One concern I have for myself as a writer, writing consultant, private tutor and ESL instructor is that I will sustain an attitude of righteousness when helping others improve their abilities to express themselves through speaking or writing.
I attended a workshop called "Power & Privilege in the ESL Classroom," facilitated by Ilse Griffin and Jodi Versaw at the Minnesota Literacy Council. This workshop lasted two hours and addressed the historical context of English, post-colonialism, dominant narratives and white normatives, examples of microaggressions in the ESL classroom, and two approaches to address power and privilege in the classroom: Translingual Orientation and Critical Pedagogies. I'll get into what I learned later but first I wonder is it righteous of me to mention all of this? Am I just trying to prove how "with it" I am on being progressive and aware of my privilege? Maybe. I hope not. I had a few "oh shit" moments at the workshop. Now I want to write about them.
"Colonialism" is a word that scares me. I cringe at "colonialism" because it feels like some secret distant thing that no one ever thoroughly told me about but when I started hearing the word in casual discussion I could sense its negative connotation. Kind of like in high school when I would hear the world "student-debt" thrown around but didn't pay attention to what it meant because it didn't apply to me at the time. While I understand neither student debt nor colonialism completely, both most certainly apply to me now. You too, probably. Definitely colonialism. Consider the colonization of English (surprise!).
All languages developed indigenously. That is to say, languages began at particular places-- the people living in a certain spot spoke a same certain language. Cool. We get it. I learned, though, that the land I live in now recognized as the United States was home to 7 million English speakers in the year 1600 (~1.3% of the world population) and 1.5 billion English speakers 400 years later (~20% of the world population). I mean, these things happen, right?
What!? No! What happened to the indigenous language of the US? Even just my state? The indigenous language to Minnesota is Ojibwe, explained Ilse and Jodi, and is now spoken by the Anishinaabe people in Canada and US border states, according to Google (not that we can trust Google). Indigenous language was pushed aside into a corner like Baby in Dirty Dancing (except with more violence and cruelty). The social constructs of race and language are very closely linked.
When patriotism in the United States began soaring, propaganda asked everyone to speak English so our country would have a common language. Immigrant voices were muted (unless they could be understood through a brogue). Now, monolingualism is standard and us residents of the United States are subconsciously enveloped in the construct of race through colonialism, perpetuating deadly racism. And what can we do? Linguistically, as teachers and citizens and volunteers and instructors, we can be aware of spoken and printed microagressions. Ilse and Jodi offered two approaches.
Translingual Orientation.and Oh Shit Moment Number 1
In a classroom, this approach owns the recognition that there are many different dialects of English spoken all around the world. It may look like a teacher giving feedback to students based on whether their error gets in the way of communication, rather than what is "grammatically correct" (Power & Privilege Handout, Griffin and Versaw). For instance, take a look at this slide:
Whether a student chooses "begun" or "began," "done" or "did" to complete the sentences, the choice does not interfere with the meaning of the sentence. In fact, to me, it seems like a righteous-- even elitist and/or ignorant-- pursuit to correct such a minute detail. It is like when a black voice is praised for sounding so "articulate." Well, what the fuck is "articulate" and what more is that comment saying about black voices not perceived to be "articulate?" Does a person have to "sound white" to be considered articulate? God I hope not. I hope we can change adapt this, because I've been the and met plenty of white people who speak with perfect grammar but say a lot of messy bullshit.
However, when absorbing the slide for the first time, I did NOT see this at first. I immediately began solving them in my head. While imperfect, I do think I have a well-trained ear for grammar and this worksheet came easily to me. I heard the room sprinkle with "oh" and "mmmh" and looked around confused, waiting for the secret reveal-- which was the sentiment of the above paragraph.
As a writers, instructors, and tutors, we can use a translingual approach by using texts that reflect students's identities, a variety of speakers with different accents and different levels of fluency, and give feedback to students based on whether their errors get in the way of communicating their message.
Critical Pedagogies and Oh Shit Moment Number 2
Similarly, take a look at this slide:
My first response to this slide was a little more in-the-know, but still delayed. It took me a second to see it. Did you notice right away that all the jobs are low or medium-level jobs at a hotel? Where is the “Supervisor” or “Manager” position? What about the “Executive Director?” I’m not sure that there’s a special, academic word for it, but worksheets like this one send a message: if you’re learning English you don’t have the capabilities to hold upper-level jobs as a hotel. Perhaps the word is “insulting” or “WRONG.”
Now, the worksheet could have categorized it differently by outright titling it something like “Hotel Support Staff Positions” but still, that’s problematic.
A Critical Pedagogies approach is all about challenging stories, and having students naming a problem. This approach asks the question, “Whose perspective is being left out?” Honestly, we can all take a page from this PowerPoint and apply the Critical Pedagogies approach in every aspect of our lives, not just the ELL classroom.
I believe that both the approaches, in fact, are ones I need to implement in every part of my life—not just the teacher, tutor, or writer realms.