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February 2012 Archives

"Standard English is that set of grammatical and lexical forms which is typically used in speech and writing by educated native speakers. It includes the use of colloquial and slang vocabulary, as well as swear words and taboo expressions. There are no set rules or vocabulary for "Standard English" because, unlike languages such as French, Spanish or Dutch, English does not have a governing body...," said Dr. Peter Trudgill a sociolinguist. 

Knowing that we adapt our use of English to specific environments, it is not surprising that our language changes whenever we are relaxing at home with parents/family, or in a classroom, board room, or university. And our regional accents or dialect are often reflected as we speak. Class may also be added as another variable which influences our speech patterns. All of the aforementioned become the language we must capture as we write as we find our voice.

Writers adapt their writing styles for many reasons...as well. When Sandra Cisneros writes that she has "returned for those who have no out," her message is very clear. She is aware of the correct English grammatical patterns. However, she chose to use the words which matched the context of the story. The story dictated how language would be altered to create the mood and picture conveyed.

It is interesting to note that Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906) could not find a market for his verses in "Standard" English.

"I am tired, so tired of dialect," he said. " I send out graceful little poems, suited for any of the magazines, but they are returned to me by editors who say, Dunbar, but we do not care for the language compositions." Today Dunbar is remembered because of the poetry which was written in dialect. For example:

LITTLE lady at de do',
W'y you stan' dey knockin'?
Nevah seen you ac' befo'
In er way so shockin'.
Don' you know de sin it is
Fu' to git my temper riz
W'en I's got de rheumatiz
An' my jints is lockin'?

Conversely, in the 1770s Phillis Wheatley wrote:

TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train

Phillis Wheatley died penniless in 1784.

Therefore, we soon realize that creating new pieces of literature in the classroom is an arduous task. And prior to launching the writing process, I have found it necessary to saute the students in some of the best literature possible as Lucy Caulkins recommends.  Although the list of books is long and wide, I rely on the magic of Sandra Cisneros' "The House on Mango Street" to facilitate this journey.

Quite often the word from another culture is the only word that works in a particular context. Before using the word "temerity" to describe a situation, I changed it to "audacity." However, I could have used "chutzpah" or any one of the following synonyms: HARDIHOOD, EFFRONTERY, NERVE, CHEEK, or GALL. Frank McCourt, like many of today's gifted writers, has also brilliantly infused his cultural heritage into the language of "Angela's Ashes."

Today the English language is becoming more and more inclusive. And as Hip Hop vocabulary words become infused in the media, dictionaries, and universities, a new genre is emerging. Thus, I have encouraged my students to use words from any known lexicon. However, they must use italics to distinguish these words from the words that are not found in our English Dictionary. This phenomenon is also witnessed in Cisneros' "The House on Mango Street."

When my students took an imaginary trip to their ancestral home, their essays were filled with words and phrases which described the foods, greetings, and land of their ancestors. This fifth grade class had students from 15 different nations. And although many had never stepped foot on foreign soil, they used the information their parents had imparted to them over the years, to guide them on their vicarious journey. Their stories validated the land and language of their ancestors. It was truly amazing to watch the lesson unfold with revelations from Yemen, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Nigeria.

As educators, we are reminded by Haim Ginott that it is our approach that creates the climate in the classroom. It is our daily word that makes the weather in our classroom. And if the environment in our classroom is safe, many good things will happen.

Our students are writing to be read. Thus, they are very vulnerable. They are truly putting their life on the line as... Lucy Calkins reminds us.

Teachers have the power to nurture emergent writers. They also have the ability to nurture dreams as well as validate the work of their students.

"The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros is a beginning. Like so many pieces of great literature, "Mango Street" shows how the author can weave the language of two cultures to produce a masterpiece. And as students write in the genre of the author, they will find their voice in a remembrance of things past and present which will become their gift to the future.

