Category Archives: Community and family involvement

A few (language and literacy) thoughts

 

  • I feel that my background in early childhood education holds me in good stead when it comes to the subtleties of first and second language acquisition. What comes naturally when we support children in their primary languages does not come as naturally when we are working with older learners. There are clear developmental differences but communication almost always is the goal. Instrumental motivation is commonly accompanied by integrative motivation(Baker, 2001, p.123). The useful purpose (instrumental) someone wants to learn a language for often relates to identifying with or joining another language group (integrative) and communicating with people from a distinct linguistic background. ‘Discourse analysis has shown that a second language learner and a native speaker work together to produce purposeful and efficient communication” (Baker, p.118).
  • This ties back to caregiver speech (or ‘motherese’). The caregiver and the infant do not speak the same language at first but they communicate in a mix of verbal and visual cues. They negotiate meaningful input and language development comes about as a ‘process of implicit rule formation, rather than explicit habit formation’ (Baker, p. 119). I remember when I was working in a preschool setting and first heard “I runned to the shop” (or equivalent). I don’t remember if I responded at the time, but if I did I doubt I would have said, “no it’s ran, you ran to the shop” (instinct would hopefully have had me say the second part without the initial negative correction). I now know more about language development and I know that the child was making a hypothesis that actually shows positive cognitive development. What is key is that the child is telling a story and if we interrupt that story to explicitly correct, the train of thought is lost, and the child may shut down.

 

  • A number of years ago I took part in a collaborative study to see whether we should make a foreign language part of the regular day, at the private school I worked at in Brooklyn. I was already the before and after school French and Spanish teacher, and my passion for languages would have swerved me slightly in the pro camp. After a period of months, of meetings, and readings, we decided that there was already a lot on in the day, including specialist science and music, and decided not to bring a foreign language into the regular school day. There was no clear evidence to show that the children at this privileged school would be better prepared to formally tackle a foreign language in fifth or sixth, if they had taken the language a couple of times a week from kindergarten on. The only ‘real’ benefit seemed to be in terms of accent. I found this process to be of great interest as the articles we read challenged the concept that young children pick up languages so easily and it’s harder the older you get. It is of course much more complex than that. While there are many factors in play, Hakuta (in Baker, p.98) states that the evidence for critical period is scanty and that there are no qualitative differences between child and adult learners.
  •  Something I hadn’t explicitly thought about before is the use of English for science and math (Baker, p.210, point 3). I have always believed that math should be in the home language as the skills are transferable (Baker, p.210, point 4). SFUSD has a math curriculum in Spanish but when I was supervising two student teachers both in second grades, one class used the Spanish language version and the other class used the English version. I had never questioned the use of English for science as I felt it was a given as all schools I’ve visited have had science in English, but now I do. This ties straight into a presentation I saw at CIES 2017 regarding the limits of using Western theorists in the African context, especially when there are African theorists to use, such as Nyerere. Birgit Brock-Utne discussed the use of English as people move through academia, including in Norwegian universities. She recalled a discussion she had with a man in Tanzania who moved into English from Kiswahili when a particular topic came up. She asked him whether the language existed in Kiswahili to talk about that topic, and he said it didn’t. Brock-Utne then said to us that language only grows by using it. A couple of hours later, in a different context, a man from Namibia said he was back in his village, he works in the US, and went to speak to the children at the local school. He works in multimedia and information technology and he found the words for that don’t exist in his mother tongue. We have critical mass with Spanish but even so it is hard enough to get a wide range of quality resources in language arts and social studies.
  • On the way to the airport the other day I spoke to a taxi driver from Tajikistan. I don’t think I’ve met anyone from there before and I didn’t know they speak Farsi, as well as Russian (looking it up now I see that Tajik is a version of Farsi). He has two young children and so I asked the driver what language they speak at home, as I often do. They speak Farsi. The phrase that crossed my mind was that “unless you speak fluent English it’s better to speak your home tongue”. This was quickly replaced by the fact that it’s important for children to learn the language of their heart, and that even if the parents do speak fluent English they should still speak the language of their heart at home. It goes beyond being able to speak to the elders; it goes straight to core preservation value. Children quickly learn what language has power, prestige and preference (Baker, p.92), but they also learn the language of the heart and family. Early on children have the ability to use the appropriate language within appropriate contexts (Baker, p.91). The role children play as language brokers has many positive outcomes (Baker, p. 105). Language brokering can often be a lifeline, but there are certain ethical dilemmas when it comes to interpreting sensitive information, such as medical or educational information. Ideally, trained community interpreters can fill the role but in their absence children may need to step in.
  • Language brokering in less sensitive areas, such as when shopping, or banking, highlight student skills in areas a classroom teacher might not be aware of (Jiménez & Orellana, 2006). The suggestion of using journals to access this information is a strong pedagogical tool that opens a window, not only into occasions of language brokering but also emotions surrounding these. Harnessing these skills for academic growth taps into funds of knowledge the student may not know they possess. It may also strengthen positive ideologies surrounding home languages, if these languages are not high status. Children learn early on (Baker, p.106) one language never fully parallels another. Language brokering is not so much about interpreting word for word, but it is also about finding equivalencies. These equivalencies might not always exist, the words comadre or compañera for example come to mind, but the importance is finding the spirit in the sentiment.

