By Inda Schaenen ’82

In a classroom near Ferguson, a teacher tries to convey that students can learn to successfully navigate more than one world.


As an eighth-grade teacher who spent the 2014–15 school year in what some people call the worst-performing district in the state of Missouri, I learned to say this a lot: You may be right.

The technique is called fogging, and it’s used to de-escalate a conflict with someone who is either all riled up—up in her feelings, as my
students say—or trying to get a rise out of me for the sake of The Show. I came to imagine The Show as a high-stakes scripted series produced by students to ascertain whether teachers like me really did care.  

Time: August 2014. Mike Brown, who graduated from Normandy High School, was killed by police officer Darren Wilson a couple of weeks ago a mile away from my Normandy Middle School classroom. Peaceful protests by day, violence and looting by night. My students are attending the latter as observers.

Illustration of Africa-Amherican child with compass-like speech bubble

Enter me. First year in middle school, second in Normandy, trying to create a peaceful classroom environment so that we can read, write, think, talk and listen to each other. I’m not doing so well. (Please see the sidebar for a note on how and why I have represented dialogue.)

“You showin favoritism.”

“You ain’t even teachin.”

“I ain’t even do nothin.”

“This ain’t even no ELA class—all we do up in here is read and write.”

WHEN THE SHOW WAS PLAYING, it didn’t matter that I felt myself to be acting fairly. It didn’t matter that I believed and replied that I was, in fact, teaching. It didn’t matter that I actually saw the student do the thing she or he claimed not to have done. It didn’t matter that, from my perspective, students in English Language Arts classes are supposed to read and write.

(The reason my eighth-graders do not believe ELA classes are for reading and writing is because teachers in vulnerable, low-income districts are told to hit standards—to identify nouns and verbs, to distinguish similes from metaphors—rather than to carefully consider the meanings of novels and poems. There’s nothing wrong with anchoring lessons in standards; the problem is when the entire point of school in poor communities is to get kids to select standard answers on annual high-stakes tests. When this happens, they stop developing as readers.)

What did matter was that in a 20-by-25-foot room among eighth graders I was growing to love, a room in a state-controlled district in a community aflame, I spent a lot of last year trying to expose the depth and quality of my care. And many of my students spent a lot of last year taking a high-stakes measure of my credibility. Was I for real for real? Was I a trustworthy authority figure even though I was white?

“You don’t understand, Dr. Schaenen,” certain students would say in an ongoing sidebar conversation. “Some of these kids up in here won’t stop clowning and listen unless you put your foot down and tell them to shut up.”

“But that’s not how I talk,” I said. “Growing up in my family, saying ‘shut up’ to someone was worse than saying the f-word. If I say ‘shut up,’ something is wrong with me. My whole thing is teaching self-control, not how to be controlled.”

They shook their heads.

“You just gotta be more like some of these other teachers, Dr. Schaenen.”

“You may be right.”

FALL 1978: PROFESSOR PRITCHARD’S ENGLISH 10 in Johnson Chapel. What are we to make of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”? Beats me. But I’m 17 and will do what he wants. We’re sitting in a rectangle, Pritchard hedging, questioning, goading from his seat. I respond to his probing questions. Most of us do. Professor Pritchard doesn’t put his foot down and tell us to shut up. On the contrary, he’s trying to get us all to talk, and he doesn’t have to work very hard at it. The way most Amherst students learned to speak, listen and read at home and school aligned with what our professors expected of us in college.

Not so for many of my students, who have learned that some people are always telling other people what they may and may not do, how they may and may not speak. Sociologist Victor Rios refers to the acculturation and treatment of young people in marginalized communities as the youth control complex.

Adult voices in multiple domains—schooling, policing, criminal justice and the media—establish, enforce and promulgate rules about how children in low-income communities of color ought to be. When these rules are broken, and sometimes even before they are broken, children are punished.

Moreover, rules that establish compliance are there for reasons that extend beyond home and school; for the sake of their own safety, my students have learned that if you do not comply with communicative rules established by others, if you are perceived as talking or acting rudely to someone in a position of authority, you are likely to be thrown to the ground and handcuffed, and you may very well get shot dead. (This can also happen even if you say or do nothing at all.)

Given this reality, I try every day to convey to other people’s children that they can learn to successfully navigate more than one world, that they can practice multiple ways of communicating with multiple kinds of authority figures. Indeed, my students can grow up to be authority figures who know how to communicate in multiple ways. I am teaching them that questioning authority—that of a text, a scientific finding, an authority figure—is what secondary school (and higher learning) is all about. And I have to begin with who and where they are today.

Now, in my third year in Normandy, it’s reasonable to question how and why I got so deep into this work in the first place. I attribute it to a scary run-in with other people’s crap. In the summer of 2002, I was creeping forward through dense traffic to make a left out of my bourgeois neighborhood onto a busy, two-way, four-lane street that has a fifth lane in the center for turning and passing.

