talking about languge, power, and representation with middle schoolers

Today I'm going to attempt to explain the unit we're in the middle of, called Language, Representation, and Power. At my current school Language Arts class is part of "Humanities," alongside the Social Studies class. We've been working under the same thematic umbrellas all year. The current umbrella is Race & Equity, and as I thought about how I wanted to frame the Language Arts part of the work this spring, I decided to dive straight into language. I can't recall how this thought started for me, but after re-reading some Lisa Delpit articles over the winter I came to the book pictured at right, The Skin That We Speak, and I decided to go with the theme even though it seemed a bit heady for middle school. We are currently about halfway through the unit and I am seeing them make connections that I don’t think I made until adulthood and it’s pretty exciting.

Here’s the basic syllabus I put together before the unit started, and below is the overview blurb I wrote for the students and the Big Questions we return to as the unit unfolds:

In the coming months we will look at how and why people speak and write in different ways, and how individuals and groups are presented in different types of writing. We will examine how these things impact the power people have in the world.

Languages and ways of speaking that we often take for granted give and take power from individuals and groups. We are going to practice looking critically at language, thinking about how this intersects with conversations about race and equity, and opening our minds to ways of speaking and being in the world.


  • How do the languages and dialects we speak impact the power we have in the world?

  • Who decides what language is “good,” “bad,” or “normal”?

  • What is lost when we lose our languages?

  • Which people and whose voices are most represented in the stories we read--at home? in the news? in movies and media? at School? Who controls how they are represented and what impact does that have on how we understand and treat each other?

We began with an essay called “Keepers of the Second Throat” by Patricia Smith, which I found in a collection by Rethinking Schools. The essay is written for teachers, but it’s beautifully written, switching between poetry and prose, and I wondered how the students would receive it. It is a longer and slightly challenging essay, and I chose it as a way of gauging students’ responses to see how I would unfold the rest of the unit.

I began the unit by reading the essay aloud to them in class, a bit of an endurance-feat of a read loud--having them answer a few questions and then draw their responses. The essay tells Patricia’s story of her relationship to her mother, who moved from the southern U.S. to the north and worked to make big changes to how she spoke, attempting to lose her southern accent and expressions and even refusing to share her childhood stories from the past she wanted to leave behind. Patricia talks about how this felt for her as the next generation. From student responses and drawings I could see them taking in the connections between language, identity, and access to power that “Keepers” introduced.

We contrasted Smith’s mother’s story with Denice Frohman’s story of her mother, told in the spoken word poem, “Accents.”

We then moved on to watching the 1964 movie musical My Fair Lady, a retelling of G.B. Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which is based in Greek mythology. We’d just finished our J-term in which students put on one play and one musical, so I thought there’d be a hook with the musical format. I re-watched the movie during January and cringed at much of the blatant sexism, classism, etc., but also thought they were pronounced enough that students would easily identify them and be able to analyze them in relation to how people place each other onto hierarchies of language and power. After we watched and discussed the film, the students created responses which included visually representing these hierarchies:

Higgins is so obnoxious that it was easy for kids to start to notice how language (and gender and class) is used as a tool to lift some and oppress others.

From there we moved into a whole class reading of A Wrinkle in Time in preparation for going to see the Ava Duvernay film version in April. Wrinkle has unique factors of representation in itself, having been a banned book and one of the first examples of science fiction featuring a young girl protagonist, but also has an added layer of representation with the casting choices of the new movie. Reading the novel is a gentle lead-in to thinking more about representation later…

We also read Ch. 3 of Lisa Delpit’s The Skin That We Speak, an essay written by her called, “No Kinda Sense.” Again this was an essay written more for educators, but I decided to take it directly to the students. (Curiously, as students respond to the essay, they refer to Delpit as Lisa, a reflection of how we use first names for staff at my school. This strikes me each time I see it. It’s a whole other topic I should return to later.)

“No Kinda Sense” centers around Delpit’s daughter who is about my students’ age or just a year or two younger. Delpit describes her daughter’s experience of being the only black girl in a predominantly white school, who transfers to a predominantly black school and feels more comfortable, seen, and welcomed, and also quickly begins to code switch in her speech. Delpit, an academic who has championed the need for students to be welcomed to speak and be as they are within schools, has a reaction to her daughter’s new speech that surprises her, and the essay delves into that conflict. Though the article is not written for middle schoolers per se, my students connected to the parent-child tension and the problems of schools that are laid out in the article.

Some related to the child’s experience, some analyzed how their school experiences have been similar or different to those described in the article, and most thought it was pretty intriguing to connect hair braiding to math study, which Delpit also does in the article. Delpit also describes the Ebonics debate that came of out of district policy in Oakland in the late 90s. This happened about the time that I was in high school and the topic gave my students a chance to ask me what was on a teen’s radar (or not) in the midst of such an intense and racially-fueled national educational debate--especially at a time of little-to-no internet to spread societal discourse. I’m old to them, but not so old that they didn’t notice that racism has been part of our educational planning in the modern era.

I also had students take and reflect on the NY Times U.S. speech quiz, which students had a lot of fun with and it got them thinking again about language as a changeable and place-specific practice. (This book is a great add-on.)

Maybe I am describing this all in too much detail, so let me zoom out. We are in this moment in which people, some people, are willing to talk about race more openly than we have in previous decades. This requires a reexamination of so many aspects of our educational systems, from how our buildings are designed to how we do discipline, to what we sing in our choirs and what texts we include in our canons. It is a time when we can shake things up and we know these shake-ups are needed if we are to change the ways our systems of knowledge sharing and creation are upholding oppressions. If there is only one way to speak or be heard, if the there is only one group of people’s stories we pay attention to, the consequences are deep and harsh and long-lasting. Christopher Emdin’s recent talk on “Teaching & Being Ratchetdemic addresses this well.

I watched 11-year-old Naomi Wadler’s speech from the March for Our Lives yesterday and thought, yes, yes, yes. Middle schoolers know what’s up and we should not underestimate them. We should let them take on (and take over?) this dialogue. Their eyes are open, are opening, and maybe they can help us open ours more. That is my hope.

The next step in this unit will be diving into Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give after break, which dives into issues of race, class, police brutality, friendship, grieving, code-switching, neighborhood segregation, being the only person of color in white spaces, etc. etc. We'll see the A Wrinkle in Time movie, and students building a collaborative “Languazine” in which they will conduct investigations into various aspects of language and power that will be compiled into a magazine of their own work. Wish us luck!

Below are other text resources from this unit which I didn’t mention above:

John McWhorter: Txtng is killing language. JK!!! | TED Talk (link)

Talking Black in America (playlist)

How Language Changes Over Time | TED Talk

N. Mpls School Takes Unique Approach to Dialect

First Language: The Race to Save Cherokee

Did the Founding Fathers Have a British Accent?

Can We Just, Like, Get Over How Women Talk?

The Cost of Code Switching

From Up-Speak to Vocal Fry: Are We Policing Women's Voices?

5 Reasons People Code Switch

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