Exploring the Master Narrative: Racial Knowledge and Understanding of Language and Literacy Pedagogy for Special Education Teacher Candidates
Morgan State University Abstract
Researchers have revisited the influence of African American English (AAE) many times within extant scholarship over the past four decades. However, the resulting pedagogical developments within teacher training programs are inadequate. Through a survey of literature of relevant topics, this article provides a framework regarding the training for preservice teachers to ensure they understand the historical intersectionality of race, gender, and language especially when educating African American males. We believe the dismal underperformance of African American males and their significant disproportionality in special education should enliven the focus of reform efforts on the instructional and dispositions towards non-standard English, such as African American English, which influence the fidelity of instruction.
Keywords: African American boys, African American English, Disproportionality
As teacher educators, we seek to empower our preservice teachers with varying forms of cultural capital to help ensure their academic and career-based successes (Lareau, 1997). Our preservice teachers seem to recognize lessons around social capital, often, only after being provided with foundational knowledge regarding the genesis of the social systems that influence inequitable outcomes for marginalized people, thus making dominant forms of cultural capital important to understand. As a means of providing foundational knowledge regarding multidialecticism, or forms of cultural capital related to speech, we engaged preservice teachers around Geneva Smitherman’s (1977) and Lisa Delpit’s (2006) work which explores connections between language and power dynamics that influence inequitable academic and social outcomes for many African American learners. In response, one teacher candidate wrote: “On a personal note, I had no idea about the history of black dialect. In the past, my impression was that in order for students to get ahead in the world they must speak the ‘Queen’s English.’ I still think that is the case, but I now see that there are other ways for students to communicate effectively without losing their identity.”
Too often, teachers lack the preparation and exposures needed to address mindsets related to speech such as those reflected within the student quote above. Rather than simply focus on conformity and denigrate the primary yet non-dominant speaking cultures of marginalized populations of learners, teachers have the abilities to disrupt negative yet dominant assumptions about intellect that are connected to use of non-standard English dialects, such as African American English (AAE).
The teacher candidate quote above served as motivation for the inception of this article which advocates for educating preservice teachers to explore the master narrative about the ways that language is used to denigrate the learning potential of marginalized of African American children, particularly African American boys. Without knowledge about the foundations and structures of language, the histories of diverse language differences, the myth of Standard English, or how language is difficult to disentangle from race, social class, and gender, amongst other social constructs, teachers may unknowingly embrace teaching pedagogies that favor speakers of Standard American English (SAE) at the expense of speakers of diverse English forms, such as AAE. This lack of knowledge regarding language differences contributes towards the cycles of underperformance for African American males. Teacher education programs have a responsibility to ensure that preservice teachers understand the ways that power dynamics related to language intersect with race, and class to marginalize students so that they, in turn, can learn to challenge this hegemonic language system and learn to empower students through critical teaching pedagogies.
While some embrace perspectives that content knowledge is the only expertise needed to effectively engage in the teaching and learning processes, many educators and researchers alike understand the significance of developing teaching pedagogies (Bacon, Banks, Young, & Jackson, 2007; Shulman, 1986; Shulman & Shulman, 2007). Pedagogy involves the subconscious beliefs that influence a teacher’s interactions with content, students, and the presentation of information (Freire, 1970; Giroux, 1997). Although time consuming and tedious, many teacher education programs attempt to address this task by helping teacher candidates to explore content (Koehler, Mishra, Kereluik, Shin, & Graham, 2013; Sanders-Smith & Gaumer, 2016; Wilkinson, Reznitskaya, & Bourdage, 2017; Paige & Hardy, 2018) and a plethora of terms that fall under the diversity moniker (Adams & Bell, 2016; Ladson-Billings, 1999). Despite these efforts, engagements around language diversity for African American learners with preservice teachers is often missing from courses of study that are aligned with teacher certification. This is problematic because teachers’ perceptions of language diversity plays an indelible role in ways speakers of non-standard English are perceived, viewed, and treated by teachers, which, in turn, influence learning outcomes for African American students (Labov, 1969; Rickford, 1999; Dyson & Smitherman, 2009).
