Sunday, March 14, 2010

Shirley Brice Heath, Ways With Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classroom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. LB1139 L3 H37

Part 1
Young people tolerated school, waiting for the time when they were blessed old enough or big enough to leave.” (p. 26) Ah, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I supervisor secondary English education student teachers in the local schools. One school, in particular, has a high incidence of truancy and drop-outs. The student teacher was flabbergasted by the apparent apathy of the school towards this issue. However, there was also a teacher culture of “It's my job to teach, and the kids' job to be here. If they aren't here, and ready to learn, there is nothing I can do about it.” Part of what Heath shows is that the school learning wasn't relevant to the home life and projected life work. Yet, that also brings in the debate of vocational verses college prep tracks. Is it a good thing to track students? I haven't found a satisfactory answer to this yet. However, if a vocational track provides skilled labor jobs, such as plumbing, construction etc. - isn't that better than having a student drop-out, not find a living wage job and going on welfare? In rebuttal, the critics would then mention that in general, only working class students would be in the vocational track and not have the opportunity to get into the college bound track. In response, from what I've seen, the working class kids of my current city don't get into the college bound track, don't get solid skills in their remedial classes, and don't engage in the school and drop out. In addition, few schools will admit to tracking. Wouldn't it be better to freely admit dual tracking and provide solid education for both?

Much of what Heath describes in the old timers' recollections remind me a lot of my hometown and childhood. I grew up on a 40 acre farm with my parents, paternal grandparents, and aunt/uncle and cousins all living on the farmstead. We had a huge communal garden and orchard, froze and canned food, used layaway for big purchases, and joined a Christmas club to afford gifts at Christmas. My mother's family lived in the city, though it was a small town. However, even then, most of my aunts/uncles and cousins lived within a 20 minute drive of each other. 
There were major differences between my father's family and background and my mother's. In a way, Mom (and family) was Roadville and Dad was Trackton. Mom grew up in the city, had all the appliances and conveniences of electricity, went to dances and belonged to the after-school clubs. She was a fair to good student, liked reading and trained to be a secretary. Reading and words were a part of her everyday life. In her family, there were clear male/female roles and right and wrong ways to do things. Manners and politeness was explicitly taught. Children were expected to be quiet and play away from the adults, but toys and games were provided. My Dad's father died when he was six. My grandma had two small children and a farm, plus several other acres to tend. She took on the mantle of head of the household, even once she remarried.  Dad tells stories of Grandma's temper and inconsistent moods – which was part of her family. It was survival of the fittest, for him, growing up, and to be fit, meant to be strong – mentally and physically. Few books were in the house, and Dad said grandma even burned some of his books when she felt he was spending to much time lallygagging and not working.

When I grew up, there were few books, records or toys in the houses of my father's family. Since my aunt and grandma lived within walking distance of my parents, in the summer, I tended to float around and stay with whoever I wanted to for as long as I wanted. Conversation were long, multiple and loud, with people talking over and butting into the conversation frequently. Frugality, responsibility and cleanliness were valued traits. In my mother's family houses, there were books, magazines, toys, TV, crayons etc. People had mostly polite conversations where turn-taking and indoor voices was the norm.
This week I visited my parents, who live in a small town outside Milwaukee. My father was a farmer when growing up and a blue collar worker as an adult. My mother was a secretary and saleswoman. Neither had formal education past high school. My mom and I went for lunch at the Olive Garden and I was explaining some of the stuff I was reading and working on. Mom nodded her head and smiled and then exclaimed, “How did we end up having such smart kids?” Being both a compliment intended for me and a criticism of herself, I was at a loss at how to respond. She and I had attended the same high school, in the same town, yet here I am pursuing my PhD and she never took classes beyond high school. Yet, somehow, she instilled in me a love and desire for learning and knowledge, something not especially valued in my high school 20 years ago. Beer, ice fishing, deer hunting, and racing cars were highly valued. I would guess that less than half of my class went on to college. The rest took blue-collar jobs locally or went to trade school.

When growing up, much of my homework made no sense to my mom, much like the Roadville parents who found “the tasks [looking up definitions, finding answers to questions] always seem to point to something else, to suggest that they will have some purpose, some place to be put to use. But neither Roadville parents nor children see and participate in these ultimate occasions for use. The average, and even the good, students seem to do only minimally what is asked of them to conform.” (p. 46-47) I was one of those students – one who knew how to play the game and do what was asked, but I really didn't get into my own education until late in college. I didn't realize that the point was to do more than regurgitate – it was to think and create. When I finally understood the full potential of learning, I then decided to be a teacher.

For the past twenty years of my life, I've been living in transition, like the Trackton residents. Since 1988, I have moved every 3-4 years of my life. Fortunately, for the past 13 years, I've been happily married, which makes the transitions easier. But, I totally understand the mentally of not looking at what you have presently because of the promise of the future. As an international teacher, it isn't unusual to move that frequently, but it does make it difficult to find a “home” and community to really integrate into and give back too. Knowing I would be living eventually, some people didn't want to become to involved with me. As a couple, we looked at our apartments as places to sleep and eat in, not as homes. The kiss of death was the year we finally put artwork on the wall. Within a year, we'd be moving again.

I was quite horrified to read about how Trackton children were socialized to be assertive and aggressive with their dealings with each other. I know that this is my middle class mentality kicking in – but it just seems like such a fearful way to live. Kind of like when I watch any spy show or movie, I know that I could never be a spy because I am a horrible liar and infiltrator, I think I would be a horrible Trackton kid, or labeled as the slow or dull one. I don't like conflict and never dealt well with it. But, I can see how this form of socialization would cause problems within school. Since I taught in international schools in three countries, but with hundreds of different nationalities, I was often confronted with students who came to school with wildly different expectations of school, schooling, and peer relationships. Since their parents selected this particular American school, having the conversation about the differences was little easier, because the parental goal was to get their kids into American or International universities. So, socializing them to the “way we do school” was not as controversial as it is here in the US.

I was also quite angry to read about the unequal treatment of girls verse boys. I wonder how Heath dealt with observing this lack of respect that the girls received. I would think, since it was still at the early years of the feminist movement, she may not have had a response to it. Yet, ethically, nowadays, could I, as a researcher, walk away from the situation without trying to change it? I also found it interesting how the Trackton girls compensated for not being allowed into the conversation and they talked to themselves in mirrors. 
As Heath was describing the baby shower, I was reminded of a situation last spring. One of my graduate friends also had a baby shower, and I was giving a ride to several international graduate students. Knowing that traditions are very different around the world, I decided to ask about how the preparation for birth happened in their countries. Thankfully, the ride was long, because we all had a lot to say. But, it was a weird feeling to have to articulate specific cultural practices that are so common-sensical, to someone new. It reminds me of the movie The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human (Jeff Abugov, 1999). It isn't a very good movie, but it is set up like a documentary, narrated by an alien about the dating scene. Again, what seems so natural, when looked at with uninitiated eyes, it quite unnatural.

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