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“I Never Really Knew the History behind African American
Language”: Critical Language Pedagogy in an Advanced
Placement English Language Arts Class

Article  in  Equity & Excellence in Education · July 2013

DOI: 10.1080/10665684.2013.806848

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Michigan State University

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“I Never Really Knew the History behind
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Language Pedagogy in an Advanced
Placement English Language Arts Class
April Baker-Bell a
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To cite this article: April Baker-Bell (2013) “I Never Really Knew the History behind African American
Language”: Critical Language Pedagogy in an Advanced Placement English Language Arts Class, Equity
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EQUITY & EXCELLENCE IN EDUCATION, 46(3), 355–370, 2013
Copyright C⃝ University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Education
ISSN: 1066-5684 print / 1547-3457 online
DOI: 10.1080/10665684.2013.806848

“I Never Really Knew the History behind African American
Language”: Critical Language Pedagogy in an Advanced

Placement English Language Arts Class

April Baker-Bell
Michigan State University

This article responds to two long-standing dilemmas that limit the effectiveness of language education
for students who speak and write in African American Language (AAL): (1) the gap between theory
and research on AAL and classroom practice, and (2) the need for critical language pedagogies.
This article presents the effectiveness of a critical language pedagogy used in one eleventh grade
advanced placement English Language Arts (ELA) class. Findings show that students held negative
attitudes toward AAL before the implementation of the critical language pedagogy, and that the critical
language pedagogy helped students to interrogate dominant notions of language and to express an
appreciation of AAL.

The motivation for the critical language pedagogy that I describe in this article stems from
my experience being ill-prepared to address my AAL-speaking students’ language and literacy
needs when I worked as a high school English teacher. I recall having a discussion with my
students about code-switching from AAL to Dominant American English (hereafter DAE). This
discussion revealed that my students either held negative attitudes toward AAL (although they
spoke it) or resisted using DAE because they felt that it reflected the dominant culture, and they
did not want to be forced to imitate a culture of which they did not consider themselves part. One
student flat out said, “What would I look like speaking in DAE? It don’t even sound right.” The
questions and concerns that these students were raising shed light on the critical linguistic issues
that code-switching pedagogies fail to address, and unfortunately, at that time, I did not have the
pedagogical tools necessary to provide my students with a critical understanding of AAL.

This experience speaks to at least two dilemmas limiting the effectiveness of language educa-
tion for students who speak and write in AAL. First, there is a gap between theory and research on
AAL and classroom practice (Gilyard, 2005; Smitherman, 2006; Smitherman & Quartey-Annan,
2011). While language scholars are currently calling for critical1 approaches that respond to
the language and literacy needs of students who speak and write in AAL (Alim, 2005; Godley
& Minnici, 2008; Kirkland & Jackson, 2008; Paris, 2012; Young, 2009), some K-12 English
Language Arts (hereafter ELA) teachers—even at this late hour in history—are not prepared to
view AAL in a larger system of language learning (Alim, 2005, 2007; Ball & Lardner, 2005; Ball

Address correspondence to April Baker-Bell, Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures, Michigan
State University, 434 Farm Lane, East Lansing, MI 48824. E-mail: adbell@msu.edu

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356 BAKER-BELL

& Muhammad, 2003; Gilyard, 2005). Second, many classrooms are informed by code-switching
pedagogies that (1) fail to consider the matrix of language, identity, and power (Horner, Lu,
Royster, & Trimbur, 2011; Kirkland & Jackson, 2008), (2) postpone students’ ability to think
critically about linguistic imperialism in a pluralistic world (Canagarajah, 2006), (3) advise teach-
ers to ignore the relationship between language and race (Young, 2009), and (4) cause students
to feel linguistically and culturally inadequate (Fogel & Ehri, 2006). Given these dilemmas, it is
crucial that literacy educators and researchers investigate the implementation and effectiveness
of critical approaches that align existing theory and research on AAL with classroom practice.
However, there are few studies that capture such pedagogical applications and how they improve
the language education of students who speak and write in AAL (Alim, 2005, 2007; Chisholm &
Godley, 2011; Godley & Minnici, 2008).