This article provides a conceptual overview regarding the need to prepare preservice teachers about the ways that language is used to disempower African American males through the creation of a teaching framework. Our challenge is to cypher the varying bodies of research related to AAE from the different research bases such as Speech and Language, Multicultural Education, Urban Education, History, and Sociology. The goal of the framework is to ensure that preservice teachers are gaining access to those exposures that might help them to understand and disrupt cycles of castigating African American males based on their speech. In doing so, this article connects the ways that speech contributes towards the matrices of social constructs (ex: race, class, and gender) that are used to elevate some and disempower others. Additionally, this article is significant because it serves as a call to action for teacher education programs to prepare preservice teachers to understand the ways the myths regarding SAE are used against marginalized learners in the same ways as race, class, and gender are used to diminish the potential of children. Although important, this topic is largely overlooked within teacher education research.
Additionally, this article seeks to bolster understandings regarding the ways that language knowledge contributes towards the matrices of social constructs that are used to elevate some and disempower others. We intentionally use the voices of special education teacher candidates to demonstrate the importance of the intersection between cultural and language knowledge for preservice teachers as an impetus for improving reading performance for African American students, and, potentially, reducing the overrepresentation of African American boy labeled as students with language and reading disabilities.
The Need for the Master Narrative Framework
Language is a seemingly innocuous element of learning that reflects the basic necessity of communication. This perspective is problematic. Language is a tool that is a divisive tool that contributes towards a belief system that marginalizes African American males. There is a misconception that language reflects intellect. Teachers, too often, perpetuate this misconception within schools as standards of SAE are reinforced at the expense of other dialects. Teacher education programs have a unique responsibility to help address the misconceptions that link dialect usage and intelligence. Ultimately, teachers’ assumptions about students influences interactions with students. If a teacher holds a negative perception of a child, those interactions with the child will reflect those negative perceptions, which will, in turn, contribute towards that child forming negative perceptions of himself, possessing lower aspirations when compared to classmates, and underperforming academically. While varying social constructs, such as race and social class, play a more apparent role in the ways that teachers interact with students (Rist, 1970), language and dialect use also contribute towards teachers’ assumptions about children’s intellectual abilities (Blake and Cutler, 2003; Cross, Devaney & Jones, 2001; Fogel and Ehri, 2006; Godley, Reaser, & Moore, 2015).
Teacher education programs have a unique responsibility to expose preservice teachers to the ways that speech is used to uphold hegemonies that create inequalities for African American males. For starters, teacher candidates need greater training related to differences between multilingualism and multidialecticism. Multilingualism typically refers to students who qualify as English Language Learners and they speak multiple and different languages. Multidialecticism refers the variations of the same language. In English, there are a multitude of variations of the English language. However, some dialects, such SAE, are valued over non-standard dialects such as AAE. Beyond exposing to these concepts associated with language, teachers need greater exposures to the myth that “proper” English exists (Alim, Rickford & Ball, 2016; Charity-Hudley & Mallison, 2010; Debose, 2007; Delpit, 2006; Fogel & Ehri, 2006; Hill, 2008). Although a plethora of research studies exists exploring the rules associated with varying dialects, including African American English, myth of SAE superiority still persists (Wolfram, Adler & Christian, 2007; Dyson & Smitherman, 2009; Labov, 1972; Rickford, 1999).
As a consequence, teachers are in need of preparation, especially when interacting with African American males, to acknowledge how speech serves as one of the first devices used by teachers to denigrate the intelligence, cultures, and historical identities of marginalized children (Hilliard, 1983). When teacher candidates hear non-standard variation of English, they often “have been unprepared to understand the language phenomena which they observe” (p 26) and rely on popularized yet unproven assumptions that non-standard English language use is broken, ghetto or slang and ultimately reflective of depravity and inadequacy. Deficit perspectives of language use during reading instruction may cause teachers to erroneously identify speakers of AAE as individuals who are in need of special education services. Special education teachers who participated in our course also engaged in tutoring within a community center that was located in a public housing community. The multicultural field placement was an important part of the course that allowed teacher candidates to reflect on consequential connections between their instruction and the socio-cultural context (the community). A teacher education candidate reflected on the importance of understanding language differences when conducting a reading assessment, “the children we tutored had a different way of pronouncing certain words, but I realized it did not matter as long as he/she was reading the words correctly.”
