Guess What Johnny’s Talking About

Arnetha Ball tells us that “African American Vernacular English is a linguistic system that many teachers may not fully understand” (226).  In actuality, what teachers don’t understand is what their students are trying to convey.  A teacher isn’t constructing a barrier by hoping to instill better mechanics in her writers’ minds—she’s doing what the state department of education has asked her to do.  I flat out do not buy the social or cultural value argument Ball presents nor do I believe her perspective reflects a typical, diverse classroom.

According to Ball, “anthropologists have assured teachers the AAVE is a logical language” (226).  Linguistic anthropologists forget that they are adept speakers and writers of presumably several languages, but the students in question are not.  A cultural variance neither deserves its own rubric nor excludes one from state-mandated testing.  I’d like the anthropologist to consider the logic behind a dialectical system that is widely viewed by teachers as a pattern of errors.  It isn’t feasible (or, remotely fair) to require teachers to devise separate rubrics to explain and propose methods of assessment for writing they cannot understand.  As instructors, we’re trying to teach students how to write effectively; the result here should not be to guess their intentions.  Unfortunately for the anthropologist, in the real world, teachers are held accountable and expected to meet content standards in alignment with their schools’ curricula.  If a student of mine persists in writing, “he be crazy,” my first thought is not that this student must really appreciate the “habitual be,” but that I’ve failed to achieve my lessons’ objectives.  I can’t find any purpose in such ethnosensitiveity.

If educators consistently allow incorrect grammar to stand, they, in turn, create a society of incapable communicators.  Interestingly, scholars from progressive universities insist upon the cultural and linguistic legitimacy of Ebonics and claim a place for it in education.  I have not, however, seen a piece of writing advocating acceptance or exploration of AAVE written in any dialect other than standard American English and presented in an entirely academic context.  Who are these esteemed proponents tricking into believing an outright abandonment of grammar will lead to prestigious positions with universities and law firms and such because one might find bidialectical merit in a grammatically flawed text?  Or, maybe the problem originates with the culture the vernacular stems from—low-income, gang-ridden neighborhoods tend not to reward success in learning, but value drugs, gang-affiliation, and various abuses.  Thus, verb tenses become minor and eclipsed by the more serious struggles of such a community; if grammar isn’t a discerned asset, is any ambition?

Never the less, our overwhelming goal as educators is to establish high expectations across the board—that means Johnny from the French Tudor and Jamal from center city are both held to the same standards (and, they’re both adequately equipped to master subject-verb agreement).  Any teacher who refuses to see the potential in either is doing a disservice to both boys’ futures.


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