Is there a Social Class Dimension to language teaching in the U.S.?
A number of years ago I was supervising a student teacher at her high school on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. This student teacher was actually a mature, accomplished, and experienced Spanish and French teacher who had decided to earn her Master’s degree and an in-service program was perfect for her life situation. We’ll call her Theresa…
Theresa had taught me the term “washashore” when I first met her. She explained that though her family had moved to this small outer Cape town when she was a child, the locals who went back generations considered her an outsider and used this term to make that quite clear. Nevertheless, she had come to love her Cape life and stayed on after college to teach at the high school.
The class that I observed on this particular day was a low intermediate group, second semester second year Spanish. It was important for Theresa to give her students at least a glimpse of other cultures in part to make the class more exciting and also to whet their appetites for travel where Spanish could be a major asset. Theresa had made copies of a restaurant menu she had obtained on her last trip to Mexico and in the previous classes, she had taught the vocabulary to the students, through pictures and actual foods prepared in advance and shared in class(!). Now she was demonstrating “Ordering a Meal” and had asked Michael to assist her. Michael, I had noticed, often projected indifference and apathy and perhaps that was why Theresa had selected him for the demonstration role play. Theresa played the waitress and Michael the customer. After several futile attempts to engage Michael in the role play, Theresa turned to Michael and said, in English, “Michael, all you need to do is say the names of the food items you’d like have for dinner. Just pick the ones you would like from the menu. You are traveling in Mexico for the first time and are eager to try out some new foods.”
At this point, Michael’s body stiffened and he shouted, “Why the hell would someone like me be traveling in Mexico?”
The whole class was shocked by this outburst and Theresa was clearly paralyzed. After a few moments of deafening silence, she tentatively offered, “Well, you never know.” She then suggested that perhaps Michael could just observe for a while and asked for another volunteer to play the customer. The role play then went on without a hitch but the proverbial elephant in the room remained.
Later in conference I asked Theresa about that dramatic incident. She began to open up about her deepest worry for this class and for her language teaching in general. She confided that almost all of the students, except the children of the few “washashores” whose parents lived in the town year round, were working class and of very modest means. Most of their parents’ had precarious work situations, highly dependent on the seasonal tourist industry. A lot of her students had a great deal of ambivalence about the Cape, a fierce pride and feeling of solidarity mixed with tremendous insecurity and a sense of “life is passing us by.” In this context, Spanish for many of these kids, Theresa felt, was a “frill” subject, fine for the doctors’ children who could vacation in Mexico or study abroad in Spain, but cruelly irrelevant to their own lives. I asked Theresa why she had not said anything in response to Michael’s tough and angry question. Theresa replied that she often flees student challenges when they touch on a vulnerable and uncertain place. Who among us, I replied, is not like that??! She feared she didn’t have a good answer or that as an outsider she wasn’t “qualified” to enter a discussion so clearly related to social class and insiders/outsiders.
This incident disturbed me as I knew instinctively that the shocking scene I had observed while fraught with danger and unpleasantness was also a “teachable moment” that could allow students to share deep feelings about who they are, what they aspire to, how they see their lives unfolding, what their hopes and fears are for the future. When Theresa and I talked about the incident later on, we both agreed that Michael’s anger suggested he may have had a longing to be the person for whom Spanish and Mexico could be realities in his life. Had he been fully resigned to their irrelevance perhaps his habitual indifference would have prevailed. We also came to the joint conclusion that often not finding an answer is of little importance. Through skilled and open discussion, students can develop their, perhaps tentative, perhaps contradictory, answers. A key element is to encourage these high school students to see themselves as people whose lives are ahead of them, largely open and uncharted, and in which they have primary agency. We recalled many other moments in our teaching lives that we could have used as “teachable moments” but did not out of fear and perhaps a lack of confidence in ourselves and our students.
As a result of this incident, I became interested in exploring critical teaching moments and have worked with my own faculty group (and student teachers) to develop dialogical ways to address difficult or painful challenges. Always, the collaborative and collegial nature of open inquiry and shared wisdom has brought insight and possibility to these discussions. It is a joy to be able to share “weaknesses” and “failures” with colleagues and, indeed, to redefine these as “teachables.”
Back to the social class issue: My incident is not isolated. Many of us in the language teaching profession, who are based in the U.S., have wondered how it is that it is the upper middle who have access to the few dual language programs available in public schools (see Elizabeth Harris in the New York times on Oct 8, 2105 “Dual Language Programs are on the Rise, Even for Native Speakers.”)
At the same time, bilingual programs that serve poor kids who are growing up with two languages are often regarded with suspicion and are subject to elimination.
I’ll end on a positive note. About 15 years ago, I and some SIT colleagues worked hard to develop a FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary School) Program, in French and Spanish, that would provide K-8 FL instruction in the Brattleboro Public Schools. At a parents’ meeting, one father stood up and said. “Languages are for rich places like Glastonbury (CT), not for our kids.” A mother then rose and said, “My daughter has been taking Spanish for four years. She loves it. She wants to travel and she knows it can help her get a better job in the health field she is aiming for. Why would you want something less for Brattleboro kids than for Connecticut kids?”
Alex Silverman authored and for many years taught the Sociolinguistics of Global English course at the New School. He is currently teaching English the World which Scott Thornbury authored and inaugurated last Spring.
Alex is Chair and faculty of the MA TESOL Program at the SIT Graduate Institute. His areas of specialization are: linguistics, sociolinguistics, methodology and supervision.