Similarly, within his seminole text, The MisEducation of the Negro, Carter G Woodson (1972) addresses the ways that teachers view non-standard English. Woodson writes, “in the study of language in school pupils were made to scoff at the Negro dialect as some peculiar possession of the Negro which they should despise rather than directed to study the background of this language” (p.19). Although published in 1933, about 85 years ago, Woodson’s words still carry a poignant and relevant message related to teachers lack of knowledge and their misconceptions of African American English. Because teacher education program either disregard training around speech or fail to provide in depth understandings about the ways that teachers’ perspectives regarding multidialecticism upholds SAE myths and prejudices (Godley, Reaser, & Moore, 2015; Luke, 2010; Spring, 2016), teachers fail to recognize that language reflects linguistic antecedents, cultural identity and sociopolitical contexts (Hilliard, 1983) and not intelligence.
Preservice Teachers Learning to Challenge the Dominant Narrative Regarding Speech
Several bodies of research help to conceptually understand the need for greater emphasis on speech within teacher education programs. The framework below, referred to herein as the Master Narrative Framework (MNF), provides insight to those bodies of research that teacher educators can consider as they work to expose the ways that the history of African American English in schools, overrepresentation of African American males in schools, teacher’s assumptions about speech, and speech myths about standard English converge to create problematic cycles of inequitable learning outcomes for African American males (AAM).
Master Narrative Framework
Language & African American English
Despite widespread research about African American English in the 1960’s and 1970’s, African American English remains under-analyzed, unexplored, and believed to be, largely, an a-historical language (Baldwin, 1979; Bailey, 1965; Labov, 1972; Rickford, 1973; Wolfram, 1969). African American English is one of a wide variety of terms used to describe the language spoken by some African Americans in the United States; other terms include Ebonics, African American Vernacular English, and Africanized English (Charity, 2008; Smitherman, 1998; Perry & Delpit, 1998). Charity (2008) notes that SAE, also referred to as School English, is a term used to describe English dialects that are typically used in public arenas for commerce, government, and education. Other early researchers agree that AAE differs significantly from SAE in several aspects of its structure, phonological, lexical, syntactic, and pragmatics dimensions (Labov, 1972; Martin & Wolfram, 1998; Smitherman, 2002). Although early Western linguists characterized AAE as broken, slovenly, or poor speech that reflects the characteristic intellectual ineptness of those of African heritage (Jensen, 1969), in recent years, many linguists have maintained that AAE is a systematic rule-governed language with distinctive patterns of syntax, phonology, and idiomatic expressions which are deeply rooted in the heritage of African peoples in the United States (Baugh, 2001; Rickford, 1998; Smitherman, 2002). Despite substantial scientific evidence which provides confirmation of AAE as a rule-governed language, there continues to be extensive debate about how and to what extent the use AAE negatively influences reading acquisition for African American children.
Overview of History of African American English in Schools
Although school districts, teachers, and teacher preparation programs have yet to adopt the legal perspectives of years of ligation surrounding AAE, we concur with Labov (1972) who proposes that “there is no reason to believe that any non-standard vernacular is in itself an obstacle to learning. The chief problem is ignorance of language on the part of all concerned” (p. 239). One special education teacher candidate also came to the same conclusion as two historic court decisions. She stated:
I have tried to incorporate cultural and linguistic experiences into my teaching. I have found that if the student and the teacher are aware that they are dealing with a different language and the different features…there is more clarity in instruction and learning. I feel that the emphasis on the valuing of the “inner” language of the student is crucial.
