Teaching the tempest-tossed

If the Statue of Liberty could speak, her native tongue would be French. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in English accents and Wampanoag dialect. African-Americans, Chinese, Irish, Italians, Polish, and many more have all made a home here. The point I am trying to make is that America is a country of immigrants.

To measure our system of education and it’s diverse classrooms against countries that have strict immigration laws is misleading and unhelpful. Yet, we persist in ranking our system of education against countries with homogenous societies. In a 2009 United Nations study Georgia in Eurasia was listed as number one amongst the nations measured for literacy. America ranked number 45 in the same study. In Georgia, Eurasia, 71% of the people speak the native language. This is key to the ranking of the Literacy study.

Having grown up in Ireland in the ’70’s and ’80’s, and having experienced zero diversity in classrooms from the age of five to eighteen, I can assure you that classroom teachers who have the task of educating an English only speaking student population have a far easier time than those teaching ethnically diverse classrooms. The only diversity I knew were two Protestant families who attended my national school. How’s that for diversity? We all spoke the same language, nothing got lost in translation, and for the most part, we all had the same dialects and accents. For some reason the Protestant kids spoke with very posh English accents; not exactly a huge challenge for teachers though.

The problems experienced in America’s educational system are due to diverse classroom populations. Diversity means we’ve gone global in the classrooms, whether we like it or not. Using that diversity, fostering collaboration and utilizing technology effectively within the classroom will help to create a future workforce, ready for tomorrow’s workplace.

The truth is the world is shrinking and borders are shifting. Whether or not you believe that immigration means diverse classrooms, and that this is a good thing, is inconsequential. There simply is no alternative but to educate ethnically diverse student populations using practical, meaningful, respectful and purposeful instruction that will foster a sense of pride in the next generation of workers.

Practical, meaningful, respectful and purposeful; easier said than done right? But what is the alternative? There isn’t one. We have to do it. Simply put, we need to develop best practice methods for teaching Standard English to students who speak dialects of English. We need to give these students a reason for wanting to learn Standard English and we need to remain respectful of the dialect or language that they are speaking at home.

Let’s first address the issue of teaching a classroom population of diverse ethnicity, all students speaking dialects of English, American English or Spanglish. Diversity in classrooms, although perplexing, is good. The task of teaching ELLs, or indeed AE speakers, provides trials for teachers who may already feel as if they are incapable of doing more than they are already doing. My question then to those who feel over taxed in the classrooms is; how do you teach Standard English usage? It is, after all, a requirement that students be proficient in the use of English. It has to be done and there are ways to organize your classroom and day which will help you achieve it. Teaching the tempest-tossed classroom requires organization, collaboration, use of technology and innovative thinking.

Teaching Standard English, really a misnomer, since; there are multiple dialects of the English Language, should be done with respect for the students’ own dialect. In fact I believe we should refer to the dialect of correct English usage as Career English. By doing so, we remain sensitive to the students who speak other dialects and give them a purpose to learn correct usage for their “careers.” Lisa Delprit refers to a speaker’s native tongue as “heritage language,” (Delprit: The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Teaching Other People’s Children) , affirming its correctness in certain situations and places. “Career English” then has a purpose and place as does “heritage language.” Neither form can claim to be more correct than the other. This platform of equality among dialects is vitally important as a starting point for teaching career English. It is subtly telling the students, be they English Language Learners or American English speakers, that their own dialect is correct and important, and so too is career English.

We can agree then, as educators, that Career English acquisition is a challenge in diverse classrooms, and should be taught with respect for the “language of nurture,” as described by Weaver (Teaching Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing). With techniques such as Weaver’s code-sharing suggestions in chapter 11, and Delprit’s distinction between “book language and heritage language,” respect for the ELL speaker’s native language while teaching Career English is ensured, whilst purpose for Career English acquisition is provided to the students.

The practicality of using a form called Career English and code sharing similarities between the heritage language means students have a comparison point; they can relate the new language rule learned to a heritage language rule that is innately understood. For example, American English speakers of Black English might have the tendency when they speak to drop the ‘s’ in plural nouns. A simple chart showing spoken heritage rules and Career English rules becomes a point of reference that students can implement when they read or write in Career English.

Simple mnemonic tricks to help determine the difference in commonly misused or misspelled words become indispensible. The example that comes to mind is “They’re, there and their” on page 16 of Judy Parkinson’s i before e (except after c). Parkinson differentiates between all three in simple ways; for example, ‘there’ is direction because there is a ‘here’ in ‘there.’ Demonic mnemonics by Murray Suid is also a useful teaching aid for incorrect spelling and usage.

Another practical technique which should prevent teachers from declaring, “How can we teach it all?”  is to develop a hierarchy of common mistakes made by students in writing exercises. If the students are consistently mixing up their, there and they’re, teach the correct Career English usage; Teach to the most commonly repeated mistakes and keep a checklist of those mistakes and how students progress. If you use peer editing, be specific with students and ask them to look for these common mistakes in other students’ compositions.

