Translating Universally-Appealing Narratives (so says a nerd).

Star Wars

I have no reservations in declaring my nerd status. And as a fan of science-fiction, I (of course) have an undying love of Star Wars. Say what you will about the prequels and the corporate cash-grabbin’ now so associated with the franchise, but I really believe that the first film has an appeal that speaks to people of various ages, creeds, and proclivities. Many chalk this up to the fact that George Lucas made Star Wars after being absolutely fascinated with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a work of theory that explores the idea of narrative structures, archetypes, and the collective unconscious.

So why am I geeking out right now?

Yesterday in class I mentioned that I’d heard a piece on NPR about Star Wars being translated into Navajo for the first time ever.

If you’re interested, click on the very link you’re now reading to check out that piece.

I could ramble for hours about this, but what does everyone else think about Star Wars being translated into Navajo? Is it uplifting, proving that we can find common areas of interest despite cultural and linguistic differences? Or is it depressing, just another example of mainstream values/artifacts infiltrating Native American culture?

“Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence”

In “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence” William Labov seeks to discredit the idea of “verbal deprivation,” the theory that attributes the educational “deficits” of black children in urban areas and their low literacy scores on standard assessments to the verbal deprivation of their upbringing. He explains how the theory endorses this idea that black children in urban areas are raised in homes with infrequent verbal interaction and stimulation, and that this accounts for the low literacy rates and overall stunted academic achievement of students in urban areas.


Labov essentially argues that we must view the achievement gap as a direct result of the problematic relationship between the school system and the child, not as a result of other commonly held beliefs to explain the low academic achievement of black urban children, such as genetics or environmental factors. Throughout the reading, Labov systematically undermines bodies of research conducted by educational psychologists that point to environmental factors, such as “verbal deprivation” or other “cultural deficits” that seek to explain exactly why black children in impoverished areas struggle in school. In one such example, he focuses on the research of Carl Bereiter, and his work with a pre-school program that operates under the claim that lower-class black children have “no language at all,” and thus must be taught in a manner that addresses the deficiency.


Labov does not discount Bereiter’s claim that his interactions with the young black children, which he relied heavily on for his research, revealed a limited use of language, but instead offers up an alternate explanation for these observations: that the “mono-syllabic” language observed by Bereiter was a result of the context of the adult-child interaction, not of the language capacity of the child. Labov came to this conclusion after conducting research, along with several colleagues, through a series of interactions and interviews with a group of boys in Harlem. The result of the interviews clearly demonstrated that the boys had incredible control of language,  could speak freely and verbosely in a context that defused the power dynamic between adult and child, and that the “social situation is the most powerful determinant of verbal behavior” (140). Sadly, these verbal skills will never be recognized within the context of standardize tests or any other measure of linguistic ability that we currently use to assess literacy.  


Labov’s arguments—especially when he goes on to explore the differences between the speech of Larry, an incredibly skilled speaker of the Black English Vernacular, and Charles, whose language represents the more “verbose,” often meandering language associated with the educated, middle class—are very compelling and have innumerable implications for the classroom. It definitely challenges us to think that maybe, in a certain context, many of our students are not struggling with language nearly as much as we believe, and, that many students who speak the Black English vernacular have a much more sophisticated control over language than we are currently, as educators in a system that holds such high esteem for formal English, are able to acknowledge.


Moreover, I think Labov’s research forces us to think about our own assumptions and judgments about how our students use language. Though of course we are genuine in our desire to help students succeed, it seems that we can easily be guilty of what Labov describes as the “self-fulfilling prophecy” that black urban students often experience as result of their interactions with teachers that don’t value their use of language, and, through subtle or overt means, make them feel as if they have “no language at all.” I know for a fact that even if I am working to honor and validate the black vernacular or other non-standard English through projects or alternate assignments in my own class, I still require standard English on the majority of my assignments, which I know sends a clear message that standard English is the language of intelligence and power. Adopting Labov’s research to the classroom and education policy would clearly radicalize the way that we teach and assess students in urban areas.

 As teachers, I think we have to consider:

1) How can we look critically at our literacy assessments to make sure that they are inclusive and revealing of the true literacy skill level of our students?

2) How can we continue to design lessons and assessments that validate the use of non-traditional English without it feeling superficial or forced?

3) How do we make sense of Labov’s compelling research while at the same help our students be prepared for a professional world that will judge them on their ability to use standard English, and to adopt this “verbose” rhetoric that serves as signal for intelligence, accomplishment and entrance into the middle class?

4) How can we challenge ourselves to reconsider that this standard, middle class language that we have always deemed superior, may just be a “style of language” ?


“What Should Teachers Do about Ebonics?” Or, alternately, “What Can Teachers Do with Ebonics?”

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!

Group Identity
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.'”
(Angelou 225)

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?

