Sunday, September 15, 2013
Lost in Translation: My Reaction to "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children"
Culture is a funny thing. Many Americans will tell you that they have "no culture." They are American for god sakes...what do you mean culture? The term itself seems to be affiliated and associated with the term "other." Other countries have culture. Ethnic people have culture. Us Americans, we aren't used to thinking about our own culture and subcultures. Lisa Delpit, the author of The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children, says that American Culture definitely exists. That there are in fact a wide variety of cultures practiced in the USA. Despite such a fantastic diversity of cultures in America, though, Delpit argues that there is a "culture of power." This culture of power comes with a set of very specific rules to be followed, and is like an exclusive country club riddled with systemic racism caused by good intentions. The culture of power is one created, practiced and easily accessed by those who are white, middle and upper class individuals. If you think you don't have a culture, you probably are part of this group. Delpit argues that those within the culture of power often don't realize they are participants and practitioners of this particular culture, insiders often don't recognize their role as insiders.
So what does this culture of power look like and why does it even matter?
This culture is not dissimilar to any other culture. It affects the way you speak and dress, the types of questions you ask and the way you see yourself and others. The use of "Formal English" is emphasized and considered more acceptable than "Black English," or "Native American English." Authority figures are seen as authority figures because they are hired for a particular role in society. A teacher, for example, has the authority in the culture of power simply because he or she is a teacher. A parent is considered a good parent if they don't yell at, or seem overly commanding of their children. Good parents in the culture of power speak softly and make suggestions for their children.
Contrastingly, those outside of this cultural sphere have a hard time looking in and acting appropriately. According to Delpit, these are often people who grew up with a lower socioeconomic status, or are part of a minority group with its own "sub" culture. Delpit uses many examples of people outside of the culture of power in her writing. She explains that each time they are forced to participate in a culture which is not their own, they feel as though they are in a foreign country and don't understand the language or the lingo. It feels unnatural and forced and leads to tremendous amounts of anger and miscommunication. Often times children don't realize that they are not part of the culture of power, and find themselves getting into trouble or being labeled by school districts as slower learners. Those who grow up outside of the culture of power have many specific disadvantages according to Delpit. Things tend to get lost in translation, and this is why it's important to be aware of the systems that are in place which support such an exclusive culture.
How should teachers react to Delpit's explanation of the culture of power?
This is the biggest part of the puzzle for Delpit. It's also the piece that people, namely teachers, so often get wrong. Recognizing differences in white and black, high and low income culture is the first step, but the following steps we take are the most critical. Delpit says that teachers need to consider who they are teaching. We should realize that some children will benefit tremendously from clear and direct instruction. For example: instead of saying "what do you think you should be doing?", teachers should say "you need to do X." This type of advice reminds me of Lee Canter's book Assertive Discipline. In addition to rephrasing the ways in which we say things, Delpit argues that teachers should make sure to set high standards for their students. Treating those outside of the culture of power with lesser expectations has created a perfect storm scenario where teachers are unintentionally setting kids up for failure. Finally, Delpit says that we should teach children about the multiple expressions of culture in our society. Recognizing that there are certain ways to behave and speak around certain people, depending upon the circumstances, is a huge step in the right direction. Teachers shouldn't teach children that their culture is "wrong," but that it has a time and a place to be practiced.
This was an interesting read for me. I think that Delpit makes some excellent points in the ways she says we should address children. I think that her ideas, however, expand beyond the classrooms of urban schools, and actually beyond classrooms altogether. I teach in a suburban school district after spending a couple of years teaching at Woonsocket Middle School. At WMS I learned to be an authoritarian, and considered my role much like acting on stage. I am a naturally easy going, non-demanding individual. I learned quickly that in order to communicate clearly with my students and run a classroom smoothly, that I couldn't be wishy washy. The skills I learned in the city have transferred over to the suburbs with me. I still run my classroom as an actress. Every day I'm on stage directing kids and coming in with a strong leadership mindset. I think even beyond the classroom that more parents need to practice assertive discipline. Many families are completely run by the children. They dictate what foods everyone will eat, the schedule of the family and the overall culture of the family. Many parents have lost control and need to find a way to gain it back.
Additionally, while reflecting upon Delpit's article, I feel that she is justified in her conclusion that we need to teach children about the culture of power and how to function within it. I think that in some ways we already do. We say things like "that's not appropriate school behavior" or "do that on your own time." There has to be some agreed upon system by which we all function through. I don't know that I'm ready to argue otherwise, and can't quite imagine what it would look like. I guess the key phrase here is "agreed upon." We need to work on defining societal norms together and recognize their existence as a collective community rather than an exclusive community.