Faculty voice:

April Baker-Bell: Cultural context of language

Sept. 12, 2018

April Baker-Bell is an assistant professor in the Department of English and the African American and African Studies program. She was awarded the 2018 Language and Social Processes, or LSP, Early Career Scholar Award, an international award presented to one individual each year by the LSP special interest group of the American Educational Research Association.

She began her career teaching at a charter school on the east side of Detroit and later taught at Detroit Public Schools. Committed to equity and justice, Baker-Bell sees herself as not only a teacher and scholar, but also an activist for the Black youth of America. Baker-Bell currently is writing a book which is part of the larger study she did in Detroit. Part research and part guide, the book looks at the language attitudes of students to determine why those attitudes are there and what’s happening in classrooms to propagate this.

I was trained as if I would enter into a classroom space and all students would be speaking the same, and that’s just not realistic, but that’s the way in which I was prepared. My students challenged me and challenged the kind of pedagogy and instruction I was bringing into that space to think about the cultural context of their identities in relation to language.

The language that Black youth bring to classrooms is sometimes not seen as a language in its own right, and it is, based on what the research tells us. I really hope that my work provides a frame for the field to be able to look at the relationship between language, race and identity, especially when it comes to Black youth.

In my early research I observed that some classrooms operate like linguistic and cultural battlegrounds instead of havens where students’ language and literacy practices are affirmed, valued and sustained.

I’m trying to provide teachers with a guide so they can look at the way in which I took up this work in the classroom and hopefully implement some of those things in their own practice. Each chapter is like a unit plan lesson from the work that I did with youth. It also looks at the ways in which the youth interacted with the lessons and how they impacted their language attitude.

I am most interested in what the scholarship can mean, the type of impact that it can have in terms of how we think about language work in classrooms, how we are honoring our students voices in classrooms, how it’s pushing the field forward and thinking about new directions, and how we need to begin doing new research around this kind of topic.

Language and literacy research is moving in one direction, but that’s far ahead of what’s actually happening in classrooms. If I had to think about what’s next in my career, it’s being more involved with classroom spaces and working alongside teachers to get this work implemented in classrooms, so I guess my research will come back full circle.

Reused with permission from the College of Arts and Letters