There is no arguing that the landscape of teaching students has changed over the last two years. It is safe to say it will continue to evolve as well. Students write, converse, and exchange ideas in a number of different spaces and with different devices. Students don’t consider spaces such as Facebook, Emails, Tik-Tok, Instagram or even Snapchat as places they create writing. However, they truly are digital literacy spaces where our students write on a daily basis as well as show their creative sides as well. As once a teacher of writing — and being a writer myself — educators should shift their thinking about how students are taught grammatical skills as well as the history of our language.
I recommend teachers have their students think critically about the spaces where students write and speak. I used to spend a lot of time discussing the terms formal and informal writing with my middle school students. Oftentimes, students (and adults) blur these lines, code-switch, and don’t realize that it is critical for the students to write in a more formal manner when they have a certain audience. For instance, students should know that when they email a teacher, there should be a proper greeting and closing within the email. In addition, there shouldn’t be any, what Kristen Turner, a professor and author at Fordham University, calls Digitalk in their writing.
Code-Switching in Student Writing
Turner writes: “I see digitalk as a complex and fascinating combination of written and conversational languages that adolescents use when they text, when they instant message (IM), and when they participate in social networks” (37). Students today have their own language and ways to communicate with their peers, which is easy for them to write and understand the information in an informal way. We can’t chastise students for using the letter “u” to represent the word “you” or how they spell love, l-u-v.
As mentioned earlier, it is an opportunity to teach my students the difference between formal and informal writing. I want my students to know I respect their own language, but want to show them the appropriate times to use it. They need to know that what Turner refers to as code-switching is necessary. Turner has written two different articles in English Journal about the idea of students using their own language and teaching our students to code-switch: “Using text speak as an example of code-switching may acknowledge the legitimacy of the language while bringing its use to the conscious level, where students can choose to use it or not, depending on the context” (61). Prior to the pandemic, I wanted my students to practice code-switching to help them to think critically about the moves they make as writers, especially in the different writing spaces they wrote in daily (See template below). I would love to go into detail about the activity, but I want to address how code-switching has to be done carefully. Please see the other pieces on this activity on my MiddleWeb blog post.
Now, this past summer, I learned something about code-switching. Thanks to a writing project colleague, I learned that some code-switching forces individuals to abandon their native language and heritage. “In the ’70s, the phenomenon gained traction in African-American spaces—academic and otherwise—to describe the relationships between people of color—particularly Black people—and the colonial other”(Harris). Learning this was a complete mind blow for me. As a white educator, I had to be careful not to force individuals to code-switch because it is deemed “proper grammar” when they are just speaking their native tongue. For African Americans, code-switching can seem insensitive and for many decades, individuals have felt they have had to assimilate to white culture. I also learned that African Americans were forced to give up their cultural language when brought to America as slaves. Having this knowledge can better equip teachers to be more sensitive to a student’s cultural background. This helps pave the way for better Social Emotional Learning (SEL) by being aware of the emotional toll some activities can have on our students. If we are simply teaching them to code-switch from formal to informal language, so students are more aware of their audience, it isn’t forcing students to abandon cultural roots. On the other hand, if we are asking students to code-switch because we don’t like the way they speak, we are being insensitive to their upbringing and the culture they have always been immersed in.
There is a lot to be said about being sensitive to others and their culture. Student’s writing can exemplify not only what they have learned when it comes to formal and informal writing, but students can learn to be sensitive before pushing that send button when their writing goes out into the world. The activities I did in my classroom weren’t foolproof, but it did make them think. Today, a lot of school districts are looking for ways to incorporate Social Emotional Learning into their classrooms and make it relevant to what students are doing today. Though there are many programs out there for districts to choose from, Caring School Communities from the Center for the Collaborative Classroom. The program contains many social emotional learning activities that address:
- Whole School Community
- Creates Learning Environments
- Inequitable Discipline Practices
- Promoting Well-Being
Programs like Caring School Communities can build on the code-switching activity that is smaller in scale, but can reinforce the ideas of being accepting of others and helps to build strong character in all students.
No matter if we are teaching students to read, write, or speak, educators need to be conscious of our own moves we make when it comes to where students are coming from and the backgrounds they bring into our classroom. Social Emotional Learning and mental health awareness can be infused into our lessons as long as we know how to be sensitive to everyone’s needs and we all need to be conscious and aware of, not only our own mental health, but our student’s mental health as well.
Harris, Ida. “Opinion: Code-Switching Is Not Trying to Fit in to White Culture, It’s Surviving It.” YES! Magazine, 17 Dec. 2019, https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2019/12/17/culture-code-switching.
Jeremy Hyler was a middle school English teacher for almost 22 years. Currently, he works as a Manager of Educational Partnerships for the Center for the Collaborative Classroom. He is a teacher consultant for the Chippewa River Writing Project, and a Media Literacy Innovator for KQED. Jeremy has co-authored the best-selling book Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools (Routledge/Eye on Education, 2014) with Dr. Troy Hicks, along with From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age (2017), and Ask, Explore, Write. Jeremy blogs at MiddleWeb and can be followed on Twitter @jeremybballer.