In the Language of Her Country: Lending Voice to Adolescent Girls ...

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Lois Spencer (4,581 words)

OUAWP 2008

Dr. S. Gradin

July 17, 2008

In the Language of Her Country: Lending Voice to Adolescent Girls

From Backgrounds of Poverty

Will it all just be the same, ‘cause

I’m young and I’m hopeless?

I’m lost and I know this

I’m going nowhere fast.

These lines, written by a former student, sum up the frustration and sense of
isolation ex
perienced by many girls during that critical time we call adolescence.
Combine the emotional and physical crises common to adolescence with the crippling
effects of poverty, and it’s a wonder any of these girls survive. As a junior high language
arts tea
cher in Beverly, Ohio, in a district where poverty rates creep up year after year, I
become acquainted with many girls from backgrounds of poverty. These backgrounds
can range in severity from the most dismal and dysfunctional to ones in which families
ruggle to maintain the illusion of middle class. Perhaps because of my own poor, rural
beginnings, I feel drawn to these girls and want them to have a chance for something



Through their writing, students, especially girls, often reveal their lon
gings. A
story written by one of my students a couple of years ago had as its protagonist a girl who
was overlooked by the popular crowd until one day she acquired a Hollister outfit. She
styled her hair the way the in
crowd did and left her glasses at h
ome. Her acceptance was
immediate by the very girls who had shunned her the day before. The writer, in her
thinly disguised role as the girl “passing” for middle class, left me no doubt as to just how
acutely many girls view the dichotomy of poverty vers
us middle class. As a teacher of
writing, I have to believe that the same forum used to vent their frustration can also be
used for self
expression, discovery, and validation. My challenge, and the focus of this
inquiry, is how to put that forum


to its best possible use.

Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls
, Mary Pipher defines
adolescence as “an intense time of change” during which girls make choices which “will
preserve their true selves or install false selves” (
73). Her concerns lie with the
misperceptions many girls develop as the result of a culture skewed toward false and
harmful images of the idealized female. LaVona L. Reeves, in her


article, also confronts the problems of female adolescent
s: “… American girls lose
considerable self
confidence with the onset of puberty …” (Reeves 42). Teachers of
junior high students often notice that girls become less eager to share ideas and opinions
and begin to seek identity in peer groups. Their preo
ccupation is suddenly with
appearance and popularity. For girls already economically and socially stigmatized, the
concerns of adolescence only reinforce their fears that they will never partake of the
middle class mystique.



At Fort Frye Junior Senior Hi
gh School, adolescent girls from backgrounds of
poverty are largely misunderstood or overlooked by teachers and administrators as well
as by the rest of the student body. Their isolation goes deeper than a failure to wear
Hollister or shop in the mall. R
arely do they compete either academically or athletically,
sometimes from a lack of family finances, sometimes from an overload of responsibilities
or distractions at home, sometimes from a history of put
downs or abuse that has left
them demoralized, or i
n the worst cases emotionally damaged. Some of these girls act
out inappropriately; some are demanding or clinging to anyone offering kindness; others
keep to themselves or their narrow peer groups to avoid further humiliation. Any
extreme in behavior ca
n make acceptance difficult. And, unfortunately, even teachers
and administrators do not want to step outside their comfort zones.

A Framework for Understanding Poverty
, Ruby Payne differentiates between
“generational poverty” and “situational poverty
”: “Generational poverty is defined as
being in poverty for two generations or longer. Situational poverty is a shorter time and
is caused by circumstances (i.e., death, illness, divorce, etc.)” (10). Of the two,
generational poverty appears to have the

more detrimental effects. And while poverty is
usually seen as a lack of adequate finances, Payne explains a more profound difference
between the poor and the middle class

the generally accepted ideas concerning
behaviors, mores, and expectations. Payne

refers to the assumptions made by the two
groups as “hidden rules” (11). Among the hidden rules of generational poverty are the

People are possessions, and people can rely only on each other.

Discipline is about penance and forgiveness, not ab
out change.



Fighting and physical violence are part of poverty…. the only way to defend
turf is physically. (Payne 37)

Payne’s complete list is extensive, but these three examples demonstrate the stark
differences between the mindset of poverty and the min
dset of middle class. Not
surprisingly, Payne goes on to explain that schools “operate from middle
class norms and
use the hidden rules of the middle class” (Payne 16). Consider now the viewpoints of
teachers and school officials regarding the rules cite

Things are possessions; people are not.

Discipline is administered to bring about a change in behavior.

Fighting is unacceptable. Turf battles have no place in schools.