With these needs in mind, I became interested in exploring the possibility of a pedagogy that
moves beyond filling students’ linguistic toolboxes with code-switching techniques and toward
providing them with a critical understanding of the historical, cultural, and political underpinnings
of AAL. Drawing on the work of Alim (2005, 2007), Kirkland and Jackson (2008), Chisholm
and Godley (2011), and Godley and Minnici (2008), I use the term “critical language pedagogy”
to describe an instructional approach that encourages students to interrogate dominate notions of
language while providing them space to value, sustain, and learn about the historical importance
of their own language. This article documents students’ responses to a critical language pedagogy
that I co-taught in one eleventh grade Advanced Placement (AP) ELA class.

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

Despite there being decades of research on AAL and it being the most studied and written about
language in the world (Gilyard, 2005), it has yet to be embraced as a resource for educational
innovation in twenty-first century ELA classrooms (Paris & Ball, 2011). This is overwhelmingly
problematic given that there is no indication that AAL will be used less in U.S. society (Paris
& Ball, 2011), and the enrollment of black students in American K-12 institutions is expected
to increase by 2020 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). This suggests that ELA
classrooms will become increasingly multilingual and multicultural (Kinloch, 2005). Language
scholars have consistently argued that teachers must shift their pedagogies and practices to value
the rich resources that multilingual speakers and writers bring with them to ELA classrooms,
yet many classrooms continue to be informed by monolingual ideologies (Ball & Muhammad,
2003; Canagarajah, 2006; Horner, Lu, Royster, & Trimbur, 2011; Kirkland & Jackson, 2008;
Shaughnessy, 1977; Smitherman, 1995; Young, 2009).

Moving Beyond Code-Switching Pedagogies

One monolingual approach that is commonly used in ELA classrooms to address the needs of
speakers and writers of AAL is the code-switching approach. The code-switching approach is
concerned with getting users of AAL to develop facility in DAE by restricting AAL to informal
contexts and DAE to formal contexts (Canagarajah, 2006; Wheeler & Swords, 2006).

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CRITICAL LANGUAGE PEDAGOGY 357

Critical scholars of language Kirkland and Jackson (2008) argue that code-switching ped-
agogies do not improve students’ attitudes toward their own languages, and these pedagogies
perpetuate students’ feelings of linguistic and cultural shame as they fail to consider the matrix of
language, identity, and power. Kirkland and Jackson call for teachers to take a critical instructional
approach to language—one that:

• addresses critical-linguistic issues,
• makes students aware of the historical importance of AAL,
• considers the significance of all sociolinguistic forms and provides students with opportu-

nities to investigate, accommodate, and critique such forms,
• addresses negative assumptions about languages and their speakers,
• is explicit about the political act of language (i.e., making students aware that every time

they speak or write, they are engaging in a political act),
• provides instruction to all students, regardless of race or ethnicity, which offsets the as-

sumptions that perpetuate linguistic discrimination. (pp. 148–149)

Canagarajah (2006) asserts that the code-switching approach postpones linguistically
marginalized students’ critical literacy practices, reproduces monolingual ideologies and lin-
guistic hierarchies, disables students’ contexts of linguistic pluralism, keeps codes separate but
equal, and does not contribute to long-term goals of accepting minority languages and World
Englishes. Additionally, Canagarajah declares that code-switching pedagogies also convey to stu-
dents that their language “should only have a restricted place in [their] repertoire” (p. 1624), and
it insinuates that only one code can be present at any one time. Last, he argues that code-switching
pedagogies do not uphold the Students’ Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL)2 resolution, but
instead grants teachers the right to students’ languages.

Young (2009) argues that code-switching pedagogies urge teachers to ignore race when teach-
ing African American students to code-switch. He specifically calls out linguist Rebecca Wheeler
and teacher Rachel Swords for advising teachers to “refrain from referring to race when describing
code-switching” (p. 50). Young insists that teachers cannot ask students to code-switch without
mentioning the politics and interconnectedness between language and race. Otherwise, teachers
would be drawing on the experiences of these students’ heritages, “then render them invisible
[and] extract their historical and contemporary experiences from the discussion” (p. 51). In other
words, Young is arguing that the code-switching approach implies a racist, segregationist response
to the language habits of African Americans “that contradicts our best efforts and hopes for our
students” (p. 51).

The above critiques make evident that code-switching pedagogies are a response to the lin-
guistic and technical differences between AAL and DAE, but they do not address historical or
social differences (Kirkland & Jackson, 2008).

