NCTE “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” And Teaching

A couple of semesters ago, I taught an upper-level multicultural American literature course. Each of the students in this course were education majors, so as I prepared the syllabus, I was thinking about texts that would help them think about their own pedagogy in the classroom. With this thought in mind, I added texts such as Jacqueline Jones Royster’s “When the first voice you hear is not your own,” Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” and Richard Rodriguez’s “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Child.” I had students construct the reading schedule, and they decided to save these texts for the end of the semester so they could bring their accumulated knowledge that they learned to help them think about pedagogy. Along with the above texts, I also assigned the NCTE’s 1974 statement Students’ Right to Their Own Language. We began with the NCTE’s statement, and the committee’s discussion of the statement presented students with some overarching pedagogical issues that I want them to consider over the course of the semester.

The NCTE’s statement arose during an important historical moment in regard to higher education with the introduction of Black studies departments in 1968 and discussions of the literary canon. The NCTE’s statement speaks to these moments, and the committee, in their discussion of the statement, point out the importance of students being able to see themselves in texts that they read. First and foremost, the statement speaks to the ways that language creates hierarchies and serves as a way to maintain those hierarchies.

The statement itself is not very long, and it succinctly captures the topics mentioned above. The statement reads,

We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.

Within these six sentences, the committee lays out the importance of students being able to use their own language/dialect and the ways that “the myth of a standard American dialect” reinforces systems of power. Within their explanation, which I will discuss later, they dive deeper into this aspect, specifically pointing out the effects that this myth has on students’ psyche.

Along with this, the statement drives home the point that the United States is not a homogeneous, monolithic nation. It’s a nation of diversity in so many ways, and that diversity leads to a myriad of dialects, each formed around English. If we maintain that there is one “correct” way to communicate orally or in writing, then we deny that diversity and create a system that privileges those who can conform to the “correct” way while punishing others.

As a young teacher, I fell into this cycle. When I graded essays in my composition classes, I placed a lot of weight, probably 50% or more, on surface level issues such as sentence fragments, spelling, commas, etc. Those are “easy” to find, right? I would read through an essay, see a run on sentence, and I would immediately know that the student lost X amount of points for that one incomplete sentence.

That way of thinking was erroneous. It was naive and ignorant. By focusing on grammar and surface issues, I privileged students who could communicate in Edited American English (EAE) and punished those who couldn’t. In this manner, I took part in maintaining hierarchies based on race, class, region, gender, etc. The committee points this out multiple times in the document. At one point, they write, “In a specific setting, because of historical and other factors, certain dialects may be endowed with more prestige than others. Such dialects are sometimes called ‘standard’ or ‘consensus’ dialects. These designations of prestige are not inherent in the dialect itself, but are externally imposed, and the prestige dialect shifts as the power relationships of the speakers shift.”

By imposing EAE on my students, I failed as a teacher. Because as teachers, “we are responsible for what our teaching does to the self-image and the self-esteem of our students.” The NCTE committee comes back to this point again and again throughout the document, and it is something we, as educators, need to constantly think about. They even point out the importance of what materials we teach. They state, “Carefully chosen materials will certainly expose students to new horizons and should increases their awareness and heighten their perceptions of the social reality.” This is a topic I have written about multiple times on this blog, so i will not rehash those discussions. Suffice it say, though, we need to be cognizant of the texts we choose for our students, both in regard to representation for our students and in regard to opening up our students’ horizons to varying points of view.

No matter what class I teach, be it composition or literature, I always ask students what authors/texts they have read before entering into my classroom. To this, most respond with The Great Gatsby, Shakespeare, Beowulf, maybe something by Edgar Allan Poe, and others. The lists, with very few exceptions, are white. They do mention female authors, but very few. Sometimes students look at the syllabus and do not recognize or know many, if any, or the authors or texts we will read.

I also ask them what authors/texts they are looking forward to reading. In my early American literature course, most say Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Emily Dickinson, or Poe. They mention these authors because they are the names they have heard. Students may not know anything that these writers wrote, but they know the names. Why? This is what the NCTE statement and others are getting at. Students know these names because those at the top say these are the names that students need to know.

Some are so tied to the “canon” that even with countless materials they maintain a focus on what they think is “culturally” relevant. What is “culturally” relevant to one person or group is not the same as what is relevant to another. By adhering so wholeheartedly to these “classics,” teachers deny students the ability to identify and engage with texts that speak to them and about them. The bolstering of student self-confidence and self-esteem stems from this, and this is at the heart of the NCTE’s statement.

We, as educators, need to build up, not tear down. We, as educators, need to provide texts that allow our students to see themselves. We, as educators, need to realize that we can either choose to impose power on students or foster them. We, as educators, need to focus on communicating with students, not constraining that communication through some mythological standardized speech.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.

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