 

References:

 Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed). Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Jiménez, R., & Orellana, M. (2006). Flipping the Educational Script: Teachers as Learners. California English.

 

 

Raciolinguistics and Early Childhood Education

 

Research into early childhood education teaching and practice benefits from a critical look at component parts. Language and literacy are key elements of any ECE classroom and many ECE scholars actively engage in critical literacy explorations. The new field of raciolinguistics asks and answers critical questions about the relationships and the intersections between language, race and power. Applying raciolinguistics to the early childhood setting is sure to raise lively debates and discussions. Intersectionality (in the case of raciolinguistics this would be-but not limited to-the intersections of race and language) and anti-essentialism are one of the key tenets of critical race theory (Ladson-Billings, 2013). Critical race theory can also be a contentious issue in the early childhood classroom, but if an analysis of CRT doesn’t belong there, there where does it belong?

Intersectionality has proven to be a productive concept that has been deployed in a wide range of disciplines such as history and literature (Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013). Cho et al. affirm that its insistence on examining the dynamics of difference and sameness has played a major role in facilitating discussion and analysis of gender, race and other axes of power. Raciolinguistics is a new field of research ‘dedicated to bringing to bear the diverse methods of linguistic analysis to ask and answer critical questions about the relations between language, race and power across diverse ethnoracial contexts and societies’ (Alim, Rickford, & Ball, 2016). It foregrounds the intersections of race and language. The relationship between language, race and culture has long been a topic of interest in different fields, but, as Alim points out, the reluctance to take issues of race seriously among mainstream linguistics and anthropology has been and is troubling.

I begin this paper with a discussion on intersectionality and critical race theory. I then move to discuss raciolinguistics and how it is connected to intersectionality, and how both fields inform the other. Along with this discussion I bring in research and practice in early childhood education and I comment on the need for greater scholarship in the field of early childhood education from a raciolinguistic perspective.

Intersectionality

The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a distinguished law professor, in the late 1980s as a heuristic to focus attention on the ‘vexed dynamics of differences and the solidarities of sameness in the context of antidiscrimination and social movement politics’ (Cho et al., 2013). Crenshaw and fellow critical race theorist Angela Harris developed the notion of intersectionality to explain how anti-discrimination law fails women of color (Delgado & Stefancic, 2013). Gloria Ladson-Billings (2013) attached anti-essentialism to the concept of intersectionality and states that critical race theory scholarship decries essentialism, or the idea that people in a single group act and think the same. She comments that we see things as binaries such as black and white, east and west, rich or poor, right or left, but that when we move into the complexities of real life we recognize we each represent multiple identities.

Critical race theory provides a historical context to systemic oppression and highlights the enduring nature of race and racism in our society. It began in the field of critical legal studies. Derrick Bell, who first coined the term, examined the enduring role of race in the supposedly objective field of law. CRT was then brought into another supposedly objective field: education.

Critical race theory in education offers concrete tools for framing pedagogies of race, such as counter storytelling and testimonio (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). This centralizes the experiences and narratives of people of color, thus legitimizing them as evidence to challenge and reframe dominant narratives about race, culture, language and citizenship.

Intersectionality was a lived reality before it became a term (Crenshaw, 2015). In the first part of the 1800s, Maria Stewart, a black female intellectual, stated that race, class and gender oppression were the fundamental causes of Black women’s poverty (Hill Collins, 2000). Hill Collins refers to group dynamics, the importance of the collective, of group identity and solidarity. Intersectionality by its very nature assumes belonging to identity-based groups. It isn’t simply a matter of where or how you ‘belong’ to these particular groups, but it is a matter of how belonging to these groups restricts movement (literal and figurative) and impedes reaching your full potential. It presents a frame through which to analyze layers of oppression, and challenge the hegemonic system: to challenge what is viewed as objectively ‘normal’.

