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Home Truths, Or The End of the World as We Know It

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Reading over the comments this morning, I find Michael suggesting that from certain clues in the excerpts I posted yesterday, my students seem to be speaking…Ebonics.

And since Ebonics is a subdialect with its own language rules, an Ebonics speaker who is trying to learn to speak and write standard English is actually learning an entirely new language.

The reference is then to Stephen Pinker.

I’ve read the Pinker.  I think I probably own everything Pinker has ever written.

On the subject of the Ebonics, thing, though, I’m skeptical, and for several reasons.

They go like this:

1) Virtually every student in every standard (not remedial) Freshman English class I’ve ever had has been, and is, white. 

The students who wrote those two pieces were almost assuredly white.

And, what’s more important–the largely unstated idea we all have that this kind of excruciatingly awful writing product is mostly a “minority” problem is dead on wrong.

My white kids are poor, working class and middle class, and all of them–even the children of doctors and lawyers–write like this.

Of course, the percentages are skewed.  A higher percentage of my classes will be poor and working class.  The middle class children of doctors and lawyers will take up two or three seats in any section.

But they’re still there, and they’re still doing this.

I’d be willing to bet nearly anything that what I’m seeing is not the result of a “subculture” or dialect but of an instuctional philosophy in the high schools that shrinks from teaching  standard English or correcting students who write this way.

The majority of students in my remedial classes are, in fact, minorities–but the way they write makes the things I posted look ready for a Nobel Lit prize.

2)  For a hundred years after the Civil War, African American children who were allowed to go to school at all came out speaking and writing English as standard as any Harvard grad.  They still do, at places like Harvard. 

They issue in minority difficulties with standard English is not about subcultures, learning new languages, or even self esteem.  It’s about an educational system that has decided they aren’t going to teach that, because it’s–what, exactly? 

For both my black students and my white students, reality is inelastic:  private employers in my area are now giving reading and writing tests for applicants for entry level positions, and they’re not declaring substandard (or nonstandard) English just another dialect.

Never mind the obvious:  part of the reason for schools like mine is the idea that even the most disadvantaged kids, even the kids who have made bad life choices, should get one more chance to shoot the moon.

But no first rate law school, no first rate med school, no Fortune 500 company or newly minted Cabinet member is going to hire somebody for a serious job with a serious future who speaks or writes like my students.

Either kind of my students, black or white.

3) I have plenty of students who are actual immigrants, whose first language at home is not English or anything like English.

And they have fewer problems reading and writing English than the students whose excerpts I posted.

Hell, they have fewer gaps in their overall understanding of American history and government than my native-born students.

It seems that elementary schools and high schools in Albania not only teach their kids to speak and write English, they also teach them things like the way the electoral college works, the content of the bill of rights and the general timeline of American history since independence.

Most of my white, working-to-middle-class students have never heard the term “electoral college” and aren’t entirely sure what the Supreme Court is and what it does–and this in a state that mandates a year of civics for public high school graduation.

My students do not know these things because their schools are not teaching them.

My students do not know how to read and write because their schools are not teaching that, either.

Almost all of them come from schools that mandate “holistic grading,” a system by which a teacher reads an essay WITHOUT correcting mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling and gives a grade based on the “feeling of the quality of the whole.”

If you can’t figure out how that works, neither can I, and I’ve had a stab at doing it on occassion.

The result, though, is obvious.  And I’ve got a hundred more examples of it lying around my office at the moment.

4) Although private employers around here are increasingly balking at the illiteracy of their job applicants–and increasingly refusing to take the word of local colleges that the applicants have language skills of any kind–there are two places my students can go to get hired:  school systems and government offices and agencies.

Given the nature of what I do and where I do it, I am required to deal, on a regular basis, with parole officers and social workers.

The parole officers are a bit fumbling and incoherent, but there’s another kind of subdialect, and that’s professional jargon, and they know that.  So do I, and since law enforcement tends to have lots of hard and fast rules, it’s possible to learn that jargon and know what they’re saying.

