I was first exposed to Language! Live when upon my return home from work last week, I found a training manual in my mailbox with a sticky note on it that said “review this- it’s being used in the MS/HS [ibid]”. I was intrigued; not only by who may have left this for me, but upon closer examination, whether the post-it ghostwriter was accurate in their claim that the text was affiliated with the district. Being that my child is not yet in secondary school, I wholeheartedly admit I have little awareness of the district’s secondary education curriculum, but in reviewing the manual I came to question why the district (and maybe more specifically who in the district) would approve this curriculum. As I will discuss below, its content does not align with the district’s declared dedication to social justice and multiculturalism.
I took a few hours during the weekend to review the text. I approached my analysis of the Language! Live Training Manual using a framework that draws on the work of three predominant scholars: James Gee, Paulo Freire, and Henry Giroux. (If this is not of interest to you, it’s ok- just skip to the next full paragraph)
- James Gee (2015) posits that discourse (little d) that is used in society, be it in the media (traditional and social), in public spaces, and in school settings, etc. serves to construct/sustain/challenge “big D” Discourse- which are the narratives that permeate our society. Essentially, Gee states that we take up and construct realities (however true or false) about a particular topic based on how it is presented to us through written and spoken discourse, and other forms of “text” that we encounter in our day-to-day lives.
In formal education, students are exposed to a variety of discourses in their everyday school lives- from the moment they enter the school building. For example: What are the images that are displayed on the hallway/classroom walls? Who is pictured? Is their own identity reflected in the images they see, and among the faculty and administrators they encounter? How do the adults at school greet them, seethem, or not? What curriculum are students offered; how are their identities reflected in the curriculum; and what agency does an individual student have in choosing what they want to study? Within each course,how do the educators teach? What do they teach? And whatmesages are being sent (or left unsaid) through the content students engage with? All of these aspects are considered discourse- “texts” that students “read” however explicitly or implicitly in their everyday lives.
- Paulo Freire (1968, 1970), and more recently building on Freire, Henry Giroux (2011), describe that “education is not neutral.” What is taught, and how it is taught, reflects a political agenda. A commonly cited example is how historical events are presented in history books, or in history class: whose voices are drawn into a presentation about a particular historical event, and whose are left out. Only until we “liberate” students (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire) and teach them to critically examine, or read, these texts (or discourse, more generally speaking) are students situated to read the word- and world- and only then are they truly literate.
It is with the above frameworks that I approached my analysis of the Language! Live Training Manual. Upon a brief review of the first 50 pages of the manual, I found that the curriculum conflicts with the district’s mission; the content is explicitly racist, as are its suggested pedagogical tools. The remainder of this article draws on two of the curriculum’s featured texts to illustrate- Jazz: The Recipe and The Circuit.
Analysis Of Language! Live Training Manual
The first reading featured in the training manual is on page 39, titled Jazz: The Recipe. It is an informational text as genres go, but the information fed to students who read the text is very concerning. It attempts to describe the complexity of jazz music in eight short paragraphs. While I am no expert, I do know that jazz is a combination of various musical genres, and while some aspects are attributable to European Americans, it is a large result of African American creative genius. In this text, however, the European contribution is grossly overstated thus diminishing the contribution of Black Americans. The evolution of jazz, as depicted in the text, is boiled down to friendly collaboration between Africans and Europeans. “Workers” and “slaves” are terms used to describe enslaved people. The whitewashed text dumbs down the complexity of slavery on multiple occasions, touting instead the role music played in the lives of the enslaved people. The second paragraph of the text reads:
Workers sang songs during the long workday. They sang in fields and on ships. They sang while working on the railroads. The work song was an important part of their day. With tools in their hands, they worked to a steady beat. The songs made life a little easier. There were many kinds of work songs, and these songs played a part in jazz. (p 39)
The remainder of the text is equally alarming, even referencing that even though “slaves had been freed, life was still hard” (p 40) which resulted in blues music.
Little analysis is required with this first text, Jazz: The Recipe- the above paragraph so blatantly demonstrates the severity of the script, and the contradictory nature of using the Language! Live curriculumin a district that prides itself on social justice and multiculturalism.
In addition to this example of explicitly racist content, my analysis of the pedagogical tools proved to be equally concerning. As noted on page 26 of the manual, the manual “provides scripting for lesson delivery”, including questions that are located in the margin that accompany the text. I was excited when I saw that a portion of Francisco Jiménez’s classic work The Circuit was included in the curriculum, but astonished when I conducted my analysis of the suggested questions that teachers should ask students during a read aloud. Language! Live takes a classic work written by Jiménez about his childhood as a Mexican immigrant, and twists his truths through the questions that a teacher is charged to ask. While my analysis yielded six problematic questions (out of the ten included in the five-page excerpt), for purposes of this article, I include only three. For ease of reading, each of the three examples contains the excerpt, the question to be asked by the educator, and my analysis. (Please note: the page numbers cited reflect those of the Manual, not Jiménez’s text.)