The African American Policy Forum, co-founded by Crenshaw, highlights the importance of intersectionality as a tool (of analysis and resistance) rather than as academic tactic or fashion (Gillborn, 2015). Mc Call (2005) identified three modes of theorizing the complexity of intersectionality: anticategorical complexity, intracategorical complexity, and intercategorical complexity. An anticategorical approach is post-structuralist, and calls social life too complex to make fixed categories anything but simplifying social fictions. That is to say, race and other identity markers are merely social constructs, negating the central tenet of critical race theory that race is enduring. The intracategorical approach acknowledges intersectionality but does not go far enough in analysing why such disparities exist between groups of people. It offers a more layered approach where categories are almost piled up one on top of the other. The final approach is the one McCall uses to describe her own research methodology. Intercategorical complexity requires ‘that scholars provisionally adopt existing analytical categories to document relationships of inequality among social groups and changing configurations of inequality along multiple and conflicting dimensions’ (p. 1773). In other words, the how and the why particular groups of people suffer oppression is foregrounded, and the dynamic nature of intersectionality is affirmed. We must build on the work that came before and continue to interrogate systems of oppression, and how we can resist and transform lived reality. This approach is a call to action, a central tenet of critical race theory.

Raciolinguistics

When it comes to broad scholarship on race and ethnicity, language is often overlooked as one of the most important cultural means that we have for distinguishing ourselves from others (Alim, 2016).

Raciolinguistics is a term that explicitly ties race to language: ‘racing language and languaging race’ (Alim, 2016). Rosa (2016) comments that public display of linguistic difference is alternately celebrated or stigmatized depending on the speaker’s social position. “Language use and race come to be constructed and interpreted in relation to one another” (p. 67). Even when superior language skills are acquired, people are still seen (heard) through a racialized lens that views them as inferior (Flores & Rosa, 2015). A clear example of this was shared on social media recently when a Latina scholar was questioned on her use of the word ‘hence’; her professor assumed she had plagiarized (Martínez, 2016). Children are racialized through language almost from the moment they begin to talk. Language, power and race affect their movements and self-identity in a myriad of ways. We have a responsibility to analyze practice and theory related to early childhood using intersectionality and raciolinguistics in order to best help our children grow up healthy in body and soul.

Intersectionality and critical race theory scholars most often take adults and youth as the starting point of their work. Growing numbers of early childhood practitioners and researchers are using frames such as CRT and intersectionality in their work with young children (Vasquez, 2014)(Souto-Manning, 2013)(Kuby, 2013). It is no accident that the same teacher scholars use critical literacy as a frame through which to hone their work. Language and literacy practices are central to most school settings, and we need to be able to identify what teaching practices help or hinder our students, from as early an age as we can. We need to be aware of how language and race intersect in powerful and potentially destructive ways. The language a child brings to school is inherently tied to family and home, and as teachers we must respect and revere this knowledge, or risk irrevocably breaking their spirit.

CRT in education promotes the use of counter storytelling and testimonio (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002) to center voices often unheard and to challenge hegemonic practice. In the early childhood classroom children are filled with ontological questions, their own version of counternarratives and testimonio. They busily make hypotheses about who they are, how they are, why they are etc. These explorations manifest in literacy events such as drawing, writing, reading, painting, telling a story, sharing ideas aloud, collaborating in the block area as they build a city, and the list goes on. Children learn first through the body, and then in some form of what we recognize as words. Very young children are able to respond to verbal commands before they can say them aloud. They process the information and act on it physically, without saying a word in response. A conceptual understanding of the world precedes speech, writing and reading.

Cruz (2001) writes from a distinct perspective, but her words regarding an epistemology of the brown body are valid in an analysis of early childhood education and children of color. “Situating knowledge in the brown body begins the validation of the narratives of survival, transformation, and emancipation of our respective communities, reclaiming histories and identities. And in these ways, we embody our theory”(p. 668). Those of us working in early childhood, and in elementary education, must acknowledge the work that has come before, within families, within communities and within the child themself. We must recognize that knowledge is not only passed down through books and words, but it is also transmitted through bodies, communal relations, and other forms of non-verbal communication.

The moment children enter formal schooling, the pressure is on for them to read and write, and often before they reach first grade. Any knowledge gained through the body and through non-verbal communication is thrown to the side, as are literacy and language skills the children have acquired in their early years. This pressure does not produce diamonds, it produces ulcers and skin rashes. This practice is developmentally inappropriate for all children, but children of color suffer worse.