In 1991, it seemed difficult to comprehend how 8,800 prison cells were on the drawing board in New York State. Yet the prospect of building new schools to replace our crumbling schools had become a dream deferred. So the question is asked: Where were the political pundits who campaigned on a platform for education? How had their commitment to education manifested itself? Today we see the results of their actions.
"There are currently two million Americans in prison -- 25 percent of the world's prison population. In the US, it costs $56 billion dollars a year to maintain our nation's prisons, and an additional $2.6 billion dollars is poured into building new ones annually. Therefore, the Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) are calling for designers to stop investing our national economic and social resources in the construction and renovation of prisons," announced ADPSR in January of 2006
"Prisons drain our economy our money that could be used for education and social services." 
According to the ACLU, "The 'school-to-prison pipeline' describes an alarming trend wherein public elementary, middle and high schools are pushing youth out of classrooms and into the juvenile justice and criminal justice system. Under the banner of 'zero tolerance,' schools increasingly are relying on inappropriately harsh discipline and, increasingly, law enforcement, to address trivial schoolyard offenses among even the youngest students." 
"Hearing sponsors in Florida heard testimony from innumerable witnesses, including prosecutors and juvenile court judges, who expressed grave concerns that schools have turned away from education-based approaches to discipline and now handle far too many instances of typical student misbehavior by relying on law enforcement and the courts, and imposing punishments that needlessly remove students from school," said the NAACP in 2007.
In May 2007, Congressman Rangel addressed the United Federation of Teachers. He cautioned against allowing the streets to educate our youth. Rangel called for government incentives to develop youth and not give up on those who have fallen. He reminded us of the 2 million children who are "locked up" and the high cost of incarceration of these children; the incarceration which costs the taxpayer approximately $100,000.00 per annum for a youth-offender on Rikers Island.
Today, Rangel advocates for more resources in the schools as well as different resources for the myriad problems which the students have to face. "If we can spend 10 billion dollars on an unnecessary war, we can feed the minds of our kids." said Rangel. "We cannot survive by losing one half of the brain power."
It was forty years ago that Martin Luther King addressed the UFT. At that time he said the following:
"The richest nation on earth has never allocated enough of its abundant resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige their work justifies. We squander funds on highways and the frenetic pursuit of recreation , on the overabundance of overkill armaments, but we pauperize education."
Surely, Rangel has an awesome task ahead as the new chairperson of the Ways and Means Committee. He is in the position of power in a place where he can influence change: Our Nation's Capital. And as a well-seasoned public servant, who has remained on the frontline on many battles from 1948 to the present, we can be assured that the future of this nation is in good hands. However, as Americans we have every right to challenge those who represent us in government. We have every right to hold legislators accountable for the pledges they have made regarding their commitment to education. We can see from the past mistakes of legislators exactly why it would have been more economically sound and beneficial to this nation if the legislators had invested in education and not in prisons.

"The richest nation on earth has never allocated enough of its abundant resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige their work justifies. We squander funds on highways and the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on the over abundance of overkill armaments, but we pauperized education," said Martin Luther King in his speech at UFT Spring Conference, 1964.

But, how is education pauperized, today?

 "Just last week, 300 New Orleans school children were shut out of schools and denied an education they badly need because the city says it doesn't have enough space or teachers. So, instead of studying in classrooms, 300 students are sitting at home waiting for space to open up in schools," wrote James Parks of the American Federation of Labor in his January 30th Weblog.

"The first district is New Orleans, where the Bush US Department of Education and the Louisiana governor used the devastation caused by Katrina as an opportunity to dismantle the public school system. Like everything else that the Bush administration has done in post-Katrina New Orleans, the result was a man made catastrophe on top of the natural disaster," wrote Leo Casey on Edwize.

It is inconceivable to think that there are children in this great nation who are missing out on an education. And if something is not done very soon, history will repeat itself.

History teaches us that the students of Prince Edward County were denied the benefits of a public education in Prince Edward County from 1959 - 1964. For five years the public schools were closed . Hence, the black students who remained in Prince Edward County were not afforded the benefits of any formal education. Consequently, they have been variously dubbed "the lost generation" and "the crippled generation" by reporters and researchers studying the long-term effects of educational deprivation, according to Bagly; Longwood College, Virginia.

How are funds squandered on the frenetic pursuit of recreation, today?