These particular rules are quite significant in the educational setting. If child
ren are seen
as resources (“possessions”)

sitters, housekeepers, caretakers for the disabled

then attendance and homework take a backseat to the needs of the family. From my
experiences as a teacher, I know that adolescent girls are frequently single
d out to take on
adult roles. When schools impose discipline, expecting behaviors to change, the rules of
poverty counter with this: Wait it out; life will return to normal soon. Finally,
physicality is routine in generational poverty, even among girls.

However, settling the
score physically lands offenders in direct opposition to school codes.

Payne’s observations and explanations about poverty do not reflect the views of
everyone who has examined the subject of poverty, particularly poverty in Appal
The “culture
poverty perspective” is defined by L.T. de Jager in a thesis submitted to
the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Ohio University as
denoting “the general philosophical view that people adapt to poverty

d blocked




by deflating their own aspirations and by then retreating into self
fatalism” (27). Based on research, de Jager rejects the culture
poverty paradigm
because it views poverty as “an unchangeable

artifact instead

of the material and
economic condition that it is in reality” (de Jager 30). The general idea of this theoretical
perspective is that generational poverty is self
perpetuating because the “pathological
behavior” of its members engenders additional povert
y, and so on it continues (27).
While I do not believe

is either helpful or humanitarian, I have
observed incidences of persistent poverty among families in the district where I teach and
the frustration which accompanies it. Where, if

anywhere at all, this perception of being
trapped in a cycle of poverty leads the victim, is a subject for debate beyond this paper.

Whether or not poverty can be defined as a “

artifact” seems impractical
for my purposes here. When someone take
s an unflinching look at a societal problem, as
Payne dares to do, other views are bound to be vocalized, and that is as it should be.
Having worked with children from backgrounds of poverty for many years, I personally
find Ruby Payne’s observations righ
t on target and her delivery nonjudgmental and non
elitist. Her intentions, as illustrated by the following statement, appear humane:
“Educators have tremendous opportunities to influence some of the non
resources that make such a difference in
students’ lives. For example, it costs nothing to
be an appropriate role model” (39).

As a language arts teacher, I see writing as a powerful medium and a safe outlet
for thoughts and feelings, as well as a means for expressing one’s dissatisfaction wit
h a
society that doesn’t always play fair. The problem is, the students who most profoundly
need the benefits of writing are often the most profoundly hesitant to test it. Among



these are adolescent girls who know that voicing opinions comes with risk, e
ither from
family and peers who view their speaking out as a threat or from educators who
misinterpret their intentions. The scene is then set for writing apprehension. LaVona L.
Reeves begins her article, “Minimizing Writing Apprehension in the Learner
Classroom,” by stating, “I am an apprehensive writer because I was born poor, rural, and
female” (38). She characterizes reluctant writers as avoiding situations in which writing
is required and also as lacking “role models for writing at home, i
n school, and in the
society at large” (38). While it’s understandable that homes of disadvantaged children
may not offer positive examples of writing and that exposure to the world at large is
limited, surely there is no excuse for the lack of modeling i
n school. Too many children
of poverty are skirting below the radar. Why are schools

providing strong examples
of writing for these students?

Reeves’s indictment prompts my revisiting Payne and her explanation of the
formal and casual registers of
language, which may hold a clue to the disconnection
between teachers’ attempts to model writing and some students’ ability to appreciate the
efforts. Payne defines formal register as “the standard sentence syntax and word choice
of work and school” (42).

Formal register is often unfamiliar to students from poorer
backgrounds since they have acquired the speech patterns of casual register. There are
many differences between the two discourse patterns. For example, when speaking or
writing in formal regi
ster, one is expected to “get straight to the point” (43). In casual
register, originating as it does in the tradition of oral language, the speaker will typically
take a less direct route (Payne 42
43). Small wonder, then, that students from a
d of poverty are often reluctant writers

they are expected to use a language



foreign to their experience. According to Payne, stories told in the casual register begin
with “the end of the story first or the part with the greatest emotional intensity. Th
e story
is told in vignettes, with audience participation in between. The story ends with a
comment about the character and his/her value” (46).

