“Keep Ya Head Up”: Owning Your Space by Owning Your Language

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Chelsea Osademe (MA ’19), Kristen Emig (BA ’19, BS ’19), Kristin Chaney (BA ’22), and Latrice Ferguson (MA ’19) following their workshop ~ February 19, 2019

On February 19, students in English conducted a workshop on code-switching and the 2018 KSBN selection and best-seller Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give to a packed crowd of 80 high school and community college students attending the 6th Annual Black Student Union Statewide Leadership Conference. The presentation grew out of a class teaching project begun by Kristen Emig (BA ’19 English, BS ’19 Secondary Education) and Kristin Chaney (BA ’22 Social Work, English minor) in Naomi Wood’s Fall 2018 ENGL 384 “Multicultural Children’s Literature” class. They were joined by English graduate students Latrice Ferguson (MA ’19) and Chelsea Osademe (MA ’19). The workshop, “‘Keep Ya Head Up’: Owning Your Space by Owning Your Language,” was inspired by Thomas’ book and the newly released film. Film clips and passages from the book elicited discussion about the role language and code-switching plays in everyday life. The session concluded by offering suggestions and resources for finding one’s own safe and supportive networks for self-advocacy and activism. As Naomi Wood explained, “We hope the students saw that understanding the realities of the world doesn’t mean we must accept the status quo as inevitable and unchanging.” Below, workshop co-leader Kristen Emig shares her reflections on the workshop, followed by comments from the student leaders in attendance. 


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Kristen Emig (behind left) and Kristin Chaney (front right) lead part of the workshop.

At our workshop session we discussed how you can own your language and who you are when you get to the college sphere. We had some really great discussion in our breakout sessions about why it’s black students and adults who have to take the extra step and code switch, and why it is that everyone isn’t just accepted for who they are. This was precisely what we were trying to uncover.

It’s crucial to not forget who you are, where you come from, why you’re there. You’re trying to make a better life for you. And you’re trying to make a better world. But to be heard, sometimes we have to speak the way that the world deems fit. And we must first be heard if we want to effect change.

As a future educator, it hit me hard when students were asking us questions like “why am I not accepted?” and “how come black students have it harder?” I always want my students to feel accepted and know that they have value and that their language is just as valuable as the next student’s. And to know that teachers are instead telling their students “no, you don’t talk like that in my classroom” when they use AAVE, it breaks my heart.

In my college experience I’ve been told that we have to gain a student’s trust through respect and acceptance, and dismissing someone’s language as “hood” or “ghetto” is something that I’ve been told happens all the time, but I’ve never personally seen it. And here were 70+ students confirming all of that. That teachers really do tell their students that there isn’t a place in this world for AAVE or other vernaculars of English that fall outside of Standard English.

Today just showed me how great of a responsibility I’ll have when I have my own classroom. Adolescents need to know that what ever their language is, it is just as viable as any other language. It’s just the ways of the present world that unfortunately make it necessary to code switch and make students feel they need to reject their home language for their school language.

— Kristen Emig (BA ’19 English, BS ’19 Secondary Education)


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Below are selected student responses to the prompt “What was the most helpful thing you learned from the workshop today?”

Ore: “Code switching doesn’t mean NOT being true to yourself, but it can be a tool.”

Kierra: “The ability to know myself better, becoming my own advocate, my language doesn’t define me.”

Eden: “That code-switching can be used as a tool, but it doesn’t have to become the status-quo in my life. My voice is my own, and doesn’t have to change to fit the idea someone else has of me.”

Jamalice: “To know 2 voices I use are both me! <3”

Carnation: “Use your tools. Don’t use it for hurt use it for peace but DO NOT let nobody run over your tool. Matter of fact it’s not a tool it’s who you are!”

Tailor: “Point that ‘code switching’ is something you are forced to do but something that is just you but you in a different environment”

Jayla: “I learned to use your code-switching to an advantage & never feel like you are inferior. You make up you.”

Verlondon: “Advocacy through Action and Using your voice!!”

Gelila: “We should view our ability to speak different languages and code switch as an advantage in life & makes us versatile.”

Zalicia: “I learned that my voice is a tool and code switching could help me in situations where I am in a situation where using a different voice is needed.”

Leah: “That being myself is okay. Code switching is not changing myself but changing the perspective of myself around others.”

Patrice: “That the way I speak is viable and I should not be ashamed by advocating for my self.”

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