Gaps in Language, Gaps in High Expectations?

HannahB's picture

I always love reading Lisa Delpit because I find that her writing challenges me and my conceptions of myself as a future teacher very directly. In this week’s reading, she wrote about the importance of pairing high expectations for students with “social support.” She called this the “warm demander.” What struck me most in this reading, though, was what this warm, though tough, support looks like. Delpit discusses how often for African American children high expectations are manifest in tough (and sometimes harsh) language. For example, Delpit writes that her great niece DeMya turned to her once and said, “When people’s mamas yell at them, it just means they love them.” After reading this and other passages with similar messages, I had to re-acknowledge (its something I’ve known and gappled with for a while) that this type of language and way of expressing oneself is not a practice this a part of my culture. I am not used to love and support being expressed in this way.

Delpit, in other pieces, writes about this gap in language and expression. She talks about the ways many White, middle class families ask questions and make requests, as opposed to using directives and Teacher Lucinda, similarly, reflected on the panel that she had a hard time communicating with her students her first year because she was not communicating on their terms. I guess what I’m struggling with right now are these gaps in language. 1) I can work to understand my students’ cultures and to learn and appreciate how they communicate 2) I can express my high expectations for my students in my terms and the way I know how but 3) I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to always express my high expectations in my students’ terms. On the one hand, I want to adjust my teaching practice to meet the needs of my students. On the other hand, I don’t want to be inauthentic. I would be faking it if I tried to yell as a means of showing love because that’s not how I’m used to expressing it. So where does this leave me?

I guess the last thing I keep thinking about is time. I am confident that if I had the time and the space, I could express my belief in and dedication to students in my own, authentic way and that they would, over time, come to appreciate that I was trying to understand their terms while meeting them on mine. But I worry about what gaps might exist at the beginning? What if my students don’t give me the benefit of the doubt? And what if I, in turn, misunderstand my students?  

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kdiamant's picture

I was wondering about similar

I was wondering about similar questions, HannahB, and I wonder if Delpit is really suggesting that we should be expressing high expectations in students’ terms. On page 81, Delpit writes, “I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that everyone should proceed to be mean to or yell at black children…what I am saying is that real concern about students’ living up to their academic potential should be transmitted in the teacher’s genuine mode of emotional expression.” And yet, as you made really clear in your post, a teacher’s “genuine” expression or language might be very different from what students are accustomed to or value. I might express myself in one way, and it might be interpreted in a totally different way by my students. To further complicate this, my same expression might be interpreted in different ways by different student who are coming from different places. And my students might interpret my expression differently based on their perceptions of me and where I am coming from.  It seems like, if I were to tell a student that I believed in their potential and that they needed to do better, especially with all of the emotional and body language, as well as the somewhat round about spoken language that I am used to and that feels genuine to me, it could be interpreted in many different ways.

For my inquiry project, I’ve been reading a book called "Teaching Other People’s Children" by Cynthia Ballenger. Ballenger writes about her initial struggles trying to communicate with the Haitian preschoolers she was teaching. She writes that her classroom was initially chaotic because the children would not listen to her or follow directions. With further research, she discovered that the language around discipline in Haitian culture was completely different than what she was used to; instead of focusing on the individual’s situation and feelings, the Haitian people she talked to focused on the group and the responsibilities of group membership. During her year teaching this particular group of kids, Ballenger writes that she learned to love the ways of communicating that she learned from the Haitian people she talked to, and she used them in her class. So I guess I am wondering, how does a teacher being “genuine” interact with knowing “the lives and culture of their students” (87)? Was Ballenger being genuine? I think maybe she was, in that she really came to love and take on the ways of communicating that she used. Maybe, then, there are ways of expressing our expectations in genuine ways while also incorporating the knowledge we have about students’ terms or understandings. But this seems so complicated…I agree with you, I’m not really sure how or if I will be able to do it.

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