Honoring Culture and Voice Through Code-Switching

One of the most beautiful things about workshop teaching is flexibility.

I know you’re thinking, What’s that?  The Type-A Personality talking about flexibility?  Yes.  I’m floored.  I’ve grown to love the ability to change plans at a moment’s notice because something pops up on my Twitter feed or a student has a great idea.  It only slightly gives me anxiety now, rather than entirely.  That’s progress, people.

During our current focus on Elements of Drama, including some Shakespeare and some Hamilton, the most frequent point of conversation has been language and translation.  In the wake of political and social tsunamis currently taking place, my students are constantly coming back to ideas of connection, or lack thereof.

In one of his interviews with NPR, Lin-Manuel Miranda discusses the fact that he’s “been code-switching since he was five.”  He uses this term to refer to his social predicament growing up between nights and weekends in a Hispanic, immigrant neighborhood and daylight hours at a school for the gifted on the Upper East Side.  This idea seemed to be what my students and I were discussing, so I decided to do some Googling.  Was anyone else talking about this idea?

I came across this TED Talk by Jamila Lyiscott: 3 Ways to Speak English.  Aside from causing me to further lament that I haven’t yet begun to moonlight as a spoken word poet, it also took me aback at how little I’ve honored my students and their own culture and voice in writing.


The truth is, many have felt like strangers in their own land long before this current administration took hold.

In an effort to facilitate my students’ ability to “speak academic,” I never realized just how much it feels like a foreign language.  I also never considered, by default, this deemed their language “unacademic.”  This classification might feel belittling, or at the very least, may cause them to put their own culture and language on a shelf while they’re at school, and as a result, while they’re writing.

The beauty of language is connection.  Insecurity happens when you feel your words skip over or go right through whoever you’re around.  The art of language is mastering each of your dialects so completely, that you can connect with many different types of people at once.

The thing I hate about flexibility is that you often find things around which you want to plan an entire unit.  Unfortunately, I found it too late this time around.

Here’s what we actually did:

Each student imagined a story they might tell in a friendly setting and an academic setting.  The only requirement was to write the SAME STORY in TWO DIFFERENT WAYS.  This hit so many skills, I don’t know if I can list them all.  We discussed purpose, but also discussed the need for knowing audience before you can likely get to purpose.  We played with word choice, and we experimented with plucking words from friendly dialect and plopping them into academic dialect to amp up connectivity and relatable tone.  We obviously discussed tone.  We discussed brevity/length and how it relates to purpose.  I could teach an entire semester of English skills with this single theme.

Here’s what I would do for a unit:

  • Begin with Amy’s Matter of Perspective and Crossing the Line activity.
  • Notebook writing and discussing about how language has made us feel out of place in the past.
  • Explore the question: Can their truly be connection without separation?
  • Watch 3 Ways to Speak English & challenge students to write either a two-voice poem or a spoken word poem like Jamila’s in which they integrate all of their languages together, using her performance as a mentor text.

The goal in this unit, and in the single writing I managed to facilitate this year, is that every portion of a person’s identity should be honored and valued.  It is all these facets that make a writer with true voice.  I want to grow writers with voice, not just writers who learn to regurgitate and operate within the box that academia occasionally presents.

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX. She also attempts to grapple with life and all of its complexities and hilarities over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.


4 thoughts on “Honoring Culture and Voice Through Code-Switching

  1. Shana Karnes February 19, 2017 at 6:19 am Reply

    Hamilton!!! Ahhh!!! I haven’t gotten to see it yet, but I’ve listened to the soundtrack on Pandora and I LOOOOOVE it!

    I have a student exploring similar themes with her kids right now: they’re reading Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and exploring facets of their own and others’ identities that have been rendered invisible by one force or another (oppression, repression, etc.). She’s pairing it with the TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Tupac’s book of poetry “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” Jay-Z’s book of poetry “Decoded,” and some excerpts from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” Plus a billion amazing booktalks on this topic.

    All this from a student teacher!!! I love it.

    I’ll give her this post to help strengthen her unit! Thanks for writing. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jessica Paxson February 20, 2017 at 1:32 pm Reply

      Can your student teacher come help me plan?! That sounds incredible! STEALING.


  2. Jessica Paxson February 16, 2017 at 8:41 am Reply

    Right! I love the idea of taking a strong character and asking whether or not they would still be strong in an environment that is foreign to them. Great idea!


  3. estersohn February 16, 2017 at 7:52 am Reply

    Maybe a shorter response that gets at some of these ideas would be to pluck a character from a book or play and center them in the middle of today’s world. I wonder how Iago would do on the National Security Council next to Steve Bannon — how would they talk to each other? Hester Prynne might have a lot to say to Sandra Fluke. Who would be completely out of place? Where?


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