Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Slang and the Achievement Gap

Last week, Visual Thesaurus contributor and New York public school teacher Shannon Reed shared some experiences about the richness of student slang that she had encountered. Here is a counterpoint to Shannon's piece, from a new member of the VT sales staff, Elissa Seto. Before joining the VT team Elissa taught science at an urban middle school in the South Bronx. While a fan of slang, Elissa is also concerned about how student reliance on nonstandard speech may be symptomatic of what educators call the achievement gap.

"Yo, Ms. Seto, you're beastin' over homework!"
"What do you mean, Tiffany?"
"You know, you're wiling out on me just for homework."
"So you're saying that you think I'm overreacting because you didn't do your homework?"

Every so often, I learn a new vocabulary word from my students.  These words can't be found in the Visual Thesaurus — it's Bronx slanguage.  If you type in beast in the Visual Thesaurus you'll only find red circles for nouns.  However, my students would draw a green circle onto our Smart Board and insist that there is indeed a definition for beast in the verb form.   The definition would be something along the lines of, "Overreact to something; blow something out of proportion: 'Ms. Seto was beasting over the student's missing homework assignment.'"  The connecting synonym would be wile out, also in the verb form.

Perhaps I was blowing the situation out of proportion in her perspective, but the homework was a pre-laboratory assignment.  In my science lab, students were not allowed to perform an experiment until the pre-lab was finished.  As a 6th grade science teacher in a Bronx middle school, most of my students never had a science lab, let alone have a teacher just for science.  I needed to ingrain good habits in them from the beginning and confrontations like this are common in the beginning of the year.

However, what I found even more alarming than Tiffany's lack of homework was Tiffany's lack of vocabulary.  I almost asked her to use her words, a phrase that parents often say to their young children who are starting to learn how to communicate verbally.  Tiffany is not a young child; she's a 12-year-old girl who can't find a way to express herself to her teacher without using slang.  Some people may brush this off as just a teenage phase of wanting to use cool words, but I believe her overuse of slang is indicative of something greater.  Tiffany is a sixth grader who, like many of her peers, reads and writes on a third-grade level.

I taught science for three years at a unique middle school.  My school was located in a section of the South Bronx that often saw acts of violence and was plagued with poverty.  During that period of time, scary things would happen outside of the school building.  A teacher from my school was mugged on his way to the subway after school.  Teachers' cars were frequently vandalized or even stolen.  The most horrifying thing to happen was when an off-duty police officer was beaten to death at a fast food restaurant just a few blocks up the street from my school.   

The effect of such an environment is clearly based on the achievement gap between minority students and white students that exists in the United States.  For example, in New York City alone, 74% of black eighth graders scored below the average score of white eighth graders on the state English exam.  In general, less than half of the city's students perform on grade level and that number is further reduced in schools with students who receive reduced-price or free lunches. At my school, almost 100% of the students are eligible for reduced-price or free lunches. 

Regardless of the environmental factors and statistics, the faculty and staff strive to make our school a safe haven in the neighborhood and a beacon of academic excellence.  My principal made our school a technology rich environment that has become so strong, teachers and administrators from all over the city would visit and observe classrooms to gain best practices.  I had high expectations for my students.  I taught them with the expectation that I was preparing them for high school and they would go to college.  One of my constant struggles as a teacher was how to bridge the gap between academic and casual language.   In a casual conversation with my students, it's not uncommon to hear me say, "Sorry, my bad."  In fact, it's pretty common for me to say that in conversation with friends.

However, as a teacher, what do I do when my students struggle for non-slang words in both their casual conversation and in their academic writing?

Plenty of people use slang on a regular basis, but there may be serious consequences for some.  Those who are highly literate are not likely to be affected by their slang, because they know when it is appropriate to be used.  However, those who struggle with reading and writing, such as most of my students, may experience some negative effects of slang.  Rather than learning new words that build their vocabulary in a meaningful and academically significant way, my students are often focused on learning new words that can only be understood in the contexts of MySpace and text messages.    My students' writing styles sometimes read like an email to a friend.  It was not uncommon for me to read short answer responses filled with slang.   However, the problem was not just slang, but slang that was mixed with poor grammar and sentence fragments. 

Some may argue that slang is another part of literacy and honestly, I would rather read an essay or email from my student that is full of Bronx localisms than read nothing of theirs at all. Additionally, my students are proud to be from the Bronx.  In some ways, changing the style of their language would be to take away some of their culture and borough pride. 

I don't want my students to stop using slang completely, but what's going to happen to Tiffany when she goes on a job interview in five years or wants to apply to college? 

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

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