The social workers are breathtaking.

Well, no, not all of them.  The higher-level ones are in pretty good shape.  They’re also virtually all white and culturally upper middle class.

The caseworkers, however, range from on-their-way-to-administration to completely shocking.  I’ve had at least one I am sure could not actually read at all.  She would send me forms to fill out on behalf of a student–students get support through DCF through the age of 18, but can only continue to get support after that if they are enrolled full time in a college program–

Anyway, she would send me these forms to fill out.  I would fill them out and send them to her.  She would call me up and demanded the answers to the questions on the form because I’d “omitted” those.  I started keeping copies for myself.  I never omitted anything, and I frequently send attached letters explaining special circumstances.

If she read any of them, she didn’t understand them.  My guess is that she didn’t read them.

Sometimes my students, indignant at the grades I’m giving them, take their essays back to their favorite English teachers in high school, and these teachers send me notes.  Increasingly, these notes exhibit the same grammar, punctuation and spelling errors my students’ work does, along with the endless problems with homophones (your/you’re, there/they’re/their, its/it’s).

Half of my students will never graduate, but half of them will, and they’re headed to a school district or government office near you.

And yes, it will matter.

The kid whose social worker I thought might not be able to read was in real danger of losing benefits he needed.  He’d clawed his way through an absolute nightmare of a life, a mother on drugs, a father whose answer to everything was to punch through it (literally), six or seven foster homes, getting beaten to a pulp in every schoolyard he’d ever been in.  He had an actual, real chance of clawing his way out if he could get what the state said he had a right to, which was a paid college education in any state school.  If he’d been dumped from that program it would be theorectically possible to get him back on–but in the meantime he’d have lost a semester, been chucked out on his ass with nowhere to live, and all the rest of it.

It will matter if the postal worker you have to deal with next week can’t read the address on your envelope.  It will matter if the guy who processes your forms at the IRS office can’t read those, and can’t write a memo for your file that states the actual content of the meeting you just had.   It will matter if the woman doing HR at your company doesn’t know the difference between a “network provider policy” and a “preferred provider policy.”

5) But the real kicker is this–most of my kids would probably have an actual interest in improving their skills if they had any idea there were actual skills there to be improved.

Most of them have come out of high schools that have convinced them that there is no content (or objectivity) to “language arts,” it’s just some bullshit they have to sit through because they have to. 

The first time I hand back papers in a term, with my red pencil circling and correcting every spelling mistake, tense confusion, vocabulary screw up, fragmented sentence I can find–they’re completely stunned.

They’ve never had papers corrected like that.

And they think it’s just me, and of course that I’m being unfair.

PS.  A note.  Human Resource Departments are almost always the dumping grounds for low-skilled but “college graduate” employees.  The companies figure that that way, the inevitable mess such employees make will only harm other employees, and not the bottom line.

Written by janeh

December 10th, 2011 at 10:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses to 'Home Truths, Or The End of the World as We Know It'

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  1. Well, that’s depressing! Let me make it somewhat worse.

    “Ebonics” first: I promise to take it somewhat more seriously when someone makes an observation about it–consistent grammar, distinctive vocabulary–which was NOT true of the German- Irish- or Yiddish-accented speech of the varous immigrant groups. Fortunately for me, the education systems of Pennsylvania and Indiana regarded this as something the students could be taught not to use in school essays and job applications. If they’d invented “Deutschics” and “Hibernics” instead, the teachers’ lives would have been simpler, our modern quota laws might be even more complicated.

    Among the various other government offices in which one might place illiterates with college diplomas are elementary and secondary classrooms–with the results you indicated. A few years ago, some Deep South state briefly required that public school teachers pass an 8th grade competency exam. When it attempted to dismiss those who failed it three times despite tutoring, the state government was attacked as racist. It is a word perhaps better applied to those who would insist impoverished students have such teachers.

