Words and lives: Toward a critical discourse on language among urban adolescents

Robert Anthony Fecho, University of Pennsylvania


This study was a year long investigation into the work and attitudes associated with language and language study of the teacher and students in a North Philadelphia classroom. The text describes the complex evolution of a class where language was made problematic and students were encouraged to raise and investigate questions about the roles language played in their lives. It was conducted as a form of teacher research using qualitative methods and, as such, represents a hybrid between the traditional dissertation study and studies carried out by teachers on their own practice. It argues that the study benefits from both paradigms in that it is responsive to the scope, knowledge base, and rigor of academic research while documenting the practice of one teacher from an emic, or insider, perspective--a perspective too rare in the current literature. Research methods included collecting and analyzing student work, audio field notes, class transcripts, and both individual and focus group interviews. In addition, the collected data was analyzed by diverse networks of teacher researchers at both a local and national level, thereby bringing multiple perspectives to the analysis. Focused around the following question--what does it mean for a teacher and students to take a critical stance on language--this study concerns itself with the roles which were played, the topics and issues which were raised, the ways in which knowledge was generated, and the range of student attitudes on critical language issues. With the classroom as unit of analysis, this study explores the ways in which an atmosphere conducive to inquiry and critique evolved over time and through trial and error. Broken into three phases, the classroom portion of the study describes efforts to create common connections via text analysis and discussion, to explore individual connections through autobiography, and to focus the inquiry through student-generated questions and active research. Turning attention to six individual case studies, this investigation analyses the range and interrelationship of student attitudes about issues surrounding codeswitching, slang, profanity, Black English, and standard English. As a whole, the study argues that for students to learn language, they need to learn about language. This means that they must be purposefully brought into the larger public discourse about the social and political nature of language. Furthermore, the study argues that, because language issues are complex and closely tied to racial and other identities, the classroom needs to create a dialectic between individual and collective ways of knowing in order for students to be positioned to exercise their agency in language choice. Finally, to establish significant inquiry and dialogue into language issues, the discourse must not merely invite and tolerate multiple perspectives, but must instead make these differences the very fabric of the classroom culture.

Subject Area

Language arts|Secondary education|Curricula|Teaching

Recommended Citation

Fecho, Robert Anthony, "Words and lives: Toward a critical discourse on language among urban adolescents" (1995). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9615040.