Toward a Critical Language Pedagogy

The theoretical basis for the curriculum that I explore in this article builds on Alim’s (2007) idea
of critical language pedagogy, which is situated within a framework of critical awareness. This
framework targets schools not only as a primary site for language wars but also as a site obligated

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to provide linguistically and culturally diverse students with a critical awareness of their “social
and linguistic reality” (p. 163). Alim recognizes the tensions between the development of critical
language pedagogies and the lack of their broader implementation and, thus, argues that critical
language pedagogies should incorporate both theory and practice “so that innovative approaches
might begin to be implemented in classrooms as part of a broader educational movement advo-
cating locally relevant and continually negotiated curricula” (p. 63). Alim suggests that a critical
language pedagogy should: (1) engage teachers in the same type of critical language pedagogies
outlined for their students, (2) provide teachers and their students with a “wake up call” of lin-
guistic inequality, and (3) encourage teachers and students to interrogate received discourses on
language, which are always connected to issues of race, gender, power, class, and sexuality.

There are not many examples of how Alim’s notion of critical language pedagogy is being
applied in schools; however, Godley and Minnici (2008) provide a description of how they applied
critical language pedagogy to a week-long unit about dialects and language variation in three
10th grade English classes. Their model draws on scholarship from the fields of New Literacy
Studies, linguistics, and critical pedagogy. Current perspectives in each of these fields push toward
rethinking and reimagining approaches to language instruction, particularly for linguistically and
culturally-diverse students. The first component of Godley and Minnici’s framework is identifying
and critiquing dominant language ideologies. This component promotes the examination of
questions, such as, “How can language be used to maintain, reinforce, and perpetuate existing
power relations?” and, “How can language be used to resist, redefine, and possibly reverse these
relations?” (Alim, 2007, p. 166). The second characteristic of the critical language pedagogy
framework is dialogism, which requires a classroom space that values and highlights students’
viewpoints through discussion and debate. A dialogic classroom environment must be democratic
and obliterate “the distinction between teacher and student so that everyone can teach and learn
through classroom conversations about language, language ideologies, and language use” (Godley
& Minnici, 2008, p. 323). The final component places students’ everyday language experiences
and use at the center of intellectual discussion. This component is premised on the belief that for
language instruction to be genuinely critical, it must “build on students’ understandings of the
world around them, including language use” (Godley & Minnici, 2008, p. 324).

Whereas Godley and Minnici’s (2008) framework of critical language pedagogy uses the in-
terconnectedness of language and power to encourage students to develop critical perspectives on
language, my version of critical language pedagogy presents students with a critical understand-
ing of the historical, cultural, and political underpinnings of AAL to heighten their consciousness
of their own language. More specifically, I use problem-posing3 activities to encourage students
to interrogate dominant notions of language and to become active agents in their own language
education (Freire, 1970). In what follows, I present some of the activities from the critical lan-
guage pedagogy and then show how students responded to a curriculum that offered them a
critical understanding of AAL.

METHOD

This pilot study4 builds upon two other pilots that I conducted, which explored teacher attitudes
toward AAL and their pedagogical responses to language diversity. Attitudinal surveys and in-
terviews from the previous studies revealed that teachers held negative attitudes toward AAL and

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CRITICAL LANGUAGE PEDAGOGY 359

their students who spoke it and that teachers were underprepared and unaware of existing pedago-
gies that address the needs of students who speak and write in AAL (Baker-Bell, 2009; Baker-Bell,
2010). The results from these studies, combined with my experience being ill-prepared to address
the language and literacy needs of my AAL-speaking students, have led to my ongoing research
project that seeks to bridge the gap between theory and research on AAL and classroom practice.

Research Context, Participants, and Researcher Role

The study took place at Academy High School5 (AHS), a public high school located in a suburb
in the Midwest. At the time of the study, approximately 98% of the 340-student population at
AHS was African American. The participants involved in this study included 27 eleventh grade
students, their teacher, Mrs. Dixon, and me. Eighteen of the student participants were female, and
nine were male. All of the participants, including Mrs. Dixon and me, were African American.
Based on features of AAL that Mrs. Dixon examined in the research literature, she identified all
of her students as speakers of AAL with a robust ability to code-switch between AAL and DAE.
Although her students were speakers of AAL, Mrs. Dixon informed me that they were robust
code-switchers because they knew how and when to “flip the switch,” in other words, use DAE
on formal assignments and AAL on informal assignments.

