Wednesday, January 10, 2018

What Kind of English is "Correct"?


First of all, if you search Google images for "ebonics," this is the only thing that comes up that is not totally offensive. I don't recommend doing the search.

The ebonics (more correctly called African American Vernacular English or AAVE) debate started when I was in college, and wasn't talked about in those terms when I was teaching, but was definitely discussed, usually in derogatory terms.

"Why can't they use proper English?"

"I'm so tired of hearing "axe" instead of "ask"!

"It's not "bafroom," it's "bathroom""!

Usually there was some eye rolling and muttering about how uneducated people were, and even sometimes the expression "those people" which I hate.

I'm not going to explain how AAVE evolved but if you're interested, check out John Rickford's work, which is fascinating and very informative. Even a quick search on Wikipedia can acquaint you with the history of AAVE, which was influenced by slavery, the South, etc. I am not a linguist, so please forgive me if

I am going to tell you about how I dealt with this in my classroom. I didn't get any training on this, and only a very little bit on how to help kids who spoke other language. So I had to improvise.

Most of my kids spoke in AAVE, no matter what their race, because that was the dominant speech pattern of the neighborhood. Like many people do, they referred to "Standard English" as "talking like white people." If someone spoke in Standard English, they'd say they sounded white. When I corrected their writing, they referred to it as "white people talk."

I didn't really like this idea of white people being correct and so I tried to phrase it differently. Again, remember I had no training on this, was young, and was working alone.

I told them that everyone writes differently than they talk. Everyone! They objected, saying that white people talked the way they wrote. I said no, think about me! I say "like" way too much. I say "you know" and "gonna." I don't write that way!

They thought about this.

I told them that if I were talking to the President (not our current one) or was in a job interview, I would talk the way I wrote. That's what we call "formal." But normally, I speak informally.

The light bulb went on.

"So, if I SAY toofbrush, I should write it without the f? And if I meet the President, I should say it how I write it?"

It worked for me. I'd be curious, if any other teachers care to share, how you dealt with this? And go read Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. It is well worth reading.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Only Allowed One Ring

My friend Mitali and I went to visit Jorge in prison again, this time, much farther away. As I explained before, the visitor appointment system leaves something to be desired. But we finally got appointments and got to bring Jorge’s Abuela also.

The trip down was long. Very long, and very dull, driving down I-5 with nothing to see. Abuela only speaks Spanish, even after over 35 years in this country, so Mitali and I were trying to speak Spanish, which requires a lot more concentration for both of us than speaking English! Probably because of this, we missed the exit.

Unfortunately for us, I-5 didn’t have another exit for almost 20 miles. Fortunately for us, we were running early. But when we pulled up to the guard gate and weren’t sure which yard to ask for, I think we all got a little nervous. I remembered writing “D” on his letters and asked for D yard, which turned out to be correct.


Getting in to see him was more difficult than before as well. They took an inventory of all our jewelry for us to carry with us, to make sure we didn't give anything to an inmate. There were limits. For example, I could only wear one ring. Fortunately, Abuela was not wearing any, so she wore one of my rings for the entire visit so I could get in. I'm not sure what danger that second silver ring posed, but the limit was one.

There was a much longer walkway than in the other prison, but it wasn't raining this time, so we walked for what seemed like a very long time to get to the building with the visiting facilities. Once we got there, we handed our jewelry inventories and IDs to another guard, and sat and waited. And waited, and waited. We had an appointment and they knew when we signed in and were checked at the first processing center that we were coming, but they don't.

I get the feeling that inconvenience for families is not something that anyone in prison administration cares about.

As we waited, I could see Abuela looking every time a door opened. Finally Jorge came in and walked over to us. When they hugged, I was so glad we had brought her and so ashamed that I hadn't thought of it, but that Jorge had to ask me.

Talking to him was wonderful, and Mitali and I talked to him about his cellmate (he doesn't get any visitors, not any, ever. Apparently he's a pretty positive person), and writing, and more. We left after an hour to let his Abuela have time with him.

