Monthly Archives: March 2009

What to do when a baby drops an F-bomb: a primer on code-switching


You know the only people who are always sure about the proper way to raise children? Those who’ve never had any.” – Bill Cosby

The parent-teacher conferences are an amazing way to see parents and children interact with no supervision.  More often than not, it is the parents that need the correction.

Take this example: as I was walking down the hall to a classroom, I noticed a young boy with his little sister, a child of about 2, in a stroller.  Mom was sitting next to them, filling out forms and waiting to hear about Junior’s lack of focus for the umpteenth time.  The little sister then drops her sippie cup and climbs out of the stroller. As soon as little brother asks her to pick up the cup, I expected a little cooing sound, or a soft laugh from the little sister–the kind of sound most of us are conditioned to hear from toddlers. I heard the following:

“Fuck you!”

Boy did you hear it. She blurted that f-bomb so loud you could hear it over the Bruckner Expressway. The whole hallway, a sea of parents with children in tow, stopped in freezeframe, waiting to see which unfortunate soul will claim parentage of this potty-mouthed urchin. Mom was not only embarrassed, she quickly snatched the offending child and whisked them all into the classroom to hide from the shame.

Our natural instinct is to blame the parents, and with good reason. Kids are a sponge at an early age, soaking in the sights, smells and sounds of their environment. That a toddler could cuss with such ease says a lot about the home life and the level of discourse. We never could blame a child from, say, Senator Kennedy’s flock to display such behavior, although young Patrick picked up a lot from his dad–saucy language and all.

However, it is also the case that Mom, like many parents in the neighborhood, have a difficult time establishing limits on certain language in certain areas. If everyone in the building, and everyone on the block, dropped curses and slang like a walking hip-hop album, then it’s no surprise that kids will pick up on that. In short, many parents know little about code-switching.

Code-switching was a linguistic tool in use ever since immigrants settled in this country, although it was not studied in depth until the 1940s. It is a tool of both assimilation and identity for individuals that straddle cultural divides or socioeconomic divisions. The code being “switched” is the vocabulary and linguistic nuances used in everyday life. Translated into plain English, this skill allows people to speak one way at a business meeting, another way at home, and even another way with friends.

One group that has become almost synonymous with this is African Americans. The predominance of a black middle class in this country has led many researchers to conclude that code-switching is an integral part of their success. It allows black professionals to excel in the workplace while still maintaining cultural ties through family and friends.  

Even African Americans in popular culture have used code-switching. Don’t believe me? Ask Clair Huxtable, the stern but loving mother from The Cosby Show, played by Phylicia Rashad.  Notice how she speaks to outside adults and colleagues as an attorney–it is usually in a bland, friendly, almost stereotypically “white” manner.  Now wait until Theo gets in trouble with Cockroach again (a popular theme in the series) and you see a very different Clair, one that would probably ruffle the feathers of the starched suits at her law firm.

Naturally, code-switching has its critics.  Many “old school” educators charge that allowing the choice of codes between situations legitimizes what could be considered incorrect or “bad” English.  This permissiveness would then hinder children from studying “correct” English as displayed in the accepted annals of literature.  Never mind that most of the accepted “classics” came from vernacular English considered filthy in its time.   Parts of Beowulf (especially the beginning) consisted of jokes on farting and urine.  Most of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales reads like a medieval Spring Break (complete with free-flowing beer and public nudity).  Let’s not forget William Shakespeare–his raunchier plays make a Penthouse letter look like the King James Bible.

On the other hand, many critics contend that code-switching is just another form of racial heirarchy.  They contend that changing language to suit environments unlike their own is tantamount to “acting white” or worse–being an “uncle Tom.”  The simple fact that a person must change their language in certain situations places a value judgment on certain environments: the whiter the people in an area, the more “proper” and formal the tone and vocabulary. 

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this one.  Until culture changes otherwise, professional attire and etiquette is dictated by European norms in this country.  As much as individuals should strive to celebrate their identity, the needs of the marketplace dictate that a person must act in different ways in different areas.  As much as it would delight me, Snoop Dogg would not speak to a bank CEO in the same way he would to Dr. Dre.  Conversely, President Obama would not bust out into rap and black vernacular in a press conference.  If he did, I doubt he would have gotten anywhere close to his majority of votes he received in 2008.