A multicultural classroom fosters respect for other cultures. Teaching respect and tolerance is important in a global economy. As espoused by Tapscott and Williams, “The future, therefore, lies in collaboration across borders, cultures, companies and disciplines.”(Wikinomics p 61) If the future lies across borders, our classrooms are the perfect places to practice techniques required for tomorrow’s workforce. Collaboration, innovation and creativity will define pioneers in the workplace of the future. Classrooms which implement strategies within their curriculums that nurture these three components will equip students with skills that shall carry them through their careers. As Ken Robinson states, “Creative teams are distinct, diverse and dynamic.” (The Element page 126) We already have the diversity in our classrooms. The distinct and dynamic portion of the equation depends on how we use technology in our classrooms to reach across borders and interact with the global student community. This idea of “interactivity” has already defined successful global businesses; why not use it to define successful classrooms? As Wikinomics says, ‘Mass collaboration changes everything.”

According to Michael Furdyk of TakingITGlobal, you do not find “interactivity” in classroom curriculums presently. “We’re still learning through read and regurgitate,” Furdyk says. (Wikinomics pg. 51) TakingITGlobal aims to get students in Canada and Nigeria, for example, collaborating to complete projects; group research being done across borders and time zones. The project could even lend itself to peer-editing and Socratic circle discussions: Opening up minds and broadening perspectives. Imagine a student in Connecticut writing an essay on ‘Banning the Burqua’ collaborating with a female student in Paris who, since April of 2011, no longer can wear the dress in public, then using that new knowledge and applying it to immigrants in their own classrooms. Would that application of new knowledge positively affect tolerance within the classroom? You bet it would.

What if a student in America collaborated writing a paper on Orwell’s Animal Farm with a student in Russia? Imagine if these two developed a totally new form of political rule which they called “Democratism” and they reached out to other students for their input. This type of innovative thinking becomes contagious when students are presented with “what if” scenarios; not just from the teacher, but from a peer in another time zone. Letting their ideas soar provides students with opportunities for innovation, the larger the innovative pool, the more innovative the ideas.

Innovation, according to Ken Robinson, “is applied creativity.” (Out of Our Minds pg. 142) The creative process, Robinson says, is a six step procedure involving; generating an idea, judging the idea, elaborating on it, testing it, refining it, possibly rejecting all or part of the idea and starting again. The process flourishes when done collaboratively, with group feedback. Creativity for the most part comes from observation, inspiration and sometimes overheard suggestions; the bigger the pool, the more creativity and collaboration.

Collaboration in classrooms through technology such as Skype, Facebook, epals and other online social media is useful in nurturing creativity, innovation and collaboration. The success of mixing social media and education according to Reynol Junco lies in how the media is used. (Junco: The Relationship Between Frequency of Facebook Use, Participation in Facebook Activities and Student Engagement) Marc Prensky agrees, learning through technology is determined on, “how it is presented.” (Prensky: Digital Natives Digital Immigrants) Supervision, setting meaningful goals, and concise directions for use are key to using social media in education successfully.

Technology, then, is part of the solution. Not only does it nurture creativity, innovation and collaboration; but also broadens minds, fosters respect, provides varied perspectives, crosses borders, and possibly even connects immigrant students with homelands. It is important to remember though that how we implement this technology in the classroom will determine its success in fostering collaboration and innovation across borders. Let’s begin the implementation of technology in classrooms by getting the students to use spell check on computer drafts of compositions. It may sound trite, but many students do not have access to computers at home and a simple but brief explanation of spell check will assist in drafting better compositions.

There are those who see technology use in classrooms as a distraction. Matt Richtel’s New York Times article ‘In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores’ (Sept. 24, 2011) states that in the Kyrene school district of Arizona, despite a heavy focus and massive funding on technology in the classroom, “Hope and enthusiasm are soaring…But test scores are not.”

Rictel’s observation of a teacher allowing a student to just play a math game, and always get the wrong answer, does present a dilemma. But as Junco states, how we use technology determines success in the classroom. “It’s getting him to think quicker,” the teacher states and the computer encourages the six-year-old to try again. Not exactly the case. With instruction, the child would come to the correct answer faster, but by sitting in front of a computer and just hitting any old key, learning is not going to happen. A question that needs to be asked of educators is are we taught how to implement technology purposefully in our classrooms?

Elizabeth Green’s New York Times magazine’s article ‘Building a Better Teacher’ (March 7, 2010) provides some useful hints as to how to engage students and manage a classroom, technology use is never mentioned once. Building better teachers requires us to teach educators how to implement technology and “use it” effectively in conjunction with curriculums.

Alternative schools such as The Waldorf School in California prohibits the use of computers and students are told not to watch television at home. This in my opinion is excessive and shortsighted. The world advances rapidly with regard to technology, and we need to allow students monitored access, at the very least, to that technology.

The classrooms of today are modeled after the needs of the industrial revolution. These classrooms served their purpose and functioned effectively until migration en-masse and
technology advances changed the economy and consequently the classroom. Some aspects of the older form are still effective, but in order to meet the demands of tomorrow’s global workforce, diversity, collaboration and technology use in our classrooms need to be skillfully, thoughtfully and purposefully implemented, and students nurtured and encouraged to listen and respect others.

Literature Cited:

  1. Weaver: Teaching Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing.
  2. Delprit: The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Teaching Other People’s Children
  3. Tapscott and Williams: Wikinomics
  4. Junco: The Relationship Between Frequency of Facebook Use, Participation in Facebook Activities and Student Engagement
  5. Robinson: Out of Our Minds and The Element
  6. Richtel: New York Times ‘In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores’ Sept. 24, 2011
  7. Green New York Times magazine ‘Building a Better Teacher’ March 7, 2010

Other sites of interest




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