Teachers, Culture, and Power

An Interview with African-American Educator Lisa Delpit

Following is an interview with Lisa Delpit, an African-American educator who has written several prominent articles on teaching reading and writing to children of color. Her articles have focused, in part, on the controversy between the “process” approach to literacy,which emphasizes immersing children in reading and writing in meaningful contexts, and the “skills” approach, which emphasizes learning the formal rules and patterns of language.

Delpit currently is a senior research associate at the Institute for Urban Research, Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD. She was interviewed by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools.

Several years ago, you wrote an article challenging the way the process approach to reading and writing affected children of color. Can you summarize your main criticisms?

My concern is that whatever strategy one uses, one has to ensure that all children learn. I don’t agree with placing oneself in a political camp, be it process reading and writing, or skills reading and writing. The best strategy depends on what a particular child needs.

Some children may need someone to take them aside and read constantly to them.

Others may need someone to point out that letters have a connection to sound and code. The teacher may need to ask, “Why don’t you read this with me and after I teach you some sounds you can try to figure out what words come next.”

A teacher with many strategies will be less likely to blame the child for not learning, because they can continue to pull something else out and try. There are all kinds of explanations for failure that we internalize: this child comes from a poor family, there’s drugs in the neighborhood, this child has an attention deficit disorder. I once made such a list and it was three pages long. While these factors may be true, in essence we are using them to explain our failures as teachers.

There is nothing in the process approach itself which mitigates against students acquiring specific skills. But some advocates give the impression that teaching skills restricts the writing process. Many African-American teachers, on the other hand, see such skills as essential to survival.

In my article, I refer to an African-American teacher who was adamantly opposed to the process approach to writing used by some people in the Bay Area. She especially opposed the idea that African-American children had to learn to be “fluent” in writing before they could be expected to conform to standards of spelling, grammar, and so forth. Our kids are fluent, she pointed out, referring to the amazing capacity of many African-American kids to create elaborate raps and other language forms. What they need are the skills to get them into college. She saw this emphasis on fluency at the expense of skills as just another racist ploy to keep African-American kids behind.

The problem is this tendency to dichotomize — either a skills or a process approach. Why not insist on “skills” in the context of critical and creative thinking? I consider myself a process-oriented teacher. But that doesn’t mean I will limit myself to whatever is designated currently as a process approach.

Some people have inferred from your article that you support more of a basal reader approach that emphasizes short, sanitized reading selections and fill-in-the-blank workbooks. Do you?

I believe just the opposite. I believe, first of all, in an approach that seems to work for the child that you are working with. But I also believe that literacy instruction should be in the context of real reading and real writing, and reading and writing for real purposes. This means using literature that children like and that connects with them in their homes and lives. It means writing for purposes the children find useful.

For example, you might start out with letter writing or writing plays, or help the children make written materials for younger children, or produce stories that can be published in a book the children are putting together. In other words, the materials are not just for the teacher’s eye.

When I talk about myself as being process oriented, if we’re talking about writing, I’m talking about the notion that writing happens over time. It is a process, as opposed to one event. It involves talking, it involves thinking, it involves getting thoughts down and revising.

I don’t believe that there is a particular process for all people. For example, some process-oriented writing people believe there is a definite seven-step process that everybody goes through, such as brainstorming, fluency, revising and editing.

One of the problems that I have seen in process writing — and this isn’t just because of process writing but because of the society we live in — is that many times the expectations are less for poor children and children of color.

For instance, let’s say in this seven-step approach that the fifth stage is producing fluency and getting one’s thoughts out.

Because the expectations are lower for many children of color and for poor children, when those children get to that fifth stage, some teachers think, “Isn’t it wonderful that this child has gotten to this stage.” And they don’t push the student any further. And so many children of color never get to the editing stage or the stage of producing a final copy suitable for publication.

Should different strategies be used to teach reading and writing to children of different backgrounds or races? How does a teacher teach students with different backgrounds and levels in the same class?

What I see children needing, first of all, is somebody who responds to their needs. You cannot design your instruction based on the approach, should I teach the Koreans this way, should I teach the Hispanic kids this way, should I teach the African-American kids this way, or the white kids this way.

First of all, as a teacher, you can’t do it. Second, you’ll probably make serious mistakes in ascertaining individual children’s needs by assuming generalized ethnic characteristics.

What I would argue for instead is creating an environment that uses reading and writing for real purposes. If there are children who are not being successful — and success cannot be claimed when there is a lower level of performance by poor or non-white children — there is something else you need to do. That is when you use your knowledge about culture, as well as about this individual child, to try a different strategy. But I wouldn’t suggest that someone design a class based on an abstract knowledge of children’s racial or cultural differences.

You refer in your writings to standard English versus what some call dialect English. What do you mean, and why is the distinction important?

