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Teaching African American students written academic English through writing: Three African American students, a researcher, and their teachers

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2009
Dissertation
Author: Jane Bean-Folkes
Abstract:
This action research between the researcher and three urban public school teachers examines the language learning process of three focal students producing written academic English. This study addresses the challenges that students encounter in learning written academic English and influences on the teachers' pedagogical decisions by their assessment of students' oral and written language patterns in an attempt to raise the level of written academic English in the students' writing. It seeks to answer when an African American student uses African American Vernacular in his/her oral and written language, what impact if any this has on the African American student's writings, and what changes occur in the student's perception of himself as a writer because teachers are often frustrated by raising the quality of writing using written academic English. It also seeks to discover how to support language learning for African American students as well as other non-dominant language students. The methods for collecting data consist of participant-observation, semi-structured interviews, student-produced artifacts, and field notes. The study has implications for how written academic English can be effectively taught using components of balanced literacy in urban schools.

TABLE OF CONTENTS Chapter Page I. INTRODUCTION . 1 Statement of the Problem 3 Rationale... 3 Purpose of the Study 4 Research Questions 4 Theoretical Framework 5 Social Implications of Language 5 Language and Literacy: A Critical Sociolinguistic Perspective 7 Constructing Language Knowledge: A Constructivist Pedagogy for Teaching 12 Language Identity and the Position of the Researcher 15 Significance of the Study 19 Summary of Chapter I and Outline of the Dissertation 20 II. LITERATURE REVIEW 22 Language and Identity: A History of AAVE 23 The Drive to Become Literate 27 What Is Academic Language? 30 Oral and Written Academic Language 35 Instructional Approaches to Written Academic English 38 v

Chapter Page The Linguistic Approach 40 The Literacy Approach 42 The Blended Approach 43 Written Academic Approaches and African American Students 46 The Role of Students' Attempts at Writing Standard English 48 Summary of the Literature Review 51 III. RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODOLOGY 54 The Purpose of the Case Study Approach 55 Reasons for Using Action Research 57 The Historical Lessons of Action Research 57 The Uses of Narrative 59 Research Site 62 Participant Selection 63 Teacher Selection 63 Focal Student Selection 64 Researcher Positionality 66 Role of the Researcher 67 Researcher Reciprocity 69 Data Collection 70 Collaborative Meetings 71 VI

Chapter Page Teacher and Student Interviews 73 Participant Observations 74 Student Artifacts 75 Data Analysis 76 Trustworthiness and Limitations . 78 On the Treatment of Human Subjects 80 IV. THE RESEARCHER'S JOURNEY 81 Graduate School 84 My Childhood Repeats Itself 86 Thirst for Knowledge 88 The Role of Staff Developer.... 90 Chapter Summary. 95 V. THE JOURNEY WITH TEACHERS 97 Meeting the Teachers 97 Ms. Figueroa 98 Ms. Baker 101 Ms. Meyer 103 Journeying Through the Recursive Collaborative Inquiry Process 105 Finding Ways to Help 107 Learning from One Another 110 vii

Chapter Page Teaching as a Collaborative Effort 114 Stepping Back to Learn 115 Planning to Do It Again 116 Repeating the Inquiry Process 117 Tensions Between AAVE, Mechanics and Grammar 119 Teachers Make Decisions for Their Teaching 122 Windows into the Classrooms of Learning 123 A Window into Ms. Figueroa's Classroom 123 Ms. Figueroa Makes Decisions for Her Teaching 128 A Window into Ms. Baker's Classroom 129 Ms. Baker Makes Decisions for Her Teaching 135 A Window into Ms. Meyer's Classroom 137 Ms. Meyer Makes Decisions for Her Teaching 142 Learning from How the Teachers' Observations Shaped Their Decisions with Students 143 Chapter Summary 145 Moving the Journey to Deshawna, DW, and Zora 146 VI. , DESHAWNA WRITES 148 Deshawna's Oral Language Practice 149 Deshawna's Written Language Practice 153 Deshawna Learns about Language: Mechanics versus Grammar 163 viii

