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Linguistics in the lab: the right chemistry for inclusivity

  • Anne Charity Hudley
    Anne Charity Hudley  is the Class of 1952 Associate Professor of English & Africana Studies at William & Mary.  Photo by Christine Fulgham '17
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Science teachers increasingly recognize the roles that culture and language have in learning, but they often lack the tools to fully explore and address those issues.

Thanks to a William & Mary professor, there’s now an app for that.

Anne Charity Hudley, the Class of 1952 Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at William & Mary, in partnership with Christine Mallinson has created a series of videos, podcasts and even an app to help teachers better understand and respond to cultural and language variations in STEM classrooms.

“While science education has really come a long way in terms of inclusivity, there’s a still big need to help educators think about language and discrimination in science contexts,” said Charity Hudley.

Charity Hudley and Mallinson, an associate professor of language, literacy and culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, showcased their work Feb. 19 at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston. The discussion was part of a session organized by Charity Hudley on “Educator Linguistic Ideology about African-American English in STEM Contexts” that also included presentations by Mary Bucholtz of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Michel DeGraff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The tools that Charity Hudley and Mallinson developed were borne of a National Science Foundation grant that Charity Hudley and Mallinson received in 2011 to explore the impact of cultural and social language patterns on learning and student assessment.

Working with student researchers from their respective institutions, Charity Hudley and Mallinson talked with 60 K-12 teachers in Maryland and Virginia to find out what they knew about language variation, particularly among African-American students.

Language variation includes such features as word choice, grammar, accent, and discourse style, which are developed in relation to one’s cultural and social background. Variations from Standardized American English can lead people to make assumptions about one’s intelligence and ability, which can significantly affect how teachers interact with students, said Charity Hudley.

Echoing Rosina Lippi-Green, one of her favorite writers and mentors, Charity Hudley asserted that language is “the last frontier of discrimination.”

“You can discriminate against people based on language of all forms including written, spoken, people who use sign language. Language discrimination is a backdoor to general discrimination. For example, test bias is a major issue. I don’t have to say, ‘Oh, I don’t really want African-American students in my graduate program.’ I can say, ‘Well, their verbal scores on the GRE test weren’t that great.’

“We know there’s a role between how someone does on a test and their own home language and their performance, so when we say we want to eliminate barriers to success in science, we have to look at all the little factors that are involved in that linguistic process.”

Over a period of four years, Charity Hudley, Mallinson and their student researchers hosted long-form workshops and interviews with the teachers in their study.

“One of the things they were saying was, ‘Gosh, I wish I had known some of these issues about language and linguistic justice and different varieties of English,’” said Charity Hudley. “Some people spoke the varieties but never had them validated or didn’t understand quite the role of language in thinking about processing when you’re doing a math problem or scientific problem.”

The student researchers were true collaborators and contributors to the project, Charity Hudley said.

“Our students were awesome all the way through, and the teachers loved having students participate because it’s like that bridge, right? They want their students to be William & Mary students, so the whole question is, ‘How do we make that tangibly happen?’” she said.

In the midst of the NSF-funded research, Charity Hudley and Mallinson released a book, We Do Language: English Language Variation in the Secondary English Classroom, to help teachers begin to understand some of the issues around language variation. However, they wanted to go a step further and so created a variety of additional tools to be used by educators.

First came a series of podcasts with teachers who discussed how they had struggled with issues related to language variation and what solutions worked for them.

Next, the two professors worked with the Virginia Department of Education to create a series of videos, released in October 2015, about language variation and its connection educational inequality in Virginia schools. The topics include language and culture in the classroom, sharing the burden of communication with students and examples of how Virginia educators have embraced culturally and linguistically responsive teaching. Four videos also explore language and culture specifically in elementary and secondary arts and STEM classrooms. The series is available on the VDOE website.

In September 2016, Charity Hudley and Mallinson released the “Valuable Voices” app for iOS devices. It provides teachers with information about how to think about language variation – and it also offers activities centered on some of the concepts. For instance, one activity aims to explore how dictionaries are put together by asking students to create their own. Another introduces students to the invention of language through William Shakespeare, asking them to think about modern-day equivalents.

“Right now, [the app] is more focused on language literacy and culture, but in order to get those conversations going and show the scientific processes behind them, educators have been using them in different disciplines,” said Charity Hudley.

Being able to share these tools and the research that went into their creation at the AAAS conference was especially significant because of the reach of the organization, said Charity Hudley.

“At this specific conference, you have scientists from all different backgrounds who are interested in science broadly and particularly in terms of science education and inclusion,” she said, “and so it’s really important at this conference that when we are having conversations about persistence in science, getting people motivated and interested in science, and working with students, that the role of language in the learning process be a part of that conversation.”