Parent: How Was School Today? Student: How Was Work Today? Aronowitz: How Did School Work Today?

In “Against Schooling: Education and Social Class,” Stanley Aronowitz critiques the processes and structures used in schools to purportedly educate students, arguing that these educational communities actually serve as a means of perpetuating the class divisions that we find in society as a whole.  In a strange way, we are preparing students to be a part of society, but the problem is it is as if they are only that—a part—a piece with a place, in a system that is clearly stratified.  In other words, we prepare students to become part of a certain social class, but not part of a solution to the ills that class divisions bring about.  While education itself is obviously not inherently bad or good, the education that students are receiving in schools leads one to ponder exactly what it is we are preparing students to be able to do: define, develop solutions for, and solve real-world problems, or fit into the “American workplace, which has virtually no room for dissent” (107).  The answer to this seems, unfortunately, obvious when considering the evidence around us: “Schools unwittingly reinforce the class bias of schooling by ignoring its content” (107).  It seems that the crux of Aronowitz’ argument is best stated in a great sentence at the end of the first section: “Schools are the stand-in for ‘society,’ the aggregation of individuals who, by contract or by coercion, are subject to governing authorities in return for which they may be admitted into the world albeit on the basis of different degrees of reward” (108).  Likewise, he cites Pierre Bourdieu’s similar argument that “schools reproduce class relations by reinforcing rather than reducing class-based differential access to social and cultural capital” (111).

Aronowitz considers a variety of aspects of this underlying problem.  In “Access to What?”, he discusses the idea that schooling is often seen as a means of mobility within the class system that is encountered upon graduation, and that this is currently quite untrue, given that emphasis on standards-based curriculum and high stakes testing is in fact the “latest means of exclusion.”  The truth of the situation contradicts this belief: “a fairly small number of children of the class of wage labor” are chosen for class mobility (118).  In “Education and Immaterial Labor,” he considers one interesting result of the current public educational atmosphere, arising from the concept that school is the place in which one becomes educated.  Even “the egalitarians” accept the concept that schools should prepare students for “immaterial labor,” a result of the belief that “the price of autonomy…is to accept work as a mode of life; one lives to work, rather than the reverse” (113).

Aronowitz argues that the way out of this cycle is found neither in the conservative educational policy that supports standardized testing (“the antithesis of critical thought”), nor in traditionally progressive practices that result in making curriculum less formal, “watering down course content and de-emphasizing writing” (107).  The solution he poses on pages 120-121 consists of abolishing high-stakes tests that “dominate the curriculum,” incorporating “kids’ knowledge into the curriculum,” and cutting ties to “corporate interests and reconstruct the curriculum along the lines of genuine intellectual endeavor.

Though written in 2004, I would argue that the picture Aronowitz paints is still very much the truth—despite the construction and initiation of the common core and the changing of some assessments, the degree to which public schools prepare students for solving the problems of the real world is debatable.  There is no indication that the social construct and curriculum of any given public school is purposefully designed to overcome the barriers and divisions that result from being grouped, sectioned off, or labeled according to performance on some standardized test (a form of assessment which is inevitably not only very narrow in scope regarding the skills and thinking assessed, but also built on standards that “presuppose students’ prior possession of cultural capital,” something that is usually the benefit of a professional or upper-class background).  In a sense, as long as there is multiple choice, students will be grouped based on whether or not they filled in or clicked on the correct bubble, and these measures cannot possibly take into account “home backgrounds in which reading and writing are virtually absent” (110). Such “handicaps” were just mentioned at a steering meeting I attended yesterday regarding the fact that students don’t do summer reading, and presumably just do not read at all over the summer (or read things such as Facebook posts and tweets). What might be considered the opposite of standardized testing or standards-based curriculum, shown by an assignment such as just having students write a series of random personal narratives, isn’t sufficient either.  In other words, schools (and the communities in which they exist) have not addressed the fact that the rich continue to get richer.

The best of the outcomes that both ends of the spectrum presumably aim to produce (students who not only think for themselves, but know how to make that thinking work in their favor), I would argue, can be achieved through student-centered, constructivist, problem-based learning that is tailored to students’ multiple intelligences.  A string of fancy words, perhaps, and the concepts behind them aren’t supported by everyone, but learning how to confront the messy problems that life offers and learning skills through and for one’s strengths seems to make sense to me.  That said, I’m not sure how this would “look” in the schools we have now.  Additionally, such a concept might be so new and different from the ingrained philosophies of teaching, that it might be considered “Utopian,” but Arononowitz addresses this in the end: “of course, they are [Utopian].  But as many have argued, Utopian thought is the condition for change.  Without the ‘impossible,’ there is little chance for reform” (121).  It seems strange, however, to argue against an idea for improvement simply by saying that improvement might be one of its outcomes!  Utopia doesn’t exist, but who wouldn’t want to be closer to it?