She was a whole different person on the way home. She didn't seem to mind the drive, or her tiredness, or spilling soda on her jacket. She was so happy to have seen Jorge. I imagine that it's quite the roller coaster - being happy to see him and then missing him and worrying about him, but at least they got to have time together.



Thursday, December 07, 2017

Prison Visits


The paperwork that I got from the prison where Jorge is incarcerated mentions that visits are essential for inmates' morale and rehabilitation. One would think, then that they might make visits feel a little more... possible.

I've been trying to set up a visit for myself, my friend who graciously drove me last time and will do so this time (3.5 hours one way!! She's a saint), and Jorge's grandmother, who hasn't been able to visit him since he moved to the prison farther away. She was his guardian for most of his childhood and it's breaking her heart that she can't see him.

Trying to get all three of us to visit, I called the prison's visiting appointment hotline. It is only available for three hours a week (Tuesday mornings, 7-10 am) and you can only make appointments two weeks in advance. If you don't make an appointment, you can show up for "open visiting" but it seems to be first-come first-served (I can't get a straight answer on how it works) and as it's 3.5 hours away, that's not idea.

It took me a while to get everybody's drivers' license information, and I had it ready and called shortly after the window opened on Tuesday. Busy signal. I tried again. Busy signal. I had to call SEVENTY-FOUR TIMES before I could get through and make the appointment.



This leads me to a number of frustrations:

The three-hour-a-week time period to call doesn't work for anyone who works Tuesday mornings and isn't allowed to make a phone call.

If you are allowed to make a phone call from work Tuesday mornings, it's highly unlikely that you'd be allowed to stay on the phone for over an hour hitting redial.

If visits are important for rehabilitation and morale, shouldn't they be, well... important?

I'm furious, but we got the appointments. Now I just have to call Saturday morning to make sure the prison isn't on lockdown. If anything happens, we will have made the whole drive for nothing.




Monday, December 04, 2017

Abuela

My student who is in prison, Jorge, has a very dedicated grandmother. We’ll call her Abuela. Abuela took over raising him when his mother couldn’t, and like all of us, she’s made her mistakes and had her struggles, but there is no doubt that she loves Jorge and her other grandkids and will do anything for them.

Abuela came to the United States as a young woman; I believe about 18 or 19, with a toddler. I may be a little off on the ages, but I know that Jorge’s mom would be 38 if she were still alive and Abuela is only 54, so she was a young mother.

I don’t know much about her history before she came to the United States, but I know school was not a part of it. Abuela was not taught to read or write in any langugae. She cannot speak English, although she can understand some, and she cannot read and write in Spanish. She is an intelligent woman who never had the chance to study.

When I had Jorge in my class, he forged his grandmother’s signature on permission slips because she couldn’t write her name. I knew this, and I just didn’t know what to do. I’d call her to make sure she knew about the trip and would get verbal permission in my not-great Spanish.

I’m now trying to help Abuela go see Jorge in prison. The prison he got moved to has a very difficult appointment system, that is hard for me to understand, and Im’ a native English speaker with a college degree and a teaching credential.

In trying to make appointments for us, I had to get her state ID card number, which she has memorized and was able to get to me. I had asked her the day before and she had time to prepare. But when I asked her how to spell her first name (there are two possible spellings), she paused. She told me to wait a minute, and went and got her granddaughter. Her granddaughter had to spell her grandmother’s own name, because Abuela didn’t know how.

I say this not to shame her, but for the exact opposite reason. The fact that this woman has been able to survive and raise children in a country that does not welcome her, where she doesn’t speak the language, and without ever having been taught to read or write: THAT is bravery. She is a hero.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Talking to Teachers

I had the distinct pleasure last weekend of speaking to the Yuba City area chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, a professional society for women educators. I was a little intimidated because in this group of mostly retired educators, there were literally hundreds of years of experience altogether. And here I was, only having spent eight years in the classroom, talking to them! I felt like I should have been the one seated and listening.

