Embracing Ebonics and Teaching Standard English

An interview with Oakland teacher Carrie Secret

Carrie Secret

This article is adapted from an interview with Carrie Secret, a fifth-grade teacher at Prescott Elementary School in the Oakland Unified School District. Prescott had been the only school in the system where a majority of teachers voluntarily agreed to adopt the Standard English Proficiency program, a statewide initiative which acknowledges the systematic, rule-governed nature of “Black English” while helping children to learn Standard English. Secret was interviewed by Barbara Miner, managing editor of Rethinking Schools.

Q: How long have you been a teacher and how long have you been at Prescott Elementary School?

After I left Omaha in February 1966, I was hired in Oakland and assigned to Prescott. Everybody said, “Oh you poor thing, you’re assigned to Prescott!” But I’ve been there 31 years because I refused to be transferred. There had been times when excellent teachers left Prescott, but they were never replaced with the same caliber of teacher.

I’ve never desired to do anything but teach. I have never desired to leave the classroom for any other position. Teaching is my passion. I’ve taught every grade in elementary school except kindergarten. I now teach fifth grade with a group of children I’ve had since they were in first grade. I have 31 children in my class. One is Lakota Sioux, two are Cambodian, two are Mexican and 26 are African American.

Q: Prescott is one of the Oakland schools that uses the Standard English Proficiency Program (SEP). Can you explain the concepts underlying SEP?

The issue gets clouded because the SEP Programs vary throughout the state. The most powerful difference is that we in the Oakland SEP, under the inspirational directorship of Nabeehah Shakir, dared to honor and respect Ebonics as the home language that stands on its own rather than as a dialectical form of English. We see and understand that our language patterns and structure come from a family of languages totally unrelated to the Germanic roots of English. In some programs, grammar and drill are strong parts. I think our using second-language learning strategies has more impact on the students. The view is, “We are teaching you a second language, not fixing the home language you bring to school.”

There are three cornerstones to our SEP program: culture, language, and literacy. Our program is not just a language program that stresses how well you acquire and speak English. We emphasize the learning of reading by incorporating a strong literacy component. Another crucial issue is that we push students to learn the content language of each area of curriculum. The Oakland SEP Program is not just a grammar and drill program but a program that emphasizes language and content and encompasses all areas of curriculum.

Children are not empowered simply because they know subject-verb agreement. That is not powerful for children if they don’t have content in which to use the language. Yes, we want the children to speak English and have positive feelings about themselves, but that comes about only when the children know content. It doesn’t matter how well you speak if you are not able to participate in and use the language of the content areas during discussion times.

The other issue is culture. If you don’t respect the children’s culture, you negate their very essence. We in the SEP program draw our cultural components from the work of the Center For Applied Cultural Studies and Educational Achievement (CACSEA) at San Francisco State University. CACSEA is under the directorship of Dr. Wade Nobles, a scholar in African and African-American culture and history, and provides professional development programs for teachers of African-American students. CACSEA’s program manager and trainer, Augusta Mann, presents staff development sessions for SEP that focus on the culture of African-American people and uses the culture to enhance reading achievement. The program highlights nine cultural aspects that permeate African-American life: spirituality, resilience, emotional vitality, musicality and rhythm, humanism, communalism, orality and verbal expressiveness, personal style and uniqueness, and realness. These concepts are then presented in conjunction with instructional strategies that have proven to be effective for African-American students.

Q: Are there particular times during the school day when a student is required to speak Standard English?

In fifth grade, I encourage the students to practice English most of the instructional time. I say “encourage” because “required” is a word that sends a message that if you don’t use English then you are operating below standard. Let’s say that in fifth grade, students are requested and encouraged to speak in English almost all the time.

There’s a misconception of the program, created by the media blitz of misinformation. Our mission was and continues to be: embrace and respect Ebonics, the home language of many of our students, and use strategies that will move them to a competency level in English. We never had, nor do we now have, any intention of teaching the home language to students. They come to us speaking the language.

