Recently, I substituted for a 5th grade class at a relatively middle class elementary school. The school was tucked away about two miles from my home in what I thought was an older neighborhood. However, this ‘neighborhood’ is actually an incorporated city, with its own police department. Google Maps was not helpful in locating the school. The secretary had to guide me from my location, which luckily, was down the street and around the corner.
Once I arrived, I was assigned to assist another substitute teacher with his ‘challenging’ group of students - the 5th graders. I noticed that this particular class contained a higher concentration of Black students than previous classes I subbed for at this same elementary school.
Well, I took no further thought of it. Just an interesting observation. I was able to quickly call the class to order and focus their attention on the assignment at hand. Not challenging at all for a substitute with classroom teaching experience.
When I began to check their ‘English’ assignments, the horrors of common core standards hit me square in the face. Students were to choose the appropriate language corrections from a multiple choice listing. My mouth dropped wide with disbelief at what I read on this worksheet.
Question #1: them liddle birds is singing.
Question #2: her and him they has red hair.
Question #3: Amanda she ask where did everybody go?
Question #4: I woked up erly this morning.
Six other questions written in this type of pidgin speech populated the page.
Do students around the nation speak like the characters in Br'er Rabbit? Huckleberry Finn? The Sound and the Fury? I mean, this was a common core assessment, so it stands to reason that other regions outside of the good old South must also deal with this level of non-standard English.
Some who are uncomfortable with believing that racism and economics influence the quality of education that minority students receive might argue that the writing style does not automatically denote a Black speaker, but southerners in general. Rethink that rebuttal.
Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston and other writers took a lot of flak for depicting Black people as uneducated and almost unintelligible based on their dialect. Slave talk; directly attributed to Black people.
So, the styling of the questions assumes that Black people sound that way when they speak. Well, granted…some do sound this way when they speak. However, this is an inappropriate way to teach Standard English usage. I found this assignment to be racist and offensive.
In all of my years of teaching English, I have never encountered nor designed an assignment using these kinds of racially charged colloquial expressions. I have always focused on standard written English. Guess what?
Under my instruction, students of all races learned to correct their prior language abuses without having to suffer through culturally insensitive lessons. No one ever complained to me that the names Shaquanda, Ahmed, Su Lin or Mariela were not included within any of the examples I used to teach grammar and writing skills.
If I did use those names, would this be racist or an awkward attempt at inclusion? If I went further and used stereotypical phrasings associated with other races like Asians or Hispanics in my assignments, would this count as cultural relevance or some sort of misguided altruism in some way?
Meaning, ‘I acknowledge that many of your race speak this way, so I am including it in my assignment to help you learn the correct way to speak.’ This line of thinking and pedagogical methodology is not the most effective. In fact, it is troubling. The aforementioned questions that appeared on the common core assessment handout for 5th graders are indeed troubling.
Just as disturbing as the Connecticut school officials at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy who forced Black students to act like ‘real’ slaves while being called the N-word during an Underground Railroad reenactment in 2013 --for the sake of historic accuracy, of course. Culturally relevant or racially offensive?
Really? Is it wrong to require students to write a paper on the rap lyrics of Tupac Shakur? Is that not relevant to American pop culture, not just Black culture? Is it racist if white kids and other minorities are subject to the same assignment?
Some white kids who co-opt hip-hop culture speak this way as well, so is it not an ‘urban’ issue, not necessarily a Black or a racial issue? Better yet, is it not just an issue of non-standard English usage that does not even require discussions of race?
See, the aforementioned assignment opens the floodgates to this level of intellectual grappling and clumsy attempts at racial and cultural inclusion in the classroom. There is indeed a fine line between multiculturalism and racism; theory and practice. It appears that the common core curriculum writers are unsure of where to draw that line.
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Ashan R. Hampton is a long-time English instructor turned entrepreneur. She is also a proud graduate of the Donaghey Scholars Program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock under the direction of Dr. C. Earl Ramsey, Emeritus. Through her company, Onyx Online Education & Training, she offers online writing courses and print books for academic and professional development to individuals and corporations. She is also a prolific published author of several books on a variety of topics. To find out more about Ashan's work, visit www.arhampton.com.
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