It is ironic that the bridge which collapsed in Minneapolis caused a cancellation of a ground breaking ceremony for a new baseball stadium. Furthermore there is a proposal for another stadium under consideration on the University of Minnesota's campus estimated at $288 million. It is reported that this stadium would be funded with private and corporate contributions, as well as funds from the state of Minnesota.

How do we squander funds "on the over abundance of overkill armaments" today?

Case in point, the war in Iraq: "If we can spend 10 billion dollars on an unnecessary war, we can feed the minds of our kids." said Congressman Charles Rangel, Chair of the Ways and Means Committee."We cannot survive by losing one half of the brain power."

Therefore, I believe a basic education should not be a dream deferred but a dream realized. Our public schools must become structurally sufficient. Our public schools can no longer afford to produce youth who, like former slaves, are "partially educated sufficient to make their work efficient, but insufficient to raise them to equality," said Martin Luther King.

And finally, I believe it is necessary for all United States legislators who ran on a platform of educational equity and access must be summoned back to the legislature to map out a plan to get all disenfranchised students back in school. The bridges to nowhere can wait. Surely, the education of all children must be a national priority and not another national tragedy.

"Commencement at Morehouse College is a time of tradition and celebration - but perhaps more so this year. Amid lamentations about the dearth of black men in higher education, Morehouse graduated its largest class ever - nearly 600 educated African American men. No other institution in the world can match this impressive number" (Morehouse College 2006).

What has created this success story? How does this academic institution continue its legacy of excellence for over one hundred years? And how is this institution able to produce such impressive alumni as: Martin Luther King, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Lerone Bennett, Shelton "Spike" Lee, Dr. David Satcher, Maynard Jackson, Attorney Tyrone Means, Julian Bond, and James Nabrit from every strata of society.

Perhaps the difference is that someone had a dream for each one of these men before they could dream. That someone might have been a teacher. And once the student reached Morehouse, "From the first day on campus, he was told he was destined for greatness and could achieve no less,"  said Errin Hehmen Assistant Principal of Morehouse.

There are teachers today, who like pioneer Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1950), have "invested in a human soul knowing that "it could be a diamond in the rough." Because true educators know that diamonds, like our students, come in every hue.

Michael Lomax of the UNCF believes in the myriad possibilities of making miracles happen in classrooms. Also when he said: "There is this beacon out there that says if you create a challenging, demanding, yet nurturing and supportive environment, if you show these young men the possibilities and you discipline them to realize those possibilities, you can turn these statistics about black men around." It is obvious that the "bigotry of low expectations" and "benign neglect" have no place in our classrooms or nation.

Surely, there are programs which earnestly address the Plight of the African American Male in Education: Programs which provide residents with a stone of hope toward removing the growing mountain of despair which plagues our nation. These programs provide our nation with the process for change worthy of much praise and emulation. And that new trend: an infusion of exemplary programs, which are already in place within Westchester High Schools which work daily, toward ameliorating an insidious problem, which if left unchecked, negatively impacts society. 

The Woodlands Individualized Senior Experience; Ossinings' High Hopes Expectations College Track; Byram Hills' Intel Science Program; and Mount Vernon High School's Business Club, are positive proof  that there are already solutions to the heightening dropout rate among African American Males in Westchester public schools. These programs should be replicated nationwide. 

Peter Goodman of the UFT cites the following : "A Report issued by the Education Trust, (Teaching Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students Are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality) a major research institution, said: "...research shows ... that good teachers can have an enormous impact on student achievement."

Yes, we know good teachers do have an enormous impact on student achievement. The teachers are the keepers of the dreams. And that fact is exactly what educators have known all along as they strive to teach often against the ever rising insurmountable odds. And, there are many success stories in New York City as students reach their goals and realize the dreams that they can now call their own. 

Yes, "...teachers are the single most important factor in how much students learn ....", according to the Education Trust. So we say: 

"Bring me all of your dreams, 
you dreamers, 
Bring me all your heart melodies, 
that I may wrap them in a blue cloud cloth, 
Away from the too rough fingers of the world." 
Langston Hughes "The Dream Keeper"

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