Chapter Page The Focus on Mechanics 166 The Tensions for Deshawna's Learning 167 Changes in Deshawna's Writing 168 Deshawna's Perception of Herself as a Writer 173 Learning from Deshawna's Story 175 Talkin' the "Right" Way: The Tension with Oral Language... 176 What We Learn about Instruction from Deshawna's Experience 178 Deshawna Puts Her Knowledge into Practice 180 VII. HANGING WITH DW 183 DW's Oral Language Practice: Shaped by Context 184 DW's Written Language Practice 186 DW Learns about Language: Focus on Verb Tense 192 Changes in DW's Writing from the Interventions 208 DW's Perception of Himself as a Writer 210 Learning from DW's Story 212 Developing a Metalanguage 215 What Else Might Benefit DW, Given What was Learned... 216 IX

er VIII. ZORA THE INQUISITOR .. 218 Zora's Oral Language Practice 219 Zora's Written Language Practice 221 Moving Toward the Intervention and Its Affects on Zora... 224 Reading and Writing to Learn More Complex Sentence Structures 229 Zora Learns about Language: A Focus on Sentence Complexity 231 The Changes in Zora's Writing: Putting Learning into Practice 245 Zora's Perception of Herself as a Writer.... 251 Learning from Zora's Story 252 IX. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS 255 Discussion of the Study and Research Questions 256 Teachers'Observations of African Vernacular English 260 Teachers' Observations of the Challenges that Students Encounter 261 Influences on the Teachers' Pedagogical Decisions 262 Students' Use of AAVE: Language as Power and Language Beliefs 269 Identity as a Writer: Changes in the Students' Perceptions. 270 Implications for African American Students in Writing Academic English 273

Chapter Implications for Teachers Working on Writing with African American Students . 275 Implications for Research 276 Critique of the Study 277 Conclusion 278 REFERENCES 281 Appendix A. Selected Morpho-Syntactic Features of Standard English and African American Vernacular English 296 B. Examples of Published Writing in Vernacular Dialects or Varieties of English Other than "Standard Written English". 297 C. Transcript, November 20, 2007 298 D. On-Demand Writing Protocol 301 E. Protocol for Teacher and Student Interviews. 302 F. Sample Student Writing 305 G. Sample Student Writing (Annotated) 306 H. Codes for Data Analysis 307 I. Initial Plan for Phase Three Study Unit 308 J. Pre-Unit Assessment Worksheet on Sentence Complexity 311 K. Revised Phase Three Study Unit Plan and Worksheets 313 L. Phase Four Study Unit Plan 319 M. Chunking Sentences - Word Study Mini-Lesson ,. 320 XI

IX N. Excerpt from Initial Interview with Deshawna 322 O. Deshawna's Oral Language Patterns 325 P. Deshawna's Written Language Patterns 326 Q. Deshawna's Writer's Notebook Entries 328 R. Deshawna's Literary Essay 347 S. Deshawna's Notebook Entry 349 T. DW'sOral Language Patterns 351 U. DW's Written Language Patterns 352 V. DW's Writer's Notebook Entry September 353 W. DW's First Realistic Fiction Piece Draft 355 X. DW's Writer's Notebook Loves Entry 358 Y. DW'S Writer's Notebook Personal Essay 360 Z. DW's Personal Essay Draft 361 AA. DW's Writer's Notebook Entry on Sequence 366 BB. DW's Pre-Assessment Verb Work 367 CC. DW's Post-Assessment Verb Work 368 DD. DW's Second Realistic Fiction Piece Draft 369 EE. Zora's Oral Language Patterns 377 FF. Zora's Written Language Patterns 378 GG. Zora's Independent Project - A Play 379 HH. Zora's Personal Essay Draft 394 xii

II. Zora's Pre and Post Assessment Worksheets on Sentence Complexity 402 JJ. Zora's Sentence Complexity Analysis 404 KK. Zora's Realistic Fiction Draft 405 LL. Letter of Invitation for Teacher Participants 418 MM. Letter of Informed Consent for Teacher Participants 420 NN. Letter of Invitation to Parent/Guardian of Student Participants 423 OO. Letter of Informed Consent for Parent/Guardian of Student Participants 424 PP. Letter of Invitation for Student Participants 427 QQ. Letter of Informed Consent for Student Participants - Assent for Minors (8-17 Years Old) 430 xni

