Sunday, November 25, 2012

Race, Language, and Identity in Students' Academic Lives: Lessons from NCTE12

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending my very first National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention (#NCTE12) at the MGM Grand Conference Center in beautiful Las Vegas, NV. There were many interesting and exciting panels to choose from. My program is about an inch and half thick. My favorite panel, however, was "Connecting Lived Experiences and Literacies with Urban High Schools: Lessons for Pedagogy." Here is the program entry:
Teachers experience pedagogical struggles while students
interact in academic spaces that challenge their multiple
lived experiences through the narrowing of curricula. In
this session, presenters will critically analyze their educational research contexts,
which often miss rich opportunities to consider students’
multiple identities, positionings, and languages.
Chair: Timothy San Pedro, Arizona State University,
Presenters: Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Teachers College,
Columbia University, New York, New York, “Dear Miss:
Building Black and Latino Adolescents’ Racial Literacy
through Letter Writing”
Danny Martinez, University of California, Los Angeles
Limarys Caraballo, Teachers College, Columbia University,
New York, New York, “‘I Don’t Feel Like We Get to
Express Ourselves in There’: Students’ Narratives of
Resistance in a Middle School Classroom”
Discussant: Ramon Martinez, The University of Texas,
I was excited to attend this panel because I'm interested in bridging lived experiences and academic ones. Despite being suggested for a secondary education audience, the ideas shared by the panelists were important for all educators to hear. At first glance, I thought this panel would address a broad spectrum of traumas or issues students faced and how they were incorporated into the classroom. Instead, the panel focused on issues of race in interesting ways.

A Brief Recap of the Presentations

Danny Martinez was first up. He talked about the ways that Standard English still dominates the classroom and how, despite NCTE's "Students' Right to Their Own Language," evidence shows that students have not yet received a true right to their own language. Martinez did this by observing and recording classroom discussions and interviews with students. He noted that the teachers often subtly corrected students' uses of Black English during conversation by revoicing their ideas into Standard English. He also referred to the term repair, which suggests that the use of Black English is using "broken" language.

In her presentation, Limarys Caraballo discussed problematic privileging of "neutral" space in ELA, which actually translates into making white middle class language the norm in the classroom. Caraballo demonstrated ways in which students of color attempted to carve out sites of resistance through writing. Through ethnographic study and interviews, she showed that students of color often feel that their voices are not valued in the classroom, an idea that carried through the following presentations. My favorite part of this presentation was when Caraballo displayed an excerpt from a students' piece of writing that displayed resistance to an assignment. The assignment called for use of vocabulary words in a freewrite, and the student wrote something to the effect of: "It's not really a freewrite if you tell us what words to use." I saw that as an astute observation.

Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz presented the findings of a project she works on with non-traditional high school students. At the beginning of the session, she spoke about letters from students and said that we must have the strength not only to receive letters of praise but letters that admonish us if we are to be good educators. Her presentation focused on a "Dear Teacher" letter assignment that asked the young men in her nontraditional high school to address their experiences with race. I quite literally teared up as she read excerpts from the works. The young men had so much to say and quite articulately, and it was evident that they had not had many places, if any, to articulate those thoughts before within the academy. Their letters made it clear that students of color experience racism in education. In the letters, one learns that these students are marked as problem students, which has the potential to mark them as hypervisible or invisible in a classroom space; held to a lower standard, which lowers their motivation; and that they want a space to talk about these issues. How would things change if we opened up these spaces, if we considered these questions and criticisms?