Formal register story telling, Payne writes, “starts at the beginning of the story
and goes to the end in a

chronological or accepted narrative pattern.” (46). Using casual
register in story telling results in a charming and often humorous tale. There are times
when its use in writing is effective, too. However, for most writing done in school,
formal regist
er is expected. Understandably, opposing discourse patterns set up students
for failure and teachers for frustration. Teachers sometimes blame a student’s hesitation
to write on her limited experience, or they may see her as being deliberately resistant.

contend, however, that a reluctant writer may view her personal language as insufficient
for the task. And given the fragile self
concept of the adolescent girl, she may find her
voice silenced at just the time when she most needs to develop it.

veral writers of educational articles suggest pedagogies offering a learner
friendly approach. While most do not directly address adolescent girls or students from
poverty, they do, however, present ideas that apply to this population. In the article cit
earlier, LaVona Reeves is able to see student writing through the eyes of the
apprehensive writer as she argues, “Our young writers are often so caught up in learning
to write that they may never experience writing to learn, not just to learn about a
rticular project but to learn about themselves, their values, their experiences, their
environments” (38). She suggests that small group discussions prior to writing may
“serve as a pre
writing activity which will make the actual writing less of an obsta



40). Conferencing, collaboration with other students, peer coaching and positive

along with journal writing, “workshopping,” and linking reading to writing

are also seen by Reeves as decreasing apprehension and changing “attitudes, per
and writing processes over time” (43). Reeves further encourages teachers to share their
own writing and to write along with their students. While I write and share with my
students on a limited basis, I can see the value of increasing the freq
uency of the practice,
as it is the ideal opportunity to model positive writing experiences.

And finally, Reeves believes that students should be invited to examine their own
cognitive processes. She explains, “Emphasizing systematic logic enhances self
in apprehensive writers and gives them confidence in their writing skills” (40). If there is
one thing junior high girls, especially those lacking strong female role models at home,
need, it is practice in systematic thinking. Working through the
writing processes and
“writing to learn” encourage girls who don’t always make sensible choices to stand back
from a situation and think logically.

In addition to Reeves, Susan Danoff, in her
Educational Leadership

article of
March 2008, also has suggest
ions for engaging at
risk students. Her methods include
story telling, believing that, as she puts it, “oral tales can inspire, motivate, and teach
reluctant writers” (76). Danoff uses Langston Hughes’s short story, “Thank You,
Ma’am,” and his poem, “Mot
her to Son,” to teach students about character, point of view,
and voice and as guides toward creating character sketches and poems of their own.
Danoff defends her use of the oral tradition in this way: “When students write, they must
tune in to the sou
nd and rhythm of the language they speak and pay attention to daily



concerns that define who they are. Without this opportunity, students have no voice”

As a teacher who thoroughly enjoys sharing literature aloud and one who already
uses Langston
Hughes’s work in the classroom, I feel validated by Danoff’s article. Her
methods are highly visual and auditory and rely on imitation

a good safe modeling

so fledgling writers have guidelines and perimeters. For the students I teach,

to unfamiliar dialects, languages that differ also from the mainstream, can help
them to appreciate their own. As adolescent girls describe significant people in their
lives, the consequences of decisions they made become apparent. Did choices made
y in life affect the people they later became? When writers imitate the voices (and the
viewpoints) of others, they have a chance to examine their own biases. Perhaps most
important of all, at this critical time in the lives of these girls, a practical e
xamination of
cause and effect may trigger some serious, and significant, introspection. It’s all about a
rich, welcoming environment and someone willing to guide, encourage, and challenge.

These suggestions are applicable to any writing classroom and a
ny student
population. They are based on good research and good sense. But let’s take it one step
further. Payne, citing James Paul Gee’s article “What Is Literacy?” explains the
difference between language acquisition and learning a language through di
rect teaching:
“Acquisition is the best and most natural way to learn a language and is simply the
immersion in, and the constant interaction with, that language. Learning is the direct
teaching of a language and usually is at a more metacognitive level”

(44). Payne believes
that Gee leaves out an important factor; that is, “acquisition of language only occurs
when there is a significant relationship,” and she questions whether “a formal institution”



provides that critical link (44). I believe it is con
ceivable that a teacher

a human being,
not an institution

could develop a significant enough relationship with a student for the
acquisition of formal register to occur. This does not discount the need for direct
teaching, which Payne sees as necessary in

many situations (44). Still, an intentionally
welcoming atmosphere and a compassionate, knowledgeable teacher may open the
reluctant writer to wonderful uses for her language and voice

and from that threshold,
lead her to attempt other ways of speaking a
nd writing.

Mary Pipher, in her role as counselor and therapist to adolescent girls, sums up
the best possible environment for the growth of self
esteem: “The ideal community
would somehow be able to combine [a] sense of belonging … with the freedom to be

oneself …” (Pipher 298). It would certainly appear that the community of writers and
thinkers that both Reeves and Danoff champion fit her description. Pipher also adds
psychological clout to the development of objective thinking skills, by emphasizing

need to separate thinking from feeling as well as learning to make conscious choices
310). Both are underlying principles in the pedagogies put forth by Reeves and
Danoff, whether brought out explicitly during instruction or imbedded in the p
rocesses of
the activities.