LIST OF TABLES Table Page 1. Data Collection as It Relates to the Research Questions 72 2. Written Academic Writing Approaches and Writing Approaches 263 xiv

LIST OF FIGURES Figure Page 1. Phases in Data Collection and Analysis 71 2. Ms. Baker's Sentence Corrections 132 3. Ms. Baker's Verb Chart 133 4. Ms. Meyer's Sentence Chart 137 5. Avi Excerpt 138 6. Deshawna's Initial On-demand Writing 156-157 7. Page 1 of Deshawna's Writer's Notebook 158 8. Page 2 of Deshawna's Writer's Notebook 159 9. Deshawna's Memory Note 164 10. Deshawna's Poster on Punctuation 170 11. Deshawna's Writing Using Punctuation.... 173-175 12. DW's Pre-assessment on Sentence Work 190 13. DW's Word Study Notebook Entries about Verbs 196-197 14. DW's Final Realistic Fiction Draft 201-203 15. Teacher Charts about Verb Work 1 205 16. Teacher Charts about Verb Work II 206 17. Zora's Initial On-demand Writing 220-221 18. Zora's Word Study Notebook 225-226 19. Chunking a Sentence 232 20. Zora's Mentor Piece, Keepers 233 xv

21. Sections of Zora's Realistic Fiction - Zora's Final Draft (handwritten and typed) 236-239 22. Zora's Pre-assessment Before Further Study of Sentence Complexity 240-241 23. Zora's Post-assessment after Studying Sentence Complexity. 242-245 24. Zora's Self Generated Editing Checklist 246 xvi

1 Chapter I INTRODUCTION Teachers of African American students, especially students who live in low socio-economic (working class or poor) urban areas, are often puzzled Over how to help their students write academic or formal standard English.1 Fundamental to the teachers' struggle are the many linguistic differences between African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Standard English (SE), which is to say the disconnect between the language of home and the language of school (Cazden, John, & Hymes 1972; Heath, 1983). Fogel (1996) argues that students whose home language dialects differ significantly from the written standard will experience greater difficulty in school because the language they speak at home is, in many ways, at odds with the one used in school. Some, on the other hand, believe that it is not the difference between the two dialects that interferes with student learning as much as the negative reactions of teachers to students' use of nonstandard English. Especially because reading and writing are typically conducted in SE, speakers of AAVE are at a disadvantage because they are expected to produce written work in a form of English (SE) that is unfamiliar to them. 'in this dissertation the terms "academic," "formal," and "standard" will all be used to refer to the English used in most educational and professional contexts, including business, government, and law. This is the basis for the written form of the language promulgated in most schools in the United States.

2 Furthermore, many teachers of African American students in urban areas such as New York City are convinced that their teaching will have little affect on students' abilities to write correct academic English. Some also doubt that they can create a context that is conducive to students learning written academic English. Goodman and Buck (1973), who strongly support this view, argue that the major issue behind the failure of students to learn SE is the lack of acceptance of differences on the part of their classroom teachers. They argue that when students are constantly corrected for using features of their home languages, they come to feel that not only is their language unacceptable but also that they as a people are unacceptable in the environment of school. African American students who feel that they are not accepted or supported by their teachers may live with a sense of inferiority that drives some to work feverishly to rid themselves of the vernacular completely. No matter how many hours of instruction in grammar and writing they receive and may fail to thrive as learners of academic English and it may come in part, because their sense of agency was compromised from the start. Teachers, who argue that instruction in SE can work, disagree often on the recommended instructional path to take. Some teachers argue that direct isolated instruction in grammar is "the solution" for African American students (Warriner, 1986). Others argue for indirect instruction during writing time (Weaver, 1996), and still others call for a blended approach (Williams, 2005). Because teachers and researchers of African American students' issues do not agree on the nature of language instruction that will best support student growth, it is especially important for researchers to examine African American students' writing process. Perhaps doing so will support a new pedagogy that successfully blends teaching methods in ways that result in learning written academic English.

