Why English Class is Silencing Students of Color | Jamila Lyiscott | TEDxTheBenjaminSchool

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TEDx Talks

What if someone told you that the way you use language every day had the power to disrupt or uphold social injustice? Language is saturated with history and culture and memory, yet the way that it is policed within our classrooms and our communities is deeply connected to racism and colonialism. Viral TED speaker, spoken word poet, and social justice education scholar Dr. Jamila Lyiscott makes a powerful argument that, to honor and legitimize all students, we must, likewise, legitimize and honor all of their varied forms of written and spoken discourse, practicing "Liberation Literacies" in the classroom. Jamila Lyiscott is currently a visiting assistant professor of Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Coupled with this appointment, Jamila is a Cultivating New Voices fellow within NCTE’s research foundation and was recently named a Senior Research Fellow of Teachers College, Columbia University’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME). Across these spaces, her research, teaching, and service focus on the intersections of race, language, and social justice in education. Recently awarded a Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad grant, Jamila also serves a spoken word artist, community organizer, consultant and motivational speaker locally and internationally. Her scholarship and activism work together to prepare educators to sustain diversity in the classroom, empower youth, and explore, assert, and defend the value of Black life. As a testament to her commitment to educational justice for students of color, Jamila is the founder and co-director o This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx

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Video Transcript:

What's good how y'all doing what's good what's good all right all right what if I told you that the way that you use language every day had the power to either uphold or disrupt social injustice --is what if I told you that because language is saturated with history and culture and memory the way that is policed within our classrooms and our communities is deeply connected to racism and colonialism you see when I Was 19 years old I sat on a panel for a roomful of high school students and a woman in the room stopped me in the middle of speaking and she said I'm sorry to stop you but I just want you to know that you are so articulate and in that moment she meant it as a compliment a friend of mine next to me was like boo and I was offended and most people can understand that most people say well you are offended because you're a young black woman in the space and this woman Found it exceptional that you were mastering standard English but there's another reason why I was offended I imagined if this woman heard me speaking with my family whose Trinidadian and Caribbean creolized English would she have determined something else about my intellectual capacity or if she heard me speaking with my friends in Crown Heights Brooklyn in African American English what'd she have determined something different about my worth and In that moment I understood that the answer was yes and that deeply disturbed me it actually became the impetus for my first TED talk three ways to speak English it actually became the impetus for my research as a social scientists analyzing the intersections of language race and power you see I'll share this story and you got to work with me because it's about a man and a lion and they're talking alright we're going to so the man and The lion are walking through the jungle together and and and they're arguing about who's the strongest and the lion says I'm the king of the jungle I'm stronger than you and the man says I'm the king of the world I'm stronger than you and they're having this fruitless argument until they stumble upon a picture still in the jungle keep working with me right and the picture is of a man to feeding a lion and the man says you see I told you I'm stronger than you And the lion says yes but who drew that picture what has become important to my work in working with historically marginalized communities at the intersections of language race and power and education is interrogating whole authors the dominant narratives and the dominant framings in our societies in our schools in our in our classrooms in our world it's important to know that in exploring and doing this research on language race and power stumbled upon Some really interesting contradictions you see what I know of myself is that the multiple literacies that I bring to the table my composite linguistic identity gives me power but when I enter into institutional spaces into classroom spaces that power is not valued and often stripped away in these spaces that claim to celebrate diversity that claim to want to celebrate diverse culture what instead Happens is a perpetual invitation to engage in cultural erasure but I found some contradictions in exploring these questions both contextually and historically right so in the social context of now one of the contradictions I found was with the McDonald's slogan who knows that McDonald slogan I'm loving it right I'm loving it we know that what I found in my research is that this slogan is participating in a feature of African American English called consonant variation the dropping of the letter G this very statement I'm loving it this very feature this consonant variation is something that would be corrected within the classroom space if I were to write it on my paper yet this billion-dollar corporation is able to utilize this linguistic practice for mass appeal and to capitalize on this cultural form of expression I found another example in the show Modern family a you know I love that show and there's this episode called she crazy which is weird because like there's not a lot of people of color in the show right and so I'm looking at the episode and throughout the episode everyone she crazy she crazy she crazy and I'm like okay I do my research brilliant scholars have shown us that another feature of African American English exists their call copula absence The absence of the verb to be these features that have been asserted and designated and researched by linguists for years have been established as features of African American English that directly connect to the West African languages that they are historically rooted in these language practices are valued in particular spaces but there's a contradiction with what happens in institutional spaces right and there's a history here I Trouble up this issue because it is resonant with the history that is deeply rooted in racism and colonialism there's a West African author his name is um he was younger I speak of him often he wrote this book called decolonizing the mind he speaks about his time existing in colonial Kenya he was there before Kenya was colonized he said there was a time when the language of the classroom and the language of the community were one but then came a colonial education He said Berlin of 1884 was affected through the sword and the bullet right but the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard he said the bullet was the means of physical subjugation language was the means of spiritual subjugation what would happen is if you weren't caught speaking your mother tongue Kikuyu in the classroom in colonial Kenya you would either be physically beaten or you Would have to wear a sign around your neck that said I am stupid or I am a donkey it was very important to the colonial subjugation process that the language of the people who were being oppressed was divorced from the community those are some of the practices that we reiterate today when I talk about liberation literacies the work that I do with educators across our country it's because that historical and and contextual dissonance that I'm Bringing up plays out right now in our world I work with members of historically marginalized communities young black people who say yes I engage in blackness literacy practices but in places where I feel safe a sense of fugitivity exists there that has historical resonance in American chattel slavery a time when it was illegal for black people in this country to be able to read and write a lot of that resonates with what's happening today in Our classroom and in our world there are so many ways to engage racism there are so many ways to engage in oppression there are wonderful scholars who say language is a site of cultural struggle right and if we think about that if we think about what it means in our institutional spaces to continue participating in the erasure and the oppression of people from historically marginalized groups instead of incorporating validate validating and Celebrating who they are in these institutional spaces then we do a disservice to ourselves into our world so a lot of times when I bring up this conversation that question of our standard english is the language of power comes about which is why I brought up the McDonald's example which is why I brought up the spaces where this power exists there's a wonderful book called articulate while black that speaks about President Obama's ability to navigate Multiple languages and literacies and has took that centrality the centrality of that was essential to the success of his campaign you see a lot of times we hear the word minority to refer to people who look like me but I'm a member of the global majority and it means that the languages the literacies and the power that comes from the marginalized spaces that people of color navigate have wonderful tools and power to transform our world to give us access so When I talk about liberation literacies really what I'm talking about is a set of principles that emerge out of the work that I do the research that I've done and the practice that I engage in and actually a lot of what you saw today it's framed by these principles that I'm going to share with you in a moment the idea that the voices of these young people cannot be constrained and limited to that typical five paragraph essay the power of what they have to say is so Much deeper than that and to silence them and to continue marginalizing the identities of students in the service of a singular standard is violence so there are five principles I'll call these paradigm principles I call them paradigm principles because often when I share these principles are educators administrators people who are working in educational contexts