“Talking White”: Letting Students Express Themselves

“So, what? You want us to talk white?”

My heart stopped for a moment. I was 21, teaching in my first high school classroom, and I had corrected yet another student’s grammar when she spoke to me. She looked at me, eyes blazing, frustration on her face as yet another adult told her what she was doing, how she existed, was wrong. I told myself and my students that this was so they could sound “professional,” and “educated.” I was convinced that this is for their own good, because success sounded nothing like the communities they lived in.

As the years rolled on, I began learning about “culturally responsive teaching,” and eventually tried to be culturally responsive in my classroom. I wrestled with this topic, wondering how I could be “culturally responsive” to students but also teach them how to write or speak “properly”?

And here’s the honest truth: I can’t. I cannot claim to be culturally responsive if I proclaim to my students that their cultural ways of communicating are somehow inferior to “standard English.” I realized that, despite good intentions, what I actually did as a new teacher was perpetuate problematic ideas that were prevalent in my own upbringing: the belief that there is only one way of communicating that sounds “smart,” that no one who is accomplished or intelligent could speak the way my students did.

Slowly, I realized that I could seek a more balanced view of language. I didn’t throw out the rules of “standard English, ” but rather had a paradigm shift in how I viewed cultural forms of communication such as Hawaiian Pidgin, Spanglish (or U.S. Spanish), and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Too often, I looked at cultural languages as “broken English.” This is a misconception, as many have their own structures and rules– whether officially recognized or not. Viewing them as “broken” negates the validity not just of the language, but of the surrounding culture and history that created that language.

Now, I provide as many opportunities as I can that allow students to engage in “translanguaging,” a process defined by scholars Sara Vogel and Ofelia Garcia as using “a speaker’s full linguistic repertoire without regard for watchful adherence to the socially and politically defined boundaries of named… languages.” Instead of consistently worrying about “proper English,” I create spaces where students are empowered to communicate and express themselves in multiple ways, including using multiple languages in the same interaction or activity.

So, as students respond to the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s not uncommon for a few to describe Bob Ewell as not just “mean” but “lolo” as well, Pidgin for “stupid.” My students who do speak Pidgin are encouraged to incorporate that into discussion, written, and creative assignments, knowing that they won’t be chastised for using it, but asked to help educate the rest of us. Not only has this led to some (often funny) relationship-building experiences, as my students try to teach me a new language, but also provides the opportunity to understand the power they have in speaking multiple languages and sharing their knowledge with the entire class.

I also teach that being multilingual is a tactical skill my students can use. We discuss code-switching, when a speaker switches from one distinct way of speaking to another in a particular circumstance or depending on the audience. Instead of distinguishing standard English as “educated” and their cultural language as “improper,” students and I explore the concept that they are actually articulate in multiple languages. Being multilingual serves as a powerful tool for writers to manipulate language and create different experiences for the reader. I use examples of work by authors like Lee Tonouchi to highlight how authors can use cultural vernacular to build a world, connect to people who share their experience and create a richer encounter with their story for all their readers.

Part of my job is to prepare students for the real world—one that still unfortunately values some ways of speaking over others. When characters have discussions around “talking proper,” they make connections to the conversations around Pidgin that still happen on our islands. I explain that while their language is valuable, it’s regrettably still not seen as “academic” by some and they may be better served tailoring their work for that audience. The most important aspect of that discussion, though, is that I’m honest. I don’t sugarcoat the reason why my student may want to code-switch to “standard English.” They should question why certain ways of speaking are considered “standard” and understand that gatekeepers may refuse to see them as smart because of the way they speak. By teaching them the historical context of these issues and giving them skills to get past those gates, I also show students that they can and should question power structures that have tried to keep them out.

At the end of the day, I can’t go back and fix the mistakes I made as a 21-year-old teacher. I can grow my understanding of my role as an educator: I don’t just prepare students but should also show them how powerful they are. If we want to be truly responsive and caring to our students’ cultures, we must encourage them to share all their linguistic capabilities that are important parts of their identities. In doing so, we can provide new ways for them to communicate with an audience and demonstrate that their identities are not only seen but valued as well.

Thanks to Dorie Conlon Perugini for her help with this article.

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