We read literature that has Ebonics language patterns in it. For example, last year in fifth grade we read Joyce Hansen’s “Yellow Bird and Me,” and in fourth grade we read her book “The Gift Giver.” The language was Ebonic in structure. The language was the bonding agent for students. The book just felt good to them.

When writing, the students are aware that finished pieces are written in English. The use of Ebonic structures appears in many of their first drafts. When this happens I simply say, “You used Ebonics here. I need you to translate this thought into English.” This kind of statement does not negate the child’s thought or language.

Before I met Professor Ernie Smith (see the article “What is Black English? What is Ebonics?” by Prof. Smith on page 14 of this issue of Rethinking Schools), my approach was different. I used the “fix-something-that-was-wrong” approach. I was always calling for the children to say something correct or to fix something to make it right. I now approach the same task from a different perspective that has a more positive affect on my children.

Some days I simply announce: “While you are working I will be listening to how well you use English. In your groups you must call for translation if a member of your group uses an Ebonic structure.” Some days I say, “Girls, you are at Spelman and boys, you are attending Morehouse College (historically Black colleges). Today you use the language the professors use and expect you to use in your classes, and that language is English.”

I once had some visitors come to my class and they said, “We don’t hear Ebonics here.” But that is because I had explained to my children that company was coming, and when company comes, we practice speaking English. Company is the best time to practice because most of our visitors are from a cultural language context different from ours.

Q: Do you ever allow students to use Ebonics in the classroom?

The word that bothers me is “allow.” Students talk. They bring their home language to school. That is their right. If you are concerned about children using Ebonics in the classroom, you will spend the whole day saying, “Translate, translate, translate.” So you have to pick times when you are particularly attuned to and calling for English translation.

When the children are working in groups together, say three or four of them, I try to keep them in an English-speaking mode but I don’t prevent them from using Ebonics. I want to give them time enough to talk through their project in their comfortable language. It’s like a rewrite to me. But at some point, they have to present their project to me and these are required to be presented in their best English.

Professor Ernie Smith said something that put things in perspective for me, especially when it comes to how children pronounce words. And that advice is: You do not teach speech at reading time. When children are reading to me, I want to know that they are comprehending what they are reading. So I don’t stop them if they don’t pronounce words according to the English pronunciation.

But I will listen to the pronunciation and make mental notes. For example, I might note that Girl X and Boy Y are dropping the final “t”s off their words — for example saying “lef” for “left” or “bes” for “best.” I then note to myself that I will need to work on that Ebonics feature with the class.

That’s another thing. I always do whole group. I don’t like programs that single out kids or pull out children. That includes both gifted and talented programs and deficit-model programs.

Carrie Secret at work with her students.

Q: How do you teach children to understand that they may be dropping consonants when they speak?

I’m lucky in that I have been with these children five years and at a very early age I engaged them in listening to language for the purpose of hearing and understanding the difference between Ebonics and English. However, by the middle of second grade, they were all readers. So at that point it was easy to go to the overhead and show them exactly what they said and then call for the English translation of what they said.

Hearing the language is a crucial step. Children who speak Ebonics do not hear themselves dropping off the “t” for instance. You have to teach them to hear that. So we do a lot of over-enunciation when they are small. I also do a lot of dictation where I will dictate a sentence and have the children write what I said, by sound only. I also try to always point out what is Ebonics speech and what is English. Children must first hear and develop an ear for both languages in order to effectively distinguish between the two.

Q: Do you have any tips for teaching reading to Ebonics speakers?

One of my best approaches with young readers is that I read to them a lot. When they were in the early grades, I read when they come in at 8:30, I read after the first recess, I read after lunch, and I read after the second recess. In first grade, I actually read through the reader that they are going to be using. So by the time I give them their readers, in about mid-October, they are not afraid of the book. They know that words are only something that someone else has said and written down.

We also do a lot of home reading in our school: this is part of a school-wide program called the “Just Read” program. Every day, the children take home a book and someone is expected to read to them.

