A fourth-grade choir audition changed my life. On a whim, I tried out for my elementary school’s select choir, and to the amazement of my mom, I made it. She had good reason to be shocked. I was extremely shy. In fact, for years I refused to talk — in school, at restaurants, but also to important people in my like grandparents. If someone asked me a question, I would cover my mouth with my hand and just stare. Speaking terrified me. Whenever I had something to say my arms would tingle, and I’d feel frozen, unable to drag the words from my brain to my mouth.
Language, like tracking, functions as part of a gate keeping system in our country. Who get the marginal jobs, who works at banks and who works at fast food restaurants, who gets into what college and who gets into college at all, are decisions linked to the ability to use Standard English. So how do we teach kids to write with honesty and passion about their world and get them to study the rules of the cash language? We go back to our study of society. We ask: Who made the rules that govern how we speak and write? Who already talks like this and writes like this? Who has to learn how to change the way they talk and write? Why?
Asking students to memorize the rules without asking who makes the rules, who enforces the rules, who benefits from the rules, who loses from the rules, who uses the rules to keep some in and keep others out, legitimates a social system that devalues some students’ knowledge and language. Teaching the rules without reflection also underscores that it’s OK for others—“authorities”—to dictate something as fundamental and as personal as the way they speak. Further, the study of Standard English without critique encourages students to believe that if they fail, it is because they are not smart enough or didn’t work hard enough. They learn to blame themselves. If they get poor SAT scores, low grades on term papers or essays because of language errors, fail teacher entrance exams, they will internalize the blame; they will believe they did not succeed because they are inferior instead of questioning the standard of measurement and those making the standards.
We must teach students the “rules” and how to play the game, because they are the ones without power and, for the moment, have to use the language of the powerful to be heard. But, in addition, we need to equip them to question an educational system that devalues their life and their knowledge. If we don’t, we condition them to pedagogy of consumption where they will consume the knowledge, priorities, and products that have been decided and manufactured without them in mind.