PERSPECTIVES

Know Your Audience, Find Your Power

"There’s nothing wrong with the way your grandparents talk,” my elementary school teachers used to say. “Standard English is different. Not better or worse. It’s just a way of talking that you need to know.”

racially diverse group of children posing

"There’s nothing wrong with the way your grandparents talk,” my elementary school teachers used to say. “Standard English is different. Not better or worse. It’s just a way of talking that you need to know.”

That’s the way we were introduced to grammar at Cedar Springs Elementary School in the 1970s. Most of the students at Cedar Springs were white, and almost all were born near the school, nestled in the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama.

Between ourselves, we students spoke a dialect that was an equal mix of local idiom and personal invention. If something belonged to your whole family, it was “Y’all’ses.” “Destis” meant “more than one desk.”

Our teachers knew this language too. They were determined to send us home with a mastery of Standard English — and determined not to send us home to tell our relatives that they were “wrong” or “uneducated.” So they built something like a bilingual classroom, where local idioms were celebrated and held up for comparison to Standard English. I don’t think this was something they planned out: these teachers just knew their students.

Today in America, there are millions of children who don’t get that kind of culturally sensitive teaching. As has happened many times before, America is undergoing a demographic shift. In a country that has often thought in terms of black and white, Latinos now outnumber African Americans. Another varied group, Asian Americans, is also growing. By 2050, it’s projected that the United States won’t have any majority ethnic group, and that shift is already reflected in many classrooms.

Yet the teaching force has not changed nearly as fast. As a result, a great number of students aren’t getting the kind of classroom experience I got at Cedar Springs — where teachers had an intimate understanding of the things that made their students different from the “standard.”

Educators want to know how to bridge the cultural gap. This fall, Teaching Tolerance is launching the Teaching Diverse Students Initiative (or TDSi), an online suite of tools to help you hone your skills in cross-cultural instruction. Like all Teaching Tolerance products, TDSi is available for free.

At its heart, TDSi is about finding ways to better connect with your students. That skill is the core of good instruction, and you’ll find plenty of examples of it in this issue of the magazine.

You’ll read Mary Cowhey’s story about the things she learned when immigrant parents took charge of a grassroots effort to improve their children’s education. You’ll see how students with learning disabilities created a video that helped the community understand their lives. And you’ll learn about Tranette Myrthil, a brilliant student at a “failing” high school, who helped preservice teachers see beyond stereotypes.

We, too, try to know our audience. Your input helps us see the shape of things in the classroom. With your help, we won four honors in this year’s Association of Educational Publishers’  awards competition — including an award for “The ABCs of Family Engagement,” an online resource that can help you foster parent involvement.

In the future, we will continue to stay in touch with teachers and students — respecting and honoring the culture of your classroom. When we share information, we all become more powerful. And that’s a way of talking that we all need to know.