Sunday, October 7, 2012

Listening to the Lack: The Importance of Remembering How We Learned to Learn

I spent my early childhood years living in a two-family home in Brooklyn, NY that was owned by my Greek immigrant grandparents. For the first three years, I shared my grandparents' apartment, living in their finished basement. I had a bedroom. My parents slept on a pull-out sofa. Eventually, my parents and I and new baby sister moved into the upstairs unit. My family didn't have a lot of money at that time. Both of my parents worked, and I spent my days with my grandparents. Some days, we'd hang out with my elderly neighbors (two sisters and a brother who had all either never married or became widowed). Some days, one of those elderly neighbors, Josie, would bring her granddaughter and grandson over to play with me. Other days, we had visitors from around the neighborhood.

The point is that I grew up surrounded by people who enjoyed conversation, and most of them were adults. There was a constant stream of visitors in my house, between the extended Greek family that dropped by, close family friends, and my mother's four sisters and brother and their families. While we didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up, I was constantly encouraged to explore language and to be creative. I was spoken to, spoken with, given books, allowed to "use my imagination," and left to watch educational television programs, such as Sesame Street, the Muppet Babies, and Fraggle Rock. I only manged to go to preschool for one month because the waiting list for the public preschool was so long that there was no space available until May of my 4th year. It didn't matter much, though. In my household, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who were genuinely interested in helping me to express myself. This wealth of people perhaps made up for my lack of monetary wealth. I never felt poor as a kid. It was a rich experience, but one that I think many individuals fail to realize is not standard in all households.

Before I got to grad school, I rarely considered the impact my early childhood experiences had on my life or education. Prior to grad school, I think my perspective on the lives of others was narrow. I was truly ignorant to the ways that language and my own positionality had influenced me. My dad always said, "This is America. If you work hard, you can achieve success," and I believed it 100%. He seemed to be living proof. He came to America with no money, knowing no English at 11 years old, living in a poor, violence-stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn and wound up with a college education and his own IT company. But I was essentializing. I was making my dad's experiences the experience of every immigrant or underprivileged individual in America. It was my experience with literary theory and composition studies later in my masters program and then throughout my doctoral program that finally got me thinking about the biases under which I was operating. 

Today, I was reminded again of my own educational and professional advantages, as I read Gina Bellafante's blog post on, "Before a Test,  a Poverty of Words." In the article, Bellafante cites research that states that infants and young children of working class families are exposed to 1500 less words in a day than their middle and upper class counterparts. They begin school with a "word deficit." Though the numbers and the study are disputed, the main claim is really the important part: those who have less access to words have less access to equal education. They were severely disadvantaged from the start, especially in regards to testing, because they have limited language. It's not just a matter of working hard; they have to play years of catch up while their peers are excelling even further.

This post is not a commentary on Bellafante's take on standardized testing (anyone who reads this blog knows I am not its biggest fan), but merely a reminder of just how much language impacts our ability to succeed in this nation. Immediately, the study cited in Bellafante's article makes me think back to Malcolm X's "Coming to an Awareness of Language." In that piece, which is a chapter of his longer autobiography, Malcolm X reflects on his experiences in prison. Without access to standard English (yes, a whole other bag of complexities), his ability to reach those in power was drastically reduced. He could not help himself or others without access to a larger vocabulary. In response, he used his time in prison to increase his vocabulary by learning the entire dictionary, copying and memorizing new words everyday. For Malcolm X, this was a liberating experience. It gave him access to power denied to him previously. 

Language is powerful because it gives us access to new concepts, not just new words and discourse communities. I believe it was in Bahktin's "Discourse of the Novel" that I first learned about the link between language and existence. One theory I picked up from his essay is that if something does not exist in the language, it does not exist in the culture. Giving name to something, in essence, gives it life. If there are three shades of blue, for example, without a name, then they are simply "shades of blue," not existing on their own, nor able to be spoken about. "Robin's Egg Blue," however, exists on its own and can be spoken about and thought about. Can you imagine, then, how limited existence becomes, then, for those who have a limited vocabulary? Not to mention, someone with a limited vocabulary also has a limited range of expression. Simply having more words can give you more thoughts, or at least, more sophisticated ones. 

The debate that ensued in the comment section of Bellafante's post focused around fault, whether the children, the educators, or the parents were to be blamed for the lack of vocabulary-based education. Others argued that the findings of the earlier study were irrelevant because it was comprised of a small sample and the numbers did not necessarily add up. It seemed evident that many of these individuals were not considering their own positionality or were essentializing, as I had done. I think blame is counterproductive. I also think ignoring Bellafonte's observations and the study is foolish. Experience tells us that language is important and the more control over it we have, the more power we can potentially possess. 

I can't be in the homes of all of my students, clients, or peers. I can't change their childhoods. I cannot force them to do anything that they do want to do. But there are some things that I can do as a peer, a writing center consultant, and a writing instructor. I can make sure I encourage those who feel "dumb" to recognize that language acquisition is a process. I can encourage people to read, even if it's a gaming magazine or words off a cereal box. Perhaps, most importantly, I can encourage them to have conversations (see Bruffee's "Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind'"). For me, what Bellafonte's article reminds is that it is important that we develop a culture that emphasizes communicating and active listening rather than commanding.

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