SPECIAL BOOK REPORT

 

Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy have edited an excellent collection of 12 articles that are all relevant to issues surrounding the use of creoles and non-mainstream dialects in education: The Skin that We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom (The New Press, New York, 2002). The purpose of the book is “to explore the links between language and identity, between language and political hierarchy, and between language and cultural conflict” (p.xviii), and it is concerned primarily with language and education. The book has an introduction by Lisa Delpit and 3 parts. Each chapter has an introductory summary, quoted in part below.

Part 1: Language and Identity:
Ch.1: OVAH DYUH by Joanne Kilgour Dowdy
At her mother’s insistence, coeditor Joanne Kilgour Dowdy learned as a child in Trinidad how to perfectly imitate British English, the idiom of the colonizer and Trinidadian public life. The cost of acquiring this “skill” was alienation from her peers and also from herself; though “the Queen’s English” won her a certain kind of social affirmation, it prevented her from relating to friends and stymied the expression of her vital, inner feelings. … One’s “language of intimacy” must be validated in the public sphere, Dowdy urges, in order to eradicate the schism in colonized societies – and colonized individuals – betweeen master discourse and the language of personal expression.

Ch. 2: EBONICS: A CASE HISTORY by Ernie Smith
Ernie Smith, now a renowned linguist and powerful public orator, tells the story of his life through the story of his language. From his first experience with school, his language was labeled deficient. School authorities placed him first in remedial courses and then, finally, at a vocational school where he wouldn’t need to learn “sophisticated” speech. After graduating, Smith hit the streets. It was out there that he received his most extensive education in language, learning now to seamlessly switch back and forth between Ebonics… and Standard English. Eventually Smith was inspired to return to school, and he went on to become the speaker he is today. … Only when “Standard English” was modeled by those whose ideas called for the political liberation of African Americans did the standard become acceptable to him as a language choice.

Part 2: Language in the Classroom:
Ch. 3: NO KINDA SENSE by Lisa Delpit
When Lisa Delpit’s eleven-year-old daughter, Maya, transfers to a school where most of the students are African American, her self-esteem soars. She also transfers from Standard English to African American English. Even while struggling to understand her own emotional response to Maya’s newly acquired language form, the author is amazed at how quickly her daughter picks it up. She realizes that her daughter is learning it from friends who welcome her as brilliant and beautiful – “part of the club”. She concludes that if schools are to be as successful at teaching Standard English, they must be just as welcoming – of the children, of their lives, and of the worlds that interest them. …

Ch. 4: TRILINGUALISM by Judith Baker
Judith Baker is a high school English teacher who has discovered that when students know that their “home” language is respected, they can be fascinated by a study of the different “Englishes” they speak. … When formal English no longer threatens to demean, students are more than willing to master it. When teachers understand that they cannot force a language form upon their students, those students are more than willing to acknowledge that being “trilingual” – being as proficient in formal English and professional or technical English as they are in their “home” English – can only make them more effective.

Ch. 5: SOME BASIC SOCIOLINGUISTIC CONCEPTS by Michael Stubbs
Like other authors in this collection, linguist Michael Stubbs examines the relationships between language and perceptions of social class, level of education, and family background. He describes the exquisite sensitivity listeners have to the social implications of dialect and accent and the perception that speech which deviates from standard spoken English is slovenly or ugly. This is familiar territory. What is unfamiliar is that Stubbs is examining these phenomena in Great Britain, where people being stereotyped by their vernacular are those who come from Birmingham, East London, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Glasgow. Stubbs believes that children should be taught (warned of) the conventions of English so that they can, if they wish, match their speech to the setting in which they find themselves. They should not, however, be told that their language is wrong.

Ch. 6: LANGUAGE, CULTURE, AND THE ASSESSMENT OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CHILDREN by Asa G. Hilliard III
Because teaching and learning are rooted in environments that are shaped by politics, says psychologist and historian Asa Hilliard, educational assessments of African American children cannot be divorced from the historically oppressed status of African Americans in the United States. Hilliard dismantles the notion that African American culture is an insufficient reflection of Western culture, or that Ebonics is an inadequate attempt at Standard English. Instead he provides a picture of the richness of the culture and language, not only as independent entities, but as major contributors to larger American society. He urges us to produce educators who can examine the big picture behind an education system that assesses not a child’s aptitude for learning, but which words she speaks.

Ch. 7: I AIN’T WRITIN’ NUTTIN’: PERMIS-SIONS TO FAIL AND DEMANDS TO SUCCEED IN URBAN CLASSROOMS” by Gloria J. Ladson-Billings
In a first-grade classroom, a child is about the educationally shortchanged. Shannon, a six-year-old speaker of African American language, has been asked to think of a sentence about something special, share that sentence, and then write it down. It’s a clear assignment. However, all that takes for Shannon to be passed over with a “maybe you’ll feel like writing tomorrow” from the teacher is a shake of the little girl’s head and a firm announcement, “I ain’t writin’ nuttin’!” In contrast, Ladson-Billings tells us about a teacher who galvanizes his poor and working-class African American students who “hate” to write by creating culturally responsive lessons that include music and drama as precursors to writing. … It is fine, the author tells us, to empathize with students, but don’t allow their language or attitudes to lower expectations of their abilities or to compromise your own willingness to see creative educational solutions.

