Want to help someone learn? Learn from them first.

Notebook entry #3 2011-10-02

It seems a little trite to say, but I really do believe that in order to teach anyone anything in any way, you have to learn a little from them first.

I am not a teacher in the formal sense of the word. I do not have a BEd and I do not have a class of people to whom I am responsible for imparting knowledge. So when I read the suggested readings for my Literacy Learning class this week, I initially felt distant from them, that they did not relate to my experience.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I am a teacher of sorts but I am separated from students by a document. I have “taught” snowplow operators the rules and rituals they need to do their jobs. I have “taught” farmers about transporting their produce and fuel. I have “taught” recreational vehicle riders rules and best practices related to riding ATVs, snowmobiles, and dirt bikes. And I have “taught” tourists and students about Nova Scotia history and our democratic system of government. Sometimes I do this without ever meeting them, and that’s a shame. My writing is always  better when I can get to know my audience.

That’s how I related to this week’s readings. I particularly enjoyed those by Lisa Delpit and Judith Baker. Both women wrote about the importance of learning from their students before they can teach them. I particularly enjoyed Judith Baker’s respect for her students’ “home” English (51) and how she used her students’ understanding of that form of English as a basis for teaching “formal” English, as discussed in Trilingualism, a chapter in The skin that we speak: thoughts on language and culture in the classroom.  It was interesting to see how Baker’s respect for the way her students spoke opened their ears to the different forms of English they speak and hear around them. It also gave them the confidence to choose which form of English to use in different circumstances.

“As young people become less fearful of being manipulated or disrespected, I think they can become engaged in the study of their own language competence,” Baker wrote. “They can weigh their options, choose how they want to speak and write in each new setting.” (59)

Baker also found that when “formal” English held real meaning for her students, they were able to use it correctly and naturally. This happened when her students gave presentations related to their technical classes. “… had I not seen the student in this other language dimension, I would not have realized how easily they moved within it or how eager they would be to do so.” (60)

Delpit wrote about the importance of not confusing “dialect intervention with reading instruction.” (160). She illustrates her point with the example of a student who clearly understands the meaning of the sentence he is reading but, in the teacher’s opinion, mispronounces the words and so reads the sentence “wrong.”

Delpit also writes about the different ways different cultures tell stories and finds a bias in education in favour of the “white” way of doing this.

Delpit concludes that “if teachers hope to avoid negatively stereotyping the language patterns of their students, it is important that they be encouraged to interact with, and willingly learn from, knowledgeable members of their students’ cultural groups.” (157)

I think George J. Sefa Dei was getting at the same thing in his conversation with Meredith Lordan published in Language, Linguistic Discrimination and Polyvocality: Bringing Language into Discussions of Discrimination and Racism published in The poetics of anti-racism.

In speaking about different accents and dialects, Dei says, “There is … the obligation on the part of the listener to work with what is being said.”. He adds, “There’s … a punishment if one speaks in a different accent or in ways that others claim they can’t understand or hear.” (33)

I agree with him but only to a certain point. That is, when we are in a position of teaching, however we may define it, we must be open to listening and learning from those we purport to teach. So, in that sense, it is, as Dei says, our obligation to work with what is being said by the learner.

However, as a teacher, it is also our job to speak and write as clearly as possible to our audience taking into consideration the way our audience understands. That is why, in the field of plain language, testing is so important.

If I create a document aimed at a specific audience with the goal of them learning a specific thing or accomplishing a specific task, it is up to me to make sure they understand. It is not up to my audience to learn to understand what I have done. If my audience doesn’t understand, it’s my fault, not theirs.

So how do I find out if my document works? Testing. This is very rarely done but it is so important for letting us know whether our documents work. PlainLanguage.gov has a brief but helpful section on its website dedicated to testing documents for plain language.

After testing a document, it is important not to criticize the audience, but to fix any shortfalls we have in making the message clear.

As Diana Athill said: “Writing shouldn’t come between the reader and what’s being described. It should be as transparent as possible.”