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September 22, 2006

The Politics of Dialect

Last night I had tutor training at 826 Michigan, which was taught by Caroline Eisner, the associate director of the Sweetland Writing Center at the University of Michigan. I love Sweetland and have a lot of respect for the work they do. I have gotten quite a bit of help from them with my writing, and I am grateful for their presence on campus.

Before this training, I didn't realize what a therapeutic practice tutoring is. Eisner told us that one of the goals of tutoring is to heal the wounds inflicted on students by the educational system. For this reason, she told us never to use red pens because red ink is too harsh. I'll honor that request at 826 because I'm not grading student papers, I'm only coaching them as students, but I think the statement that red is a harsh color is total bulls--t. The only reason the color red seems harsh is because it is the color teachers use to grade papers. If teachers had graded papers in green ink from time immemorial, we would now be hearing that green is harsh. In tutoring, however, we are not evaluating; we are on the students' side, so I won't use red.

Eisner also told us never to correct a student's speech. The example she gave was African American English. If a student says "we was," we are not to tell the student it is wrong. If the student uses this construction in writing, we may tell the student that, when writing, the correct construction is "we were," but that in speech, "we was" is perfectly correct usage in African American English. I can't help thinking that we are doing students a disservice by not teaching them to speak standard English. What happens when they go into a job interview and say "we was" because they were never taught that it is wrong. Simply having brown skin already puts a person at a disadvantage as far as hiring goes, and I know that I certainly wouldn't hire a candidate who said "we was." It turns out that Eisner wasn't speaking from a position of cultural relativism, but rather on the basis of research on the effects of this kind of correction. The rationale she gave is that correcting a student in this way shuts them down; they stop using the dialect construction, but they also stop learning standard English. Apparently, if one corrects a second grader's speech, that student's English will never move beyond the second grade level. This sounds a bit farfetched to me, but I'm not the expert, so I'll honor Eisner's request. I would never let one of my UM students say "we was," but that probably won't be a problem because all of my students are white. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that nonwhite students are at a disadvantage in applying to college because their well-meaning white teachers never told them that "we was" isn't correct.

Posted by eklanche at September 22, 2006 08:51 AM


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