Teaching literacy as a path to justice

How can educators point literacy toward the goal of racial equity? They must consider their roles in “creating a literacy that is inclusive and just,” explained Anne Harper Charity Hudley, an education professor and linguistics scholar at Stanford University, in a workshop on July 9.

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“There will be language discrimination,” so it’s important to address it, said Hudley, joined by instructional coach Kimberly Bigelow and AFT national trainer Areli Schermerhorn in the AFT TEACH session, “Language and Culture Are the Building Blocks to Literacy.”

Hudley describes her job as making research-based linguistics usable for everyone. The challenge, she said, is how to teach standardized English while valuing students’ home languages (including variations of English) and without demeaning their backgrounds. Language and culture are building blocks to literacy across all grade levels, she explained, as described in her book Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools.

Whatever the standards are for teaching language arts, Hudley said, questions include: How to affirm students and their language backgrounds? How to reconcile respect for home varieties of language with teaching standardized English? How to differentiate instruction and navigate assessment? And how to engage school leaders and parents who are not onboard? Only with an understanding of the principles and patterns of language variation, she said, can educators succeed.

Schermerhorn added that teachers need to celebrate and cultivate students’ competencies, including their abilities to code-switch and navigate between home languages and standardized English. She cited an article in AFT’s American Educator by Diane August of the American Institutes for Research, for strategies on educating English learners while honoring their knowledge, home languages and cultural assets. 

Schermerhorn described the tension between “surface culture” and “deep culture,” in which surface culture includes holiday celebrations, folklore, food and dress, while deep culture dives into beliefs, thoughts, values, religion and ethics. 

Hudley encouraged educators, and the whole school community, to engage in authentically learning about each other—but without trying to alter a person or group. She wants people to study other languages and language varieties, not just appreciate them. The more teachers know about languages and varieties, the more effectively they can use their professional judgment to encourage students to both retain their home languages and develop fluency in standardized English. She particularly encourages teachers with Black students to learn African American language varieties.

Students should not be penalized for imperfect pronunciation or grammar and should be given credit for their comprehension. In some varieties of English, a sentence like “The soup hot” is correct without a verb. So, a teacher with that linguistic and cultural knowledge would be able to build on the students’ linguistic strengths. Encourage students in the varieties they speak, Hudley said. If you’re unsure, check for patterns in students’ spoken and written “mistakes.” Repeated “mistakes” are likely correct in the students’ home languages.

As teachers develop their own linguistic knowledge, they should also encourage students to study and appreciate language diversity. Hudley suggested creating maps of languages spoken in the students’ home neighborhood, city or state, helping them develop personal language diaries so they can record the variations they are hearing as they go about their day. 

Another exercise Hudley recommends is having students compose a short skit or conversation written entirely in their own varieties of English. They could write a dialog between a mother and son or a conversation among friends deciding what to do on a Saturday night. The larger purpose is to consider: “What do I need to do to be successful in the school environment, and how can we change that by including our language and our cultures?” Hudley says that inclusivity is “going to help us toward the justice that we seek.”

Hudley suggests doing this reflection individually, too, by writing “our own linguistic autobiographies.” Prompts include: Where are you from? Where have you lived? What influences the way you speak now? 

For more ideas, Hudley recommended resources like Colorín Colorado (the AFT is a founding partner) and her own website, which is filled with resources for educators on language variation.

As the panel opened up for discussion, Schermerhorn, a member of the Syracuse (N.Y.) Teachers Association, noted that most of her students are refugees from many different countries; just being able to learn a few words from their languages enhances instruction. Let them make choices to build their autonomy, she advised, and be flexible. 

To practice inclusion, Schermerhorn suggested, think about going to another country and being asked to learn something presented in a foreign language without using your home language at all. That should help you pause and consider what English learners go through. 

Asked how to bring school leaders and parents along, Bigelow, a native of Washington, D.C., and a member of the Washington Teachers’ Union, advised a strategy of continual sharing. Start with one person who will listen, share an article or book, and let it blossom, she said. Then bring in others and visit classrooms or schools. Otherwise, she cautioned, you can feel very alone. Bigelow also reinforced the importance of valuing each child and each child’s home language. Take the time to learn about students, she said, and what they bring to the classroom.

[Annette Licitra]