Excerpt: (p 44 of Training Manual, p 148 of students’ (level 2) textbook)
At sunset we drove into a labor camp near Fresno. Since Papá did not speak English, Mamá asked the camp foreman if he needed any more workers. “We don’t need no more,” said the foreman, scratching his head. “Check with Sullivan down the road. Can’t miss him. He lives in a big white house with a fence around it.”
When we got there, Mamá walked up to the house. She went through a white gate, passed a row of rose bushes, up the stairs to the front door. She rang the doorbell. The porch light went on, and a tall husky man came out. They exchanged a few words. After the man went in, Mamá clasped hands and hurried back to the car. “We have work! Mr. Sullivan said we can stay there the whole season,” she said, gasping, and pointing to an old garage near the stables. (1)
The garage was worn out by the years. It had no windows. The walls, eaten by termites, strained to support the roof full of holes. The dirt floor, populated by earthworms, looked like a gray road map.”
Question 1 reads: “Why is Mamá excited about an old garage?”
I begin by asking is Mamá excited about the old garage? Or, (as I read it) the fact that her family found work? The placement of question 1, right before the description of the old garage, places the idea in the students’ heads that Mamá is excited about living in the old garage. Concerning is that students then go on to read the description of the garage, which is described as dirty, ridden with insects (termites and earthworms), and in general, unsuitable to live in by today’s standards (holes in the roof, dirt floor, no windows). But as just discussed with students, Mamá is excited to live there. What conclusions might students make about this mother? A more appropriate, less racially charged question could easily read: “Why is Mamá excited?” Or “How is Mamá feeling? Why?” Instead, the question that is posed leaves students with a negative impression of Mamá, and that along with being poor, she and her family are desperate, living in dirty, unsuitable living conditions. An eight-word question sends a message.
Excerpt (p 46 of Training Manual, p 150 of students’ (level 2) textbook)
When we arrived home, we took a cold shower underneath a water hose. We then sat down to eat dinner around some wooden crates that served as a table. Mamá had cooked a special meal for us. We had rice and tortillas with “carne con chili,“ my favorite dish. (5)
Question 5 reads: “Did they have a bathroom? How do you know?”
At this point in the story students only know that the family lives in an old garage. This fact, combined with the fact that the family took a shower using a water hose are the only clues that students have read to draw the conclusion that most likely, the family does not have a bathroom, though readers do not know for certain. Greatly concerning is the fact that this question is suggested to teachers to ask. The answer is not definitively stated. Students need to infer the answer, and based on the clues, they will infer that there is not a bathroom. This again adds to the negative narrative students have already developed about the Mexican immigrants; they now believe that without a bathroom (toilet, sink) Mexican immigrants are also unsanitary.
Excerpt (p 46-47 of Training Manual, p 150-151 of students’ (level 2) textbook)
When the bus stopped in front of school, I felt very nervous. I looked out the bus window and saw boys and girls carrying books under their arms. I felt empty. I put my hands in my pants pockets and walked to the principal’s office. When I entered, I heard a woman’s voice say: “may I help you?“ I was startled. I had not heard English for months. For a few seconds, I remained speechless. I looked at the lady who waited for an answer. My first instinct was to answer her in Spanish, but I held back. Finally, after struggling for English words, I managed to tell her that I wanted to enroll in the sixth grade. After answering many questions, I was led to the classroom. (7)
Question 7 reads: “Why was the narrator struggling with his English?”
The way this question is framed depicts a “language as problem” orientation. Richard Ruiz, (1984) talks about three different orientations people typically have about emerging multilingual speakers- language as a “problem”, language as a “right” and language as a “resource.” This question could easily be reframed to show readers that the author’s knowledge of two languages (Spanish and English) provided him the ability to advocate for himself, and convey his needs to the principal. The narrator uses his emerging English abilities to provide himself access- in this instance, to his own education- how empowering! Instead, the question, as it is phrased, insinuates a lack of English. The curriculum takes the original phrase, “Finally, after struggling for English words” and equates that to the “narrator struggling with his English.” Ignored is the fact that the narrator resisted his instinct to respond in his first language, and communicated his desire effectively- he was led to the sixth grade classroom. The nuance of these two phrases, though slight, changes the entire meaning, and message of the text. The way the question is asked subscribes to a “language as a problem” orientation. In this case, the narrative is the Spanish language is a problem, as it is keeping the narrator from adequately learning English. Students add this to their laundry list of negative ideas they hold about Francisco Jimenez and his family.
The mystery of how the Manual made its way to my mailbox remains a mystery, but my main concern is how this curriculum made its way into the district. The curriculum must have been recently acquired (it is published in 2021) yet it goes against one of the objectives outlined in the 2019 Strategic Plan- a document developed to guide the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District towards improvement. Objective C reads “ Strengthen instructional practice to respond to the cultural identities of students of color while dismantling white supremacy in the system, for all students”. Was this curriculum not vetted? Who, within the district, is responsible for vetting curriculum, and how did they overlook the blatant nature of these examples? What are your ideas? I am left with one solution to propose: Language! Live should perish.
Katie Lazdowski holds a PhD from UMass’ College of Education’s Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies program.