“You Can’t Be Who You Really Are In Someone Else’s Language”

Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of  insiders and outsiders as it relates to education, technology, and the development of the self. While there are definitely three posts brewing in my mind (see below), I’ll save two for another day. But, to be a little more transparent, here’s what I’ve been thinking about…

  • In my Klingenstein Leadership class, I had the chance to examine a case study which initiated conversation around the idea of increasing diversity in independent schools. While I can’t refer to the specifics of the study for confidentiality reasons, it made me think about problems with diversity initiatives – especially those programs which aim to increase the “outsiders” within certain communities without proper preparation and planning. It made me frustrated and sad for the many students who have difficult (and often detrimental) experiences as “outsiders” in schools. [I’ll hopefully find time to post about this later in the week.]
  • Yesterday, a tweet directed me to a blog post that addressed the experience of an ELL (English Language Learner) in a Georgia classroom. The tweet said, “if you only read one thing today, read the posts/comments.” I would argue that if you only read one thing this week, make sure to put this post at the top of your list. I was profoundly affected, as it encompasses what’s been on my heart and mind recently. Rocio, the student featured in the post, beautifully describes her experience as an ELL student – an outsider – within the context of a school classroom. “We don’t have a personality until we own the language the people around us use to communicate,” she explains. The statement of “you can’t be who you really are in someone else’s language” is a powerful one – and one that adds even more texture to the context of my reflections this week in light of insiders/outsiders. [Again, I’ll hopefully find time to post about this later in the week.]
  • Finally, the assigned reading for my Literacies and Technologies class (New Literacies; ch. #1 “From ‘Reading’ to ‘New’ Literacies”)  addressed a completely different subject (much less heart, a lot more head) but strangely connected to the concept of insiders/outsiders that I’d been mulling over all week. Rocio’s statement, “You can’t be who you really are in someone else’s language,” powerfully relates to the ideas of literacy (post-1970) and the implications for educators striving to teach skills of the 21st century to students who desperately need them.

In the first chapter of New Literacies,  Lankshear and Knobel  introduce readers to the idea that “literacy” is dynamic and multi-faceted. It is not as simple as defining someone as literate or illiterate. While this complex idea of literacy has not always been as an educational focus (especially prior to 1970), I am intrigued by the development of the definition of literacy. Last week, Gee provided a strong foundation but this week, I have found the sociocultural perspective presented by E.D. Hirsch and the 3D model (Green) to be the most salient.

The 3D model builds on Hirsh’s idea of cultural literacy but adds that:

Literacy should be seen as having three interlocking dimensions of learning and practice: the operational, the cultural, and the critical. These dimensions bring together language, meaning, and context, and no one dimension has any priority over the others. In an integrated view of literate practice and literacy pedagogy, all dimensions need to be taken into account simultaneously. (p. 15)

It is essential that educators grasp this concept – especially since it’s essential that we teach 21st century literacies within the school walls. On school campuses across America (and across the world), there are insiders and outsiders in relation to the conversations concerning literacy, technology, and education. Jonanthan Kozol would argue that in some schools (schools I have visited in New York and Atlanta), literacy in its basic form isn’t being taught (and sadly, there is eerie silence in place of rich conversations around technology and education). Luckily, in many schools (public and private), the idea of multiple literacies (the 3D model) is being addressed. I believe that in order to prepare students to be productive citizens in a global economy, educators must attend to the operational, cultural, and critical dimensions of learning and practice. Then, the conversation concerning technology and education will have a stronger foundation and might naturally follow.

All of this relates (maybe too tangentially) to the idea of insiders and outsiders. If we only teach children the operational dimension of literacy, we are not teaching them the language of the 21st century. Essentially, we are making them outsiders because they won’t be able to understand someone else’s language. In the past, participation (reading/writing – on paper) was sufficient for the navigation of the world outside the school walls. Now, students must understand the language of the 21st century – and educators must help them work toward creating that understanding. This means that they (students and teachers) must be “able to transform and actively produce” literacy while moving past “operational or technical competence by contextualizing literacy with due regard for matters of culture, history, and power” (p. 16). What does this look like in the classroom? A starting place would be some of the ideas in Richardson’s book – using blogs, wikis, and podcasts (and Flickr, Del.icio.us, and RSS)  to create, transform, analyze, gather, manipulate, search, navigate, and evaluate. Educators (we) must help students (them) learn the world’s language so they can express who they really are – in a language they feel comfortable with and understand.