I still read to my children in fifth grade. And they are always reading, whether a book, or for a report, or researching information. I also continue to stress reading for pleasure. Basically, I give the children a lot of language and oral listening — and it’s attentive listening and inclusive listening where they have to respond back to me so that I know they are listening.

I am strong on phonics, but I embrace, enjoy, and like whole language. But I am also just as strong on phonics. In first grade, I start dictation right away, giving them phonetically pure words to spell back to me or write back to me. And our kindergarten teachers have done a good job preparing the students for us and have explained certain phonics principles, like short vowels and long vowels. They also give the children certain sight words that we want the children to recognize and certain sight words that we want the children to read.

In the early grades, I do a lot of word flash card drills, phrase drills, sentence drills, which may be from the stories I am reading to them. We also have another drill called “read the word, write the word.” We sit in a circle and read from a state-developed word list that was developed for each grade. We take a column a day and we read them and write them, and that becomes a standard homework assignment.

I also want the children to move into critical thinking and content. I am one who believes that everything can be taught at one time. So, for example, we have a phonics book that has a lot of pictures for identification and sounds. After the children have completed the page, they have to go back and group at least four pictures together and tell why they grouped them together. Or they might group four pictures that belong together and one that doesn’t and explain why. I might also make a connection between the lesson and the children’s lives. I will say, “How would you connect the picture to your life, and why?”

Q: How do you use Black literature to help children learn Standard English?

A lot of people emphasize using Black literature and then translating it. I no longer use this strategy because we were always translating Ebonics to English, but rarely, if ever, English to Ebonics. That tended to negate in my mind the equality of the two languages.

I use the literature because of its cultural essence, its beauty. I want the children to be proud that Toni Morrison and Alice Walker are great writers and that Maya Angelou spoke at the President’s inauguration. I am not about to take a beautiful piece of Ebonics literature and then translate it into English. You cannot enjoy Langston Hughes if you are worried about translating him. The beauty of our language gets lost in the translation.

It is necessary for our students to become aware that our greatest models for excellent writers wrote fluently in both English and Ebonics. There are beautiful pieces by Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar in English as well as in Ebonics. I had students read the “Antebellum Sermon” by Dunbar, which is straight-up Ebonics, and then read “The Seedling,” which is straight-up English. I also use writings by Jeremiah Wright, a minister out of Chicago who delivers magnificent and powerful sermons that contain African and African-American history. He speaks with a rhythm, with an emotional vitality, as he uses high level vocabulary in his sermons. Hearing him speak, nearly all the children get the message from context. However, they are required to go back and pull out the vocabulary and research each new word. This is a powerful way to get children to use new vocabulary.

These kind of writings tend to fortify children and also give them a lot of language. I believe in giving children a lot of adult, intellectual language rather than “See Spot run” language. I also try to address the culture of all my children. For example, we have read “To Destroy You Is No Loss” by Joan Criddle and “The Clay Marvel” by Minfong Ho, which are about the Cambodian children. We have read “Daniel’s Story,” a story about a Jewish child in a concentration camp, and “Remember My Name,” a book about the Native Americans’ Trail of Tears experience.

Q: How do you organize your school day?

In the morning, I do a centering opening based on the CACSEA program. Research has shown that if you get children’s adrenaline flowing, they get that natural high and then you can teach them anything you want for the next hour and a half. Basically, that 90 minutes is the only time I teach the whole group. The rest of the morning and afternoon, the children are in independent or small-group work study mode.

When they come in the morning, we start by standing behind our chairs and we do some recitations out of our poetry readers. All of these are self-enhancing pieces of poetry, something that touches the children so they get the joy of being in the classroom. After reciting the poetry, we sing songs. We use a variety of music that touches the spirit of the child. For example, we have used “I Believe I Can Fly,” or Whitney Houston’s “Step by Step,” and “To Be Loved,” or some Sweet Honey in the Rock. We have used Sounds of Blackness, classical jazz, and even some Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. We may even do some African dance movement to music by Herbie Hancock or Quincy Jones.

