Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Why Johnny Can't Read, Part 3: Racism and Segregation

Woman arrested for trying to read a book in public library, Albany, GA, 1962
The United States of America, legendary land of opportunity, has never come fully to grips with systematically denying opportunity to a significant portion of its population. I am talking, of course, of our African American population, brought here in literal chains and held in metaphorical chains ever since. One of the links of these chains has been the denial of  literacy.

Any school child can tell you the story of how slave holders denied the slaves access to literacy out of fear that a slave who could read would be harder to control. The fear was well founded, of course. Literacy is the enemy of tyranny. Literacy opens up the world to all people. Some slaves managed to become literate, of course, including Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, and one of the leading American intellectuals of the 19th Century.

What may not be as obvious is how the denial of literacy continued after the Civil War ended slavery. The South, determined to maintain a system that favored white over black, instituted a series of Jim Crow laws intended to segregate all aspects of public life. So we had separate public restrooms, separate hotels, separate restaurants, separate seating on buses, and, of course, separate schools. As was eventually made clear in the landmark, 1954,  Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, KS case, separate meant inherently unequal. Unequal funding. Unequal resources. Unequal facilities. Unequal opportunities to become literate.

In the North, the denial was perhaps more subtle, but no less devastating. While few Jim Crow laws existed, segregation was achieved through discriminatory housing practices. Federal and local housing laws denied access to housing in "whites only" areas to African Americans. White flight emptied cities of the middle class families whose taxes supported public schools. Schools were systematically and consistently underfunded. Buildings fell into disrepair.. Teachers were harder to recruit. School librarians and school nurses disappeared due to budget cuts. Aging textbooks were not replaced. Class sizes grew. Access to literacy was limited.

This history matters in present day discussions of literacy acquisition. As the Supreme Court ruled 65 years ago, separate is never equal. Today's segregation is not based on Jim Crow laws, but it is still based on discriminatory practices and it still means that educational opportunity is unequal and it still means that racism is a major factor in the denial of literacy in the country. It means that for many children coming to our schools, literacy, at least in the traditional white middle-class sense, has not, necessarily, been a part of family tradition. 

Recognizing that literacy has been deliberately and systematically denied to a major portion of our population is critical to the teacher wishing to understand the challenges that some children face in coming to literacy. What is required of the teacher is a cultural responsiveness. A recognition that some of the children we are teaching do not share the same linguistic culture that we do. An ability and desire to meet those children on their own ground, valuing the linguistic culture that they do bring, and moving them towards a literacy that is vital to them as individuals and to the well-being of society as a whole is the teacher's job.

What does this look like? It looks like valuing the oral language these children bring to school, valuing the ways these children interact with story, and recognizing that programmatic instructional approaches may not meet the needs of these students.

There are many areas of contention in literacy insrruction, but nearly everybody would agree that a strong oral language facility is a child's greatest ally in taking on literacy in the early grades. Now imagine, if you will, a child who comes eagerly to school only to learn that their oral language is not valued, is constantly in need of correction, is wrong. What happens to your ability to learn to read, if the first lesson you learn in school is that the language you brought from home has no value?

Let me be as clear as possible on this point. Viewing the language that children bring with them to school as inferior is racist. It is also counterproductive, if the goal is to bring a child to literacy. The issue of Black non-standard dialect being a true, rule governed language and not slang or a sign of "lazy" English was settled long ago in the academic literature. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, linguist William Labov showed that what he called African American Vernacular English (AAVE) should not be stigmatized as substandard, but respected as a variety of English with its own grammatical rules. The only reason that Standard English came to be the dominant dialect is because the users of Standard English held the money and power, not because of any inherent superiority

Of course, there will come a time when all children need to learn Standard English, but this can be accomplished without destroying the rich vernacular they come to school with and should be accomplished when children are a little older and more able to discriminate differences. For the purpose of instruction in early literacy, the language that children bring with them will do just fine. Let me be clear here, I am not arguing for Ebonics or for teachers to use non-standard dialect, only for teachers to respect the language that children come to school with and not feel the need for constant correction. In time modeling will do the job, without doing the emotional damage of constant correction. The teacher's job should be to help all children expand their oral language which will serve them well as they apply what they know to written language.

Another place where teachers can be more culturally responsive is in the read aloud. Typically children are taught to sit still and listen to the story, responding to questions if and when the teacher asks them. This is typical of how classrooms function and white middle class children generally come from homes where this is the expectation for interacting with story. Home read aloud mimics school read aloud. The same may not be true for all cultures. 

Research professor. Lawrence Sipe, at the University of Pennsylvania, studied the way children from different cultures interacted with story. I recommend that everyone read his terrifically insightful article, Talking Back and Taking Over: Young Children's Expressive Engagement during Storybook Read-alouds. Studying mostly African American children in Philadelphia schools, Sipe found they had many unique ways of interacting with story. Ways that might not always be welcome in the classroom. Sipe grouped the types of interaction into five categories: dramatizing, talking back, critiquing/controlling, inserting, and taking over.

Dramatizing involved acting out the story, such as doing a dance and making growling noises while listening to Sendak's, Where the Wild Things Are. Talking Back involved children actually talking back to storybook characters, such as shouting for Peter Rabbit to run. Critiquing/controlling involved children suggesting changes to the story such as lying to the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red-Riding Hood, so the Wolf wouldn't know she had food in her basket. Inserting involved the students assuming the role of the characters in the story and speculating what they might do. Finally, Taking Over, involved students manipulating the text for their own purposes and breaking off into a performance, like singing the theme from the TV show Cops! (Bad boy, Bad boy, Whatcha' gonna do?) when a character in the story gets in trouble.

Sipe's work gives us insight into how different children may behave in response to story. This insight might lead the culturally aware teacher to adjust expectations for storybook reading time. I think we can all agree that these ways into story that the children display, while potentially disruptive, are also excellent ways to demonstrate comprehension of the story. Perhaps sitting quietly and attentively on the carpet square is not the best approach for all children.

The more culturally aware we are as teachers, whether it is awareness of language differences or behavior differences related to storybook reading or other aspects of behavior from children, the more prepared we will be to meet those students' literacy needs. 

One place we can be sure that this cultural awareness will be lacking is in programmatic and standards driven educational schemes. Teaching a culturally diverse group of students requires the teacher to rely on a variety of instructional strategies flexibly and in response to the children who show up in the classroom. Standard expectations and programs designed to fit "typical" learners will not suffice. Ultimately, we need to understand that a one-size fits all approach to teaching literacy is counter-productive in a diverse classroom.

If we really want all children to become skilled readers, we need to open ourselves to the different ways that goal can be achieved for a culturally diverse group of children. If we look at the history of racism, both overt and under the surface, we see that, so far, this country has never really committed itself to that goal.

Also in this series: Why Johnny Can't Read: It's Complicated, Ms. Hanford
                               Why Johnny Can't Read, Part 2: Income Inequity
Next up: Brain-Based Reading Difficulties


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