Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Warning: Swear words included

My Foundation students are finishing revisions of creative pieces they will publicly read next week. I encouraged students to write on the topic of their choice and in the form of their choice. Throughout the quarter kids experimented with writing forms and we did spend some time talking about the audience of their pieces.

This week "Tim" turned in a piece that I think is exceptionally sincere and reflective of his voice. Getting Tim to turn anything in is difficult, so I was pleased with his effort and product. When he handed it to me he told me there was "no way on heck I would let him read it to the class." A few years ago I do not think I would have accepted what he wrote as a final piece. There is no way I would have ever considered it a piece he read in public at a school.

He wrote in dialect. He calls it Ebonics. I don't know what it is officially labeled today, but here is an excerpt:

Waltz good Bro,

Dayum shitz been so crazy since u left Bro. People just cant act rite it seem like. I don't think itz outta anger I think itz jus outta confusion ya digg? Dey don't know how to act wit out out u bein here. I mean when u waz here it really waznt no types of drama. U end dat shit quick, Bro. I be tryna do it too but I dont see how u can do all dat. Itz hella drama down here so come on Bro, tell me ur secret...

This is a letter to Walter Dolley, a friend of his and an Edina student who was murdered in January. I was a bit uncomfortable with it, so I had him write a paragraph in standard English explaining it. I told him there would be people in the audience who would not have the situational context to grasp the purpose of the piece. Maybe that should not matter, but some of my students don't need anymore stereotyping. His reflection sounded much different:

Walter was our big brother. He made such an impact in our lives. He had a different relationship with everyone therefore understood us all. He did whatever it took to get his diploma and he wanted us to do the same. It's sad when a mother has to receive her only child's diploma from the principle at her house a week after her son was murdered in his own neighborhood...

When I was reading "Dialects and Writing" by Algers, Tim's piece struck me. Algers states that "Developing written language expertise involves learning to make choices about style at different levels of language, including vocabulary, grammar, and text structure" (113). Tim is not an ESL student, but he has grown up with a dialect that is different than the standard English most of our kids our used to hearing, speaking, and writing. He can write in both, as he demonstrated and as he has shown me all year. The voice, tone, and purpose of the original piece are completely different than those in the reflection. I wonder why, in my earlier years of teaching, I was so quick to dismiss anything written in nonstandard English unacceptable, especially in a creative piece. I also wonder what has changed in me now that I see incredible power in in writing that may not be considered traditional.


  1. Wow. Powerful writing from your student who's struggling with the death of his friend. What a wise teacher, to ask your student to write an explanation in standard English and to explain why this would help others understand his message.

  2. Wow was my first thought too Janice. This student has strong skills indeed to be able to switch between different voices and convey his ideas/emotion effectively in both.