More than 40 years after the 1978 Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board court case it is unfortunate that language differences continues to be considered as a variable that marginalizes African American youth. In the 1978 Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board court case fifteen African American students were found to be erroneously placed in special education due to their use of AAE. Based on overwhelming testimonies from linguists, United States District Judge Charles Joiner ruled that teachers’ unconscious yet evident negative perceptions toward AAE impede students’ equal access to participation in educational instructional programs (Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board: Memorandum Opinion and Order, 1979). District Judge Joiner charged the Ann Arbor school board with failure to provide their teachers with adequate preparation regarding the language of African American children. Judge Joiner’s decision stressed the need for teacher preparation that focuses on teachers’ (1) understanding of the nature of language differences in the classroom, (2) recognition of the history of language used by speakers of African American English, and (3) implementation of culturally responsive language arts pedagogies.
Another historical debate surrounding which highlights the contention topic of AAE in schools is the 1996-1997 Ebonics movement in Oakland, California which was designed to help teachers use linguistic features of AAE to teach students SAE (Perry & Delpit, 1998). During the Ebonics debate African American students experienced a grade point average of 1.8 and African American students represented 71% of the students placed in special education (Barnes, 2006). Oakland School District was 53% African American during these discussions. The Oakland School Board attributed much of the failure to the language discontinuity experienced between teachers and students. The Oakland School Board contended:
Numerous validated scholarly studies demonstrate that African-American students as part of their culture and history an African people possess and utilize a language described in various scholarly approaches as “Ebonics” (literally Black sounds) or Pan-African Communication Behaviors or African Language Systems; and
Whereas, these studies have also demonstrated that African Language Systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English; and
Whereas, these studies demonstrate that such West and Niger-Congo African languages have been officially recognized and addressed in the mainstream public educational community as worthy of study, understanding, or application of its principles, laws, and structures for the benefit of African-American students both in terms of positive appreciation of the language and these students’ acquisition and mastery of English-language skills
Further, the school board recommended that teachers were trained in the use of AAE as an instructional method to bridge students’ communication patterns between AAE and SAE. Data that is disaggregated by race, gender, and socioeconomic status continue to demonstrate that African American males are disproportionality harmed by teachers’ insufficient knowledge of cultural differences. The persistent disproportional representation of African American male students in special education raises the question of whether or not we have exhausted the possibilities of appropriate preparation for general and special education teachers. The question of the influence of language when determining a language learning disability versus a language difference is not new. Yet, too often, preservice teachers graduate from formalized teacher preparation programs with limited exposure to the development of language, the significance of dialect and culture, and the ways that varying dialects are “falsely elevated” (Hilliard, 2002) while others are viewed as defective.
Reading Performance and African American English
Recent results of African American students’ reading performance have revealed the urgent need to address the complex nature of underachievement through multiple avenues. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, 2015) indicate that the average fourth grade reading score for African American students is 26-points lower than that of their European American peers. Statistically, the reading achievement gap between African American and European American fourth grade students has not closed much during the past decade. More alarming, on average, by the end of eighth grade only 16% of African American boys are at or above proficient in reading when compared to 44% of their European American male counterparts (National Assessment of Educational Statistics, 2015). Overall, approximately 80% of African American students fail to demonstrate the ability to comprehend challenging reading texts, apply analytic skills to benefit from the text, and, subsequently, apply the knowledge gained through reading to real world problems.
Researches offer numerous explanations for these disparities. Some of the more popular explanations include: (a) others argue there is a mismatch between the school language used by teachers and found in textbooks that differs from the language spoken by students creating a stumbling block to reading acquisition (Blake ; Cutler, 2003; Fogel ; Ehri, 2006; Godley, Reaster ; Moore, 2015); (b) some theorize that there is a widespread problem of teacher bias by which teachers characterize the speech patterns of African Americans as imperfect imitations of Standard English and conclude that students are require remediation (Adger, Wolfram ; Christian, 2007; Losen and Orfield, 2002; Miller-Jones, 1989); and, yet, (c) many suggest that African American students’ underperformance in reading is due to a school atmosphere absent of meaningful cultural representation and a lack of general appreciation for diversity within many schools (Delpit, 2002; Rist, 1970; Ladson Billings, 1999). These findings and the continued debate surrounding socially constructed variables that contribute to academic underperformance deserve continued investigation in teacher education program.
