March 28, 2005

Delpit: "The Silenced Dialogue"

Lisa D. Delpit's "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children" addresses concerns about "skills" versus "process" approaches to writing instruction in regards to how these approaches affect students who do not belong to what she calls "the culture of power."

The culture of power in our schools, Delpit states, comprises white and middle/upper-middle class students. These students tend to do better in school because, claims Delpit, they hold "cultural capital;" they already possess the discourse patterns and values that are reflected in our educational system. Students without cultural capital tend to struggle, according to Delpit, because they must learn new language codes and value systems, many of which are implicit. "When implicit codes are attempted across cultures," Delpit explains, "communication frequently breaks down." These students often find themselves being held accountable for knowing a set of rules that no one has taught them.

Delpit encourages "liberal" teachers with "good intentions," many of whom may feel uncomfortable possessing this type of power, to admit their role as power brokers, and reexamine their instructional techniques. Many of these teachers, says Delpit, have been advocating the "process approach" to teaching literacy, and employ such practices as peer writing groups. Delpit claims that though these techniques may be effective with students within the culture of power, students outside of it may feel cheated by them. Black students, for instance, she says, "expect an authority figure to act with authority," and may feel the teacher is shirking her responsibilities if she is not offering direct instruction to the class. Delpit cites a study by Siddle (1988) which compared direct instruction, teacher conferencing and peer writing groups and found that direct instruction in the form of "mini-lessons" had the best results, while peer conferencing produced the least number of changes in Black students' writing.

Delpit believes that teachers should directly and explicitly educate students without cultural capital about the "politically charged" styles, codes and values that exist within the culture of power, and that these same teachers must also reinforce to students the value that their own culture holds. Delpit also suggests that such instruction can only be done "in consultation with adults who share their culture," the Black teachers and parents whose concerns have been "silenced by the very forces that claim to 'give voice'" to these students.

Delpit adds she is arguing not solely for the skills approach, though. She admits that these students need to find their own "expertness" and that we "need to help students to establish their own voices" and to "coach those voices to produce notes that will be heard clearly in the larger society." Delpit charges those with the most power to take the initiative in the project of "get[ting] all the issues on the table in order to initiate true dialogue." This must be done, Delpit states, because: "To provide schooling for everyone's children that reflects liberal, middle-class values and aspirations is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, to ensure that power, the culture of power, remains in the hands of those who already have it."


I have few quarrels with Delpit's assertions. Yes, a culture of power does exist, yes, I am part of it, and yes, my job as a teacher is to help all students access it if they want to. The concern I have is how to do it. How do I directly teach all of my students who aren't white/middle-class/English speaking the explicit codes of the culture while at the same time meeting the needs of those who are already masters of the code? It's a difficult task.

Delpit’s charge to the culture of power seems directly tied into the controversial NCLB initiative. I have mixed feelings about it. Of course leaving no child behind is a noble goal, of course it would be nice if every student in my school could master basic skills, but is this realistic, and are the results worth the cost? Next year, my high school will lose a good chunk of its ESL funding. Nearly half of the students who qualify for tutoring won't receive help. At the same time, there is a new directive that all ESL students must take two full years of mainstream English classes in order to graduate. This means that I will have more ESL students in my classroom earlier, and most of them will not qualify for any additional help.

Teachers at my school spend many after school hours tutoring ESL, minority, low income, and special education students so they can pass the basic skills tests. Some of these students are definitely benefiting from this direct instruction. Others, though, like some ESL students, those with significant learning disabilities, and those who just don't buy into the system will not make it. But, we require them to try and try, not because it's the best thing for the students, but because we are desperate as a school to shake the dreaded stigma of being an NCLB "school on probation."

Meanwhile, competent and honors students aren't getting nearly the same attention. Honors class sizes are getting bigger and resources are scarcer because so much money and energy is being directed towards those without cultural capital. I am still really struggling with all of these issues. As a public high school, we need to meet all of our students' needs: those with cultural capital, those without, the brilliant students, the struggling students, and, most challenging of all, the students who don't even want to be there. It seems an overwhelming task at times.

Posted by gust0124 at March 28, 2005 5:10 PM