    Those social worker systems in which the upper ranks are educated and the lower ranks are marginally literate? This can happen two ways: maybe the marginally literate can never be promoted past “caseworker.” But maybe this means that 20 or so years ago, the caseworkers were literate, and if you wait a few decades you’ll have illiterate supervisors. Given quotas and seniority systems, I know which way I’d bet.

    Oh, and Human Resource Departments? Plenty of low-skilled but “college graduate” supervisors, and not always the worst. They go to Human Resources for being pettyfogging sadists in the bargain. (If they were supervisors, we could obey their orders until they were removed. It used to be called a “white mutiny.”) But rest assured such HR departments very much hurt the bottom line.


    10 Dec 11 at 5:21 pm

  2. michaelwfisher@cox.net

    10 Dec 11 at 6:06 pm

  3. Didn’t you know? Teaching kids to use Standard English is cultural imperialism. And probably racist and classist.

    And besides, there’s no hope for these kids anyway, so why bother with education?

    Cathy F


    10 Dec 11 at 8:23 pm

  4. The same thing happens elsewhere Cathy.

    Most of us, including our poor students, are white, but there are a few small areas of the province where the schools are mostly Native, and mostly occupied by students who live in some pretty terrible situations.

    Years ago, I heard it argued that the results of these students shouldn’t be included with the school board’s overall results because there were ‘cultural’ reasons they didn’t do well. In other words, let’s give up on them even though they’re entitled to an education and some, at least, of their parents want them to have one.

    But it’s not limited by race. As I said, most of our poor (in both senses) students are white, and in some small towns it wasn’t uncommon for teachers to say there wasn’t any point in a kid from family taking, say,algebra because he’d never use it.

    Just give them a chance.


    10 Dec 11 at 8:57 pm

  5. Oh, absolutely, Cheryl. I worked in rural Kentucky for a while, and the poor white sharecroppers’ kids counted as “those kids” too. That’s why I said racist and classist.

    Cathy F


    10 Dec 11 at 10:41 pm

  6. How’d we come to this? I’m old enough to have gone to school in the days of de facto segregation, but Central HS–about 90% black–had a first-rate teaching cadre. I don’t think they could have found a teacher who didn’t mark errors on papers even if they’d wanted one. We spent, adjusting for inflation, maybe half as much per student, but there was a full set of new textbooks every five years and the richest and poorest families in town attended the same school system. The only exceptions attended the parochial school systems. and were felt to be getting short-changed a little on education.

    Now the parochial schools are “aspirational.” They’re basketball powerhouses because given a choice any concerned black family would swallow hard and pretend to be considering Catholicism or Lutheranism rather than send their kids to the thoroughly integrated and seriously expensive–to the taxpayers–public schools. A generation ago, an illiterate high school graduate would have been inconceivable. Now I think some of them are relatives.

    Maybe it’s my historical training, but I think we’d best find out what specific decisions got us into this mess as our first step for getting out of it. Pushing blindly onward isn’t working out too well.


    11 Dec 11 at 1:12 am

  7. “And besides, there’s no hope for these kids anyway, so why bother with education?”

    Believe it or not, almost precisely those very words were spoken by a woman at a Parents and Teachers Association meeting at my sons’ primary school here in Canberra, and that was in the mid-late 1970s. This dame quite seriously, in a starchy upper-class twit accent, proclaimed that as there were no jobs for kids leaving school that school didn’t matter anyway. At that point my kids were about 7 and 8 years old.

    There are some profoundly stupid people around.


    11 Dec 11 at 5:18 am

  8. Admin tends to be a bit top-heavy, but I think they buying-into of inadequately tested educational theories by senior staff has to take a lot of the blame. That, and general societal changes that have made high standards appear equivalent to elitism and systemic racism/classism, but I don’t know what to do about societal changes.