When the energy is high I say, “Now go inside yourself and find your perfect peace and decide what you want to get out of the day and promise yourself that you will get it.” Then I tell them to say my name and request what it is they want from me. I think that is very important, because they have the right and the responsibility to keep me straight, just as I try to keep them straight. I am there because an adult has to be with the children but I try not to have a hierarchy. There needs to be a mutual respect between the teacher and students. My relationship with the students is a high priority with me. We are strongly bonded by love and trust for each other. Our affectionate feelings transcend the classroom and extend out to the families and communites of my students. We outright love and care for each other.

After the centering, the children write in their journals. Sometimes it is on whatever they choose. Sometimes I check to see if they are internalizing a piece we are working on, such as the sermon “What Makes You So Strong?” I ask them to answer that question as it pertains to them, to see if they understand the essence of what makes a person strong. They may write on “What Makes You So Strong Black Child?” or “Cambodian Child” or “Black Teacher.” They have to look for the resilience and the strength in themselves and in other people. Can they identify it? Can they pick it out? We write in our journals for about 10 minutes. After that I tell them, “Now I am getting ready to teach and what I teach you have to remember for the rest of your lives.” They take notes — they’ve been taking notes since they were in first grade — in their record-keeping book.

I try to connect my teaching to African proverbs, principles of Kwanzaa and the Virtues of Maat, or a piece of poetry, or a recitation we are working on. A good example is “What Makes You So Strong.” The piece refers to 200 million people lost in the Atlantic Ocean during the Middle Passage from Africa to slavery in the West. From that, we talked about the different oceans of the world and the continents they touch, and from there we read books on the Middle Passage, and from there they did an art piece that showed the root of the Middle Passage and the triangular trade from Africa, to America, to England. From there we went into the study of triangles, which led into geometry.

We did more reading on the Middle Passage and slavery, for example Amos Fortune’s “Free Man.” I read excerpts from “Roots” by Alex Haley, where Kunta was in the Middle Passage. From that we went to other history resource books and did a quick come-back report — where different children read different books and come back with what they found. I used the Middle Passage as the basis for the daily oral language lesson, where I write a sentence with a lot of errors that the students have to correct.

We also used the morning recitation as the basis for a math lesson on estimates. I designed a lesson called “Wipe Out.” I have them look at different estimates on how many people were lost in the Middle Passage, because in each source (music, sermon, poem, book) there are different numbers ranging from 70 to 200 million. Using a selected estimate, they determine how many countries would be “wiped out” if they lost the same number of people using the present day population. We worked it with Mexico, United States, and African countries, so that the children could understand exactly what the numbers meant and the impact of the Middle Passage loss.

After the whole-group teaching ends (the students all have the schedule, which is my weekly lesson plan), I tell the children, “I have taught all that I am going to today. Now it is up to you.” They know the work they have to do that day, either by themselves or in groups of two, three, or four.

Q: What has been the most encouraging aspect of the Ebonics controversy? The most frustrating?

What is most encouraging is that parents who were ashamed to come to school and talk their language, and parents were actually ashamed — they lost that. They told me, “You know, Miss Secret, until Ebonics came I wouldn’t come over here.” It was of benefit to the community as well. Even my mother told me, “You know, Carrie, I wish I had only known I had to learn English better, and that it wasn’t that I was using bad English.”

Then the other thing that I thought was really important was the support that came from our Superintendent, Carolyn Gettridge, and the school board members, especially Toni Cook. They really took a bold stand in the cause for African-American education.

The downside of the debate is that there were African Americans who were so ashamed, so afraid, and so paranoid about what we were doing in Oakland. I don’t blame the media for this. My job is to teach and the media’s job is to sensationalize news. But I do blame those of us who picked up for the media and helped them do their job.

It bothered me that in 1997, scholarly African Americans did not tell the media, “Let me take the time to go to the source and talk to someone in Oakland before I talk to you.” That bothered me more than anything.