I don’t use the term standard English. What I talk about is edited English, which essentially is the English you see in books — English that has been taken through an editing process. Some people’s home language is more closely related to edited English than other people’s, but nobody exactly speaks edited English.

It’s important to make the distinction because edited English is the language of power. If you don’t have access to edited English, you don’t have access to the power institutions in this country. If I didn’t have access to edited English, I wouldn’t be asked to do an interview, I wouldn’t be successful in graduate school, I wouldn’t be able to work at creating change in the way that I am hoping to do so.

Do some teachers, in trying to value a student’s home language that may not be edited English, devalue the importance of teaching edited English?

Absolutely. And they do it for the best of reasons. They will say they want to give their students voice.

I would advocate strongly their doing so. But they also need to understand, as [African-American feminist scholar] bell hooks and Henry Louis Gates [chair of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University] talk about, that we have the responsibility to speak about justice in as many languages as we can acquire. You certainly need your home language to do that, but you also need edited English.

How do you teach edited English while still preserving a student’s home language, if it differs from edited English?

There are all kinds of ways. In writing, you can compare the home language and edited English and directly teach the differences. You can teach the rules of edited English and students can apply that knowledge to their own writing.

In one of my articles, I talk about a wonderful Native Alaskan teacher, Martha Demientieff. Her students, who live in a small rural village, are not aware of the different codes of English. So in one exercise, she takes half a bulletin board with words or phrases from their writings and labels it, “Our Heritage Language.” On the other half of the bulletin board she puts an equivalent statement under the label, “Formal English.”

She and the students spend a long time on the “Heritage English” section and affirm how good the language feels and how expressive it is. Then she turns to the other side of the board and explains that there are other people who will judge them by the way they talk or write in what is called this “Formal English.” And she explains how the students will have to learn two ways of talking and writing, but that they will always know that their “Heritage English” is best.

She also does a wonderful exercise where the students prepare a formal dinner for the class, and dress up and use fancy tablecloths and china and so forth. They speak only Formal English at the meal. And then they prepare a picnic where only informal English is allowed. The point is, she is preserving the home language while still teaching the edited English.

How can one teach edited English in a way that forces white middle class students, whose home language may be more similar to edited English, to value and respect non-standard English?

That’s an important question. A teacher in a group I am working with now noted that her students do not always respect other students in the class, based on the language variety that they use.

The way I would approach the problem, with young children for example, is to get a collection of children’s books written in various Englishes. This way, from early on, children are exposed to different varieties of language. The teacher can help them value the variety by noting, “Isn’t this an interesting way that this is put? Doesn’t that get the point across nicely?”

Children can also talk about the varieties of English spoken by people that they know, or by people on television shows.

I’ve also seen teachers do translations. They have the children translate certain documents into the language that they use at home. And then they translate in reverse, from non-edited English to edited English. It usually ends up being both a very interesting and exciting venture. It also gives a sense of value to the home language.

I think students can also talk about when you would use different kinds of English, say if you are talking to somebody’s grandmother, or to your running buddies. I have said that African-Americans should not be allowed to get a doctorate unless they can write their dissertation in a form suitable for Jet magazine. I say that because Jet magazine is an African-American publication that almost every black person reads. If you can’t translate your ideas to other African Americans, then you are not working in the service of African Americans.

Certainly, Jet magazine uses what you would call edited English. But it’s a style issue. All of these questions in terms of language are not just an issue of grammar. They are issues of style and tone as well.

You refer in your writings to the culture of power. How does this culture of power affect the teaching of reading and writing to children of color and poor children?

The culture of power is, essentially, the culture that maintains power — economic power, status power, any of the kinds of power that you can imagine in a society. If students don’t have access to aspects of that culture, to the language of that culture, to the style of that culture, then they won’t be able to be successful.

For the most part, one is not aware of one’s culture. People, having grown up in a particular culture, believe that that’s just the way the world is. Many teachers and educators don’t realize that, first, they have a particular culture, and second, that their culture, generally, is the culture of power.

Teachers have to understand enough about the cultures of the children they are teaching and about the culture of power so that they can make the translation necessary between the two. They have to help children understand and develop their home culture, and understand and acquire the culture of power.

Can you give some examples of how the culture of power affects classroom teaching?

I can talk about an adult learning situation I am familiar with. The teacher was a graduate student steeped in process approaches to writing. The students were African-American veterans hoping to improve their writing so they could continue in school.

The teacher had the students write at home and then come into peer editing groups, share what they had written, and edit each others’ papers. But the students wanted the teacher, essentially, to tell them the rules, to tell them explicitly what they needed to do — the grammar, punctuation, style, and so forth. They wanted the teacher to teach them the rules for the language of power that they knew they would be held accountable for.

The students felt they were being short-changed and became really angry. But the teacher insisted on maintaining her style and felt it was part of her identity. The teacher was asked, why are you doing it this way? She answered that it was important for the students to develop voice.