Helping girls view their culture objectively is the most striking of Pipher’s
suggestions, and the one which I see as pivotal for the girls I work with. Pipher explains,
“I encourage girls to observe our culture with the eye
s of an anthropologist in a strange
new society. What customs and rituals do they observe? What kinds of women and men
are respected in this culture?”(309) Pipher goes on to include how the culture views
body types, assigns sex roles, and delivers conse
quences to those who break its rules



(309). I can see that the more intuitive students will make an immediate comparison of
“their” culture (poverty) versus the “other” culture (middle class). That recognition,
while essential for moving beyond the cultu
re of poverty, can better be addressed in a
more personal setting. Writing, in the privacy of a journal when public expression isn’t
appropriate for certain discoveries, provides the ideal medium for sorting out the realities
of the present and clarifying

goals for the kind of future that may offer broader choices.

Certainly, Pipher is in agreement with just such a notion when she “encourage[s]
girls to keep diaries and to write poetry and autobiographies …” (308). She supports the
use of journals and o
ther personal writing for adolescent girls in this way:

Writing their thoughts and feelings strengthens their sense of self.
Their journals are places where they can be honest and whole. In
their writing they can clarify, conceptualize and evaluate their

experiences. Writing their thoughts and feelings strengthens their
sense of self. Their journals are a place where their point of view
on the universe matters. (Pipher 308)

For girls from backgrounds of poverty, finding a forum for expressing “their poi
of view on the universe” is huge, even if it never becomes public. Who has ever
asked for their opinions? Much of the discourse in their families, if we are to
accept Payne’s observations, has been directive or judgmental. Here, in the safety
of the
journal, is a place not only to explore themselves as human beings, but to
venture a viewpoint on something that matters.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, Peter Elbow, in “Inviting the Mother
Tongue,” addresses many of the issues which appear central in
the articles written



by Reeves and Danoff, as well as in the works of Pipher and Payne already cited.
I find this interesting since Elbow’s work has been with college students from
varied backgrounds, while Payne, Reeves, and Danoff focus on populations o
f the
culturally and economically disadvantaged and Pipher’s
Reviving Ophelia

devoted to the identity crises of adolescent females. It would seem that any
number of subsets of society struggle with issues of self
confidence and access
when faced with a
cademic writing.

In his essay, Elbow makes a bold statement: “Standard Written English
[SWE] is no one’s mother tongue” (326). He makes it clear that populations of
middle class or mainstream speakers do not use absolutely “correct” English in
speech. True, they are closer than others and can probably make the
transition to SWE more easily, but problems still arise. I wonder how many
teachers remember their own early attempts to meet language expectations in
writing, especially in unfamiliar s
ituations. Perhaps if we were to recall the
anguish caused by college composition classes where expectations were assumed
but not explained, we could save both time and red ink. Elbow goes on to assert,
“Speech and writing are different dialects” (326).

Danoff implies and Payne
directly acknowledges this dichotomy between the language of familiarity
(spoken) and the language of academic expectation (written). Elbow points out
what the others recognize as well: “Most non
mainstream or stigmatized dialec
of English are oral and not written” (335).

When Elbow challenges writing teachers to welcome “the mother

the familiar dialect of their students

into the writing experience, he



offers guidelines for creating an atmosphere conducive to writing

Show respect for the dialect as a language comparable to SWE.

Acknowledge students’ intelligence.

Allow freedom to use or not to use the familiar dialect.

Encourage other students to appreciate the dialect as true language.

While these guidelines sound like common sense and therefore appear simple,
conscious and deliberate attention is required to transfer the assumptions into
practice. Elbow further contends that in order to promote willingness to write
among students who u
se non
mainstream dialects, he allows early drafts of papers
and low
stakes writing to be done in dialect or whatever combination of dialect
and SWE the student chooses. In order to prepare students to function adequately
in the world beyond the classroom
, however, he requires that final, publishable
drafts be written in SWE. In order for his students to accomplish this, Elbow
permits access to whatever devices or help students can find in order to arrive at
the finished product. Even published writers u
se editors, is his reasoning (329
333). Here, Elbow sums up the ideal writing climate for any reluctant writer:

We can make the writing classroom one of the most
hopeful of all
sites of language use
: a place where students can learn to put their
attention on their meaning and not on surface propriety

and where students can use their mother tongue as much as they
want (or as little as they want). We can communicate respect for



all dialects and help all students realize that speakers of non
eam dialects are usually more linguistically sophisticated
than speakers of mainstream English. (346