The experience, however, was amazing. I was so honored by the compliments on my book, because I knew that these people understood. These were not empty words of flattery from people who say, "Oh, I could never do that!" These were people who had been in the trenches themselves, who knew the exhaustion of teaching, the feeling of finally maybe not being tired on your LAST day of vacation before you go back. They understood what it's like to not be able to sleep because you're so worried about a child who's not related to you, or to dream about your students every night.

I've spoken in Yuba City twice now, once at a church and once at the Delta Kappa Gamma meeting. I knew someone who invited me to speak at the church, and I liked her, but I wasn't sure how it was going to go - if they'd be shocked at the conditions in Oakland or if they just wouldn't be able to relate. (If you don't know, Oakland is extremely urban and Yuba City is extremely NOT urban. It's in between Sacramento and Chico, surrounded by a whole lot of beauty but not many people or cities).

What I learned is that we've all taught kids in poverty, and kids dealing with urban poverty and those dealing with rural poverty have more in common than different. We've all had students who don't have enough to eat, who have been abused, who have been neglected, who don't know people love them, who think they're stupid, or who think they're bad. In this community that is so different from Oakland, the teachers are the same. We all got up every day trying to make a difference. It was such an honor to be able to talk to others who have done this.




Saturday, November 11, 2017

"Grieving Behind Bars"

A friend sent me this article called The Singular Sorrow of Grieving Behind Bars. This friend has been with me to visit my former student "Jorge" who is in prison and knows how much he can relate to this. Jorge's mother, never a stable person, died two years ago at the age of 36. He is in prison for 19 years and could not attend her funeral and could not attend the mass said for her on the one-year anniversary of her death. (I was honored to be invited to that and took pictures to send to him of the altar with flowers and her photos).

It made me think about how hard grieving is. I mean, when a person has support, community, and ceremonies for closure, grief is still really really hard. The hardest thing for humans. Now I try to imagine doing that while locked up, with no family or friends, and no freedom. No closure, no ceremonies, no ability to see the person one more time or be surrounded by others grieving.

I don't know if I could do that. I mean, I don't know if I'd *ever* get past that loss. I think it would calcify and fester and I'd be a meaner, more bitter, more dangerous person than anything that got me locked up.

What do you all think?

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Teacher in Training


My seven-year-old niece is practicing being a teacher. Many of us did this to some extent. I'm pretty sure I forced my sister and brother to sit still while I read spelling words to them that they didn't care about.

Later, when I really was a teacher, I would see fifth-grade students come into my third-grade classroom and help kids in that same way, the "I really feel special acting like a teacher," way.

It's really fun to see kids do that. It's very special to see that the relationship is so important that they imitate it and aspire to it.

My niece, S, is very committed to her teacher role, not even slowed down by the fact that she doesn't have any siblings. She has been a teacher for her stuffed monkey, my parents' dog, and lately, a collection of stuffed squashes she was given.

It's really fun to see how excited she gets about playing school. She writes out schedules that are better than any school I've ever seen: "Hello, Drawing, Snack, Recess, French, Art." She writes poems for her students that are more creative than any I ever wrote for mine. 
She writes encouraging notes to the parents of her student (my parents' Golden Retriever): 
"Your dahter is a bad student. 
A. She is stinkey.
B. She dosen't do any work.
P.S. She needs a bath.
P.S. I'll help."
And she's very patient with her youngest students, baby stuffed squashes. She even told her mom that they can't really read, you know, because they're just babies!

I wish I could be excited about S wanting to be a teacher. Clearly, she has years to change her mind, but I would love to foster this love and get her really excited about being a teacher. How do I tell her one day that being a teacher is amazing and rewarding, but she'd better marry well because she won't be able to afford to live? How do I tell her that she'll have so many ideas for how to inspire her students, only to have to spend weeks giving them standardized tests?

For now, I'll try to enjoy it.  She really is very gifted. And she loves Halloween! She's be a wonderful teacher.