As English teachers we have a duty to embrace the extensive resources that language provides us, and hence to help equip our students with the most extensive language repertoires possible. Historically, English teachers have failed in this role.
A prevailing (if not entirely accurate) view of English teachers paints us as grammar police. We possess knowledge of “correct” English and use that knowledge to combat the ignorance of our less informed brothers and sisters. Upon hearing an English teacher is present, others guard their speech to avoid judgement or correction. Do I know when to use “whom” correctly? Is it, “my teacher and me,” or “my teacher and I”? Does that question mark go inside or outside of the quotation mark in the previous sentence?
Bump that mess! When people learn I’m an English educator, I want them to let loose lavish linguistic style. I want them to perceive English educators as people who celebrate the richness of linguistic diversity and feel the soul of the language as much as the technique. If it ain’t rough it ain’t right! Carefully guarded speech and writing stifles, rather than facilitates, communication. Let the funk flow, y’all. Do you. Talk that talk.
I’ve always been struck by my mathematics colleagues from other parts of the world who pluralize math, and speak instead of maths. We English teachers have even more reason to pluralize. There is no single English. We are teachers of Englishes. Grammatical rules shift from dialect to dialect, as do pronunciations, and word meanings. It ain’t just one way to use the language, feel me? Real talk, English teachers be the most language locked folks on the planet. They steady talking ‘bout what’s “right,” and don’t never pay no attention to what “works.”
English(es) teachers have spent so much time privileging Standardized English as the only dialect of value, that we’ve missed out on the opportunity to learn the grammars of other dialects. Learning sciences show us that comparison and contrast is one of the most valuable teaching tools in our possession. Yet we still focus on grammar books with a single set of grammatical rules. Free your mind. All Englishes are grammatically valid; we just gotta alter our ideology and learn the alternate rules. Por ejemplo, the frustration leveled at students' "errors" in subject verb-agreement is misplaced. There are different rules for different dialects. “She want justice,” is grammatically correct in many English dialects, but how many of us teach our students those grammars? The Standardized English rule of adding an ‘s’ to mark third-person singular verbs is a holdout from a process of regularization that’s been going on for centuries. Many other dialects have continued to regularize the verb forms and have dropped the third person singular 's' as well. If we teach our students how they are right, instead of telling them that they are wrong we open a more expansive linguistic landscape, give them the big picture, and serve them better than we do by force-feeding a limited, prescriptive view of English.
And why stop with Englishes? Learn about languages. Todo el mundo sepa hablar mas que Ingles. English teachers get giddy when students throw some Latin on the page. We’ll even celebrate some French as adding a bit of je ne sais quoi. But unless you’re Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, or Ana Castillo, guarda el Español para la casa o la calle. Why limit our students’ access to the full scope of their language resources? They should be encouraged to use all their language tools to communicate their ideas in ways that make them feel whole. Not divided. None of us should feel that we have to leave who we are at the school or classroom door. The ability to incorporate multiple linguistic forms to communicate effectively is the highest form of art – language art.
Englishes teachers have been masters of guarding a linguistic hierarchy that replicates and perpetuates a social hierarchy. What if, instead of pining away for the good old days of proper English – those never existed anyway – we instead became the vanguard of a new age of linguistic enlightenment. What if we became language leaders, pushing the limits of what language can do, learning from and with our innovative and linguistically dexterous students?
In fact, let’s take the title of our profession and own it. Let’s be Englishes & Language Arts teachers. Let’s teach our students the diversity of American and World Englishes, and prepare them for the artful use of all languages toward the goal of a more linguistically and socially just society.
How ‘bout that, my peeps? Ya feel me?