Discussions about teachers’ perceptions and attitudes regarding AAE have garnered some attention within research in the past. LeMoine and Hollie (2007) concluded that discussions of how best to promote positive attitudes toward speakers for whom SAE is not their first language in teacher preparation programs deserves better attention if we are to ensure equitable education for all students. Authorities assert that exposure to dialectal differences, even to a limited degree, helps to positively modify dispositions toward African American English in teacher education candidates (Bowie ; Bond, 1994; Fogel ; Ehri, 2006; Hollie, 2016; LeMoine ; Hollie, 2007). For instance, in a study conducted by Bowie and Bond (1994), preservice teachers were surveyed about their attitudes toward African-American English; three key findings emerged. The majority of preservice teacher responses were aligned with one of three categories: (a) indicated a belief that African-American English operates under a faculty grammar system and does not sound as good as standard English, (b) supported a general goal of standardization of English language in schools, and (c) reflected social acceptance of African-American English yet rejected the use of African-American English in schools. Their findings also indicate that teacher candidates with even a limited amount of exposure to the topic exhibit greater positive responses regarding AAE.
Scholars from previous years propose that knowing basic linguistic and language principles may assist teachers in distinguishing between a language disability and language difference. These scholars function from the premise that this basic knowledge may change teachers’ attitude toward speakers of non-standard English. Early examples of teacher attitudes toward ethnicity/race and language intersectionality is provided by Goodman and Buck (1973). Goodman and Buck (1973) found that teachers with less knowledge of African-American English were more likely to correct dialect-based errors during oral reading. They surmised that such interference impedes student comprehension by directing readers’ attention to language accuracy and away from reading for meaning. Washington and Miller-Jones (1989) discovered second grade teachers’ knowledge of phonological, syntactic, and stylistic components of AAE was significantly related to the way teachers addressed student miscues during oral reading with African-American students who readily use AAE. Those teachers with more knowledge of African-American English demonstrated more incidences of instructional practices found to align with best practices for reading development. These instructional practices included teacher-student interactions that fostered reading development through more student self-regulation and enhanced independent decoding strategies that allow for increased depth of processing. As Goodman and Buck (1973) contend “the solution to reading problems of divergent speakers lies in changing the attitude of teachers” (p. 6).
Teachers’ cultural familiarity with non-standard English dialects has shown to increase teacher self-efficacy, pedagogical persistence, fidelity toward instructional best practices when teaching students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (Banks, 2013; Gay, 2000; Cartledge ; Kourea, 2008; Kea ; Utley, 1998; Ladson-Billings, 1999). Consequently, there are pragmatic reasons to include discussions of AAE as central to the debate of overrepresentation. An understanding of diverse English forms, teacher knowledge about the histories of culturally and linguistically diverse students, as well as the ways schools facilitate or hinder the academic success of diverse learners can lead teachers to develop more affirming dispositions toward speakers of AAE.
