Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bill Cosby and Ebonics Controversy

"And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk (laughter). And then 1 heard the father talk. This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the comer and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't land a plane with "Why you ain't." You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth"
--Bill Cosby
May 19, 2004
Constitution Hall, Washington, D. C.

Believe it or not, it's been nearly a year since America's most highly educated entertainer, Dr. Bill Cosby, embarked on his crusade to "save" Black youth by issuing a wake-up call about their language and behavior.
But while the dust from Cosby's critique has yet to settle, he seems to have become something of a cottage industry for some among the commentariat. Black Issues decided that it might lower the heat on the topic -- and actually shed some light -- to talk to some prominent sociolinguists about the controversy.
Apparently, it's a novel approach; very few of the people who've weighed in on the matter -- including Cosby -- have been capable of giving the Linguistics 101 version.
"I wouldn't beat up on him for it," says Dr. Orlando Taylor, the much-published linguist and speech-language specialist who wears the dual hats of dean of the graduate school at Howard University and vice provost for research. "You wouldn't expect a person whose specialty is not in a particular area" to demonstrate knowledge of that area.
The problem is that, in this particular area, everyone's a self-appointed expert.
"It's like talking about religion, sex and politics -- since we all speak and know a language there's a presumed right to have an opinion," says Dr. Walt Wolfram. A self-described "dialect nomad" who has published prolifically on African-American, Appalachian, Ozark, Amerindian, Puerto Rican and even Vietnamese English, Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at North Carolina State University, as well as a past president of both the Linguistics Society of America and the American Dialect Society.
Recalling the "Ebonics" controversy of the late 1990s -- in which the Oakland, Calif., school district drew fire for passing a resolution that recognized Ebonics as the dialect of many of its Black students -- Wolfram adds, "I would go on the air and I would find myself debating economists about language. Now what does an economist know about language? That's like me debating with a physicist about some principle of physics," he says.
But if there's one thing that sociolinguists know better than most, it's that dialect prejudice is as American as apple pie. Indeed, it may well be one of the last remaining bastions of open bigotry threaded through our culture.
"People watch their tongues, for the most part, these days on issues related to social identity and race, but they don't have the same feeling around dialect. It's acceptable, for the most part, to say the most awful things about other people's dialects," notes Dr. Carolyn Adger, director of the Language in Society Division for the Center for Applied Linguistics.
One has only to consider the use of the word "dialect." The conventional wisdom among the general population is pretty close to Cosby's: Dialects are bad; Standard English is good.
But the discipline of sociolinguistics sees things differently. "When sociolinguists use the word 'dialect,' it simply means a variety of a language -- like Appalachian English or Boston English or any other variety of English," Adger says.
Moreover, to the sociolinguist, Standard English is not a standard in the sense of a "minimum acceptable standard," but in the sense of an "arbitrary standard" -- because when it comes to language, it's variation that is the norm. Indeed, to the sociolinguist, all dialects are created equal.
The discipline's "most elementary principle is that all language is patterned and rule-governed, and you can apply that principle to African-American English, to Appalachian English, to every other dialect we look at," Wolfram says. "Journalists will say, 'Oh, but you academics are all liberal,' but this is not a political matter -- this is not about liberals and conservatives. No, this is like the first law of physics: It's basic Linguistics 101."
The public doesn't get it, and that's in part because the public hasn't been taught. Think about it. Everyone has a language, but only colleges have linguistics. And that suggests to Taylor that the nerve struck by Cosby is bigger than language -- it's, in fact, a cultural nerve.
"Language is a reflection of a people," Taylor says. "For example, French culture is perceived as high quality, its cuisine is considered to be great, its fashions are considered to be avant-garde, so if a person speaks with a French accent, it's perceived to be very positive because the people are perceived positively.
"But if a group is considered to be ignorant, primitive, backward, ill-informed, then their language is given similar attributes. The problem is that African-American people and Black people around the world are perceived by dominant societies to be inferior, and so their language is perceived in a similar way."
