Monday, May 2, 2016

Other People's Children: Language? Literacy? Questions.

Momma Duch with a couple generations of ducklings in Florida

I have been avoiding this space.

Sometimes life gets foolish.

Yes, I know I'm supposed to be writing a blog on a regular basis, but I have been avoiding this space because I didn't think I had anything to say. My plan this morning was to just write a 'sorry about my absence' piece.  I also had a slate of excuses to explain why I haven't been blogging.

For example:

I've had working Thursdays for the last few weeks, and since that's the day I normally blog, if I'm working out of the house, I never seem to get around to blogging.

My daughter, my sweet little girl went to prom a couple of weeks ago. Yikes.

Sixteen caught me by surprise

I've been avoiding working on my nonfiction piece while I try to finish a completed draft of this really fun novel I'm working on, all the while doing research, getting ready for both of my children to finish for the year and come home for the summer. I've been preparing for travel, workshops, conferences, festivals, and all of that stuff that pays the bills but keeps me hopping. That's why I haven't been writing.

However, when I finally stopped avoiding this space and I sat down to write about how I don't have time to write, I discovered I actually did have something I wanted to say.

Thus, rendering all of my useless excuses foolish and irrelevant.

I'm in Florida for ten days. I performed at the 29th annual conference for children's literature which was themed: Beginning With Books: 'Back to Basics', and the 14th annual Ashley Bryan Art Series where I was featured with some amazing artists and authors. It was neat. I had a wonderful time.

I listened to a fascinating presentation by Charles R. Smith Jr. Who is an incredibly accomplished author, photographer and poet.

My People by Langston Hughes, photos by Charles R. Smith Jr.

Brick By Brick a story about building the White House in D.C.

I met a graphic novelist named Chris Schweizer who made me look at comics in a completely different way!

Chris Schweizer

One of Chris's graphic novels

I was there to tell stories, and to give my take on language, literacy, and storytelling...what else? I'd prepared my speech, got my talking points together, but when I stood up to speak something odd happened.

 I noticed how the words came out differently, and the points I was making were slightly altered. I cannot doubt that it was because of this amazing book I've been absorbing.

This book is about how Standard English, which is taught in American schools, is a different dialect of English that lots of children do not speak. Instead of educating kids with different dialects, the efforts educators make to teach Standard English actually make it hard for students who do not already speak Standard English to learn ANYTHING. You get me? School becomes a battlefield for learning ANYTHING.

 "How is that possible?" you might ask.

 'Other People's Children' by Lisa Delpit.

I started reading this book after having lunch with a friend of mine who is getting a PhD in classroom systems. I shared with him about my writing a book about language, literacy and storytelling, and he recommended this to me.

I've been reading it a quarter section at a time, and every time I get through four or five pages I put the book down, sit back and wait for my poor, blown mind to reassemble so I can make sense of what I've just read.

This book made me think about lots of things. It has made me make decisions that I wouldn't have made three weeks ago.

Let me give you one example of what is between the pages. There is a short narrative about a college professor who observed a second grade teacher working with a little boy who pronounces words in his dialect instead of
Standard English. The teacher kept interrupting the student to correct the mispronounced words as opposed to allowing the student to work on reading the text. It got to a point where the the kid didn't want to read, withdrew, and started making mistakes on words he did know. The teacher became more impatient as the child had more and more trouble with the text. At no point did the kid get all the way through the work. This kid would be considered a slow reader.

The professor noted all of this. He created a form of English he called Atlantian English, and introduced it to his linguistic grad students. He put together a paragraph, and had his students attempt to read it out loud. He used the same techniques to get them to pronounce the words properly that the second grade teacher was using on an eight year old, and to his surprise, he got the same results. At least one of the grad students broke out in tears, most of them got so frustrated they fidgeted, refused to read, or read so quietly you could barely hear them. They began to second guess even the words they knew. It was a disaster. None of the grad students in linguistics successfully completed the reading, and none of them knew what they'd read. So? Does this mean that they were slow readers?

Now imagine you are eight years old and that is your experience every time you pick up a book and try to read with your teacher. Tell me, what are the odds you will become a proficient reader? What are the odds that you will learn to love books or literature? What are the odds that you will come to 'hate' reading?


That half of a page sent me into deep thought for several days as I tried to come to grips with what this says about the forever educational gap between white children, rural children, poor children, and children of color, and what factors might be contributing to it. It made me wish every single person who went into education was forced to read this book.

Then, there was the situation that happened this morning. I was up on stage doing my thing.

Sitting in front were two little girls in the third grade. A white girl and black girl side by side and it was clear they were friends. Throughout the stories they couldn't stop poking and playing. I spoke to them the first time. The second time I was a little harsher, and the third time I announced that if they couldn't get it together, or I had to speak to them again, I was going to move them away from each other.

A well meaning teacher marched over to the girls, said something to the two of them and chose to move the black girl. Normally I would just shake my head at the injustice of choosing one girl to punish while leaving the other, but not today. Today I intervened.

"No." I said. "They're fine. They are going to work it out. Don't move either one." The teachers looked worried. I just smiled. "You guys are going to work it out, right?" I asked. They nodded. I insisted that the black girl go and sit back down. The two of them were very good throughout the rest of the show.

As the show ended, I noticed briefly that the white girl was now playing with the kid on the other side of her, and the black girl was sitting quietly.

I called them both up to the stage after the stories. I thanked them for working it out, and I shook their hands. Both girls were very proud that they'd managed to correct their own behavior. I went back to the teacher who'd attempted to move the black girl and I said, "It didn't seem fair to me for you to move one of them since they were both equally at fault." She shrugged and smiled, and the whole thing was forgotten.

Not by me. I thought about all of the studies I've read about how black children are more likely to be disciplined for the same behavior exhibited by their white peers. I thought about children of color, and how coming out of a community that uses a different form of English creates an uphill climb that is often made worse because of the way we teach reading in our schools. I thought about how much fun we have when we share stories.

Most days I only think I know what I'm talking about.

I've been thinking about these things a great deal over the last few weeks. Sadly, I have no answers. We'll see how I feel when I finally manage to get through this book.

Happy Learning -


  1. So much food for thought! Thank you for sharing! Great outlinks, too. I look forward to reading your book.

  2. It is amazing how a book can open our eyes to a new way of seeing things. It would be nice if there was an easy answer, huh?! In the meantime, it seems an extremely worthwhile thing for you to share what you are learning, what you are witnessing, and how you are changing with the rest of us. Raising awareness has to be the first step. Thanks for writing, thanks for telling, thanks for being you!

  3. Thank you for your insight and thank you for sharing. I hope your book will not only share more light on this much avoided subject, but that it will also offer some concrete ways to change so that education will truly benefit all children. Good luck!!!