3 thoughts on ““You Can’t Be Who You Really Are In Someone Else’s Language”

  1. Megan,

    What a thoughtful post. I love how you’ve taken that powerful post tweeted over the weekend about an ESL student and woven it into a reflection on insiders/outsiders in “21st century learning.”

    I would love to see you write further about how we grow communities that will insure so many schools (teachers and students alike) won’t be left behind–whose personalities are lost because they cannot speak the language.

  2. I really liked your post! I read the post and comments of the Ric/Rocio story and it was very moving – as someone whose first language was not English either, I felt like I could empathize with the feeling of being an outsider back when I was in elementary school, someone who could only translate their thoughts and not express it with the full emphasis and meaning of natural expression. Perhaps that’s why ELL students are always speaking in their native language to each other in their classes; they yearn for opportunities to express themselves in the foreign environment of the American school, and the teacher, not understanding this, exasperatingly tries to get them to speak English, to shut away the language (and the identity) that those kids truly embody. This could get into a whole discussion about the ethics of assimilation and bilingual education, but to make this reply relevant to the interests of our class, I was wondering, if teachers and students need to be able to “transform and actively produce” literacy “with due regard for matters of culture, history, and power,” how can this due regard be respected?

    If, given the definitions of literacies found in New Literacies, which generally follows that literacy is the ability to use language and communication effectively in the world, and English literacy is predominantly the most important literacy to learn in the U.S, then how much room is there for the cultural respect that ELL students and students of many marginalized backgrounds deserve? Rocio says, “We know that you can’t be who you really are in someone else’s language. But when you do learn the language, and you will, you will be able to reveal the real you to them.” So only if these students learn our language will they then, finally, be respected? It sounds wrong typed out, but it seems to be exactly how the ELL climate goes these days.

    Ultimately to me, Rocio tells two different stories, the first of a girl whose persevering spirit allowed her to conquer school and maximized her potential by working hard and playing in tune with the system, and the second of a girl who never quite felt like she was doing what she naturally wanted to at any point in time – her hard work was a means to an end, endured so that she can become successful, but the learning itself didn’t actually seem enjoyable. As she says in the comments, “I must admit that in middle school, I was that kind of girl. The girl who wanted to get not all A’s on her report card, but all 100s!!! In seven grade, I wasn’t enjoying what I was learning. I just wanted to get a good grade. Something hit me. This something was the realization that I didn’t want to be trapped in that cycle forever.” How do we get ELL and marginalized students out of that cycle? How do we respect their cultural stance and prepare them for success in a English-literacy dominated society?


  3. Kyle – Thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate your perspective – it’s one that I (as a white, English speaker) “get” but can’t fully own or express as eloquently and personally as you have. The tension is there (it will always be there when “insiders” are asking the “outsiders” to assimilate – something I am really struggling with on many levels due to race, culture, SES, etc), but I am hopeful for a few reasons…

    Right now, I am thinking that as classrooms are changing and becoming more student-centered, teachers can release students to become ACTIVE in the creation of learning spaces (physical and virtual). In reading Rocio’s story, I envisioned her as a passive member in the classroom (as she was learning/acquiring skills to communicate) until she mastered the ability to communicate effectively and confidently. For so long, students have been the PASSIVE recipients of teachers’ knowledge/information and have had to wait on teachers to “move on,” learn more, etc. In my mind, that’s what’s most exciting about this shift – students are no longer confined to their desks, classrooms, schools, cities, etc…they can form their identities (as learners, leaders, “community” members) in physical and virtual spaces and share those identities with others. If Rocio had been able to share her experience, on a blog for example, and think, write, reflect, about her experience, she may have felt different “in the moment” – less passive, more active. And, maybe less of an outsider?

    If teachers regard literacy as more than the operational, they can begin to tackle the “matters of culture, history, and power,” and teach respect to those who will be inheriting this ever-changing and expanding world. Obviously, it’s bigger than what’s happening in the classroom, but as a teacher/administrator, I am hopeful that some of the shifts will begin to even the playing field. And with that said, Shannon brings up an excellent point (http://4152spring.ning.com/profiles/blogs/literacy-social-justice-and) and mixes issues concerning social justice into the equation (which Lankshear and Knobel also begin to address on p. 16-17).

    Lots to think about. Thanks for pushing my thinking and leaving me with many more questions than I originally had.

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