African Americans readily fall into the trap. They're as quick to stigmatize Black speech as they are to use it. Cosby, again, is an excellent example of the contradiction. Fat Albert and his friends weren't exactly speaking the King's English in the popular '70s-era cartoon nor in the recent motion picture.
So, in fact, what's happening is not a national conversation about the value of Black language -- it's a national conversation about the value of Black culture. And the fact that we're still gnawing on the bone nearly a year later seems to indicate how conflicted we are-both as a nation and as African Americans.
On the one hand, notes Taylor, Cosby's economic argument -- the notion that a people can't get ahead unless they've mastered the dominant speech -- has its merits.
"We can agree that there is no single way to speak a language," Taylor says, "but we cannot escape the fact that, even within all those variations, some forms have more prestige than others. For example, the educated form -- without mastery of the educated form of a language, it's very hard to be successful in schools or in the professional marketplace."
There are, of course, exceptions.
"Think, for example, of Chris Rock on the Academy Awards show," offers Adger. "Chris Rock is a very funny guy, but the source of his humor is his use of African-American English. He's really what we call bidialectal -- it's his facility in moving from African-American English to standard English that makes us all laugh. He's masterful at it."
And that's an important distinction, says Taylor. "The critical statement about Chris Rock is that he can go back and forth. The problem with African-American youth is that large numbers are unable to do that. They are kind of stuck in a singular way of communicating and that's to their disadvantage. Folk in this country tend to believe that somehow there's a single standard and to switch is not good. I would say rather that it's an asset for students to be able to speak more than one language, one dialect--for one to be about to shift in accordance with the situational demands."
Even Cosby has touched on that point. In the speech that caused so much fuss last year, he said, "You used to talk a certain way on the corner and (then) you got into the house and switched to English."
For these and other reasons, Dr. John Baugh -- one of the foremost national experts on "linguistic profiling," or the kinds of cues that allow a listener to identify the race of a speaker on the telephone -- thinks Cosby hasn't quite gotten a fair shake in the media. Now an endowed professor and director of the African and Afro-American studies program at Washington University, Baugh was a senior professor of educational linguistics at Stanford when he heard Cosby deliver the very speech that was to get him in trouble in Washington, D.C., just days later.
The difference was the context. Cosby had come to the campus to give a live performance that raised $1 million for fellowships that would send teachers into the inner city. Not only did the entertainer meet with about 300 Bay area educators in a special ceremony before the event, he also specified that a large number of seats at the main event be reserved for low-income kids. And he did not leave the question-and-answer session afterwards until each and every child who wished to speak had had a chance to ask a question.
"When I looked at his performance in totality, I thought he was making a larger American statement about parenting, regardless of race," Baugh says. "He said some very powerful things about education that caused a hush to fall over the audience. But then he started to get funny, and some of the racial attributions he made -- I'm not sure they were fair.
"But this is Cosby's Achilles heel," Baugh says, explaining that Cosby published a harsh satire titled "Igno-Ebonics" in the Wall Street Journal during that earlier controversy. "He's very uninformed about the linguistic consequences of the African slave trade, combined with the legacy of slavery -- the anti-literacy laws, and so on."
If he knew more about sociolinguistics, he might be able to use his power and his bully pulpit to advocate for what the discipline sees as the solution to the literacy crisis -- teaching youth how to shift easily between dialects.
For some reason, this solution remains controversial for schoolchildren, even though "with a person who comes from another country, we know how to reduce their original accent and teach them another accent," Taylor says, adding, "We can train Southerners not to sound Southern when they speak on network television. We know how to do these things -- and we know that you don't have to denigrate Southern speech in order to do that.
"That's the challenge for our schools and educational institutions -- to teach kids to speak the language of education without denigrating the speaker," Taylor says.
Linguists across the nation are forming partnerships to move this effort forward. Baugh, for example, was a key partner in founding Eastside High School, a private school in the tough, low-income enclave of East Palo Alto, Calif., that in nine years has sent 100 percent of its graduates to college.
Wolfram, meanwhile, has been taking the message to every eighth-grader on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina's Outer Bank. "And in those 13 years, we've seen a tremendous change in the attitude of the whole community" toward their language and the prejudice they've faced, he says.
