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PLC Series: Decentering Our Perceptions of Language

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Welcome back to the Heinemann Professional Development Professional Learning Community (PLC) series. We are excited to present a new format for the 2017-2018 year! 

Each month, we'll share 2 posts designed to provoke thinking and discussion, through a simple framework, incorporating mini-collections of linked content into your professional development time. 

This month, our posts will challenge us to examine literacy practices so we can be more inclusive of students who speak varieties of English as well those learning English.


by Jaclyn Karabinas

When we pause to consider our use of English in different contexts— words, phrases, hashtags, colloquialisms—some of us might be surprised to discover the choices we make and why.

Make a list of places you have lived, learned, and worked, as well as spaces you frequent (both physical and online), and groups of people with whom you interact. Jot some examples of things you might say in the context of each of your list items.

Do you notice patterns in your own word choices, phrases, or syntax? See if you can find an example of language that would not be understood clearly or considered acceptable in one context but would give you no hesitation in another. Can you name the reason for your choice of language in that example? 

Hold this guiding question in your mind as you work through the content and prompts in this post: In what ways do we choose or judge language use based on principles of society, culture, and power?



View “3 Ways to Speak English” , a TEDTalk by Jamila Lyiscott (transcript available). This video is also linked in her article below.

Read Liberation Literacies: Teaching for Social Justice (Part 1) by Jamila Lyiscott.  Be sure to jot your thinking, questions, points of agreement or tugs of resistance as you read. You might find at this point that going back to view the video a second time helps you to refine your understanding of her message.



In the article, Jamila declares: “I refuse to accept a world where my language is deemed worthless in the classroom while it clearly has the power to garner billions for a private corporation.”

Take a moment to write your honest reactions to hearing her—or anyone—speaking varieties of English quite different from Standard American English. Do you find yourself categorizing what you hear based on experience or bias? Are your reactions classifying the language as “nonsense”, “not intellectual” or “valueless” as she names?

If language is an expression of identity, we need to honor that by building understanding of the history and validity of language varieties, including this knowledge in our instruction.



Shift your view of linguistics, including its role in classroom instruction, through a new lens by starting with one of the most important tools an educator has: kidwatching.  

In this short piece, 3 Ways of Building Curriculum From Students’ Oral Grammar, author Jen McCreight elaborates on ways to listen, talk, and ask through this new lens.

It’s important to take notes on what you see and hear as you observe students so that you capture the exact language as well as the context in which it appears (or disappears). This will help you best incorporate examples into conversations and instruction throughout the day, building upon their language as an aspect of their identity, which has shaped their schema. 



Read Part 2 of Jamila’s piece: 5 Ways to Use Liberation Literacies in Your Classroom: Practical Strategies.

In her piece she provides rationale and ways to:

  • Begin the year with a Literate Identity Assessment of each student 
  • Add a Multiple Literacies goal into one of your units 
  • Allow your students to decide on one social issue that feels relevant to both their lives and the literacy practice that you have chosen
  • Create a platform for students to act on the ideas they have been producing 
  • Challenge yourself to learn new literacy practices and to deepen your knowledge about the social issues that concern your students

Some educators may find they could dive into all 5 of these recommendations starting Monday. But for most, confidently acting on these suggestions is going to require conversation, reading, reflection, and research. (You already have a great start since you are reading this!)

If this feels overwhelming to you, draw upon conversations with colleagues, your social media PLN (Professional Learning Network), blogs, and the information you gathered from kidwatching to find your best first step.

Keep in mind what Jen McCreight said, however, about our need to also teach students about the “culture of power”—though unfair— so we do not do them a disservice in the context of their next interview or term paper. As we do the work to value non-standard English not as substandard, we highlight the idea that many students are operating within and navigating multiple English frameworks. The societal expectation of code-switching (vs. a natural inclination to do so) should be brought into question for sure, yet students who speak varieties of English need this skill at this point in time. 



In Liberation Literacies, Jamila writes, “...the literacies that we center and decenter in the classroom are actually centering and decentering different cultures, histories, and identities whether we know it or not!” 

You may be thinking that this kind of work doesn’t apply to your classroom if your students primarily speak Standard American English. But bring yourself back to the guiding question: In what ways do we choose or judge language use based on principles of society, culture, and power?

As you write and reflect upon that question, know that your work with students might be focused on the verb judge over choose if your students are situated in the “culture of power”. You will need to incorporate literature, picture books, poetry, spoken word, hip hop and more as texts to be read closely and discussed honestly to help students identify any biases and confront these as they arise. 



When you find yourself in conversations with educators about honoring student voice, remember to push further than “student blogging” or “authentic audience” and offer questions and comments about use of home language, dialect, or varieties of English. Sharing personal definitions of “student voice” can help us to see what is missing so we can take action to be more inclusive in our practices and challenge our students to think differently about language, its history, and its purpose. 

If you are still swirling with new learning and many questions, start with #5 in Jamila Lysicott’s suggestions: Challenge yourself to learn new literacy practices and to deepen your knowledge about the social issues that concern your students.

Note that “challenge” is her word choice at the beginning of that statement. It just might be. 

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>>> For Further Reading:


Looking for more PD?

Online: We have upcoming webinars scheduled with Jennifer Serravallo, Dan Feigelson & Ellin Keene, or join us in-progress with Colleen Cruz! Click here for details!

Off-Site: Which of your favorite authors are coming your way for a One-Day workshop? Authors such as Kathy Collins and Matt Glover, Lindsey Moses, and Sue O'Connell are planning a PD day for you.  Get the full Fall schedule by clicking here.

On-Site: Heinemann’s Speakers & Consulting Authors are thought leaders in how to create successful classroom and school environments based on respect, collaboration, empathy, and positivity. Find out more by clicking here!

Topics: Education Policy, Heinemann, Online PD, PLC Series, Jamila Lyiscott, Jen McCreight, Language Arts, Literacy, Professional Development, Racism, Social Justice

Date Published: 10/03/17

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