I live two miles from Normandy, a stone’s throw from the east-west line that separates mostly black from mostly white neighborhoods in St. Louis. As I advanced, a truck hauling Porta Potties came zooming down the center lane from the north and T-boned my minivan. I was okay, but my Odyssey was wrecked. The accident felt like a wake-up call from a fiendish but loving Nabokovian deity. Getting blindsided by fast-moving shit signaled a need for radical change.

A POET FRIEND HAD BEEN LEADING enrichment classes in the St. Louis Public Schools, and suggested I apply to do the same with creative writing. Ever since my Amherst graduation, I’d been writing for newspapers and magazines and freelance editing, while also trying to get my fiction published, albeit without laserlike focus; 19 years is a long time to knock on a closed door. My three children were now settled into their own schooling and didn’t need me from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. And so I wrote up a lesson, auditioned, got the job and loved the work.

As if by magic, finding my way into a classroom coincided with getting things into print: a well-received oral history of schooling, a parenting guide, four young adult novels, an adult novel, a book on teaching writing, a couple of short stories, an essay in a book called Mommy Wars. I don’t publish like a person who is 100 percent devoted to getting published, or as I thought I would as an Amherst English major, but so it goes. In the meantime, my students see my name on the cover of a handful of books, double-check the author photo to make sure it’s me, and conclude that I’m rolling in dough. And then a few will assume something is wrong.

“Why you here if you rich?”

By way of response, I do not offer a nuanced description of my comparative wealth, such as it is. I also do not express my dismay at their certainty that a person of means, a person with options, would never choose to spend time with them. Instead, I speak from the bone of my motives.

“Because writing gives you power, and I want you to have power because I care about you, and because teaching you is interesting and fun.”

It’s the same thing I say to people who know a little more about my background and wonder the same thing. It’s not the whole story, but it’s all I can say for now without fogging.

THE WAY WE TALK/How social status shapes our perception of language, and why it matters

white speeche bubbles in red background
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE to teach in a place where different cultures mix it up—social spaces that scholar Mary Louise Pratt calls contact zones?  

I love listening to my students speak—the animated, creative, confident, often ritualized way they use language. It’s not a monolithic style, and different students, depending on what they’re talking about and to whom, express their thoughts and feelings in different ways. Still, nearly all my students can speak a variety of English, evolved from Southern English, that goes by various names among linguists: Black English, African American English, African American Vernacular English, Black English Vernacular and so on.  

As an English teacher, there are some sociolinguistic principles I teach my students so they will have optimal opportunities to succeed in high school, college, graduate school and the mainstream world:

All people speak in dialects; dialects (synonymous with languages) are ever-evolving and made up of sounds, meaningful words, arrangements of words in sentences and ways of saying those words.

All dialects are grammatical, which is to say rule-governed and patterned.

Social status shapes our perception of languages, and of varieties within languages. The cultural customs of those with power are generally assumed to be correct, better, more proper, more professional; these customs become norms against which all other customs are valued. This is true worldwide and has been for all of history.

Knowing and being able to use more than one dialect, and knowing how to alter one or more features of your dialect for the sake of a social purpose, is important for everyone, but especially for students such as mine, who come to school speaking a nondominant variety of English.

In class, we talk about words and sounds as being appropriate or inappropriate in this or that social context—and why. In relaxed discussions I concentrate on meaning, not syntax or verb forms. When I restate a question, I may shift the student’s words into mainstream English, but not always. Unless I am demostrating style-shifting, I speak in my own mother tongue (a mainstream variety of English I acquired in my first 10 years). Because language expresses identity, I do not speak of correct and incorrect grammar; doing so is like saying my students are correct or incorrect people.

We play. Using old flip phones, we act out scenarios that require style-shifting. We read poems, plays and essays that feature mainstream and nonmainstream varieties of English; I turn to writers Jamila Lyiscott, Jamila Woods, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Amy Tan and others. And we talk a lot about the way we talk, and about how we can all learn many ways of speaking many languages. When it makes sense to throw in a mini-lesson on linguistics, I do.

When I write about my teaching, I never translate my students’ words into a mainstream dialect; that’s not how these young people sound. Worse, translating their speech into standard form—masking their mother tongue—would suggest that they themselves are unacceptable or shameful, which they are not. It is difficult to unlearn things we think we know for sure about something as personal as language. But in the struggle for educational equity, the path forward requires all of us to shift.

 Inda Schaenen ’82 is the author, most recently, of Speaking of Fourth Grade: What Listening to Kids Tells Us About School in America (New Press). She teaches and writes in St. Louis.

David Pohl illustration