Raciolinguistic ideologies[1] (Flores & Rosa, 2015) position non-native (and non-standard) speakers of English as deficit thinkers even if they possess superior English language skills. Flores and Rosa assert that it is not a question of lack of proficiency in standard English that holds language-minoritized users back; rather racial positioning is at fault. An example given to illustrate this point is a teacher who hears her young African American students making ‘errors’ in standard English when they say ‘he was/she was’, as the teacher was confusing this usage with the Ebonics’ usage ‘they was’. Power differentials that are already vast when adults teach young children become even greater when the child’s language is not respected and revered.

Intersectionality is inextricably linked to an analysis of power and it helps ‘reveal how power works in diffuse and differentiated ways through the creation and deployment of overlapping identity categories’ (Cho et al., 2013). In reference to U.S. Latinas/os, Rosa (2016) writes that stigmatization occurs through the policing of their English-language use. “Signs of accents and Spanish-language use are regarded as reflections of abject foreignness, regardless of the long history of Spanish-language use across the Americas” (p. 67). Language use is intimately connected to national origin and is often a surrogate for anti-immigrant sentiment, even from people who would otherwise see themselves as liberal. Too many teachers attest to discomfort in the classroom if students are speaking a language they personally don’t understand. We need to question the primacy of English itself, as it is understood in the academic arena. This is a fertile area for future study.

Intersectionality has a core activist component, in that an intersectional approach aims to generate coalitions between different groups with the aim of resisting and changing the status quo (Gillborn, 2015). Intersectionality can be used to identify areas of struggle and to analyze where oppression is coming from, and how it manifests. The burgeoning field of raciolinguistics is also a call to action as affiliated writers and readers take their cue from real world practice and use this as a base from which to theorize. Both intersectionality and raciolinguistics pull from inherently dynamic systems that constantly shift. For this reason it is particularly exciting to see where research and practice will take us. The field of early childhood education is also highly mutable and open to innovative analyses. In the ECE setting CRT activism falls more on the shoulder of teachers and educators than the children themselves, however a challenge to the status quo may come from the work the children do. We must all be ready to take this call to action on.

References:

Alim, H. S., Rickford, J. R., & Ball, A. F. (Eds.). (2016). Raciolinguistics: how language shapes our ideas about race. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. W., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(4), 785–810.

Crenshaw, K. (2015, September 24). Why intersectionality can’t wait. Washington Post. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/?utm_term=.bc30e02123b4

Cruz, C. (2001). Toward an epistemology of a brown body. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(5), 657–669. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518390110059874

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2013). Discerning Critical Moments. In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2).

Gillborn, D. (2015). Intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, and the Primacy of Racism: Race, Class, Gender, and Disability in Education. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(3), 277–287. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800414557827

Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/id/10054558

Kuby, C. R. (2013). Critical literacy in the early childhood classroom: unpacking histories, unlearning privilege. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2013). Ch. 3 “Critical Race Theory-What It Is Not!” In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

Martínez, T. (2016, October 27). Academia, Love Me Back [WordPress].

McCall, L. (2005). The Complexity of Intersectionality. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30(3), 1771–1800.

Rosa, J. (2016). From Mock Spanish to Inverted Spanglish. In H. S. Alim, J. R. Rickford, & A. F. Ball (Eds.), Raciolinguistics. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical Race Methodology: Counter-Storytelling as an Analytical Framework for Education Research. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1), 23–44.

Souto-Manning, M. (2013). Multicultural teaching in the early childhood classroom: approaches, strategies, and tools, preschool-2nd grade. New York: Teachers College Press.

Vasquez, V. M. (2014). Negotiating critical literacies with young children: 10th anniversary edition (Second edition). New York: Routledge.

[1] The term “raciolinguistic ideologies” was first used, to the best of our knowledge, by Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa (Alim, 2016).

 

Everyone listens to everyone: my visit to Still Waters in a Storm

This time last week I visited Still Waters in a Storm, a community writing center in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I first heard about Still Waters a few years ago when comments regarding the center came across my Facebook feed. I hadn’t visited the center at that time but it was a strong influence on my decision to open a writing center here in San Francisco. I still haven’t opened a center and I’m still listening to know how to best go about it in order to best serve the community, but it will happen.

Last week was my first visit to Still Waters in a Storm and I hope it won’t be my last. It was everything I hoped it would be, and more. The motto of Still Waters is “everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen Haff, the director, set up the program nine years ago. He has a background in theater and was a high school English teacher for close on a decade. The center is everything schooling and education needs to be to truly speak to the hearts and minds of the community it serves.

The Saturday sessions run from 12-5pm and follow a similar structure each week. The children arrive and have time to play and eat lunch before sitting down to start work.

