by Abigail Garcia
In New York City Public Schools, there are over 300 languages spoken by the students in their hallways. I have always wondered how the educational system has handled the different needs of the pupils who make up such a diverse group of people. How exactly does a teacher teach when they encounter so many obstacles in their classroom? Especially, when they have the pre notion of what to expect from the children in their classroom.
According to Labov, linguists “argue that everyone has the right to learn the standard languages and culture in reading and writing…but this is the end result, not the beginning of the educational process.” By this, he means that all children should have the goal to learn the standard language of a culture, but it should be approached little by little in order to fully grasp the language. For example, if you want to learn German, you are not going to place yourself in Germany and try to learn it all at once. You will be overwhelmed and might end up frustrated. In order to avoid the trauma, you would go take a couple of German classes or buy German for Dummies in order to smoothly transition yourself into the new languages. The same goes for inner-city black children who are making a transition between BEV [Black English vernacular] to SE [Standard English].
According to linguists, “we must begin to adapt our school system to the language and learning styles of the majority of the inner-city schools.” What does this mean? This means we must learn how to speak the language of the inner-city children in order to teach them in the classroom. In this piece, Labov tackles the negative theories and assumptions that are placed upon the black inner-city children on the reasons they fall behind in their studies.
One of the theories that Labov challenges is the “Verbal Deprivation Theory”.
Educational psychologist [who according to Labov know very little about language and even less about black children] have said that the reason these children do not know how to express themselves in a classroom is because of “verbal deprivation”. This theory says that as a result of their improvised states, “black children from the ghetto” cannot form complete sentences or convey logical thoughts because of their “little verbal stimulation, to hear very little well-formed language.” To Labov, this theory is “particularly dangerous because it diverts the attention from real defects of our educational system to imaginary defects of the child; as we shall see, it leads its sponsors inevitably to hypothesis of genetic inferiority of black children, which the verbal-deprivation theory was designed to avoid.” The theory shifts the blame from the school systems to the parents and genetics.
Theories such as these make you step back and say to yourself… who exactly made up this theory? And who are the theories for and against? As a student who is always for social justice, I analyze ideals and try to figure out why they were made. Why would there be a theory that puts the blame on the children, instead of pushing for the public schools to do a better job? Is it because these are inner-city children and they do not deserve an adequate education? Could this be all about race? How about funds? By taking the blame of the schools, school officials and politicians will not push for more funds, saving the government money that they could spend on things that, to them, are more important than school.
There could be many reasons on why theories such as “verbal deprivation” are made. In the case of this article, the main point is to find a way to make the school a better place for these children. Clarence Robins, an adult black man raised in Harlem, performed experiments where he used black inner-city children as his subjects: Leon L. and Gregory. In the first experiment, Clarence and Leon had a conversation where Clarenece asked him questions such as “ What if you saw somebody kickin’ somebody else on the ground, or was using a stick, what would you do if you saw it? Or “ Did you ever see somebody get beat up real bad?” Leon’s answers would consist of one word answers such as “ Nope” Or “Mhmm” As you can see, Leon did not really say anything when asked questions. The uneducated educations psychologist would say that because of their “verbal deprivation”, children such as Leon fall back in school.
This is where they are wrong. In the next interview, there were changes in the social situation: “1. Brought along a supply of potato chips changing the ‘interview’ into something more in the nature of a party. 2. Brought along Leon’s best friend, eight year old Gregory. 3 Reduced the height imbalances…4. Introduced taboo words and taboo topics, and provided to Leon’s surprises that one can say anything into our microphone without any fear of retaliations, It did not hit or bite back.” This resulted in a huge change in the conversation!
Clarence asked questions such as these “Is there anybody who says, ‘Your momma drink pee’?” or “When they sound on me, I say ‘C.B.M.’? The two children excitedly responded to the questions and were really engaged to the conversation. What does this mean? That means that this “nonverbal” Leon “is now competing actively on the floor; Gregory and Leon talk to each other as much as they do to the interview. The monosyllabic speaker who had nothing to say about anything and could not remember what he did yester has disappeared. Instead we have two boys who have so much to say that they keep interrupting each other.” What does this mean? THE BOYS CAN TALK! Yes! Why? The boys talked because they were in the “right social relation”, proving that if you adjust to their way of speaking and interacting, you are giving them the chance to express themselves. With these experiences, Labov is able to show the world that black inner-city children have the potential to speak and have a conversation, disproving the “Verbal Deprivation” theory.
How do we start overcoming these problems and start teaching our children? Lets start with the teachers. Teachers need to get over the Cultural Deficit and starting teaching. They should start having high expectations of the children and get over the idea that race, culture, ethnicity, and language are a problem in a child’s education. Teachers are “intellectual bloomers”; they are responsible for feeding the children with positive feedback and giving them the time and patience it takes to develop these skills.
Hollywood loves education success stories, especially when they have to do with teachers pushing inner city students off the ground and into the wonders of education. In 1988, the movie Stand and Deliver hit the silver screen. It is based on a mathematics teacher, Jamie Escalante, who is determined to teach calculus to students that society expects to fail due to negative racial conceptions and economic status. In 2007, the movie Freedom Writers, a young teacher helps a group of at-risk students become open-minded and pursue their education after high school. I am glad that movies such as these show the world that dedicated teachers can make a huge difference in the lives of these students.
Posted below are the movie trailer for Stand and Deliver and a 10-minute Behind the Scenes of Freedom Writers.