Elbow’s sensible approach to writing instruction has clear implications for the
language arts classroom in Beverly, Ohio. I’m already a believer in p
ostponing the
editing of papers until the content and organization are reasonably intact. This is a hard
lesson for a lot of students to learn, since their concept of “good writing” focuses more on
the scarcity of misspellings and the absence of punctuati
on errors. Requiring multiple
drafts of a single paper can also come as a shock to seventh graders, but now with Elbow
to back me up, I shall proceed with confidence. What I find most compelling in Elbow’s
essay, however, is his sensitivity to the writer
’s ownership of her home language. It’s
often difficult for teachers to read right over glaring mistakes, but editing too early sends
a message to the writer that her work must be cleaned up before it can be read. Elbow
essentially tells the writing teac
her to “get over it” if surface errors make it hard to read a
student’s work (346). Elbow’s insistence that students learn to produce a draft that
conforms to SWE goes along with Payne’s assertion that “education is the key to getting
out of, and staying
out of, generational poverty” (Payne 79). A significant level of
education is virtually impossible to achieve if a student cannot produce writing that
conforms to the expectations of her middle class based school system.

When I began this inquiry into a

means by which to help students, particularly
girls whose backgrounds and experiences have placed severe limitations upon their real
and perceived opportunities, I was hoping to find specific, concrete “how
to” guidelines
for teaching that population. Wh
at I found instead were widely applicable pedagogies



and strategies by which to enliven and enrich writing in any classroom. In other words,
what I found will benefit all of my students, not just the ones whose families are
economically limited and cultur
ally separated from the mainstream. I can invite every
student into the kind of place that honors diversity and encourages community

one that
allows for a balance of privacy and sharing, uses language broadly, celebrates the value
of others, and challenge
s students to evaluate their perceptions and the demands placed
upon them by their own culture and society in general.

As I come to the close of this exploration, I return to the original inspiration, not
only for the search itself, but for its title. I
Listen to Their Voices
: Twenty Interviews
with Women Who Write
, Mickey Pearlman quotes Grace Paley, as she defines the
importance of the new writers (or voices) that are finally being accepted into the literary
canon. Paley explains, “What a writer is,

really, is someone who tells the truth in the
language of the country they’re in, and sustains that language, and invigorates that
language ... and keeps lighting up what isn’t known” (Pearlman 12). The girls who
comprise my deepest concern demonstrate t
heir use of language daily

orally, in writing,
even nonverbally. They reveal so much by what they say in passing or in confidence, by
what they write in notes, by how they posture or slump, laugh or retreat into silence.

a language and it is un
ique to whatever country they have come to know as

Many adolescent girls from backgrounds of poverty have had, and are still having,
grim experiences, including the writer of the lines I quoted at the beginning of this paper.
Too often there isn
’t much that a teacher can do about the “country they’re in” even if it’s
a sad or frightening place. But I have discovered through my own experience, and have



validated through this inquiry process, that I

provide opportunities to students for
g and sharing a voice. Throughout history, the disenfranchised and stigmatized
have been forbidden to speak. Through fear and ineptitude, students caught up in
generational poverty all too often find themselves silenced too. Releasing their voices
can o
nly be a good thing

for them and for those of us who have much to learn from the
truths they have to tell. The same student who wrote the first lines of this paper also
wrote the last. Despite experiences that would have defeated many of us, she continue
to fight her way toward independence and self
determination. I believe she will make it
and eventually come to value herself as the courageous young woman that she is. And
perhaps that’s because, back in junior high, she began to fill pages and pages a
nd pages
with her own important language.

I wonder what everyone sees in me

I know who I am

But I refuse

to let my inner goddess shine through

Simply because

I haven’t grown to love her yet



Works Cited

Danoff, Susan. “Life Ain’t No Crystal Stair.

Educational Leadership


2008): 76

De Jager, L.T. “Welfare Reform, Poverty, and Dependence in Rural Appalachia.”

Thesis. Ohio University, 2004.

Elbow, Peter. “Inviting the Mother Tongue: Beyond ‘Mistakes,’ ‘Bad English,’ and
‘Wrong Lang
Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of
Writing and Teaching Writing
. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Payne, Ruby K.
A Framework for Understanding Poverty
. Highlands, Texas: aha!

Process, Inc., 2001.

Pearlman, Mickey
. Lis
ten to Their Voices: Twenty Interviews with Women Who Write

New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.

Pipher, Mary.
Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls
. New York:

Ballatine Books, 1994.

Reeves, LaVona L. “Minimizing Writing Appreh
ension in the Learner

English Journal

(October 1990): 38