3 Statement of the Problem As a literacy staff developer in New York City, I have the opportunity to work with many teachers to develop their skills in literacy instruction. Teachers often struggle with and ask questions about their African American students' abilities to learn written academic English. At the same time, teachers are troubled by the widening achievement gap between African American students and their White counterparts. In working with these teachers, I have witnessed their frustration as they try to help students master the nuances of written academic English grammar - in particular, syntax, punctuation, verbs, and cohesion.2 Teachers spend a great deal of time in explicit language instruction and in editing student writing. Often, they approach language use from a rule-dominated perspective, perhaps because they see SE as the carrier of cultural and economic capital (Webb, Schirato, Danaaher, 2002). Often, too, the teachers feel that their efforts in editing students' writing - for instance, indicating the correct verb tense - have negligible effects. Rationale I entered into this study due to the lack of consensus in the approach to written academic English instruction for speakers of African American Vernacular English. The aim of this study was to focus on the students in order to develop an understanding of students' perceptions of themselves as writers, their use of AAVE in their oral and written language, and the changes which occur in their writing within a balanced literacy framework because it is important to widen the understanding of the language ^•Cohesion is a term used for the words that help the reader hold the text together, often at issue when one word refers back to a previous word or idea.

4 learning process for African American students. The methods used to uncover these challenges and influences are outlined in greater detail in the methodology chapter and were based on case studies Of African American students' language learning process. Purpose of the Study In this action research project, I collaborated with three urban public school fourth and fifth grade teachers to examine the language learning processes of three case study students and their attempts at producing written academic English. The research team then used the results of this initial inquiry to design methods of writing instruction that would meet the needs of the case study students and their peers. These methods were comprised of specific interventions in the fourth and fifth grade classrooms. The effects of the interventions on the case study students' written work are examined in Chapters VI, VII, and VIII. In the end, it is hoped that the results of this study will contribute to the theory and practice of writing instruction for African American students who speak AAVE inside and outside of school. Research Questions This action research study explored three African American students' development in written academic English. The study addressed the following research questions: 1. How are the three African American students using African American Vernacular English in their oral or written language? (i.e., what, if any, aspects of African American Vernacular English do they exhibit and, if they do so, how are these exhibited?)

5 2. What changes are evidenced over the study period in the students' perceptions of themselves as writers? 3. What appears to influence the teachers' pedagogical decisions when working on writing with African American students? Theoretical Framework This research was framed by the following three areas of work: (1) sociocultural perspectives on teaching and learning and on the importance of a positive socio- emotional context for learning; (2) research on language and literacy and how it is informed by critical sociolinguistic perspectives on culturally relevant pedagogy, including the significance of language and identity for African Americans and implications for literacy development; and (3) constructivist approaches to language learning instruction. After discussing the role of these perspectives, I conclude this chapter by addressing the role that my identity and positionality as an African American researcher play in this research. Social Implications of Language I draw much of my framework from sociocultural theory, which is based on the concept that human activity takes place within a cultural context and is mediated by language and other symbols and by the tools with which we work. Sociocultural theorists believe that human activity is best understood when investigated as it develops over time. A sociocultural framework acknowledges the diversity of students in any given educational environment, as well as the related sociocultural implications of teaching and learning (Dyson, 1992). From a sociocultural viewpoint, teaching is never apolitical; instead, it is full of instructional choices that may impede or expand

6 students' language experiences and therefore their academic and social opportunities (Dyson, 1992). The work of Lev Vygotsky, the "father" of sociocultural theory, guides my inquiry into the social process of learning. The strength of Vygotsky's ideas lies in the connection between the interdependence of social interaction and the individual learning process in the construction of knowledge. I use sociocultural theory to examine how the sociocultural aspects of language learning impacts African American students' processes of developing written academic English. In this sociocultural view of literacy, the role of language is understood as inseparable from that of its context. John-Steiner and Mahn (2001) write: In order to understand children in school settings, sociocultural approaches examine the development of language and the ways that culturally different modes of discourse, both within and between cultures, shape children's development and impact their educational experiences, (p. 22) The context of this sociocultural theory involves the intersection of these socio- contexts (social, cultural, and school) and the role they play in how African American students learn written academic English. I see the intersection of language use among African American students and their teachers within the context of the school community, the social nature of interacting with peers, as well as the sociocultural interaction of language between students of color all impacting learning. These sociocultural connections between the vernacular and the academic language in the classroom play an important role in how African American students' respond to and take up written academic English. Language is used to communicate meaning in a variety of contexts. In this study, the context of school plays a key role, one in which it serves as a scaffold to language learning for students. The context of school allows the student to perform in unfamiliar