    I’m not as anti-testing as many people are, because I grew up and worked in a system that maintained common end-of-high school exams right through the peak of the anti-evaluation beliefs. You need good exams, of course, and they should still hold them outside the school year and run by independant local invigilators not the teachers, like they did in my day Harrrumph! But they do help avoid some problems – eg the teacher who picks and chooses which science topics to teach (allegedly on the basis of what interests the kids, but I’ve always suspected it’s what the teacher likes and understands). Understanding some branches of science (and math, of course) depends strongly on the student having learned other bits of science first. And it helps identify cases in which teachers have given up on some students entirely.

    Ideally, in lower grades, you don’t need big formal external exams for the teacher and principal to figure out what students know what, but you do need something to do for the students who don’t know what they will need to, and do it THEN in grade 1 or 5 or 8. There are more programs for ‘special needs’ students than there used to be, but there still isn’t much, especially in smaller schools, for the ones who just need a bit of help. And ‘Those Kids’ can get put in ‘special needs’ rather easily.

    I’m beginning to ramble. I was going to try to say that given a check (principal, external exams, next years’ teacher) on what students know on the way through combined with more independance for the teachers to ignore the latest educational fad would help a lot.

    I don’t really like the idea of teacher evaluations, because a LOT of them are about as useful and well-designed as the products of most educational research, which is, not very. And that’s a bad thing to control someone’s livelihood. You can’t even really use student outcomes as a measure of teacher effectiveness since they depend so much on everything from home life (EXTREMELY important) to educational fads and fancies to how well a particular student’s personality and learning abilities match with the teacher’s.

    But bad teachers will often either leave of their own free will (teaching is a difficult and stressful job when you ARE good at it) or be edged out by aministrators when it becomes obvious that s/he can’t do the work – usually with multiple classes and students. And in spite of everything I read and hear about the impossibility of getting rid of bad teachers, it does happen here, and we have a strong teacher’s union.


    11 Dec 11 at 8:48 am

  9. michaelwfisher@cox.net

    11 Dec 11 at 8:59 am

  10. And again, I blew it. Look, I don’t doubt “racism” “classism” “lookism” and whatever else is on the Movement hit list this week is responsible for educational failure in individual cases–but I’m also sure there were educators who thought that way when Socrates was wandering around Athens askng fool questions, and there were kids with bad home lives earlier than that.
    But in 1940 it was inconceivable that a person who had passed out of an American 8th grade–ANY American 8th grade–should not be fully literate and numerate through algebra. Now after 70 years of educational progress, we’ve got illiterate college graduates–16 years of school, and at substantially higher per-year costs. Blaming this on millenia-old conditions is like blaming financial crises on “greed” or collapsed bridges on “gravity.” Those are design considerations, and they’re not new. We are making specific policy mistakes to get where we are, and we need to stop. That “holistic” paper-grading Jane describes, for instance, seems like an excellent place to begin.

    And Cheryl, what makes you think teaching is stressful for those who aren’t trying to educate? A head of department told me it took him three years legally to get rid of a teacher for flat refusal to teach to standard. Yes, that is (eventual) removal–but that’s also a lot of students never properly taught that material.


    11 Dec 11 at 10:23 am

  11. I would have thought that the students would have made a poor teacher’s life hell on earth, at least at the junior and senior high school grades. Bored adolescents can be quite ingenious.

    I did know of one person who managed to remain in a teaching position while doing practically nothing and also somehow negotiating some kind of deal so the kids didn’t get too out of hand. Many years ago, that was, and I don’t know if he eventually retired or took early retirement on medical grounds – he was a very strange person. The employer got rid of other teachers, but he seemed to have some kind of immunity – rumour had it that he claimed to have scared them off with threats of legal action.

    Given the nature of the job, it can take time and some students will lack education while the process is gone through, especially for people who seem sort of all right, then second year maybe they need some extra training and help, third year, we got a problem – but by then it should be pretty easy to fire the teacher if the documentation is in place – or to point out that fact, and get a letter of resignation.


    11 Dec 11 at 6:13 pm

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