"There's this sense in which Bill Cosby is not necessarily calling for the wrong thing. He just has the wrong reason," Wolfram notes. Children should not be told they have to learn Standard English because they're "linguistically deficient," he says. All that does is set those children up to feel inferior and create a dynamic of resistance to the school experience.
"We know that people who feel good about themselves, including their language, make better learners, because you learn better from strength than you do from weakness. And so we're working on ways to get across the message to teachers that they can simply say, 'Look, there's this rule-governed way that African-American English works, and now we're going to learn Standard English because that's what the man expects.
"It's not about being a better or a worse person," Wolfram says. "It's just how you present yourself to the world."
“Attitude, Erick!” a teacher, directing him from the back of the auditorium, shouts. “Remember, this is about attitude.”
Shifting into character, he conjures up the posture and perspective of a man proud of his accomplishments, assured of his talent, and impenitent of his scholarly achievements. Standing tall beneath an oversized plaid shirt and cuffed bluejeans, he straightens his shoulders and draws a full breath to deepen his childlike voice. “I am a confident black man … articulate, intelligent, and yes, COOL,” the 1st grader bellows, crossing his arms firmly across his tiny chest.
The 4-foot preacher continues his sermon on the value of education and importance of community service, pausing to perfect his diction, to enunciate words more clearly. As he finishes, his cheeks widen to reveal a gap-toothed grin. He is praised for a job well done.
Erick was only a toddler when a national controversy over language and the education of black children erupted here more than five years ago. But he clearly understands this exercise is about more than just attitude. It is about the power of speech, the politics of language, and the perceptions of a society that identifies intellect and even virtue with “proper” English.
The Oakland school board provided grist for editorial writers and commentators from coast to coast with its December 1996 “ebonics” resolution, which recognized the language used by a majority of the black students in the district as essentially different from that of most English-speakers and ordered that children be instructed in that language. Since then, school officials hero have undertaken a visible campaign to help students master the standard form of the language as a critical step in eliminating the barriers to their academic success.
The cornerstone of that campaign is an intense focus on reading instruction, and, specifically, the systematic and explicit teaching of the sounds and structure of standard English. By beginning that approach in kindergarten, district leaders say, students are gaining the basic skills that many experts have identified as critical to achieving literacy.
But Oakland officials have not backed down from the original intent of the ill-fated resolution: to foster understanding and respect for students' home language and to help teachers use it as a bridge for children to learn the language spoken by America's majority.
“We had to move beyond that controversy and get to the [heart] of the matter,” says Folásadé Oládélé, a longtime teacher and administrator in the district who oversees the Academic English Development Program. “We need to address the language, culture, and history of these students in order to support effective reading instruction.”
Oládélé and others acknowledge that the strategy they have slowly crafted over the past few years is more socially and politically acceptable than what was outlined in the 1996 decree. But it is not fundamentally different.
The program introduces teachers to the history of African-American Vernacular English, which some scholars have identified as having its roots in West African and Niger-Congo languages. The professional-development component of the program—three hours of in-service training—points out what many see as the racism inherent in the view that the language tradition of blacks is inferior to that of the white majority. Teachers ar urged to abandon a corrective approach in the classroom, to consider language variations as simply different, not deficient.
In workshops, teachers are introduced to “contrastive analysis,” a translation of the vernacular to the standard. They are taught to reorganize, for example, how black students often drop the final sound from double-consonant endings, saying “col” instead of “cold” or “fin” instead of “find.” Another variation is in replacing the “th”their sound, such as in the word “birthday,” with that of “d,” “t,” or “f.” Plurals and possessives may also be ignored, and the words “have,” “has,” and “had” are generally omitted when conveying the past.
“A lot of our students live with grandparents and great-grandparents, most of whom missed out on formal education,” says Margaret M. Peyton, the principal of Santa Fe Elementary School, where 90 percent of the nearly 400 students are black, and a majority are considered poor. “Language-wise, they come to school with a lot of omissions and substitutions [of standard rules]. We try to gradually move them to more formal language.”
