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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Poor is a second language

"Why we gotta learn a language we already know?" I was asked today by Marvin, a student of mine.  He's a quick and clever young man who has been told by every teacher he's ever had that he's bright and has potential.  He's also on house arrest and a major player in his gang.  He has a quick mind and a hair trigger -- and he has trouble reading, writing, and speaking formal English.

This doesn't mean that he can't communicate.  He's an excellent communicator so long as he's able to be street about it, but he's not going to be able to get a job in an office or work in customer service, or hold any position that requires written and oral communications with middle class people -- he doesn't know their language.

It's the same thing I see with many of my Spanish speaking students.  They speak Spanish -- it's their preferred language for communication -- to each other, but even if they were in a Spanish speaking country, they would have the same trouble that Marvin does -- they don't know formal Spanish so they wouldn't be able to function in most non-menial positions.

Poor is a second language.

In 1996, the Oakland school board caused a national uproar by doing the right thing.  Like with most good things that cause national uproars, the good decision was walked back and apologies were made.  Most people who remember the Ebonics controversy from 1996 mostly remember that it was mercilessly mocked by people as diverse as Maya Angelou and Rush Limbaugh and was used as an example of just how far down the wrong track public schools had gone.  Only, it wasn't.  It wasn't a sign of the urban apocalypse.  It wasn't a sign of the death of America.  It wasn't the steep step down into the ghettification of our children.  It was a simple and pragmatic solution to one of the great problems facing urban (and rural) schools today:

When a child who grows up speaking street English (or street Spanish) is taught English as if they already know it, they don't learn it as easily or as fluently as they would if they were taught it using the same techniques we use with all other second languages.

When we teach an English speaker English, we base it on the assumption that they are hearing and experiencing proper English outside of school.  We base it on the assumption that the language in the home reflects that of the textbook, so we don't teach them about code-switching and we don't use situational communication tools such as role-playing and dialogues -- tools that we automatically enlist when dealing with children whose first language is Spanish, Hmong, or Swahili.

Instead, we teach English through reading, writing, and memorization of patterns that we assume are being re-enforced elsewhere.  They are not, so our children do not learn formal English and they fall behind and they don't understand why they are failing classes that are in and about the very language that they think they are using every day.  

"There are two kinds of English, Marvin," I explained, "The kind that you use -- we call that vernacular or 'street' English -- and the kind that we teach in schools, which we call 'Formal English.  Formal English is the language of business, it's the language of money.  It's the language of White people (my students understand 'white people' to mean 'rich people,' which really means anybody in the middle class or above.  I'm 'ballin'' in their eyes because I'm a teacher and I earn 'bank') and White people have the money.  They also don't feel comfortable with people who don't speak their language and don't fit in to their world, so those who don't learn Formal English are locked out of most opportunities.  Learning Formal English is the single most effective way to make sure that you can succeed in business."

"White folk do got the money, though, blood -- that's why we rob them," (actual quote) Marvin asserted, agreeing with me.

"You rob them, you make a couple hundred and you've got a short career.  You learn formal English and learn to work with them, you'll get much more, Marvin, because you'll have a skill they need."

He looked at me, waiting for me to go on.

"You speak street.  40% of our country speaks and acts like you do.  White people (read: Middle Class), they only ever know Formal English.  They only know how to act in their culture.  You?  If you can learn Formal English, you'll be bilingual and you'll be able to be a bridge between cultures.  Urban culture drives the marketplace, man, and businesses need people like you to help them get at it."

I probably oversold the potential, but Marvin got my point -- he gets every one of my points -- like I said, he's bright and quick and clever.   He's also decided that English 10A might be worth it.  I think I'm going to begin doing role playing and dialogues with my students in Advisory, too.   They all want access to the big pie and it seems pretty fucking unfair not to help them get it.


  1. Love this reality check! Please post more of these authenticl dialogues from your classroom. These kids of stories are very educational for - you know - white people.

  2. It's a crazy world we live in. In Oakland, where these enlightened decisions about Ebonics and "cash English" were made... decided to completely sweep all the funds of its large and critical adult education program. Essentially there is no adult ESL in a community that has huge needs. The literacy and education of families of young Marvins is an essentially part of the solution of inequity. A mother's literacy has more impact on a child's health that the availability of healthcare. Oakland, in its wisdom, decided that adults in its community don't need to learn.