article takes a brief, but poignant, trip into the arena of discourse styles. Delpit describes some of the findings of Sarah Michaels, a Harvard researcher who has evidence suggesting differences in “story-time” activities. According to Michaels, White children tell stories more focused on a single event, and Black children tell stories that are more episodic in nature (Ana 245).
As teachers, we should resist knee-jerk reactions and value judgments. Delpit goes on to illustrate an instance in which the same set of Black children’s stories were received in drastically different terms; perhaps it’s not surprising, but the White adults saw the stories as indicators of cognitive incoherence and future academic struggles, whereas Black adults appreciated the elevated levels of description.
The danger with these differences comes in the form of the ensuing expectations. “‘This is not a story about racism, but one about cultural familiarity. However, when differences in narrative style produce differences in interpretation of competence, the pedagogical implications are evident’” (Ana 245).
The final section of What Should Teachers Do about Ebonics? interacts with the idea that the speaking of Ebonics necessarily denotes a difficulty with reading comprehension. One of the most powerful aspects of this part is an illumination of the damage wreaked by hyper-correction. Delpit presents an exchange in which a teacher constantly corrects the (mis)pronunciations of a student who is reading aloud (e.g., making sure that every past tense verb ¬–ed suffix is pronounced). Such over-emphasizing of Standard pronunciation is a result of “‘ignoring that fact that the student had to have comprehended the sentence in order to translate it into her own language. Such instruction occurs daily and blocks reading development…’” (247).
As a teacher at a prototypical suburban school, I have only had a handful of students who could be described as Ebonics speakers, or even ELL. However, I do often consider the role of integrating new words, slang, vernacular, or other languages into the classroom. Again, I certainly see the advantages of learning rules of grammar/spelling/syntax, but the free spirit doesn’t allow me to bow before them in dogmatic reverence.
One opportunity that’s presented itself to me comes while teaching Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. At the end of the twenty-ninth chapter, Angelou makes the following statement about language, which I like to have the students discuss. This year, I actually paired the excerpt with a clip from Dave Chappelle’s 2000 special, Killin’ Them Softly. See both:
We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with, ‘That’s not unusual.’ But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said, ‘It be’s like that sometimes.'”
This year, I led my students through a reading of Junot Diaz’s No Face (not sure if that breaks copyright, so clicker beware!) and asked them to consider the use of Spanish. Although not every student was on board, there were definitely some interesting discussions about language and the weight it carries.
Anyways, here are some questions to get us thinking!
1) What do you think of the notion that speech/language/dialect is a means by which students are connected to a group? Have you ever seen group identity linguistically manifest in your classroom?
2) To what extent does anxiety about different/emerging languages affect ELA policy?
3) Do you have any activities in which you ask students to compare their vernaculars of choice to Standard English?
4) How do you explain to your students the value of code-switching?