The following might be questions to consider (of course, there is a lot to think about):

  • To what extent do our schools perpetuate class structures that already exist?  What are some specific structures or processes in place that clearly contribute to these divisions?
  • In a previous blog entry, I mentioned that much of instruction is built around the idea of deficits that students are said to have—weaknesses, lack of knowledge, lack of ability, assumptions regarding background.  In this context, learning itself might be seen as that which “fills in the blanks.”  In what ways might this kind of thinking contribute, or be made to contribute, to the creation of social classes in schools?
  • Are the issues of class that we see in schools a derivative of the larger societal tensions that sometimes occur between equality and capitalism, “out of many, one” vs. rugged individualism, that exist outside of them?  Is it possible to have a school that would emphasize the best of its society without directly or indirectly perpetuating that society’s shortcomings?
  • Why do we continue to structure schools and curriculum in such a way that it becomes perplexing to adequately answer questions about how relevant material actually is or will be to students’ lives, nevermind their ability to improve quality of life?

Here’s a photo of the school house at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont.  Most of the classrooms at my place of work are arranged in the same layout–a row of desks with the all-knowing blackboard at the front!


Critical Media Literacy for the Twenty-First Century: Taking Our Entertainment Seriously

Leistyna and Alper argue that TV has been perceived as just a means of entertainment for too long. The corporations responsible for television programs have created unjust entertainment that does not accurately portray the working class. These programs have consistently impacted the way that most Americans perceive their class roles and it is important that people begin to develop critical media literacy in order to become aware of the falsehoods presented by entertainment television. Leistyna and Alper support their argument by showing how the working class has been inaccurately depicted throughout the history of American television. Currently the working class is depicted more inaccurately than ever: lazy, uneducated, and uncaring, even though many hard facts say the opposite. The authors are calling for a critical media literacy movement to raise consciousness about the incongruent relations of the working class and TV.

Now, what does this imply to an English teacher?

As an ELA teacher, I believe my job is to begin developing the practices of looking at and analyzing depictions of class roles within the media with my students. I should not overwhelm students (I teach 8th Grade) with a history of the working class and television, but begin simply by having students look at several media forms, along with definitions of social, economic, and political class. Then, ask students questions about depictions of people within the form. Leistyna and Alper said, “…it is not surprising that critical media literacy is often discouraged. As people, especially students, are distracted or lured away from critically reading historical and existing social formations…” By laying the foundations for such critical practices, students will be more likely to question what they see on TV so they do not become “the newest wave of exploited labor power and reproducers, whether they are conscious of it or not, of oppressive social practices” (517). It is necessary to show students that it is OK to question the depictions of people within the media. Students can compare their reactions and begin to create their own ideas of class. I started this conversation with my students this year by having students look at the depiction of immigrants in US propaganda and throughout the memoir “Reaching Out” by Francisco Jimenez. It may have not been a TV show, but students were critiquing how a specific group of people were being characterized within a few different forms.

What does this mean for those who do not know how to look at TV critically?

What I also could not help to think about while reading the article was the role television in the lives of my own parents. My father is a mechanic and my mother is a retired Walgreen’s clerk. They both watch TV as entertainment, and would never consider watching television critically: it’s not in their nature. The characters in the sitcoms they like (and I, as well) are easy to identify with, but do portray the stereotypical blue-collar workers as seen in the Leistyna and Alper piece. While it would be nice to see them take a look at TV critically, I believe that they would rather not. It would interrupt the release they have received from TV their whole lives. They have also not been taught the critical thinking skills that so many younger, college educated people have been. So, should we try to interrupt a pattern that has been instilled for over 50 years?

As for the new generations we educate, it would be great for all of them to have a perception of how the media depicts classes. By beginning to show these students steps to critically evaluating media, I think we will create life-long skills that are not just applicable to TV.

Questions to consider:

  • What are the problems that may be associated with critically evaluating class in an urban setting?
  • What role does TV play in your life? In the lives of your students?
  • Have you tried critically evaluating other forms of media in your classroom?
  • What about those of us who understand how to critically evaluate TV class roles, but don’t start a movement about it?
  • What would you say is the class of the narrator from the following lyrics:

I gotta brand new car that drinks a bunch a gas/ Got a house in a neighborhood thats fading fast / Got a dog and a cat that don’t fight too much / Got a few hundred channels to keep me in touch / Got a beautiful wife and three tow-headed kids / A couple big secrets I’d kill to keep hid / I don’t God but i fear his wrath / I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path – Patterson Hood (of the Drive By Truckers)


Deficit Thinking: Something Missing

Hi Everyone–it’s not my week to post, but I thought I put this out there.  Sorry it’s so close to class time–we had internet issues at school all day.

