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Book Review – Other People’s Children

My first two book reviews on ELT International are really going to set the tone for the pedagogy I support and practice and for how I think my pedagogical stance relates to English as an international language. In general, I’ll keep these reviews short, simply telling you why I recommend a book or why I would steer clear of it, because you can read more thorough reviews simply by searching for them.

The first strongly recommended book is Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children (India).

Other People’s Children looks carefully at how race and power have affected the teaching of writing. This is especially important to me because I am primarily concerned with how the teaching of writing affects the ability of learners to accomplish their educational goals.

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The first edition of this book was published in the mid nineties, the new edition a decade later. Delpit has more recent books, including one specifically related to language, and some of you may prefer to start with that one, because the attitudes and information will certainly be more modern.
But, it’s Other People’s Children (India) that has strongly influenced my own teaching.
In fact, this is the kind of book that, even though I own a hard copy, I’m inclined to buy the Kindle version, too. I just never want to be without it.
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Other People’s Children is not a reference book, though. It’s not a teaching methods book or a skills book. Instead, Other People’s Children is a book that helped me to form my own stance on critical pedagogy.

“Critical pedagogy” refers to an educational stance that addresses issues of power in teaching and learning, not just in the classroom, but in looking at ways education can respond to social structures that are unequal or oppressive. If you look for it, you’ll find this type of thinking all through my work and this site.

Other People’s Children is particularly focused on writing, which is my main area of interest. Even though, Other People’s Children focuses on the U.S., I recommend it for anyone teaching writing because it’s a honest, vivid account of how writing education affects students.

When I first read this book, I was just beginning to explore the history of teaching composition because something about it (a number of things about it) really didn’t sit right with me. I felt that students weren’t being TAUGHT to write. They were being EXPECTED to write, or, more disturbingly, I began to suspect that they were being expected to FAIL at writing.

These thoughts all came together in the most striking way for me when I read Delpit’s tale of how “teachers of color” reacted to the, at the time, new methods of teaching writing.

Delpit describes a period in the mid-eighties when, again and again, she collected comments from “teachers of color” that described their “estrangement” from the pedagogical movement of the time. They told her that the writing pedagogy they were being given (the process approach) wasn’t appropriate for their students, but that their “White” colleagues wouldn’t listen to them about it, that, instead of listening, they started “reciting research” that “other White people have written.”

Delpit says that when she first published some of these collected comments, she

“received numerous calls and letters from teachers…both Black and White. All of the White respondents, except one, have wished to talk more about the question of skills versus process approaches–to support or reject what they perceive to be my position. On the other hand, all of the non-White respondents have spoken passionately on being left out of the dialogue about how best to educate children of color.”

Central to Delpit’s book is the premise that students have been kept from success by a type of writing education that did not give them the skills they needed to succeed in academia. Although, I don’t always agree with her idea of which way writing education should go, I agree with her about this, and I do believe that some educators in power in the past were not listening, whether purposely or through ignorance of other people’s circumstances.

I don’t believe that any one group knows how to educate everyone, but I also don’t believe that an educator must be born of a group to suggest valid educational methods for that group. I definitely believe that some educational methods of the past have worked to preserve a system that is unequal and that I want to make sure my own methods work toward changing that.

I strongly recommend that teachers who are just beginning to teach, especially those teaching composition, get Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children (India) before you spend a couple of years teaching “process” and “rhetoric”. There are better ways. I also recommend the book for MA-ELT students and professionals who need to be aware of the issues around social power and writing so that they recognize these issues as the evaluate new methods and approaches to teaching language.

I strongly recommend the book, but, I want to give you all the information I can for free, so here’s a link to one of Delpit’s most powerful essays from the book.

Delpit, L.D. (1988). The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children, Harvard Educational Review, 58(3), 280-298

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