There are cultural values that are universal, regardless of the code we use.  Disrespecting adults is not allowed in any language.  Abusing peers is not permissable in any language.  Much of what is considered “foul” language is common across socioeconomic and cultural divisions.  Like it or not, no child should be able to drop an F-bomb without some sort of intervention. 

In general, most of my students understand how to code-switch pretty well.  Walk into my school and you’ll see students addressing teachers politely, with a hearty “Good morning, Mr. D!” and so on.  In fact, the children who have difficulty in this regard are considered crazy or obstinate by their peers.  It also helps that the teachers themselves cultivate this in each classroom, which makes teaching and learning that much easier.

If I were a parent, I would introduce a child to code-switching early.  That way, the kid will not embarrass the parents by using coarse language when its inappropriate. 

Instead, the child can focus on more important things, like studying hard, or reading a book–or flinging an eraser at your friend’s head just hard enough to leave a mark.  Now that’s a marketable skill.


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Standards Revisited – A Response to E.D. Hirsch’s recent New York Times article

Given my political leanings, I am usually not a fan of the New York Times.  Sometimes the very mention of its name would give me bloodshot eyes and a thirst to torch a coffeehouse.

Yet today is an exception.  E.D. Hirsch, former teacher and now professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia, wrote an article in today’s New York Times advocating that the much-maligned standardized tests for reading comprehension be revised to include content necessary for a well-rounded education for the grade.  While I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Hirsch in the need for integrating content into literacy studies, there may be problems with children as they grow older, especially with new experiences.

Dr. Hirsch has been a pioneer in education since the 1970’s, when he introduced the concept of cultural literacy.  Unlike many conventional theories about reading, which stress sets of skills and strategies irrespective of the reading material, Hirsch believed that true comprehension can only be achieved through a combination of reading skills and, at least, a cursory background knowledge of the subject being read.  His Core Knowledge Foundation was founded to establish basic baskets of factual knowledge necessary for each grade level.  His work has been controversial in that he has often attacked more modern, ethereal educational methods that promote “critical thinking” in favor of a more rote, conservative teaching style.

In the Times article, Hirsch states that “The problem is that the reading passages used in these tests are random. They are not aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards. Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.” Not only does this hinder growth in reading, according to Hirsch, but will also affect their achievement in content areas later in their schooling.

To that end, Hirsch posits a simple strategy: “If the reading passages on each test were culled from each grade’s specific curricular content in literature, science, history, geography and the arts, the tests would exhibit what researchers call ‘consequential validity’ — meaning that the tests would actually help improve education. Test preparation would focus on the content of the tests, rather than continue the fruitless attempt to teach test taking.” Thus, an integrated curriculum would require standardized testing to be similarly integrated.

Hirsch is not alone in this thinking. In T.J. Willingham’s recent book Why Don’t Kids Like School?, he notes that critical thinking and problem solving cannot take place without factual knowledge.  According to Willingham, “Most people believe that thinking processes are akin to those of a calculator.  A calculator has a set of procedures available that can manipulate numbers, and those procedures can be applied to any set of numbers…The human mind does not work that way…the critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge.”

Hirsch does make an excellent point about testing: we are often wasting time with fruitless strategies when the test material is so random that true effective data is hard to retrieve from year to year.  It is important, therefore, that students have a base of knowledge that can be used as a springboard for understanding.  I see this in my own students.  I have had teachers and adminsitrators comment that my social studies instruction is often too slow and methodical–not necessarily aligned with Teachers College’s precious “Workshop Model”, a study in wasting time that is exalted to the point of orthodoxy.  My response is that you cannot often have group work when it comes to memorizing or understanding events and names and dates–I have to do the boring stuff before I can even begin to have students think critically.

It is frustrating when I see teachers ask children to give opinions on subjects when they haven’t the slightest clue what is going on.  It isn’t the kid’s fault–he/she was not prepared to think.  You have to give the brain something to think about before it can start working its magic.

