Praxis blog–ESL learners/code meshing

For me, there seems to be a huge difference between thinking about code meshing and code switching and this huge other area of ESL learners. The gulf seems so big that I can hardly wrap my mind around it, much less my practice as a teacher. As I think about assignments, my mind keeps living in memories of students I’ve had–successes and failures. Names are changed here.

Eve had been out of prison for 6 months. She was covered in tattoos, wore shorts and tank tops which displayed the artwork on her legs and arms and shoulders. They were stunning, and so was she. She sat right next to the Dallas city cop. Her essay on being in prison and the grayness of that existence was powerful, full of the language she had appropriated for survival in the institution. Grammatically, it was a mess. But I got it. Man did I get it. So much so that now, over 20 years later, I still remember that essay and her. I helped her shape it, organize it so that the most powerful moments happened at the end, but other than that, I didn’t do anything. I still don’t know if that was right, but there was something about the language, raw and rough, that seemed perfect for that essay. We did work on her writing more later, but not then.

In that same class, the Dallas city cop, wrote very stiff and ugly prose, not inviting, halting, manifesto-style. I challenged him to up his game all the time. Was I allowing him to not make a space for the linguistical patterns he brought with him from his writing and talking in his professional life? maybe. I don’t know. Honestly, I never even thought that such might be the case.

And in that same class, the very angry ex-vet, African American, who refused to allow himself any freedom at all in using the language of his upbringing (though he certainly spoke it in class). My challenging him on his style was perceived immediately as imperialism and racism. Maybe it was. Like the well-meaning white people in Native Son. I backed off, did the best I could to help him write the kind of prose he wanted to write as best he could.

And then there was the crazy young man with fire-engine red hair in the back of the same class who was obsessed with the illuminati. I refused to let him write in the style of the books he read, an appropriated language that I felt was producing unsupported claims and downright fallacious arguments. His appropriated language and linguisitical methods seemed unsound. He dropped the class.

That class, when I was just a baby teacher, shook me. I’m still conflicted about it and about how I responded so inconsistently to those students. Nothing I was trained to do worked there. I’m still not sure what I would do today faced with that same class. And the research we read for today class doesn’t lead me in any directions of decision.

All I know is that I have to adapt to meet the needs of each student I teach. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes that jives with my training and sometimes it doesn’t. I really don’t think you can prepare for these situations. Luckily, such classes don’t seem to come along often. Hopefully.

I really don’t know if this even gets at the topic we discussed today. Experience seems to be standing in the way of my doing this. But it is good to reflect on this in writing, which I’ve never done before.

2 thoughts on “Praxis blog–ESL learners/code meshing

  1. Do you think that making the idea of codes and code switching/meshing salient to these students might have resulted in productive discussions about each of their approaches to writing and the rhetorical situations they were addressing? I know you were probably doing something similar using rhetorical terms like purpose and audience. I’m just wondering if this other formulation provided with rich examples might have resulted in one or two “light-bulb” moments.

  2. I have no idea. Each of these students had different goals and reasons for being in that class. Each had different reasons for resisting the class. And the language they brought with them, sentences choices, words, patterns, had different reasons for being–some deliberate and some not so. Good question though, but I do not know the answer or how I would have even gone about it. Alas.

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