The deviations inherent in the dialect, many experts say, tend to complicate acquisition of reading skills. Differences in the rules and structure of the language forms tend to confuse children who have grown up with the lexicon of standard English but the grammar, syntax, and phonology—or sounds—of the vernacular.
To minimize those problems, the district adopted Open Court Reading, a scripted series published by the McGraw-Hill Cos., based in New York City, that takes a phonics-based approach to reading instruction.
The program is a favorite among researchers and policymakers who subscribe to evidence that students are most likely to develop phonemic awareness and other basic skills through systematic and explicit phonics instruction. Some studies suggest that approach is the best way for many minority students, and those who have not had adequate exposure to children's books and language-rich experiences, to catch up with their better-prepared peers.
Students in Kim Moses' kindergarten class at Santa Fe Elementary here run through “prereading” drills each morning. They recite the alphabet in systematic fashion, accentuating the exercise with hand and body movements that reinforce the lesson for visual learners.
“What's the letter?” Moses asks.
“O,” the students answer.
They then race through a list of short words that share a beginning consonant, but change when word endings are substituted.
“H-i-t, hit,” the students sound out each letter.
“H-a-t, hat.”
“H-o-t, hot.”
The cadence is designed to develop phonemic awareness, or knowledge of the sounds that make up words, and to help children recognize letters and letter blends. Through repetition and the use of visual cues, the thinking goes, students learn to internalize those connections and recognize them in print.
The Open Court brand, Oládélé says, is culturally appropriate, hitting on five strategies believed to work well with African-American students, among others: repetition, recitation, relationships, ritual, and rhythm.
“It's ‘scoped’ and sequenced in a logical manner,” she says. “Some teachers don't like it because they feel like they're being controlled, but there are certain things kids have to learn in [a specific order] to develop reading skills.”
The program is supplemented with culturally relevant reading materials, and Oládélé is working with curriculum specialists to align lessons from the district's English-development program with the Open Court script.
One such integrated lesson used in some elementary schools here is particularly powerful for many students, educators say. Students examine the uses of standard, or as some call it, “cash” English, and the vernacular they are more accustomed to using in two Langston Hughes poems and discuss the intended effects of the different language forms.
Many Oakland educators have applied a culturally sensitive approachm to their teaching for years without drawing much attention. Beginning in 1981, more than 100 educators throughout the 54,000-student district began participating in the Standard English Proficiency Program, a voluntary state program that assisted teachers of children who spoke what is often called black English. The program, which was in effect until 1998, was designed to help teachers understand the rules and structure of the vernacular, show students the way it differs from standard English, and teach children to code-switch, or to use one language form over another as circumstances warrant.
Freda Robinson embraced that program as a teacher throughout the 1990s, after struggling to help many of the children in her class become skilled readers. Ill-prepared at first to address the language differences, The African-American teacher attended regular evening, weekend, and summer workshops in which she worked with linguistic experts, education professors, and her colleagues to craft lessons designed specifically for black students.
Robinson became an advocate for the Standard English Proficiency Program, and then an activist for children she felt were being neglected by black and white teachers alike because of the students' race and family background. “I would see teachers put one or two brown-skinned boys in the back of the classroom and say, ‘I can't do anything with them,’” she recalls.
If those teachers were more aware of the language issues causing those students to struggle, she says, they would not have written them off so easily. In the teachers' lounge, teachers made fun of children who spoke nonstandard English, Robinson says, and implied that students at the predominantly black school were stupid or incapable of learning. Once, when she gave her students a required standardized test, she entered “ebonics” on their test booklets in the box that asked for the students' primary language. That move angered a colleague, but Robinson was insistent.
The veteran educator started using affirmations and songs to motivate children and to instill pride in African-American history and their family traditions. Instead of correcting children when they used vernacular English in the classroom, she would remind them that academic English was expected in school.
“We should not be using the concept of wrongness,” Robinson says. “You can tell a kindergartner, ‘Repeat that for me in standard English.’ The ‘deficit’ thought implies that our children are not capable intellectually.”