it just sounds like more work to do that goal you're given us more work to do we got Enough to do right but these are paradigm principles and I say their paradigm principles because there are principles that are centred on and governed by a paradigm shift Stephen Covey says that paradigms are Maps low-key I want Stephen Covey to be my white uncle like really like I love this guy right so he said like paradigms are maps it's the way that we approximate reality and so what I'm saying is that once we Reconstruct and understand that institutional spaces must reimagine themselves to truly understand integrate and accept the diversity that exists in our world we need new paradigms in order to enact that actually right now many of the predominantly white institutions that exist in our world still have the infrastructure from slavery their historical colleges right now that still have the slave quarters built in if we don't reimagine our institutional spaces Beyond just the inclusion of having someone of a different race in the space then we are not truly integrating anything right so so the first pack of their five principles and the five principles they're five aids there are aids because I'm a poet and I like rhythm I like you know I like alliteration it's just who I am right so there's five Apes and the first a speaks awareness the first a says Who am I if we are thinking about nurturing youth Voice creating space for youth voice in our classrooms in new and empower phul ways that disrupt the historical racist colonial perceptions that we've upheld for too long it has to begin with critical awareness Who am I as a student Who am I as an educator in the space and what does that mean in our world and it's not just a random awareness but an awareness of the social identities that we each navigate including the language practices that we Bring to the table so that I get to say well actually I speak african-american English I speak Caribbean creolized English there are multiple ways that I understand and articulate and name the world around me right the first a is that awareness thinking about who you are and what your linguistic repertoire consists of the second a speaks to agency and access you see once you understand who you are once you understand the privileges that are Associated with different aspects of who you are or the way that who you are is marginalized in different ways once you get a full understanding of what that means in our communities a lot of young people I work with a lot of young people who engage in African American English practices but have no idea that it has value because they've been taught that it's wrong that it's bad that it's delinquent that it's deficient once you go through that awareness process and You become aware that my language has power right once you become aware of that then you say well what kind of agency and access exists for me in the world because of the way that I speak because of the tools that I bring to the table with my linguistic repertoire there are spaces that I can access in the world it's agency that I can have that was the argument for for Barack Obama's ability to access and bond with different communities because he could Speak in different ways the third a speaks to actualization this principle this paradigm principle says if we do not create continuous opportunities to actualize different ways of knowing and being and expressing in institutional spaces and we're not doing this work and that goes directly to the term liberation right so the term liberation when I say liberation literacies the term liberation in this framework is actually rooted in Liberation theology liberation theology argues for the interpretation of scripture from the perspective of the oppressed understanding that the central figure of Scripture was actually someone who was poor and marginalized and it reimagines the way that we can interpret the world if we understand the power that happens in the margins and so that liberation piece speaks to the disruption that happens in actualization having a TEDTalk At the center of your english curriculum is disruptive this disrupts the traditional notions of what it means to read and write in our world right what it means to inscribe yourself into the narrative of history beyond the five paragraph essay is that I'm gonna go up and I'm gonna speak from the power of my voice that's actualization that's disruptive and that's powerful the fourth a speaks to achievement because a lot of times when when I do this work There folks are like well you know you just want that you want the kids to be lazy actually it takes a lot more work to be fully invested in who you are what you have to say then to perform school for somebody who is imposing a structure on you achievement means that we have rigorous powerful standards not just for our students but for our classrooms and our institutions how are our institutions and our classrooms achieving the aims of true diversity and Equity when we think about achievement we often think about assessing the students and we never think about assessing the institutions that are meant to serve the students so achievement is not unidirectional it says we want to understand how engaging in this process transforms the student but how engaging in this process transforms the space and transforms the discipline I work with young people and new City and we teach them the qualitative research process they do research powerful research on their schools and community but they learn it alongside hip-hop literacies so when they're sharing with you their research data and analysis process sometimes they spit in bars it changes the way that we imagine engaging in the exchanging of content it actually transforms it when we engage in in in the in hip-hop cultural practices around freestyle extemporaneous Practices different cognitive abilities come to the fore there's valuing those practices that challenge the discipline so achievement speaks to that achievement speaks to challenging the standards that we hold for ourselves in our institutions in our world and then the last a speaks to alteration and action it means that this is a principle that says that we are invested in understanding that our institutions must be adaptable must be accommodating and Truly inclusive of diverse ways of knowing so once we understand the way that a different form of literacy then the linguistic reference wha the history the cultures the memories of the young people that we work with once we understand the way that that challenges this institution we think about how we reimagine the institutional space my curriculum can't stay the same my pedagogical approaches cannot stay the same this institution might need to Reimagine itself back to the hip-hop example in hip-hop the cypher that we participate in as a circle there is no one person standing at the front bearing all knowledge and imposing it on the room it's a democratic space so when I teach in my classrooms as a professor we got to sit in a circle we got a challenge the idea of what teaching and learning looks like because I'm learning from this cultural space that there are Different ways of imagining our world I say to you this story of my father who taught me how to ride a bike when I was 10 years old and in Brooklyn and I had a little pink bike and he uh you know he just like right jump on it go for it I got on the bike and I felt right cuz I didn't know how to ride a bike so over and over again he tried to get me try to hold me it didn't work out so he said he said get off the bike he has a Thick 20 accident so he didn't say like get the bike right right he has like a whole accent so he's like get off the bike I got off the bike he's like do you have balance no like you know ten oh no he's like do you have balance he said so I want you to stand on one foot I stood on one foot he said a couple of minutes I'm like yo this guy's tripping like I don't know what's going on daddy today but okay I'm just on this sidewalk standing on one foot after a couple of Minutes I found my balance he said now get back on the bike I got back on the bike and I rode straight down the block what my father taught me in that moment was that if I did not have balance in myself it would be impossible for me to have balance on the bike I introduced this framework this notion of liberation literacies Anna call to action for a paradigm shift that begins with a critical awareness of yourself in your world because if we do Not have socially just practices in ourselves here in the silence then it is impossible to have social justice in our world thank you [Applause]

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