Removing the Mask
Roots of Oppression Through Omission
“America the beautiful, who are you beautiful for?”— Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities
The duality of my existence as an African in America is a paradox that is not easily explainable by a hyphen.
I am a 27-year-old African-American educator and have taught both first and second grade for three years in the Boston public schools. I am fortunate to have found a school that is aligned with my politics and commitments: the Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School (YASM), an elementary school in the Mission Hill section of Roxbury. I am invested in Roxbury; it was where I was reared and currently make my home. I eat, think, breath, and work in the community. The language of the community is my language.
For my students who speak Ebonics fluently, I want to help them use their language to communicate in Standard English. I try to convey that speaking Standard English does not diminish one’s Blackness or “bein down,” nor is it “talkin white.” Rather, I try to demystify Standard English and explain that it is how mainstream America communicates.
I am a product of a desegregation program that provides urban children of color the “opportunity” to attend school in suburban communities. For me, a “quality education” came at the expense of the painful silencing of my identity as an African-American woman. It was in private and suburban systems where the process of acculturation turned quickly into appropriation and then almost complete assimilation. I masked my Blackness and took on the demeanor (speech, dress, bodily movements, and gestures) of my affluent white peers. I began to disassociate myself from my African-American peers. By the age of 10, I had learned that because I had “mastered” Standard English, I had access, unlike my other “bused” peers who carried our Black urban idiosyncrasies, nuances, culture and traditions with each word they uttered. I became well versed in how to blur, blend, and dismiss my Blackness the moment my school bus departed from Roxbury for the suburb of Newton.
Over the years, while at the best of America’s schools, my passion for school and learning turned to rage, which eventually led to complete indifference toward my education. Ultimately, this is what motivated me to return to my home community to educate the children. (Delpit, 1995). I did not want any child to suffer, as I had, from feelings of inferiority and self-hate, separation from one’s culture, and loss of the love for learning.
INCORPORATION OF EBONICS
I use a variety of pedagogical approaches to help students become fluent readers, writers and orators: the responsive classroom model; whole language approach; cooperative learning; small and whole-group instruction; peer teaching and peer tutoring; and inter-age and cross-grade collaborations and activities. In this essay, I will describe how I use Ebonics, the home/community language of some of the children at YASM.
One example involves taking a traditional poem or piece of literature written in Standard English and juxtaposing it with Black vernacular. I might, for instance, begin with the poem “Boa Constrictor” by Shel Silverstein, a white male author. The poem is written in a standard colloquial format. After completing a series of skill-based activities, outlined by Janiel Wagstaff in Analogy Mini-lessons, my students and I eventually reinvent the poem using Ebonics (Wagstaff, 1994, pp. 15-30).
Oh, I’m being eaten
By a boa constrictor
A boa constrictor,
A boa constrictor,
I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor,
And I don’t like it — one bit.
Well, what do you know?
It’s nibblin’ my toe.
It’s up to my knee,
It’s up to my thigh,
It’s up to my middle,
It’s up to my neck, Oh, dread,
It’s up mmmmmmmmmmfffffffffff
(Oral rendition of Ebonics format)
Ohh, I’m bein’
By a boa
I’m bein’ eatin
by a boa
And don’t like it
Wella, whaddah yo’ kno?
It’s uptah my knee,
It’s uptah my
The students and I use rap, metaphors, and bodily kinesthetics to interpret the poem. Not only are the affective, cognitive and psychomotor domains integrated — so that literature/ words/ text have an expanded meaning — but the children are able to critically engage and invest in their learning (Jacobsen, Eggen, Kauchak, 1989).
More specifically, these are the steps that the children and I move through:
- I read the poem using a monotone voice.
- The children read the poem chorally, also using a monotone voice.
- Children and I reread the poem using chanting and dramatic performance while retaining the language of the author. (e.g., “Well, what do you know? It’s nibblin’ my toe …” While saying this, students bend over and touch their own toe.
- Next, we read the poem using the cadences, rhythms, and phonology of Ebonics (We ‘funk it up and bring it home!’)
- Finally, from chanting we move on to “rappin’” the poem, using rhyming, cadence, call and response, bodily kinesthetic, dramatic repetition and gestures while “acting out” highlighted vocabulary in the poem, using contemporary Hip-Hop rhythms, dance, and aesthetics.
An observer, watching my students’ culminating performance of this poem, would witness the uncensored behaviors and actions of children at “free play” or during recess, removed from adult supervision. The children use the rhymes, rhythms, and cadences created by African Americans. It is this use of Ebonics that validates many of my students and gets them “turned on,” “fired up,” and collectively engaged.
To facilitate the learning of Standard English, I then ask the class: “Is nibblin’ a real word?” (I select a child or team of
students to look up the word in the dictionary and share the results with the class.) We then collectively investigate and compare the spelling and meaning of the word “nibblin’” with the word “nibbling.”
After investigation and discussion, I try to make a connection between poetry and larger language issues. I explain to the class how poetry is a use of language/ genre through which authors express their point of view, using their own creative and artistic stylization in their writing. I explain that the words “heck,” “gee,” and “nibblin’” that are in Silverstein’s poem are not Standard English words but colloquiums, and that the author’s deletion of the final “g” is similar to one of the many features of Black vernacular language. I point out that just as poetry is a creative representation of an artist, Ebonics captures the creativity and the inventiveness of a people.
MODELING STANDARD ENGLISH
When children have difficulty learning Standard English, I teach by modeling the rules of Standard English, both orally and in writing. A child might read a story from their Writing Journal, for instance. The student will say a word that they want to learn how to spell “conventionally.” I then model speaking, writing, and reading the word. I also place it on the child’s ‘Word Ring,’ which is the student’s personal dictionary of words they often see and use. The student then returns to their desk, copies the word, and draws an illustration that matches the text. By using these techniques consistently and over time, children become proficient writers and orators in Standard English and Ebonics.
Ebonics is effective in teaching literacy because it is spelled the way it is spoken. When asking children to use developmental writing techniques, I might say, “Just sound it out.” Because Ebonics is phonetically structured, it frees students to focus on their own ideas and to use their own language and creativity in their journal writing. I also use other literacy activities to help my students acquire the conventions of Standard English. These include grammar instruction, writing workshop, and lessons designed to improve reading comprehension and the ability to critically reflect on literature.
I am honored and privileged to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from the children and families in my school community. This essay does not fully display the genius and power of my students’ fluent voices, words, and actions as they communicate with the world in both tongues: Standard English and Ebonics. As my students’ and I would eloquently describe ourselves; “We got it goin’ on!”