7 social and academic activities and thus to experiment with language. In this regard, language also functions as the tool used to instruct and to position students in more or less powerful ways, as a medium of social interaction, and as a means of constructing identity (Anzaldua, 1999). Thus, language is important in the formation of self and is essential to social, emotional, and cognitive development. The sociocultural perspective outlined above derives from the work of Vygotsky, particularly as built upon by Gee (1999b), Luke (2000), and others who see learning as embedded in and constructed from social contexts. This view informed my study because it shows the important role that history, context, identity, and language play in African American students' lives and in their academic learning. An awareness of how these sociocultural elements influence the students' identities and affect their learning process can offer insight to teaching and learning that will facilitate successful acquisition of written academic English for African American students. Language is interwoven throughout their lives, thus creating infinite opportunities for identity formation and learning. As such, teaching that fails to take into consideration students' language varieties or home languages would not only wrongly impose a monolingual perspective on a multilingual environment (Richardson, 2003b; Rose, 1989), but it would also limit the potential of the learning process by not building upon students' linguistic strengths. In the heterogeneous classrooms of many urban low socio economic status communities, it is seldom the case that only one language or dialect is spoken. The push to teach one language disenfranchises African Americans students, just as it does other "minority" residents of multilingual urban settings. Language and Literacy: A Critical Sociolinguistic Perspective I also draw on the notion that language is not neutral; it is both social and political. Whether language is spoken or written, it carries with it certain expectations

8 that are rooted in social norms and tied to issues of value and power. Within its overall sociocultural framework, this study places great importance on the critical sociolinguistic perspective on learning academic literacy. In this regard, I draw on the works of a variety of critical theorists who have examined the marginalization and socioeconomic exclusion of certain groups based on value and power (Apple, 1971; Delpit, 1995; Freire, 1970/1997; hooks, 1994; Smitherman, 2000a). Cazden (1972), Heath (1982), and Ladson-Billings (1998) argue that cultural differences in language should be acknowledged when marginalized students learn to communicate within classrooms in ways that are outside their vernacular. The use of the vernacular or home language, these researchers argue, can provide a foundation for learning new academic literacies. This new literacy practice for African American students holds the key to consumption (the ability to read and write a variety of texts), production (what students are able to produce in written texts), and distribution (the ability to go beyond the teacher and share one's thoughts with a wider audience), all of which are essential to changing the power relations within the dominant society. In order to impact the relationship between language and power within social groups in this country, it is crucial to examine the issue of literacy and academic language in terms of social justice. Individuals who do not have access to the language of power often have limited access to mainstream-valued activities within society. Thus, it is important that students find voices that are their own and that are valued by others. Once this happens, students will not feel that they are silenced because of a lack of language but that they are empowered to use their voices to bring about change in the world (Freire, 1970/1997). Consequently, critical theorists argue that it is important for students to learn how language is constructed and how it is used to influence others.

9 This critical sociolinguistic perspective guided my efforts to work with the teachers and students in this study to explore issues of social justice, value, and power by promoting African American students' ability to acquire written academic English in ways that would help students to feel empowered by their new acquisition rather than downtrodden. Hence, the critical sociolinguistic perspective was an important component in planning instruction with the teachers and in interacting with students. This critical perspective informed the pedagogy of instruction with respect to including the students' home language as well as focusing on the significance and complications of using written academic English as the language of power. The role of identity. Sociocultural approaches to language and literacy are integrated with the concept of identity. Socioculturalists have shown that literacy is a social process and therefore must be examined within a social and cultural context. For African American learners the sociocultural perspective on identity provides a framework within which to understand the challenges that African Americans face in acquiring a new dialect within the context of the classroom while maintaining their home dialects. Inherent in the social implications of literacy and language learning is the issue of student identity. Drawing on the work of Bettie (2003), I argue that how students interpret their roles and see themselves affects how they perform with peers and teachers as well as how they construct knowledge through the learning process. Likewise, students' interpretations of the meanings of literacy and of what it means to be a literate person in our society affect their internalization of types of reading and writing as well as how they perform these tasks in the classroom. In essence, how students use language and literacy practices and the perceptions that others have of the students work together to construct what I call identities. In this study, identity is defined as the way in which one sees, believes, and imagines as well as performs

