Honoring African American Language

with guest blogger Nozsa Tinsley, 2/3 teacher, Center for Inquiry, Columbia, SC

As educators, we strive to create learning environments where children feel safe to explore identity, diversity, justice and activism throughout the curriculum. Foundational to all of our work is providing students with rich literature and learning experiences that allow all identities, cultures, and languages to be affirmed. If we are not cautious, our curriculum and literature can quickly become a representation of the majority culture, completely dismissing other cultures, including those within our own classrooms.

It is vital for kids to see and feel themselves in books in order to have their cultures, languages, and identities acknowledged (Bishop, 1990). We can promote these healthy and inclusive practices through literature, pictures, videos and curriculum that we choose. However, although our classrooms are microcosms of our larger diverse community, the dominant culture tends to be the only cultured centered in in many classrooms. For example, students are taught Standard American English (SAE), which for students of color, may sound and feel much different from that of their own home language. Students who come from households that speak SAE are always affirmed within the classroom, but what about our students who speak African American Language (AAL) or the many other languages that make up our country and our classrooms? Oftentimes Black students who are raised speaking AAL are told to “speak English”. Instead of seeing the home language of our students as a deficit, what if we make the conscious effort to affirm and build upon their culture?

In my classroom, we did a language study including African American Language to better understand the value and importance it represents. As we began our study of AAL, I was careful to choose books with Black characters that spoke the language, but that did so outside of slavery. This was in hopes of breaking the misconception that AAL is an uneducated language and to move beyond this as the only narrative presenting African American Language. The few picture books that I found included legends and fables. It was a challenge to find modern books including Black Americans who spoke AAL. When selecting books with AAL, I considered the following three questions:

  1. Does the book showcase Black families/people in a way that my kids can relate to (culture, customs, everyday life activities)?
  2. Does the book showcase Black families/people enjoying themselves?
  3. Does the book show Black families/people in a positive way?

Books featuring African American Language (AAL)

Picture Books

  1. Nettie Jo’s Friends by Patricia McKissack 
  2. Mirandy and Brother Wind by Patricia McKissack 
  3. Flossie and the Fox by Patricia McKissack 
  4. Honey I love by Eloise Greenfield
  5. The Barber’s Cutting Edge by Gwendolyn Battle-Levert
  6. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales by Virginia Hamilton 

Chapter Books

  1. Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper 
  2. One Crazy Summer by Rita WIlliams-Garcia
  3. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson
  4. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

Through the use of carefully selected literature, the kids recognized that African American Language (AAL) had patterns and rules just like that of Standard American English (see Figure 1). Taking a close look at the language allowed some students to gain new insights, while allowing others to unlearn some of the misconceptions they previously held (it’s wrong, improper, or just slang). By taking a close look at AAL, a language that is often dismissed, my AAL speakers were able to have their culture valued. Non AAL speakers experienced a new culture outside of their own. All of my students gained the knowledge and appreciation for a beautiful language.

Figure 1. Moving Between Languages (Translating) Anchor Chart

African American Language

Standard American English

scr- (scring) str- (string)
-in’ (weddin’) -ing (wedding)
gonna going to
past=present -ed (past tense)
-an’ (stan’) -and (stand)
‘cause because
d- (dat) th- (that)
be (She be sick a lot.) is (She is sick a lot.)

“It would be good if teachers could genuinely understand that Black English is not mistakes, it’s just different English, and that what you want to do is add an additional dialect to black students’ repertoire rather than teaching them out of what’s thought of as a bad habit, like sloppy posture or chewing with your mouth open.” – John McWhorter

Additional resources:

https://africanamericanlanguage.weebly.com

https://daily.jstor.org/black-english-matters/

 

 

 

 

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