All 28 teachers at a Michigan elementary school are going back to school themselves today -- and if they cut class they'll be in comtempt of court.
Educators, linguists and minority leaders all over the country will be wathing this very special 20-hour course which is costing the Ann Arbor school district $42,000 and a certain amount of resentment.
The issue is Black English: not merely how it should be handled in the schools, but the far more explosive question of dialects themselves, why some are accepted, like a New England twang, and some are not.
The case of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School Board is deceptively simple. The children charged that they were not getting an equal opportunity to education because of "cultural, social and economic deprivations," specifically, a language barrier that was giving them trouble in learning to read.
In general, the problem is that some teachers scold students for what they interpret as sloppy speech, not realizing that Black English is a remarkably consistent dialect with defiite rules of its own. In some case (but not at issue here) teachers claimed the students were mentally subnormal, nonverbal, "came to school with a 50-word vocabulary," and sometimes teachers even tried to put their Black English speaking students into classes for the retarded.
The situation at Ann Arbor is not at all like this.
The 11 children still concerned in the case (four others have moved out of the district) range from first to seventh graders. They all live in the Green Road Housing Project, a "scatter housing" project for low-income families built in a fiarly well-to-do section of Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan.
The school itself might be considered a model of thoughful integration. With 80 percent black and seven percent Asians and others, "there is no evidence," in the court's opinion, that the board "operates a dual school system or that it has done so in the past." Three of 20 teachers there are black, which is in line with the ethnic makeup of the district.
The school also has special aides, a speech therapist, a psychologist and a language consulant, and arranges for tutors when required.
As Tom Pietras, Ann Arbor language arts director, said in defense of the staff, "No one was mislabeled. Eight of the original 15 have graduated now, and we feel the problem of disapproval by the teachers was overstated. The school's program is a continuation of the district's multi-ethnic program . . . The teachers feel they are being blamed."
So the case come down to this: The students, whose Black English vernacular is considered normal speech at home, and is accepted and understood in class, ran into trouble when their teachers failed to take it into account when teaching them standard English.
The plaintiffs are not asking to be taught Black English. They are not demanding that instruction be given in Black English. They do not call for a dual language program.
District Judge Charles W. Joiner's solution was to have the teachers and support staff take a course that will give them a better grasp of the linquistic problems involved and will help them use that knowledge in teaching the reading of standard English. The course runs through March 15.
What is Black English?
Carl Rowan quoted some samples in a recently aired editorial protesting the teaching of the dialect as a separate language. (An earlier attempt had been made to get a ruling that Black English was just that, and therefore eligible for federal funds, but the judge wouldn't rule on it.) Rowan charged that the Ann Arbor plaintiffs in seeking special bilingual instruction would perpetuate such locutions as:
"We be fixin' to eat supper"
"He done went to the movies."
"Do you be respected yo' motha?"
Some characteristics of the dialect, as listed in the court memoradum: The verb "be" is used to indicate recurring or continuing action ("What they be doing that for, I don't know"), and some forms of "be" are deleted altogether.
There are other rules. Perhaps the best known is the dropping of "s" from some verbs, as in "He work hard."
Linguists believe the dialect began as a pidgin form of the languages used by slave traders in West Africa, a tongue without gender or plurals which gradually grew closer and closer both in form and pronunciation to standard English.
Still spoken in appropriate situations by many American blacks, it transcends regions; sounds the same in Detriot as it does in Washington. But though blacks may use it at home or in the neighborhood, they customarily switch to standard English elsewhere.
Many blacks bitterly resent the whole subject, seeing Black English as a barrier to economic, social and political power and feeling that whites who talk about preserving it as a separate language are trying to keep blacks down.
"The pitful reallity," reporter Rowan says, "is that millions of black Americans grow up in environments where White English is rarely spoken. Newspapers, books and magazines are not read very often, though I must admit I wonder why there's not much impact from television . . . What black children need is not the right to go their own linguistic way in the name of 'Black Pride.' What they need is an end to this malarkey that tells them they can fail to learn grammar, fail to develop vocabularies, ignore syntax and embrace the mumbojumbo of ingorance . . ."