Now, as an instructional facilitator for the district, Robinson divides her time among five elementary schools, where she works with teachers on implementing the reading program and adapting instruction for dialect speakers.
More than 30 years ago, linguists studying the language variations between African-American communities identified ebonics, a word created by blending “ebony” and “phonics,” as a variation of standard English with its own phonetic and grammatical structures.
Ever since the late 1960s, when Walt A. Wolfram, a respected linguist and the director of the Linguistics Program at North Carolina State University, determined black English to be a rule-governed system, many researchers and teacher-educators have tried to expand teachers' knowledge of language forms and how they might affect instruction. Such information, supporters argue, makes teachers aware of the ways dialect can interfere with students' skills development in reading and other areas, and helps reverse negative attitudes toward dialect speakers.
“It is important for reading teachers to know how dialect differences might be manifested in oral reading so that they can distinguish between a real reading problem and appropriate dialect reading,” Wolfram writes in his book Dialects in Schools and Communities, co-written by Carolyn Temple Adger and Donna Christian of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit organization in Washington.
A decade after Wolfram's landmark 1969 study, the Ann Arbor, Mich., school district, defending itself in a lawsuit brought by parents who argued their children were not receiving an equitable education, was ordered by the state supreme court to make the language variations of black students a key consideration in designing instruction. The Los Angeles Unified School District, realizing the prevalence of the use of vernacular speech in its schools, instituted its own comprehensive approach in 1990, after an internal report called for a language-development program for African-American students. The program, still in existence, though hindered somewhat since the Oakland flare-up, includes workshops and ongoing support services for both teachers and parents.
Under the guidance of prominent researchers, districts in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and other urban centers have also devised intervention strategies related to black children's language variations.
With such language programs becoming increasingly common, particularly in urban districts, no one anticipated the furor that Oakland's plan for raising student achievement would touch off in 1996. The school board's resolution, based on the recommendations of the district's African-American Task Force, quickly became a target of political leaders who decried the low expectations and ill-conceived initiatives that they argued had been short-changing black children for generations. The district is nearly 50 percent black, 27 percent Hispanic, 16 percent Asian, and 6 percent white.
The wording of the resolution—which stated that ebonics, or the “African Language Systems,” was genetically based and ordered district officials to design a program that instructed students in their primary language to maintain the “legitimacy and richness” of such language—opened it up to misinterpretation, observers say.
Some newspaper articles reported that the plan prescribed teaching children to speak black English and would require that teachers master the dialect themselves and use instructional materials written in the language in order to teach it effectively.
The district became the subject of international ridicule, a favorite topic among political cartoonists and late-night talk-show hosts, who presented black people in caricature, speaking in an inarticulate, unintelligible manner.
One such cartoon by Jeff Danziger, featured in the Christian Science Monitor in January 1997, portrayed a black Hamlet delivering his famous “To be or not to be” line in black English: “I be, or I don't be. Dat's whuzzup. Nome sane?”
Black leaders and scholars—even the author Maya Angelou, who has won critical claim for books written primarily in black English—were outraged by the measure, though it was clear later that many detractors based their opinions on the inaccurate portrayals.
State legislators as far away as Pennsylvania moved swiftly to propose laws prohibiting the teaching of black English in schools.
The Oakland school board quickly revised its position, removing the suggestion that ebonics was “genetically based,” as well as the directive that students be taught in their “primary” language.
The squall eventually blew over, leaving officials to smooth racial tensions and find practical ways to address the students' academic needs. It took several years for administrators to weigh in officially with a substantive plan for tackling the language issue. “We're now at the point of building on some of those explicit strategies,” says Louis Bay Waters, Oakland's associate superintendent of accountability for teaching and learning. “It took a while because of the fallout from the ebonics controversy. We need to get some distance from that.”
That distance has allowed the district to get on with business, and to implement its language-proficiency program with little scrutiny from outsiders. But the sting of the ebonics debate has not completely subsided. The cartoon images and cutting monologues were seared into the collective consciousness of many Americans who still associate Oakland with the distorted ebonics persona.