10 oneself in the world or within a particular context. I also draw on McCarthey (2001), who states that "individual identity is so embedded within social, cultural, and historical contexts that who we are is shaped by how the world sees us" (p. 125). This concept shapes the way in which I see African American identity as impacted by factors that cut across social, cultural, economic, and historical lines. In other words, African American identities are multi-faceted. Furthermore, these multiple perspectives are shaped by different contexts and thus allow or disallow the identity holder to perform each facet of his or her identity differently. The notion that we perform different identities as a characteristic way of being in the world is supported by a number of researchers (Bettie, 2003; Gee, 2001), and such performances and modes of being are influenced by issues of race, class, culture, and power. Race, class, culture, and power. Sociocultural approaches to language and literacy also integrate the notion that race, class, culture and power play important roles in language learning. Particularly within the African American community, some believe that it is important for students to act, interact, speak, dress, and use symbols that allow people to recognize them as members of their distinctive race. Race plays a significant role in how African American students are treated and how they are situated in their family, school, community, and world. The "pull" toward maintaining a distinctive racial identity - which Baugh (2000) calls "Africanization" - is thus a strong one for some children. Generally, it presents a formidable counterweight to the "push" to overcome the isolation that is part of the heritage of slavery by gravitating toward mainstream skills such as written academic English. Another aspect of identity for African American students that carries social implications for language learning is class. Class, like race, is often a primary sigmfier of identity. However, whereas the color of an African American's skin immediately

11 identifies him or her as belonging to a particular race or group of people, class is not as easily identifiable. Nevertheless, given the history of race and class conflation in our society, African American students are often assumed to come from working-class and/or poor or single family homes (hooks, 1994; Jones, 2006). This negative image sometimes means that an individual has to prove that he or she is not what others assume and/or that he or she is capable of achievement despite others' expectations. This added burden makes learning a more complicated process for that learner than for many of his or her peers. Culture, which is inclusive of race, class, gender, dis/ability and other identity markers, also plays an important role in the social implications of African American language learning. The cultures and practices of African American families provide resources and richness, including a history of individual and collective practices. This rich cultural background of history, struggles, and determination enables many African American students to perform in contexts that may be "foreign" to them by providing a "social ecology" in which the student can interact to influence academic achievement (Bettie, 2003; Lee, 2005; Majors, 1998). The knowledge that one is a part of a family, church, or community culture can provide individuals with an image of how to be successful when faced with challenges. Thus, students who possess strong cultural identities could theoretically temporarily assume identities other than those that they typically "perform" in the context of home and community (Bettie, 2003). This happens when students try out a new language variety outside of their familiar social contexts. In such circumstances the students may be consciously acting out middle- class expressions in a temporary attempt at social mobility. However, the willingness to do so might be fortified by the ability of the individual to return to his or her own cultural background.

Full document contains 449 pages
Abstract: This action research between the researcher and three urban public school teachers examines the language learning process of three focal students producing written academic English. This study addresses the challenges that students encounter in learning written academic English and influences on the teachers' pedagogical decisions by their assessment of students' oral and written language patterns in an attempt to raise the level of written academic English in the students' writing. It seeks to answer when an African American student uses African American Vernacular in his/her oral and written language, what impact if any this has on the African American student's writings, and what changes occur in the student's perception of himself as a writer because teachers are often frustrated by raising the quality of writing using written academic English. It also seeks to discover how to support language learning for African American students as well as other non-dominant language students. The methods for collecting data consist of participant-observation, semi-structured interviews, student-produced artifacts, and field notes. The study has implications for how written academic English can be effectively taught using components of balanced literacy in urban schools.