However, I differ with Hirsch in his view of each grade having a basket of knowledge that is necessary for a well-rounded education.  Establishment of such a standard can either be too specific or too broad.  If, for example, a student acquires a very local body of knowledge, it will limit him/her in their future opportunities if that student chooses to see the wider world outside of the home community.  If that basket of knowledge is too wide, then he/she may miss out on detailed, focused content in areas that interest the student.  Thus, the establishment of content standards leads to inevitable questions of who sets curricula, who decides the standards, and whether or not these standards are useful to all children or just in that locality.

Finally,  I see critical thinking as a vital component that must be used with content knowledge.  It is important to have children gain a well-rounded base of knowledge, as Hirsch explains, but it is equally important for children to have ownership of that knowledge.  That ownership comes right after comprehension, as students begin to dissect and question the knowledge they have learned. If we are to create a class of independent thinkers and actors in our society, it is vital that we hone their thinking in tandem with expanding their content knowledge.

The Founding Fathers did not help to create this nation simply by knowing about Locke, Hume, Aristotle and other philosophers.  They used that knowledge to frame new arguments for concepts like liberty, democracy and government.  I agree that our children have a weak body of knowledge.  However, using a weak vessel for learning–the standardized test–as  a way to enhance that knowledge does not create a nation of thinkers.  It creates a nation of test taking trivia buffs.

America needs more than just a nation of professional test takers.

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The Many Styles of Principals

seymour_skinnerPrincipals are not necessarily the lynchpin of a school–just ask Seymour Skinner here, Principal of Springfield Elementary School on The Simpsons. Springfield Elementary runs in spite of its principal, not because of it.

However, a good principal can make a school an efficient, exciting and pleasant place to work in and to learn.  Bad principals turn into Seymour Skinner.  An indifferent principal can make a bad situation worse, or make a good situation better due to a staff that, unlike their leader, has a clue.

I got to thinking about principals and their leadership styles when I was listening to colleagues over the past couple of weeks.  Many feel that the problem is not overbearing leadership, but rudderless leadership–especially in maintaining morale among teachers.  There are incidents of infighting, gossip-mongering, and undercutting at any school, to be sure.  Yet it seems that in my school there are people out to make sure no one is outperforming the others, either through gossip, subterfuge or downright sabotage.  There is little, if any, response from the administration, although a similar attempt at dissinformation was tried by a disgruntled staffer years ago and was thwarted adeptly by the principal.

At first, I thought that this was an attempt to be “above the fray”, to re-focus energies on more important tasks, like children’s education.  However, I began to think of other systems that had infighting and gossip as a common practice. You wouldn’t believe it–Nazi Germany.  Hitler, for all his numerous faults, knew how to keep control of his minions.  There was no one office that answered to Hitler; Nazi government consisted of competing agencies of equal status and power that would compete and undercut each other for Hitler’s favor.   For example, to actually communicate to the Fuhrer, there was the Office of the Reich Chancellory, the Office of the Party Chancellory, the Office of the Presidential Chancellory, the Privy Cabinet Council or the Chancellory of the Fuhrer.  They all had the same job–keep the boss happy.  With such a chaotic situation among the lower managers, Hitler safely asserted his authority.  It is similar to “divide and conquer”, but it’s more like a pack of dogs trying to please their owner.

Now I’m not saying my principal is Adolf Hitler–in fact, he’s probably one of the better principals I’ve seen.  I have a good rapport with him, and he has genuine affection for the kids.  It’s just that his style can best be described as “soft authoritarian.”  While he makes a point to delegate authority and spread the workload, he makes it very clear who’s in charge–and the faculty know this.  Hence the undercutting and gossip; it appears meant to maintain control.

I hope that’s not the case.  Control and leadership are two different things.  Hitler may have been in control, but he was not a good leader.  His system lent itself to the most radical and extreme ideas, without any way to debate or discuss them.  Principals that attempt games with their staff can fall into the same trap–instead of the best and most innovative ideas, internal division can lead to stagnation, or radical changes with little foresight.  Principals in control are not always good leaders.

Educators cannot choose the administration of a building.  However, their actions are tied to the actions of the administrators.  This interaction is vital to the development of functioning schools.

Just don’t get too close.  Ask Mr. Skinner and Ms. Krabappel.

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