Jean Quan, a school board member for 11 years, is still deflecting criticism. Quan says her opponent in her race for the Oakland City Council this year mentions the ebonics dispute in campaign literature attacking her record.
“People who weren't involved in the schools then or who are new to Oakland don't understand what our intentions were,” says Quan. “But how can you have an intelligent conversation about a complex issue in a campaign flier?
“This, for me, was abut making sure that every child in our district learns to speak standard English.”
For some of the district's harshest critics, the issue is complicated by racial politics.
John H. McWhorter, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, laments that resources are being wasted on what he sees as feel-good curricula. He still views the language focus as a smoke screen for other factors affecting the achievement of black children.
“There is virtually no such thing as these mythical black students who hear nothing but black English all of their lives. They hear white people speaking standard English on TV, and mainstream English is spoken by black people all around them,” says McWhorter, an African-American who has been denounced by many black educators and praised by some political conservatives for his views. “When they go to school, they don't need for someone to teach them the difference between ‘There isn't anybody there’ and ‘Ain't nobody there.’”
The Oakland resident says the more significant barriers to achievement are poverty, insufficient resources for education, and a stigma in the black community that associates academic success with “trying to be white.”
McWhorter and others also point out that dialects are common throughout the United States among a host of racial, ethnic, and regional groups. To suggest that teachers in Brooklyn, where many children speak in the thick New Yorkese that has also attracted its own share of teasing, need to address dialect differences in instruction would be absurd, McWhorter says.
While educators should show compassion toward children regardless of their backgrounds, McWhorter resents the implication that black children can be expected to thrive only in a culturally sensitive environment.
“The notion that if a teacher says,‘“Ain't” isn't proper English,’ with a certain disapproving look on her face, it will deter a student from scholarly endeavor is false,” he says.
The popularity of such views among noneducators worries advocates of Oakland-style programs. The potential threat of criticism could have future ramifications, such as those felt in Los Angeles. That district's program, which provides ongoing teacher-training sessions in 26 elementary schools, had won acclaim in the research community for its approach to instruction for children who use dialects. Amid the Oakland fallout, however, Los Angeles officials scrapped plans to expand the program to more elementary schools, as well as middle and high schools, according to Norma LeMoine, who directs the initiative.
LeMoine disputes McWhorter's view, based on personal experience. In middle school, she moved from a segregated black district in Texas, where most students spoke in dialect, to a more integrated community in California. After teachers humiliated her for her nonstandard speech, she says, she stopped participating in class.
LeMoine says she intends to ensure that black students in the 737,000-student district will have more positive experiences learning standard English.
Still, such programs face numerous obstacles. In Los Angeles, it is difficult to maintain consistency, even in those schools where training is ongoing, because teacher turnover is high.
Oakland officials, too, are noticing systemic problems in implementing the Academic English Development Program framework. Robinson, the instructional facilitator, says many teachers here are skeptical about whether black students' speech varies enough from the norm to warrant attention. Robinson recounted how one young African-American treacher dismissed the concept during a recent visit, saying her students were simply “lazy” speakers, something she was guilty of herself from time to time.
Indeed, the verbal tendencies of many teachers pose another impediment to the effectiveness of the Oakland program, experts say. A nuclear of teachers in Oakland, as in other districts, speak nonstandard English themselves at times.
“We have many teachers in the district who have their own language differences,” says program director Oládélé, pointing out that the issue involves not just black teachers, but also educators who have immigrated from Asian and Latin American countries.
Of the district's 2,900 teachers, approximately 30 percent are black, 50 percent are white, and Asian-Americans and Hispanics account for 10 percent each.
“We have teachers who speak the language of African-Americans,” Oládélé says. “They're deleting [word] endings. They have problems with verb-subject agreement.”
When children have a teacher who does not have “a consciousness about language,” she says, it makes learning standard English even harder.
Such issues are particularly sensitive, she says, when dealing with certified teachers—some veterans—who consider themselves professionals. Oládélé and other administrators are trying to head off such problems through discussions with local universities about teacher education. They are lobbying for greater attention to language issues in preservice programs.