I met Mrs. Dixon, a certified English teacher with more than 19 years of experience teach-
ing ELA, at a professional conference for English educators 15 months before the study was
conducted. When I first met Mrs. Dixon, she struggled with understanding the significance of
teaching and learning about AAL in the context of school. Despite her uncertainties, she was
eager to learn more about AAL and how it could enhance her teaching practice. Hence, she and
I met periodically at coffee houses over the course of 15 months to discuss AAL and its practical
concerns related to classroom pedagogy. In an interview following the study, Mrs. Dixon revealed
that these meetings helped her to unearth her biases about AAL and contributed to her having a
paradigm shift. Each year, Mrs. Dixon teaches a five-week unit on language, identity, and culture
as part of the curriculum for eleventh grade AP English. After learning that she did not include
AAL as one of the languages in her unit, I suggested that she adds a section within the unit that
focused exclusively on AAL. Mrs. Dixon liked the idea and invited me to co-plan and co-teach
a one-week lesson plan on AAL. However, conflicting schedules and time constraints interfered
with our ability to co-plan; therefore, I independently designed the five-day lesson plan that we
co-taught in Mrs. Dixon’s ELA class.

Mrs. Dixon and her students were aware that they were participating in a research project and
that the implications from the study would be presented and used to inform my research on AAL.
They consented to participating so as long their identities were made anonymous through the use
of pseudonyms. The students requested bagels for their participation in the study, and I invited
Mrs. Dixon to be part of my panel presentation (the presentation had already been accepted) at a
professional teaching conference; she gladly accepted. Mrs. Dixon and her students understood
that my role in the research project would be co-teacher, researcher, and participant. I acted as
a co-teacher only in moments when Mrs. Dixon felt that my expertise of AAL was necessary.
Still, neither of us took on the traditional teaching role; we acted as facilitators since the activities
were mostly self-directed and student-centered. I was a researcher at all times, even when I was
co-teaching.

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360 BAKER-BELL

Data Collection and Analysis

To make sense of how students responded to the critical language pedagogy, I used students’
written work and the transcriptions from three activities (descriptions follow) as data. My goal
for data analysis was to understand how students responded to a curriculum that positioned AAL
as valuable. As I read through the data, I began to recognize reoccurring themes across student
responses to specific activities. For example, I noticed that many of the students responded to
activity 1 with negative perceptions of AAL. Activity 3 revealed that most students began to
interrogate dominant notions of language, and students articulated an appreciation for AAL by
the time they had reached activity 5. I used these emerging themes as code categories for analyzing
students’ written work and transcriptions of activities 1, 3 and 5.

Description of Curriculum

The AP ELA class met five days per week, and the class sessions were 55-minutes long.
The AAL curriculum was implemented and completed during the second week of the five-
week language unit. During week one of the unit, students focused on the theme “language
and power,” and during week three, they concentrated on the theme “language and identity.”
The desired outcomes for the entire language unit were for students to:

• understand the complex nature of language systems,
• recognize who is privileged and who is marginalized by language use,
• recognize how one’s identity may shape his or her language,
• apply critical literacy to various texts, and
• participate in various thinking routines in order to think deeply about texts.

Activity 1

Activity 1 was designed to unveil students’ initial attitudes about AAL before I implemented
the critical language pedagogy. The activity called for students to read two language samples—one
written in AAL and the other in DAE (students were not informed of which sample represented
AAL and which sample represented DAE until after the activity was complete)—and to construct
a cartoon that corresponded with each language sample. Students were then prompted to write a
2–3 paragraph response expressing their feelings about both languages and their rationale for the
cartoons that they created (see Figure 1).

Activity 2

Students engaged in a whole-class discussion about their cartoon illustrations and responses to
activity 1. Mrs. Dixon wrote the attitudes about AAL and DAE that emerged from the discussion
on the dry erase board.

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CRITICAL LANGUAGE PEDAGOGY 361

FIGURE 1 Activity 1.

FIGURE 2 Activity 3, Conversation 1.