African American Boys, Teacher Perceptions, and Language
African American boys have been caught in the crosshairs of intersecting hegemonic narratives about race, gender, and socioeconomic status for decades. Through the years researchers have documented how the stylistic behavioral patterns that are culturally appropriate for African American boys, and their peers, may be in conflict with behavior that is expected from successful students in a classroom environment (Bacon, Jackson, ; Young, 2005; Harper, 2009; Johnson, 2006; Neal, McCray, Webb-Johnson, ; Bridgest, 2003). For example, a verbal play that often occurs among African American boys is known as playing the dozens, or signifying (Hale, 1986; Wald, 2012). Playing the dozens is an interactive, competitive style of communication in which two participants exchange witty metaphors to insult other students or their family members (Wald, 2012). Teachers might misperceive the exchange as overly aggressive, verbal threats or an attempt to verbally intimidate others. African American boys’ cultural movement style has also been misrepresented. African American males’ walking styles– also known as the stroll or swagger –is often misinterpreted by teachers as threatening and evidence of behavior that undermines academic achievement in the educational environment (Neal, McCray, Webb-Johnson, & Bridgest, 2003). Although African American male behavior and language styles allow for unique demonstration of their personal identity, verbal verve, and, consequently, provide a sense of group identity with other African American males, these stylistic cultural behaviors often contribute to the mischaracterization of African American males as a dangerous threat (Collins, 2016). It is, therefore, reasonable to believe that teachers bring to the classroom societal stereotypes. Consequently, these cultural deviations from mainstream, Western society become conflated into deviant notions of intellect which contribute to the misidentification of African American males as students labeled with disabilities.
The statement below from a teacher education candidate, in conjunction with the literature on teacher attitudes, highlights the unique responsibility of teacher preparation programs to provide explicit instruction to preservice teachers about the way speech is used to uphold hegemonies that create inequalities for African American males. A teacher candidate who completed our reading course offered the compelling observation that “the course readings made me think that assessment data are used almost as punishment and to point students’ differences.” We also note that despite limited reading outcomes on national standardized reading assessments (NAEP, 2015), African American males possess non-standard English language skills which positively contribute to reading performance. For example, more recent studies indicate that African American preschool boys demonstrated sophisticated oral narrative skills, or storytelling skills, which positively influenced their reading abilities by sixth grade (Gardner-Neblett, Pungello, ; Iruka, 2011). Yet, curriculum-based interventions often fail to account for story construction, originality, and the use of a wide variety of story structures. Moreover, nationally standardized assessments (e.g., Wechsler Intelligence Scales for Children-V, Woodcock-Johnson IV, Peabody Picture Vocabulary-4, Expressive Vocabulary Test-2) commonly used in the identification of students with special needs are absent of the cultural skills demonstrated by African American male students. Teachers may find that building on students’ assets by fostering storytelling skills would be a beneficial, and culturally responsive, multi-tiered intervention strategy which enhances reading skills in later grades for African American boys.
Currently African American boys are at the highest risk of being labeled with a disability (Ford, 2012; Harry & Klingner, 2014; Moore, Henfield, & Owens, 2008). More specifically in educational settings, African American students represent approximately 17.13% of the total public school population, while they account for more than 26% of the children served in special education classrooms (Aud, et al., 2011; Ford, 2012) and African-American male students represent only 9% of the total school age population. Yet, they constitute a third of the students in public schools labeled with an intellectual disability. In the categories of learning disability and emotional disturbance, African-American males are disproportionately represented accounting for 12% and 21% respectively (Aud, et al., 2011). Furthermore, African American students identified as learning disabled are three times more likely to receive services in a separate setting and seven times more likely if they are identified as speech language impaired (Skiba, et al., 2006). More alarming, once labeled as having a disability, African American students are less likely than their European-American counterparts to be exited from special education and exhibit lower achievement gains while in special education (Aud, et al., 2011). Current educational statistics indicate that disproportionality displays provide evidence of significant educational failures for African American male students. The causes of African American male student overrepresentation in special education and students’ reading failure are multifaceted and complex. However, current researchers continue to produce overwhelming evidence that “unconscious racial bias, stereotypes, and other race-linked factors have a significant impact on the patterns of identification, placement, and quality of services for minority children” (Losen ; Orfield, 2002, p. xxii).