Middle-class black schoolteachers often refuse to have any truck with Black English, said Marcia Whiteman, a leader of the language studies program at the National Institute of Education who recently called top linguists and Black English experts to a seminar here on the implications of the Ann Arbor case.
Many black teachers thus lean toward the extreme position of the "eradicationists," as opposed to the "separatists." Some white teachers, unfortunately, are merely confused, not even realizing that they are dealing with a dialect.
In fact Robert Berdan, a government langugage researcher, has experimented with giving teachers a daily list of Black English terms relevant to the day's lesson.
"It just takes three minutes to read," he said, "and the magic of seeing those words on paper -- they realize its's a system of speech, that the kids aren't just lazy. They can forecast pronunciation."
In other words, the teachers finally saw that the students weren't just reading wrong, or mischievously refusing to "read what's written there": They were translating the standard English as they read it, putting it into their dialect.
Berdan illustrated what can happen when a teacher mistakes a dialect for a reading error. He told his college students, some of them Ph.D. candidates, that he would teach them "Atlantis English," which turned out to be a made-up dialect whose rules were known only to him. When they made mistakes he correted them, persistently.
The cumulative corrections appeared to devastate them. They were made to sound illiterate. They responded by speaking in a monotone, they subvocalized, switched letters in words, stumbled in reading, fidgeted, whispered, made spitballs -- did all the things a child would do, while busily failing to learn to read."
Even though verbal intimidation is not intended, it happens, he said. "The child learns strategies to keep from getting hurt. He mumbles, goes silent, in fact learns not to read. The teacher says it's the child's problem; he's perverse.
Roger Shuy, of Georgetown University, one of the consultants appointed to run the Ann Arbor course, sketched the background of Black English as an education issue. Interest in it first developed in the '60s (when, as Whiteman noted, the Great Society programs raised the national consciousness of minority problems). White recognized Black English as a dialect, not simply "lazy speech," and began to worry about destroying the black child's culture by eliminating it.
By 1970, black educators and linguists had moved into the field, and the notion of perpetuating the dialect for "culture's" sake quickly faded. Few new programs were started, few books written on Black English.
Public interest in the subject is reviving, Shuy said, and linguists show a new sophistication in making judgments. There is far more caution today in estimating just how language skills related to intelligence. Even defining standard English is seen now to be so difficult that, as Whiteman says, "we tend to define it by what it is not."
Linguists like to speak of a continuum in language patterns, from standard (which itself, after all, is nothing more than the dialect of the white majority) to dialect. "It's like deciding at what point orange turns into red," remarked one specialist. "Yet we're forced to make a mark somewhere on the scale."
Some appalling notion about dialect were described by Walt Wolfram, University of District of Columbia linguist and a field authority on speech who calls himself "a dialect tramp."
Some people actually used to theorize, he said, that the southern mountain twang was caused by the farmers' rigid jaws, that the thin air produced the nasal sounds, that a hot climate made the tongue too lazy to clip off vowels, that thick lips caused slurred speech.
We have come a long way from that, he added. But we still accept some dialects -- the one whose speakers are not the objects of racism, are not stigmatized as "lower class."
As Stanford linquist Shirley Lewis put it, "The childred who saw the difference between dialect and standard English achieved more. We should separate problems of comprehension from problems of pronunciation. Kids with a strong black consciousness did as well as anybody in the tests. They had a high self-concept.They knew when they were speaking Black English.
"This case," Judge Joiner announced, "is a judicial investigation of a school's response to language, a language used in informal and casual oral communication among many blacks but a language that is not accepted as an appropriate means of communication among people in their professional roles in society . . . "The problem is one which the evidence indicates has been compounded by efforts on the part of society to fully integrate blacks into the mainstream of society by relying solely on simplistic devices such as scatter housing and busing of students.
"Full integration and equal opportunity require much more, and one of the matters requiring more attention is the teaching of young blacks to read standard English."
Pietras noted that the judge has agreed to accept the teachers' own judgment as to whether the course has done its work.
"We're back where we started," he said. "The original issue was the teacher's competence to judge (a student's success).
"After we learn it all, we'll still be faced with the need to teach 'em standard English."