Ch. 8: “… AS SOON AS SHE OPENED HER MOUTH!”: ISSUES OF LANGUAGE, LITERACY, AND POWER” by Victoria Purcell-Gates
Language and discrimination is not always a Black-White issue. Victoria Purcell-Gates’s two-year ethnography of a White family from southern Appalachia introduces us to Donny, the barely literate young boy of two barely literate parents. Donny was written off as a hopeless case by his teachers as early as second grade. He had not ever been exposed to the acts of reading and writing before coming to school, and had not, therefore, developed a concept of literacy as many of his middle-class peers had. His teachers treated this difference in experience as an intellectual deficiency: instead of introducing Donny to the culture of literacy and helping him use his oral language to access the printed word, they assumed that he was less capable of learning and associated his hillbilly language with intractable ignorance. It is the duty of teachers to guide all students to literacy with equal rigor, insists Purcell-Gates, without ever telling them that the language they speak is wrong.

Part 3: Teacher Knowledge
Ch. 9: TOPSY-TURVIES: TEACHER TALK AND STUDENT TALK by Herbert Kohl
Students are very sensitive to the language of their teachers – the words, the tone, its trustworthiness – while teachers are insufficient-ly aware of how they are being heard and understood. Without this awareness, this “attunement”, teachers may find that their students are hearing something quite different from what the teacher hears herself saying, or from what she had hoped to say. A classroom can unravel quickly when vigilant students detect insincerity, condescension, anti-Semi-tism, racism, or even fear and uncertainty. To avoid this, teachers need to do what Herb Kohl calls making a topsy-turvy. Teachers must analyze how they are presenting themselves and then make a 180-degree shift and construct how their students hear them. Teachers must listen to their students, and they must also listen to themselves being listened to.

Ch. 10: TOWARD A NATIONAL PUBLIC POLICY ON LANGUAGE by Geneva Smitherman
In this 1986 piece, Geneva Smitherman addresses the NCTE [National Council of Teachers of English] and the CCCC [Conference on College Composition and Communication] with a direct and compelling call to action. Smitherman’s challenge to these groups comes twelve years after both groups passed resolutions affirming the right of students to speak their own language. Just as those resolutions did not stem the tide of educational discrimination, so Smitherman’s piece is another chapter in a frustratingly slow process. In 1988, the CCCC convened to reassess their 1974 policy in light of the growing English Only movement. They supported a principle of “English Plus”, which became formally known as the National Language Policy of 1988. The components of this policy are outlined in Smitherman’s article. In 2000, a survey was conducted of all members of NCTE and CCCC to assess how widely the groups’ policies have taken effect. Although the survey was confined to the organizations’ members – those teachers most likely to identify with the agreed-upon policy statements – 65 percent of the respondents were not familiar with the 1974 “Students’ Right to Their Own Language”, and 66 percent had no knowledge of the more recent National Language Policy passed in 1988.

Ch. 11: THE CLASH OF “COMMON SENSES”: TWO AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN BECOME TEACHERS by Shuaib Meacham
Colleges and universities across the country are recruiting African American students to become teachers. Shuaib Meacham suggests that these efforts will not be successful if the teacher education programs do not examine their attitudes toward Black English. Linda and Tanya are young African American women preparing to be teachers, and the process itself becomes harrowing. Linda, who grew up speaking Black, or African American, English has been inspired to go into education by one of her own teachers – a “true teacher”. She finds, however, that the “common sense” (generally accepted practice) of teacher preparation is “standard form, standard grammar, Standard English” and that the language she speaks, the language that her very supportive family and all her friends speak, is deemed deficient. Tanya, on the other hand, grew up speaking Standard English, which she herself defines as “talking white”. For Tanya, finding her place in the teacher education program is complicated by what becomes a vigorous struggle to maintain her own sense of cultural identity as a Black Woman.

Ch. 12: “WE DON’T TALK RIGHT. YOU ASK HIM.” by Joan Wynne
After witnessing bright young students and concerned parents who stopped themselves from speaking publicly because they “don’t talk right”, educator Joan Wynne explored the pervasive myth of language supremacy held by students, teachers-in-training, and in-service teachers. She found that the concept of Standard English as correct, neutral, and universal is nurtured in the classroom, where it is almost always the only dialect used and accepted. First, Wynne urges, it is imperative that teachers are educated to understand that language validity is based on politics, not science; only then can they understand how the exclusive endorsement of one dialect is a disservice to all children, not only children of color. Instilling in our children respect for and familiarity with other dialects would allow them to construe a truer version of American history, be fuller human beings for having access to multiple expressions of reality, and be better prepared to deal with the complexities of a shifting, shrinking world.

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