The concept of “deficit thinking,” in which it is assumed that factors such as “genetics, poverty, culture or language, or home environment” (125) are the root cause of students’ struggles in school, and can essentially not be controlled or improved to any effective extent by a student’s educational experience, is something that has a rather profound relevance in my experience as a teacher.  Often, as is mentioned in the chapter, this comes up at my work when discussing students who are considered to be “at risk”: a term which seems to be both ambiguous with regard to what determines if a student is “at risk” and with regard to exactly what students are at risk of.  Where I work there is even a unique program provided for freshman students, in which a school day with less transition and more stability seems to be the goal.  This is, however, a very small program relative to the student body. There are more explicit representations of this kind of thinking, too: teachers make comments about the intelligence of students as though it is predetermined (even based on what level class the student is placed in), about the indomitable influence of parents, and about the lack of connection with the community, about cultural norms, and so on.

I find that the concept of “deficit thinking,” or rather the kinds of assumptions and resultant actions that constitute it, serves simultaneously as a means of shirking responsibility as a teacher as well as of perpetuating the structures that the concept itself purportedly blames (poverty, inferior genes, inadequate parenting).  However, on the other side of the spectrum, I also have issues with the common ideology expressed by the popular mantra, “High expectations, no excuses,” which I have seen lead to overly stringent and destructive responses to real problems and issues that students bring to school—it sometimes lacks sensitivity to the fact that students, like everyone, do have problems in their lives, nor does it work to understand such problems. Thus, while deficit thinking seems to rely on disproven, incorrect, and therefore ignorant assumptions and inferences, the “no excuses” mode also lends itself to similar kinds of thinking about a student’s life outside of school.  Likewise, the trajectory of thought that leads to labels of students as “at-risk”, which seems to be a means of euphemistically addressing “deficits” within a “no excuses” system, is in and of itself, deficient of the same kinds of thinking that we would want our students to practice (questioning, seeking evidence, making sound judgments—what exactly does at-risk mean and why does it mean that?).

Perhaps the common issue with both of these approaches is that they continue to focus on what are perceived as negatives of a student’s life and abilities.  (This makes me think, again, of how we perceive disabilities.)  Both modes of interacting with students focus on what is thought to be wrong: deficit thinking (ignorant, prejudice, and racist) declares these “deficits” in a more outright manner and reacts with a fatalistic response; the “no excuses” philosophy (hasty, close-minded, and impersonal) attempts to eradicate through denial the real problems that students may be facing and that may be interfering with their education.  The latter does not contradict the first, because it accepts the idea that students come to school with “excuses”—the difference is, ironically, that it doesn’t care.

That said, I think there is a means to provide what both sides of the argument—deficit thinking versus “high expectations, no excuses”—in their most flattering light (however bent it may need to be), are aiming for—an education system that takes note of, tries to understand, and makes adaptations to the needs of its students.  To be honest, it makes me cringe to push myself to see anything positive in deficit thinking.  To see something such as neohereditarianism, or the concept of the “culture of poverty,” as having been derived from what is initially a positive force is rather difficult.  But perhaps in doing so, one can both model and make an argument for the kind of thinking that might provide a balance that acknowledges students’ backgrounds, appreciates their experiences, and helps students learn to use their strengths to work through problems when they do arise.  I am not exactly sure how this would physically or systematically appear, how it would manifest itself as does deficit thinking.

Valencia and Solorzana state that “the public continues to set policy with ‘little knowledge and understanding of the many problems the poor and certain racial/ethnic minority groups have in attaining equitable and useful schooling.”  Perhaps with a more positive approach to understanding the backgrounds of our students as well as their abilities, we can enable them to become the problem solvers that we all need to be.

Jen: At the middle school level, I feel that talking about sex in the classroom is not developmentally appropriate.  I agree with Sue that at the middle school level, talking about crushes, first kisses, and first boyfriends and girlfriends is more appropriate and more what the students are interested in.  However, if there are students that have more questions, I think a girls group with a guidance counselor would be a better place for them to ask questions and get answers than in English class.

I thought the question Pamela posed about whether or not sex education should only be taught by health teachers was interesting because I had never thought about an English or Math teacher also teaching sex ed.  I think that if other teachers are trained and it is something they want to teach, that they should have that opportunity.  However, I think that a teacher should be trained to talk about this subject with students before teacher a sex education class.  It is important to learn how to navigate a sensitive subject, answer questions accurately, and tailor lessons to students’ age and level of maturity.   Either way, I think all students need a sex education curriculum when in middle AND high school that is tailored to their developmental level.  As in the article we read, the statistics do not look good for students who do not have a chance at this education, as there is a direct correlation between not having sex education and the increase in teen pregnancy.  It is the school’s job to educate students so they can become responsible citizens and making healthy choices in one’s personal life is part of being a responsible citizen.