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362 BAKER-BELL

FIGURE 3 Activity 4.

Activity 3

“A Conversation about African American Language” was intended to be a problem-posing
activity that exposed students to the historical, cultural, and political underpinnings of AAL.
The activity invited students to participate in three conversations (see Figure 1 for a sample
of conversation 1. See Appendix for a sample of conversations 2 and 3). Each conversation
included three or four characters engaging in a discussion about language. One of the characters
represented the uninformed, negative attitude that is often upheld by the general public about
AAL. For example, as depicted in Figure 2, one of the characters asks, “Is AAL equivalent to
slang? Is it a broken-version of the English language? Do the words make any sense?” The second
character in the conversation was designed to interrogate and counter dominant assumptions about
AAL, revealing that it is a rule-based linguistic system. Finally, the worksheet includes a blank
section that provides space for students to contribute to the conversation. Some students responded
to this activity individually and others responded as a group. Activity 3 concluded with a class
discussion about the activity. The value in this activity is that it provided students with evidence
about AAL that is traditionally missing from language instruction.

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CRITICAL LANGUAGE PEDAGOGY 363

Activity 4

Activity 4 was assigned as homework. Students were invited to read and write a 2–3 paragraph
response to Smitherman’s (1999) scholarly article Ebonics, King, and Oakland: Some Folk Don’t
Believe Fat Meat Is Greasy. Students were provided various writing prompts from which to
choose (see Figure 3).

Activity 5

On the final day of the unit, the students, Mrs. Dixon, and I engaged in an open, unstructured
discussion about AAL. Students asked questions, made arguments, shared experiences, revealed
quandaries, and highlighted features of AAL.

FINDINGS

Negative Perceptions of AAL

Research shows that the predominant view of AAL among AAL-speaking students is generally
negative (e.g., Kirkland, Jackson, & Smitherman, 2001). The students I observed echoed this view
in their responses to activity 1 by using terms, such as “improper,” “grammatically incorrect,”
“broken English,” and “language of the ignorant and/or uneducated” to characterize features of
AAL. I also noted that some students’ negative perceptions of AAL represented their perceptions
of those who speak it. One student indicated in his written work for activity 1 that “People who
communicate like [this] are illiterate and aren’t very school educated.” This notion also was
articulated by another student who stated that when she read language Sample A, she “thought
of someone who’s careless, ignorant, dumb, angry, cocky, inconsiderate.” Some scholars have
argued that negative attitudes toward AAL are fostered in classrooms (Smitherman, 1981; Zudima,
2005). Evidence from Kirkland and Jackson’s (2008) study demonstrates that students’ negative
perceptions of their own language are increased when they receive uncritical language instruction.
Even so, classrooms are not the only breeding grounds for shaping language attitudes. Students’
perceptions of language also are influenced by how AAL is viewed in contexts outside of school.
For instance, AAL is not always seen as socially or intellectually valuable in the context of family,
thus, AAL is often corrected or suppressed when used in the home (Kirkland & Jackson, 2008).

Although students had negative perceptions of AAL, their perceptions of DAE were posi-
tive. Students generally identified DAE as “proper,” “literate,” “grammatically correct,” and the
“language of the well-educated and well-mannered.” This attitude is to be expected since most
language instruction privileges DAE over other languages and dialects (Kirkland & Jackson,
2008). The positive attitudes toward DAE and the negative attitudes toward AAL spilled over into
the illustrations that students constructed for activity 1. The illustrations that 13 of the students
sketched to represent communicators of DAE included white, preppy, studious individuals from
suburban communities (see Figure 4, column B). Quite the opposite, illustrations associated with
AAL commonly displayed images of African American men with body tattoos, chains around
their necks, and saggy pants (see Figure 4, column A) and young women with big earrings,

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364 BAKER-BELL

FIGURE 4 Activity 1.

miniskirts, tank tops, and flamboyant hair styles. To make sense of the illustrations that were
constructed, I relied heavily on students’ written responses that expressed their feelings about the
illustrations. The student who constructed the illustrations in Figure 4 indicated in her written
response that for the AAL sample, she “thought of an ignorant gang banger with his pants
sagging and his chain hanging low. I thought of someone who’s careless, dumb, angry, cocky, and
inconsiderate.” She also indicated …

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