This post, written by former Chair of the NCTE Elementary Section Ted Kesler, was presented at the session, “Poet Advocates: Using Poetry to Advocate for Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century” at the 2016 NCTE Annual Convention.
My current positions include director of the graduate-level preservice program at Queens College and staff developer in several New York City public schools. Queens County is the most diverse county in the country, in terms of races, nationalities, languages, religions. And yet, I’m always surprised how often I hear both preservice and inservice teachers state that they have students who don’t speak “proper” English or lack language or don’t have language. When they say that their students lack or don’t have language, they are referring to emergent bilinguals who are in the process of learning English. But all these statements take a deficit view of students’ home language(s) that are so innately connected to their social and cultural lives.
Here, however, I want to focus on the first statement, that these teachers have students who don’t speak “proper” English. The teachers then provide corrective instruction that emphasizes the proper way to express their ideas. For example, they mark up students’ writing with correct syntax and correct their English as they speak in class. Inevitably, students become reluctant writers and speakers, and consequently, reluctant readers and listeners. My goal becomes to teach pedagogical instruction such as code-switching and contrastive analysis.
These teachers also express a bias toward the dialect of English that is most closely connected with school, Standard English. Standard English is “good” English, and nonstandard dialects are “bad.” These assumptions generate harmful sociopolitical conditions for students who have home dialects that don’t match this standard form. As Geneva Smitherman has stated: “When you lambast the home language that kids bring to school, you ain just dissin dem, you talkin’ ‘bout their mommas!” These teachers are not yet realizing that dialectical differences are just that: differences, NOT deficits.
They are therefore surprised when I show them the Common Core State Standards. For example, one of the 4th-grade language standards is:
Differentiate between contexts that call for formal English (e.g., presenting ideas) and situations where informal discourse is appropriate (e.g., small-group discussion).
And one of the 5th-grade language standards is:
Compare and contrast the varieties of English (e.g., dialects, registers) used in stories, dramas, or poems.
So to begin a more just approach to language diversity, I begin with all the wonderful celebrations of language in poetry. Here’s one example:
Mother to Son by Langston Hughes
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’s still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
After simply reading aloud and responding to the music and imagery in this poem, we then delve into its language. Why did Langston Hughes choose this dialect rather than “standard” English? In a contrastive analysis exercise, the teachers write this poem in standard form and read it aloud to each other. What does it lose in this form? Teachers begin realizing that authors and speakers might choose dialects to communicate powerful messages to intended audiences. That perhaps bi- and multidialecticism is a strength.
This begins our journey of delving into all the wonderful children’s literature that uses diverse dialects and pedagogical practices for empowering all students in our diverse classrooms.
Ted Kesler is the outgoing chairperson of the Elementary Section. He is an associate professor in the Elementary and Early Childhood Education Department of Queens College, City University of New York. You can reach him at @tedsclassroom and www.tedsclassroom.com.