Despite those problems, the district is gaining support for its efforts from teachers and parents. And preliminary data show that student achievement may be inching upward, a result Oládélé attributes to the language-development program.
At Fruitvale Elementary School, teachers and parents are also seeing results.
Asia Patterson, a regular volunteer at the 730-pupil school, has seen the improvement in his grandson, a 5th grader there, and in other students he tutors in a community-based afterschool program.
When his grandson, Reginald Branch Jr., moved to Oakland from Buffalo, N.Y., several years ago, he was having trouble cracking the code of standard English. That troubled Patterson, who recalls his own difficulties in school because of the dialect he spoke.
As a native of the Sea Islands of the coast of Georgia, Patterson spoke “gullah,” a dialect so different from standard English that he could not understand his teachers or classmates when he first entered school. When he was in 4th grade, he says, a teacher recognized the problem and adjusted her instruction accordingly.
As a result of Oakland's instructional approach, Patterson says, Reginald is a good student, and “he is a polished speaker.”
Reginald regularly speaks before the congregation at his church, and he performed with his classmates in the oratorical contest here, winning first place in the regional round of the competition. “The teachers, they talk about learning [standard] English a lot,” he says. “If you want to be respected and be heard, you have to talk correct English.”
At the recent rehearsal for the contest, named in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Reginald's class files on stage in black turtlenecks and neat slacks to perform “Faces,” an original script by their teacher, Thomas Hardy. After their initial attempt breaks down into a confusion of mumbled lines and missed cues, teachers and administrators remind the students to “speak up,” “speak clearly,” “remember why you're here.” After composing themselves and summoning up their best diction, they continue.
When you see them
Do you only see color and races?
Are you Aloof, distant and evasive
Do you approach with caution and keep
your spaces …
For if you do,
you must understand that all those
represent all of humanity
and all of God's graces
For you must respect
And accept all faces”
Later that day, the class's performance is more polished, impressing the contest judges enough to award first place in the group category for 5th graders.
Erick Matthews, the 1st grader, has learned his lesson, too. Recalling his teacher's instructions, he musters up enough of that engaging attitude to win over the judges and earn top marks for his age group.

Manzo, Kathleen Kennedy. "Language lessons." Education Week 21.31 (17 Apr. 2002): 30. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 29 Apr. 2009 .

Lesson Plan Links

Language Diversity Lesson Plans: Ebonics

Should ebonics be allowed in school?

By honoring our students' home languages, we invite them into the classroom community.

In 1996 the Oakland School decided to recognize Ebonics as a dialect of their students. As part of this recognition, teachers would be educated about the grammar of Ebonics, and how to incorporate Ebonics into the classroom.

The controversy surrounding this debate is much deeper rooted than it may seem. With language rests culture. To sever the language from the mouth is to sever the ties to homes and relatives, family gatherings, foods prepared and eaten, relationships to friends and neighhors. Cultural identity is utterly akin to linguistic identity.

Many people confuse Ebonics for slang. Ebonics is a framework of speaking that has grammatical rules, while slang refers to the vocabulary within a grammatical framework.

As educators, we have the power to determine whether students feel included or excluded in our schools. By bringing students' languages from their homes into the classroom, we validate their culture and their history as topics worthy of study. These days, most of our schools and school boards fashion mission statements about "embracing diversity." In school hallways, mullilingual banners welcome students and visitors in Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese. But in the classroom, the job of the teacher often appears to be to whitewash students of color or students who are linguistically diverse, especially when punctuation and grammar are double weighted on the state writing test. If we hope to create positive communities in which students from diverse backgrounds can thrive academically, we need to examine how our approach to students' linguistic diversity either includes or pushes out our most vulnerable learners.

I am not arguing that Ebonics should be explicitly taught in schools, but rather should be embraced as a dialect, and used as a jumping off point for helping students grow as writers and learn how to code switch between Ebonics and Standard English. It is important for students to embrace their own dialects.