But it seems the students did have voice, considering the way they were yelling at her about what they wanted to have happen. But she was having a hard time hearing their voice. She didn’t realize their need to access the culture of power, or her ability to provide that access. So she and the students were at logger-heads.

By contrast, a teacher whom many of your readers probably know, Mike Rose, who wrote Lives on the Boundary, defines himself as a traditional teacher in many ways. What he means is not that he does worksheets, but that he takes a very strong teacher role and makes explicit what the students need to know about academic writing. He also spends a great deal of time going back and forth: giving students clues to the language of power, and then backing away and letting them introduce their own ideas and thinking, which they can transform into academic writing. I should also stress that he and I agree that a great deal of student-to-student and student-to-teacher talk is necessary to accomplish this aim.

How do you teach children the rules of the culture of power yet help them struggle against the injustices of that culture?

It’s important to speak explicitly in the classroom about power and oppression.

First, you need to make it clear that these particular rules are arbitrary. As [MIT Professor of Linguistics] Noam Chomsky says, what differentiates a language and a dialect is who has the Army and the Navy. These arbitrary sets of rules were developed because they matched, relatively speaking,

the norms of the people in power. In other words, if African Americans had the Army and the Navy, then edited English would be more in line with how most African Americans speak.

Second, students have to understand that the system is set up to keep certain students from gaining power. One of the barriers is based on knowledge of these rules, or rather the lack of knowledge. One way to cheat the system and turn the sorting system on its head is to learn these rules. This way the system will be unsuccessful — at least in part, because they will always come up with new ways of sorting — in putting you in a particular cubbyhole.

You must also continually focus on the role of power. I was speaking recently to some young white women who are becoming teachers and who are tremendously uncomfortable with acknowledging that they have power or that they should try to use power. I said to them, “Having power is not bad, it’s what you do with that power.” They must learn to use their power to become advocates for children.

A colleague of mine likened it to a party, where all the African Americans were locked outside. The African Americans became angrier and angrier, and started shouting and banging on the door. The people inside slipped the door open and grabbed two of the loudest, so that they could join the party and help end some of the ruckus. The key then is, what do you do once you are inside? Do you sit down at the table or do you prop the door open? I think we have to help students and teachers understand their role in propping the door open.

You refer in your writings to gatekeeping points that hinder certain students from gaining access to the culture of power. Are you referring to SAT tests, or report cards, or what?

In essence, gatekeeping points refer to structures that are used to screen out people and keep them from moving to the next level of achievement, as defined by society’s sorting system. Sometimes they are report cards, particularly with regard to moving to the next grade. There are also testing systems that say that if you don’t make a certain score, you can’t move to the next grade. That is a gatekeeping point.

Getting into college is often a gatekeeping point, and SATs have certainly played a role in that.

There are teachers who, knowing the bias of the SATs, might say, “I’m not going to teach to the SAT, I’m going to teach my kids to learn to read, write, and think. I am not going to emphasize test-taking lessons.” Are those teachers shortchanging their students? Or is that a valid way to combat the bias of the SATs?

I think they are shortchanging their students. Herb Kohl [author of 36 Children and other education books] talks about his high school years in New York and how a group of Jewish teachers would get together with a group of Jewish students and say, “Okay, you’ve been learning about learning Now we are going to teach you how to take this test.”

It doesn’t have to be teaching to the test the whole year. Rather, there appear to be some very specific test-taking strategies that can be taught in a relatively finite period of time. As long as the tests are used to exclude certain groups of people, it’s important to give those students access to test-taking strategies.

How can a teacher strike a proper balance between teaching in-depth reading and writing skills, and test-taking skills?

If your classroom has been steeped in the concept of different kinds of languages used in different kinds of settings for different kinds of audiences, then one can approach the test as a particular kind of language.

What I am suggesting is that the test be demystified. Students need to understand that the standardized test is not a measure of ability, but is designed to sort people out.

So you might have the students say, “Let’s figure out how these people think who created this test, how they are thinking about the world.” Once you do that, it places it in the context of what you are teaching in the classroom, which is the varieties of English and the varieties of thinking and the varieties of language use.

One of the things that I have done with first graders is have them create tests. They learn the form. It’s the same premise that’s behind the view that children write in order to learn to read and read in order to learn to write. By creating worksheets for each other, which they find great fun, they also are learning a particular format that they are going to be faced with later on. But they are thinking about content and learning a certain kind of thinking strategy.

This process can be used at all grade levels. You give them the rules of how test-makers create tests: a couple of conceivable answers, one that is way far out, and one that seems plausible but is a “trick” answer. The tests they create can be about anything, about slang language, or teenage culture, or the content they’re studying, or whatever.

There are ways to learn about taking tests that can be a lot of fun.

