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Embracing Ebonics and Teaching Standard English: An Interview with Oakland Teacher Carrie Secret

After I left Omaha in February 1966, I was hired in Oakland and assigned to Prescott. Everybody said, "Oh you poor thing, you're assigned to Prescott!" But I've been there 31 years because I refused to be transferred. There had been times when excellent teachers left Prescott, but they were never replaced with the same caliber of teacher.

I've never desired to do anything but teach. I have never desired to leave the classroom for any other position. Teaching is my passion. I've taught every grade in elementary school except kindergarten. I now teach fifth grade with a group of children I've had since they were in first grade. I have 31 children in my class. One is Lakota Sioux, two are Cambodian, two are Mexican and 26 are African American.

Q: Prescott is one of the Oakland schools that uses the Standard English Proficiency Program (SEP). Can you explain the concepts underlying SEP?

The issue gets clouded because the SEP Programs vary throughout the state. The most powerful difference is that we in the Oakland SEP, under the inspirational directorship of Nabeehah Shakir, dared to honor and respect Ebonics as the home language that stands on its own rather than as a dialectical form of English. We see and understand that our language patterns and structure come from a family of languages totally unrelated to the Germanic roots of English. In some programs, grammar and drill are strong parts. I think our using second-language learning strategies has more impact on the students. The view is, "We are teaching you a second language, not fixing the home language you bring to school."

There are three cornerstones to our SEP program: culture, language, and literacy. Our program is not just a language program that stresses how well you acquire and speak English. We emphasize the learning of reading by incorporating a strong literacy component. Another crucial issue is that we push students to learn the content language of each area of curriculum. The Oakland SEP Program is not just a grammar and drill program but a program that emphasizes language and content and encompasses all areas of curriculum.

Children are not empowered simply because they know subject-verb agreement. That is not powerful for children if they don't have content in which to use the language. Yes, we want the children to speak English and have positive feelings about themselves, but that comes about only when the children know content. It doesn't matter how well you speak if you are not able to participate in and use the language of the content areas during discussion times.

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