Teacher Education ; African American English Language Myth
The use of teacher candidate narratives throughout the manuscript provides insight into the transformations special education teacher candidates experienced as they were exposed to the histories of AAE while learning about literacy pedagogies. The brief narratives demonstrate that teacher education candidates began to think about the dilemma that exist in appropriately identifying culturally and linguistically diverse students as students with special needs, e.g., whether a teacher can appropriately distinguish between culturally and linguistically diverse students with intrinsic language learning disabilities and those with environmental language differences. The teacher candidates in our course found it important to affirm the existence of students’ plurality in their ways of thinking, talking, behaving, and learning while advancing an instructional agenda of bi-dialecticism. DeBose (2007) explains bi-dialecticism as the process employed by educators when they affirm utilitarian value of speaking Standard English even as they also “affirm the rights of speakers of all language varieties to speak them with pride and assurance” (p. 42). Knowledge and understanding of the students’ language backgrounds allowed teacher candidates to validate the students’ cultural capital and integrate these funds of knowledge in meaningful ways into the classroom (Garcia & Ortiz, 2008; Harry & Klingner, 2014).
We must also recognize that teacher candidates may have limited understanding of multiple historical perspectives which impact their interactions with African American children. Ladson-Billings (1999) states that “teacher candidates’ historical thinking and the development of the history curriculum via textbooks makes it unlikely that prospective teachers come into teacher preparation with any sense of history and its impact on our current social, political, and economic situation” (p. 224). More teacher education courses are needed that are designed to address teacher candidates’ dispositions toward AAE and move them toward more culturally responsive pedagogies, over time, some educators may began to examine their own instructional practices as mediated by cultural assumptions which are situated in cultural historical stereotypes. This multiple historical perspective is important in teacher candidates’ understanding of how their actions contribute to what Appelbaum (2004) and Blanchett, Klingner, and Harry (2009) characterizes as “institutional oppression” or discriminatory practices which are built into education. We must engender in teacher candidates a desire to reverse these trends. Because teacher education program either disregard preparation around language or fail to provide in-depth understandings about the ways that teachers perspectives regarding multidialecticism upholds SAE myths and prejudices (Godley, Reaser, & Moore, 2015; Luke, 2004; Spring, 2016), African American males students continue to find themselves disproportionality represented in classrooms for students with language and learning disabilities. Hilliard appropriately reminds us that language reflects linguistic antecedents, cultural identity and sociopolitical contexts (Hilliard, 1983), and not intelligence.
It is not those in power, it is us, common folk like you and me. And it is not just poverty, and dialects and race that are the impetus for untoward treatment, it also includes those who are obese, mentally ill, the elderly, and other disabilities. When we use the word power it assumes someone out there, and hence we are not prompted to examine our own actions. Many of these prejudices are things we learned as children in our homes and have perpetuated as adults. Without a serious wake up call, many people never let go of these thinking patterns. It’s simply too easy and quite insufficient to say it is those in power who are at fault. (Special Education Teacher Candidate)
Language diversity is a critical component of cultural competence. Cultural competence is essential when addressing the learning needs of historically marginalized populations, such as African American males, who may speak in non-standard ways. Yet, the topic of African American English has largely become disregarded in discussions of diversity and the achievement gap. There is an increased acknowledgement among educators about the substantial need to instill in teachers an appreciation of the dynamic and intersecting components of diversity, language being one of those. Once understood, ideally, diversity can be incorporated meaningfully into conversations and solutions that seek to address institutions bias and address inequitable learning outcomes. Although teacher education programs have responded to this need by placing emphasis on issues of social justice in connection with a concentration on English Language Learners (Lucas & Villegas, 2011), in our experience, the translingual experiences of African American students are not typically included; indeed, the topic of African American linguistic histories is often missing in discussions of equity and, even, courses focused on reading and language development for diverse learners.
Incorporating sociolinguistic theory with discussions of overrepresentation has been somewhat underdeveloped often because teacher educators, themselves, are unsure of the history of American and African American English; simultaneously, special education teaching pedagogies silently push to normalize students into the dominant society while ignoring the necessity of cultural agency (Patton, 1998). The relationship between African American English and limited educational expectations afforded to African American children is not a new topic, nor is the discussion of how schools should attend to such concerns in the classroom. What this study adds to the existing body of research is an understanding of the growing trend toward intersectionality and how critical pedagogy can inform pedagogical practice in teacher education programs, which has the potential to improve educational outcomes for African American male students, and other culturally and linguistically diverse students.
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