You have written that changing the educational system to ensure more diversity cannot be made from the bottom up, but that “we must push and agitate from the top down.” Can you explain this more?

In reality, it has to be both ways. What I was suggesting is that you can’t just change what goes on in the earlier grades, and not change what happens when you get to a gatekeeping point. You can’t just say, “Okay, the tests are unimportant or unfair, so I’m not going to even consider issues related to the tests.” The people who suffer from that decision are the children who then cannot go beyond high school, or into some high schools, because they will then be faced with a test.

It is insufficient to make such changes from the bottom up if you are not also working to change, and have changed, what constitutes being able to move to the next level.

How would this perspective affect teaching strategies?

You have to have a knowledge of what is going to be demanded of kids later on. And then you have to make sure that they have the ability to transcend those barriers. Many times it’s just the ability to translate what they actually know into a form that the gatekeeping mechanism demands, like multiple choice tests.

You may know how to write a coherent essay that is grammatically correct, but may not have thought about it in the context of punctuation rules that may be asked on a test. It’s the initial learning that is the hard part, not the translation. After teachers have done all they can to promote learning, the strategy for the teacher comes in helping students make the translation.

Do African-American teachers feel estranged from progressive white educators on issues of learning to read and write? If so, why?

The African-American teachers I am in contact with — I hesitate to say all because nothing is all, but almost all — have talked to me about feeling estranged. It’s not only an issue of how the teachers teach literacy. It’s more an attitude.

The African-American teachers feel that white progressive teachers seem to believe they know better how to teach African-American children than the African-American teachers. It’s often a refusal to include the African-American teachers in the dialogue about what would make sense for the children, particularly for African-American children.

Just this morning I was told of a progressive institution in New York where all the instructors are white and most of the students are not. They understood they needed diversity in their teachers, so they found Latino teachers, and African-American teachers, and Asian teachers, and brought them in as teaching assistants. Then they told them how everything they had done before as teachers was all wrong.

I see this pattern consistently, that many progressive teachers seem so locked into one way of doing things. They believe that in order to maintain their identity as a progressive, they can only teach in a certain way.

And they appear to be unwilling to listen to those who may have had more success with the children they are trying to teach using alternative strategies.

Have you felt this condescension?

My experience has been a little different because I had to relearn what African-American teachers know. For example, I had gone to progressive universities and I learned the open classroom style of teaching, discovery learning approach, creating a language-rich environment — all the buzzwords of the time. It wasn’t till almost the end of the time I was teaching in the classroom that I realized I was not as successful with the African-American children as I was with the white children.

That led me to try to figure out what I didn’t know, or what I needed to know. The African-American teachers — who were viewed by the school at large as being regressive, not as child-centered, essentially not as good teachers — were producing African-American kids who knew a lot more than the kids taught by the progressive teachers.

Was this because of an emphasis on skills? What were they doing different?

It’s not really just so-called “skills,” it’s the explicitness that’s important. And this explicitness applies to whatever you’re teaching, whether it’s a process or an item of information.

For example, one of the African-American teachers told me how to explicitly teach first grade and make use of an open classroom. She told me to have the children practice going to a particular center, working there, cleaning up. Otherwise I had kids who were taking the materials and throwing them around the room, particularly the African-American kids, who may not have had the chance to work in those kinds of settings as much as the white middle class kids did.

There’s also explicitness to the point of saying, “Well, yes, there are such things as capital letters and here’s when you might see them.” Or going back and forth and asking, “Where do you see a capital letter? Oh, you see it there? Let’s talk about why it might be there.”

Essentially, it is the opposite of assuming that everybody is going to discover everything on their own. I found that the people who appear to be discovering everything on their own have actually received direct instruction at home, although it’s not in a way that parents might think of as direct instruction.

As I picked my daughter up from nursery school yesterday, a white father was picking his daughter up at the same time. There was a tree stump in the room and the father was looking at it with the daughter while she was putting on her boots. He said, “Remember what I told you, how you can tell the number of years, how old the tree was. Do you remember? Can you count them?”

That is direct instruction. For myself, I hear myself talking to my daughter. Her name is Maya, and she’s going around saying, “M-M-M-M-M-Maya, M-M-M-M-M-om.” And I say, “Right, M-M-Maya,. That sounds the same in the beginning as M-M-Mommy, doesn’t it? Listen to that, M-M-aya and M-M-ommy. What else sounds like that?

All day long there is direct instruction that middle class parents provide for their kids. And then the kids go into a “language-rich environment” and appear to achieve without any kind of explicit instruction. So that leads people to think, “What we need, all we need, are these language-rich environments, or science-rich environments, or math-rich environments, and kids will just excel.”

What they fail to realize is that there are other children who haven’t come in with the same kinds of explicit instruction or direct instruction from parents. By not providing it for them, along with the language-rich environment, what teachers are doing is putting those children at a disadvantage.