Providing new teachers with tools for advocacy important, study shows

Jim Carlson
July 14, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A study by a Penn State College of Education assistant professor in secondary education and English has shown that writing curriculum and instruction can serve as a way of gatekeeping language practices and maintaining linguistic oppression and prejudice, such as issuing judgments on specific items of usage that are structurally and functionally unrelated.

Charlotte Land explained that a practice known as ‘language policing’ — or targeting non-standardized forms of the English language as less valuable and incorrect — is one way writing teachers often may unknowingly participate in dehumanizing pedagogies, instruction that silences students by ignoring the rich cultural and linguistic resources and experiences they can bring to the classroom. Dehumanizing pedagogies, according to Land, can take the form of standardized, one-size-fits-all curriculum and/or teacher-centered or test-centric teaching — often common in schools that serve working-class communities and communities of color.

Land and Jessica Cira Rubin, a professor at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, presented their paper titled “Correcting ‘Correctness’: Writing Teaching Education Course as Sites for Disrupting Oppressive Language Ideologies” at the American Educational Research Association virtual conference in April.

Land said her work shows that particular forms of English are widely seen as more valuable than others and are taught as “correct English” or “standard English” across schools and reinforced by standardized tests. “(We see that) language prejudices tend to run along other racial, ethnic and class divisions, highlighting another way that racism and other forms of oppression are at work in our schools,” she said.

Previous research she studied revealed that when writing teachers police students’ language ― requiring students to code-switch, or moving back and forth between two languages or between two dialects of the same language; banning languages from spoken or written discourse in class; or “correcting” students’ spoken or written language to match the “standard” ― teachers also deny part of students’ identities … unknowingly positioning students, their families and their communities as lesser or menial.

As discourses of correctness and academic language are explored by researchers, Land said this work offers opportunities to analyze ideologies in the teaching of writing and writing pedagogy in two geographically and culturally distinct contexts. “Our overarching questions demand attention to the ways teachers and teacher educators have similar struggles of balance — to both prepare students to succeed within the world as it is now and to prepare them to push against the systems that maintain those inequities,” she said.

“It isn’t a perfect model, but I’m hopeful that we’re able to provide new teachers with foundational beliefs that support more culturally sustaining and antiracist teaching practices, with tools for advocacy and continued learning, and enough practical strategies to mitigate harm to students while they keep learning and growing as educators,” Land added.

Land said that, as a teacher, teacher educator and researcher at different schools in Missouri, Texas and Pennsylvania, she learned that writing instruction can be a fraught space.

“In many classrooms, by the time students reach middle and high school, writing isn’t really taught but is just assigned to students. In other classrooms, when writing is taught, the focus is on matching standardized forms of writing (e.g., the five-paragraph essay) or on prescriptive grammar rules,” she explained. “In my teacher education courses, whether my students are pre-service teachers or practicing classroom teachers, one of my aims is to help them recognize how we might be part of these oppressive systems and work toward disrupting them."

Land said that Brazilian educator/philosopher Paulo Friere described humanizing pedagogies as requiring humility, love and intense faith in learners. In this philosophy of teaching, according to Land, students and teachers are in a horizontal relationship; they are partners engaged in critical thinking and dialogue toward liberation and social transformation.

“Dehumanizing pedagogies, on the other hand, are rooted in deficit perspectives of students,” Land said. “This type of instruction silences students, ignores the rich cultural and linguistic resources and experiences that students bring to the classroom and/or objectifies students by reducing them to numbers or a single trait.

“In today’s schools, (we have found) dehumanizing pedagogies often take the form of standardized, one-size-fits-all curriculum and/or teacher-centered or test-centric teaching. Unfortunately, across the U.S., dehumanizing pedagogies are still common and are even more common in schools that serve working-class communities and communities of color,” she added.

But these pedagogies don’t necessarily present themselves as obvious, according to Land. “Hegemonic views (the relatively dominant position of a particular set of ideas and their associated tendency to become intuitive) of language are so ingrained in our society that it takes active work to even make those views visible for many of us,” she said. “We’ve all been steeped in a society that values English and particular conventions and accents within English above others. We found, like some others in the field, that even when teachers recognize linguistic prejudice and oppression as a problem, it’s still hard for them to imagine how to fix it in their classrooms.”

Land noted that students in her methods class cited the importance of talking about language and power with their students and getting rid of talk about “right/wrong” or “correct/incorrect” when working with students’ language, along with other potential strategies for creating more language-inclusive classrooms.

However, many of them struggled to imagine where this work fits, she said. Even if the pre-service teachers in her classes believed that students should be able to speak and write in whatever forms of language they felt most comfortable in, Land explained, many of them thought their future students would still need to know “standard” English to be successful in educational and work spaces.

Interestingly, Land said, findings from Rubin’s pedagogy class in New Zealand — in which students already were certified teachers and had classroom experience — showed that it was easier for them to see how they might change the way they talked about language in their classrooms to better honor the cultures and languages their students brought with them to the classroom.

“We attribute some of this difference to Jessica’s students having more teaching experience and perhaps less fear about being able to make choices about what and how they teach, and we also recognize that differing official language policies at a national and societal level might be at play,” Land said.

Land said the undergraduates she has taught at Penn State tend to be receptive to the idea of disrupting oppressive systems or ideologies because they recognize how problematic linguistic prejudice is for society and for their own future students. A challenge in this work, though, is helping them imagine or plan for specific practices they can take with them into their classrooms.

“I see preparing teachers to reimagine schools and teach in more equitable and humanizing ways as a moral imperative for teacher educators,” Land said. “At the same time, I think we’re doing new teachers a disservice if we don’t prepare them for the realities many of them will likely face in schools. While we want our graduates to go out and change the world, to transform the system (or at least their own classrooms), I think we also must make sure they know how to start, and how to be successful, in schools as they currently exist.

“In my classes, I try to make those challenges clear from the beginning and help students start to imagine how they might be able to negotiate traditions or mandates and advocate for their own (future) students.”

An example of that, she said, is starting from what the student teachers believe is best for students, about starting with their ideas, their long-term hopes and dreams for students (they will be teaching).

“Then we talk about looking at the standards and the required curriculum, making sure to ask questions about what is really mandated and what is phantom policy, tradition or curriculum of convenience,” Land said. “Finally, we discuss examples of how we might navigate the differences between what we believe we should teach and what we’re asked to teach, considering strategies for being critically compliant and for advocating for yourself and your students.”

  • CharlotteLand

    Charlotte Land

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 09, 2021