It is no secret that we live in an age of fragile race relations in which Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color (BIPOC) as well as socioeconomically underprivileged students/teachers must contend with the diverse forms of implicit bias or covert discrimination that make upward mobility in mainstream America difficult. Stakeholders from working class, humbler backgrounds often must work harder than their more privileged White counterparts. They do this childhood into adulthood to prove their educational/professional value and intelligence. A case in point is author Lisa Delpit herself, who grew up in a segregated Southern community, where she attended a newly integrated high school in the 1960s and faced both overt and covert racism that “developed when aspects of our culture became targets for remediation at best, and evidence for our inability to learn at worst” (Delpit, 2006, p. 73).
The aforementioned negative experiences in adolescence provided the impetus with which Delpit would devote her life and work to understanding how the world could look differently through a fresh lens in the sociopolitical effort to reform education for disadvantaged children and children of color. These children bear the brunt of being misunderstood, miseducated, and misrepresented as intellectual, cultural, and social beings. Delpit not only delineates her powerful experiences navigating the tricky power dynamics of academia in her award-winning book, but also the compelling stories of voices that go unheard and unnoticed in an increasingly multicultural American society.
Delpit challenges readers to interrogate their precise assumptions, beliefs, and values about how children of color and poor children learn and are taught by their predominantly White progressive teachers. She draws from her personal experience in the formal schooling system as well as the experiences of others through educational ethnographic research conducted in two distinct contexts: Papua New Guinea and Alaska, USA. She learned overarching lessons about cultural empathy, humility, and perspective broadening that influenced her approach to knowing, teaching, and learning.
As Delpit (2006), herself, acknowledged, her survival in Papua New Guinea, for instance, depended on her cooperation and capacity to learn from her new colleagues and new setting during her year-long research fellowship. She conducted her research on education/literacy instruction in a manner that served to honor the integrity and identity of the local people and their core values. She endeavored to uplift rather than to destroy the heritage of the Papua New Guinean people, thus avoiding a perpetuation of Eurocentric linguistic imperialism. She chose a decolonizing methodology that brought her into relational harmony with the local indigenous people while simultaneously unveiling the cultural beauty and ideology that characterizes Papua New Guinea and Delpit’s specific research context with primary education literacy instruction. Delpit purposed to empower the people in education in the way that they wanted it (and not via what she deemed best by Western standards comparable to the proselytization agenda of earlier missionaries): a balance between acquiring and using modern economically-friendly English with the traditional heritage-preserving local language.
The lessons that Delpit learned through her ethnographic research have broad implications for teachers from all walks of life in this brave new world of hybrid education. As K-12 classrooms are becoming more diverse, it becomes even more important for educators of a multicultural and multilingual student body to adopt culturally relevant teaching approaches that value the unique and fresh perspectives, ideas, and varieties of language(s) that students have to offer their peers and teachers. Teachers can leverage the richness and originality of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), for instance, to engage students more deeply in the writing process while also equipping them with the Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) needed for success in their academic and professional lives following primary education. As Delpit (2006) notes in her book, “we can ignore or try to obliterate language diversity in the classroom, or we can encourage in our teachers and students a ‘mental set for diversity’” (p. 68).
Delpit points out how children of color and poor children have been done a grave disservice when they are not (properly) taught the knowledge and skills they need linguistically to become proficient speakers and writers of Standard American English (SAE). Unfortunately, many students graduate high school unequipped for college and must work harder to get caught up (for those who get into and attend college). Delpit (2006) also notes that educators need to respect the home languages and cultures of their diverse students and to leverage this linguistic diversity in the classroom so that everyone can benefit because “both student and teacher are expert at what they know best” (p. 32). For example, a Black instructor who effectively understands and utilizes AAVE and the communicational/interactional patterns of children of color can connect with and reach them in a way that, perhaps, a White instructor may misconstrue as a learning deficit, at best, and uneducable, at worst.
A major strength of Other People’s Children is the author’s choice to feature alternative voices typically marginalized within mainstream academia. It was vital for Delpit to have these educators share their stories of feeling excluded from the conversation in graduate school courses, dealing with colleagues who did not value their firsthand experience and expertise as educators of color with students of the same cultural and, possibly, socioeconomic backgrounds, and the general uphill battle that minoritized professionals face in an ever-growing, racialized, postmodern society. Giving a voice to these often “silenced dialogues of power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children” (Delpit, 2006, p. 21) can foster an intercultural awareness and can bridge cross-cultural gaps. As a result, diverse practitioners may be encouraged to converge in solving pressing problems confronting education and our youth. Some of these issues include obtaining instruction in and access to the “codes of power” (i.e., linguistic/academic skills within the context of the 21st century global skills) needed for their success in the larger world beyond their respective communities.
Given the challenges of the global pandemic the past 18 months and counting, including the educational inequities that have gripped the attention of administrators, politicians, educational activists, and others (purportedly) invested in its progress, it behooves all of us to reimagine and redesign an educational system that levels the playing field for all learners. This means a system in which every student feels valued, included, and heard for the unique cognitive and cultural (among other factors) assets they contribute to the learning space. We must accommodate and celebrate diversity, daring to see the world through the eyes of our multicultural students. The implications for teacher training and development improvement cannot be overlooked through Delpit’s anecdotal evidence. Her book is a stark eye-opener for some and a reminder for others that teacher preparation programs need to embrace appropriate cross-cultural knowledge, skills, attitudes, and awareness curricula that will prepare and empower teachers to harness the power of diversity in their classrooms rather than fear or ignore it.
Overall, this book inspires me to enhance my teaching practice both as a language teacher and aspiring teacher educator. I believe it will stimulate the intellect and stir the soul of all who feast on its pages in a self-reflexive and critically conscious manner. As academic stakeholders everywhere grapple with the monumental task of effectively educating an increasingly diverse student populace in a post-pandemic brave new world, Other’s People Children provides a way to navigate the rich intercultural and plurilingual terrain that makes our world a beautiful and colorful place to live. Delpit’s brilliant work of heart should be read by all prospective and practicing educators for its powerful and poignant message of acknowledging and appreciating the abundant cultural and linguistic diversity that exists within American classrooms from primary to postsecondary education. Twenty-first-century teacher education programs ought to consider including this seminal opus into their curricula. In short, as the language and race doctoral scholar and ELT professional J.P.B. Gerald (2020, subheading) wrote in “There Were Never Any Rules” at the pandemic’s inception: “we can do better than a return to normal in the education world.”
Delpit, L. (2006). Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. The New Press.
Gerald, J.P.B. (2020). “There Were Never Any Rules.” Medium. Accessed 25 August 2021 from https://medium.com/identity-education-and-power/there-were-never-any-rules-e83424f657f3
Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom
by Lisa Delpit
Reviewed by Charles McKinney, IV, SIT Graduate Institute
During the summer term of this year, I completed a graduate course titled Intercultural Communication and Ethnographic Inquiry for Language Educators as part of the required master’s curriculum in my low-residency TESOL program at the School for International Training (SIT). My small and intimate cohort were required to read Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. Even though this book was originally published in the 1990s and then reprinted in 2006, I still see widespread relevance for its consumption and for the implementation of its ideas at present. For example, the book addresses current issues such as radical race relations, a broken American public education system, and, oftentimes, inadequate cultural competence training in both in-service and preservice teacher development programs within the US, specifically.
Charles McKinney has been traveling the world teaching English for 11 years and is currently based in the Middle East. With one semester remaining in his MA-TESOL program at SIT, he aspires to advance into teacher training and development, which are among his varied research interests (in addition to plurilingual pedagogy and critical race theory).