The last presenter was Tim San Pedro. San Pedro spoke about his ethnographic study of a high school that stands 2 miles from a Native American reservation in Arizona. In keeping with the conference theme of "Dream.Connect.Ignite.," San Pedro started the session by asking "Whose dreams are being recognized? Whose connections are being made?" Throughout his talk, San Pedro traced the experiences of two students in particular, a white student and a Native American student. These students were both in a Native American Literature class (the only course of its kind in Arizona, due to recent legislation banning ethnic studies) and an American History course. It was particularly relevant for this conference because NCTE moved the 2012 conference from Arizona to Nevada in protest of that legislation. What San Pedro found is that both students were influenced directly by the juxtaposition of the two courses. The Native American student felt that she found her voice and that her experiences were validated by the Native American Literature course. They even gave her a way to respond to the American History course that she believed was unnecessary, being that it told history from a corrupt perspective. The Caucasian student, who was the only Caucasian student in the Native American Literature class, felt that her views were challenged by the class. She began to see American History as complex and perhaps not completely true. What San Pedro also noted was the neither student felt comfortable speaking in the course that did not validate their views. They felt silenced. It was important for these students feel some sort of authority or mastery before they felt able to speak, even when they had ideas. He referred to these places of felt-authority as environmental safety zones and internal safety zones, building off Bahktin's zone of contact theories and noted that typical education offers more safety zones for Caucasian students than students of color.

To close out the panel, the discussant, Ramon Martinez, ended by asking the big question: "What if?" He challenged us to think about the possibility of living in a world where we allowed students to speak in their own language, where we allowed students to express their struggles with race, and where we didn't view students of color in the classroom as "problems to be fixed." For many, I have a feeling it was a future not easily imagined.


I admit that I often circumvent race issues in my classroom. As a white woman, I feel unable to speak back to them genuinely, as I am in a privileged position with little experience being subjected to racism. With the exception of some clips that talk about race for purposes of rhetorical analysis (Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," for example), I rarely bring race to the table as a topic of discussion. It's a conversation I am not comfortable having. I also have a fear of coming across as the "white savior" and belittling the experiences of others if I do. As a result, while I certainly would never squash a race conversation that my students wanted to have, I let these things happen organically, rather than creating a space for them. I constantly wonder if this is what I should be doing.

I have had students write about race on more than one occasion. For example, during my first year of teaching, one of my students wrote about his experiences as a young Black man for a Writing as Activism project. It was a privilege to be able to read it. He helped me to understand what it meant to be a target of racism without having others be overtly racist. The space is there for students to do work like this, but I do not push it on them. When they choose to take that space, however, I give students an outlet for doing something about the negative experiences that they have had with race rather than simply allowing them to express their frustration, which I believe is important.

Finally, Danny Martinez and Limarys Caraballo in particular got me wondering about my own language practices in the classroom. Do I revoice? Do I close of the space for students' right to their own language? Do I shut down sites of resistance? As a first year writing instructor, I know that I often teach SWE. On the other hand, I wonder if revoicing, at least in my case, is really a corrective device, or if it is my way of paraphrasing students, using my own language. It's complex. 

This panel, which I admit I might not have attended if it was marked with "race" in the title, has pushed me to think about these issues again.

Questions for Consideration

  • Who gets heard in a classroom and in the larger context of education reform discussion?
  • Should one/how should one make a space for discussions about race in a writing classroom?
  • Is it possible to allow students to have the right to their own language in a college writing classroom, or any classroom really? If so, how?
  • How do you feel about legislation that calls for the end of ethnic studies, naming it as anti-American and racist?
  • Does the scholarship on racial minorities as underachievers because of socioeconomic factors lead to underachievement?
  • Have you had experiences with racism in education? If so, how did you negotiate them?


David Price said...

good stuff. I'm looking for ways to better incorporate this issue in my composition classes. I find it important to talk about language, where language comes from, how it develops, and the socio-political/cultural effects of language usage. I think talking about it at this level helps me as a white, middle-class male, but I wonder if this distances myself behind an academic veil. I bring race, culture, and social status into the conversation, but I liked to make it more effective. Interestingly though, the students have tended to dismiss questions of race and language and mostly, want to adopt a "standarized" academic view of language in their assignments, even though they tend to not exemplify and speak from that voice/style. Instead they see their writing as in need of correction, rather than inherently valuable.

NP said...

Hey! Thanks for your feedback, Dave. I've noticed a similar trend. Very few of my students will own non-standard forms of English(whatever the heck standard written English even means) Furthermore, I have had a handful of students who clearly wanted to and chose to write about race and language issues, but generally, most students gravitate toward neutral ground when given the choice. I wonder if that says something about my teaching, if it's caused by many years in the academy, if it's a larger social structure at play, or some combination of those.

Do you have any suggestions for ripping through the "academic veil"?