At around 1pm, an invited guest reads an excerpt of their writing and takes questions and comments. The invited guest last week was Emma Brockes, a journalist with The Guardian newspaper and the author of two books, one of which she read from last week. The book she read from is a memoir of a journey to South Africa she took after her mum’s death. Emma wanted to find out what led her mum to leave South Africa to go to England, never to go back to the country of her birth. The excerpt Emma read told the story of a road trip she went on in South Africa when her best friend arrived from England for a few weeks.

The center operates on a drop-in basis and the number of children present may vary from ten to forty. Last week there were about twenty kids there. They varied in age from six to sixteen. Emma’s memoir was not written for children, and from what I could gather, most of the invited guests write for adults. The excerpt Emma read appeared to be accessible to all the people there. It is a highly engaging text with strong visual imagery. The reading was paused on a few occasions to clarify vocabulary or expressions that might be unclear.

After the reading, and after questions and comments, the children generated a topic list inspired by what they heard. Some examples that came up last week were misunderstanding, family, animals, racism, helping someone, guns, loneliness and a few more. Nothing was off the table and anything that was raised could tie in to the reading in one way or another. From there the children spent around fifteen minutes writing. They are welcome to write in any genre or format they preferred, including writing a list, writing a letter, whatever makes sense to them. The younger children worked with volunteers who put the child’s words to paper. Once time was up, it fell to the children, and some of the adults, to share their writing with the larger group. Volunteers read for the younger children while the child stood next to them.

“Everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen said that part of the inspiration for the center is for people to participate in a neighborhood ritual. The group sharing time is based on meetings such as Quaker meetings, when people speak as they are moved to do so. There is no talking over one another; there is respectful silence and active listening as the writers share their work. People are reminded to peacefully control their own bodies. Stephen commented that it is rare in today’s society to have to just listen. Thinking back on last week, my heart skips a beat when I recall the work the children shared and the how powerful it was to be part of that community.

 

I came away from my visit with renewed vision and purpose regarding La Pluma Poderosa. I am building ties with the Latina community in San Francisco through my work with Mujeres Unidas y Activas and I am also connecting with people at local schools through USF preservice teacher supervision. Still Waters in a Storm is housed in a dedicated ground floor space in an area with some foot traffic. Stephen taught at Bushwick High School so before opening the center he already had ties to the neighborhood. He has built up participation through word of mouth and from people walking by. It is completely free and all materials, as well as food, is provided.

Stephen has a respectful and good-humored relationship with the children. They are all of Mexican and Ecuadorian descent, reflecting the community in this part of Brooklyn. The writing is all done in English and all the children are capable of telling a story in English, even if Spanish is their maternal tongue. Stephen communicates with parents and community members in Spanish when the need arises.

Inviting guests such as Emma Brockes to share their writing with the children felt to me like a mark of respect. Respect is given when it is assumed that children can relate to a detailed text and can use that text to inspire their own writing. Stephen reminded the children that they had been working on using similes in their writing, in the weekday afterschool sessions. He encouraged the children to use at least one simile in their work. A simple thing, such as reminding the children they can write a list if they like, gives all children the tools to participate and to share in the writing and sharing process.

The multi-age format of the center clearly bears fruit when you hear the detailed stories the younger children tell. They appear to be picking up on the skilled work of the older children and their work is also testament to their listening skills. Stephen doesn’t accept money from financial sources that would demand accountability measures and other forms of standardization. He wants the center to be free from the toxic trappings of school that transform children into data points. A child is not a number on a graph, and measurement does not equal growth. Spaces such as Still Waters in a Storm provide the community with a powerful example of the learning we do together, and what our children are truly capable of.

My goals for La Pluma Poderosa are still the same: a drop-in, multilingual writing center for children 6-18. I knew that there would be a need for more structured sessions, and in fact, I can maybe start with more structured sessions in a temporary space. I am grateful to Stephen and everyone else at Still Waters in a Storm for renewing my faith in the power of holistic and compelling educational experiences for young writers. Right now I need to listen and to reflect on what the next steps for La PP will be. I carry with me the joy and heartfelt emotion of listening to the young writers in Bushwick, an experience that won’t easily leave my side.

To learn more about Still Waters in a Storm and to support their efforts please go to http://www.stillwatersinastorm.org

 

Host a Black Family Breakfast in San Francisco from SFPSMom

We need to do all we can to include families and community in our schools, and that starts with asking families and the community what *they*need, not what is expedient for school personnel. I love this idea and I hope it will spread to other schools.

http://sfpsmom.com/host-black-family-breakfast-school/