Date: Mon, 06 Jan 1997 08:45:05 -0500 From: Subject: Looking for the there in Oakland Sender: To: Precedence: bulk

I've enjoyed following the discussion of Oakland on Linganth. I took a week off to ski outside of Salt Lake about the time the story broke, stayed at a place where they seat groups together for breakfast and dinner. Dining companions were white-- professionals, employees, small business--from all over the country. When my turn came to announce what I do, someone usually then introduced the news from Oakland as a topic. For what it's worth, here's a report from the hegemonic discourse.

Initially reactions were negative, the assumption being that the school would be run in AAVE and promote separatism. Fascinating as it was to watch the melting pot ideology drive lexical selection and syntactic construction, I argued that the premise wasn't to deny kids SAE but rather to teach it more effectively. This opened things up and led to some, you should excuse the casual use of a technical term, conversation. Over the course of the week, I tried different arguments, and three seemed to work. I think they worked for two reasons, first, because they appealed to "interests" (echos of Habermas) that generalized the issue, and second, because I used analogies from other cases more familiar to my co-conversationalists.

First argument was, kid marches in for his/her first major independent encounter with a mainstream institution. He/she marches in with a variety of English bound up with who he/she is, with family and friends, with community. Last thing you want is for that institution to set a model of denying the value of how the kid speaks and the social value of the kid and his/her world. Schools should include a part of the curriculum that shows respect for and intellectual recognition of what the kids brought with them. Analogies are many--I used the stories I've heard over the years from white southern friends who talked about how school taught them that they'd better dump the "y'all" and "might could" if they didn't want to sound like hicks. I used to do a Lambert type language stereotyping class assignment when I taught in Texas that I could talk about as well. So, the point was to show respect for the local variety, not to not teach SAE. This argument always worked.

Second argument had to do with more effective teaching. Teachers should know AAVE because they would then be aware of major systematic differences between the two varieties and therefore know what to focus on and how to talk about it. Again, analogies are multiple--I used Spanish (together with some AAVE examples, which by and large people found fascinating to learn about). If you're going to teach American kids Spanish, and if you know both languages, then you know that "ser" and '"estar" are going to be an issue, you know that pro-drop will be an issue, etc. Instead of stigma-style "correcting" on a piecemeal basis you're doing comparative linguistics to create bi-dialectalism. That argument always worked.

Third argument went like this. From news stories it sounded like one school board interest was the possibility of obtaining funds. Probably Oakland, like most urban school systems, is strangling from tightened budgets to the point where teachers can't do half of what they're supposed to or a quarter of what they'd like to. If monies are available for language purposes, and if they're dealing with students who speak a systematically different dialect when compared to the schoolbooks, why not go after it? Analogies abound--I used business, which, when new regulations or new resources are in place, try to figure out a product to take advantage of them. In the case of U.S schools, it's not about greed; it's about survival. This argument only partly worked, since it rests on the issue of "language" vs. "dialect" that has occupied this list as well as the politicians. In fact, the quick DC denial that AAVE
is a language was probably testimony to how effective the Oakland board strategy in fact was.

Well, I know that some linganthers will disagree with some of this, but the arguments worked on several occasions to get the dining companions to think that AAVE had an important role to play in Oakland schools. They also worked to get them to consider the role of other VE's in other schools as well. Whether the agreement was due to end of the meal discourse constraints or had a lasting effect is impossible to tell. But I got into it over the week and thought it was worth reporting here.
Mike Agar