Teaching Englishes

  • David E. Kirkland
  • Associate Professor
  • Department of Writing, Rhetoric,and American Cultures
  • Co-Director, Center for Applied Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities
  • College of Arts and Letters
David Kirkland

Literacies. Englishes. Pedagogies. Rhetorics. Hip-hops, even.

David Kirkland is a pluralist, no doubt about it. His conversation is peppered with terms that many people use only in singular form—which is exactly his point. In a recent article he raised the question of "whether or not the category of English education remains useful, particularly in a postmodern world: one in which authority is decentered, notions of truth are questioned and questionable, grand narratives are deconstructed, knowledge is functional, and Englishes are plural."[1]

Kirkland maintains that many youth who have been stereotyped as disengaged or illiterate are, in fact, avid readers. "We attach adjectives, like ‘disengaged reader,' to these young men," he said. "I gave a Beowulf reading to an English class that a few young Black men were in. They weren't reading Beowulf. But when I followed up on them outside the classroom, they were reading magazines, comic books, newspaper articles—especially the sports section—events that were tied to their lives. So they weren't disengaged readers. They were very much engaged. The issue was disengaged classrooms and disengaged text."

Rapper Invincible (in white T-shirt) leads a youth workshop at Urban Literacies Institute for Transformative Teaching (ULITT), June 2012.

Kirkland has conducted research studies in Lansing, Michigan, schools, in afterschool communities in New York, and with homeless youth. A participant in one of these projects commented that young Black men wear books like clothes. "The argument here is that reading for young people is like fashion," said Kirkland. "They'll wear, or read, what helps to construct an identity of coolness, of youth, of place. It's within this identity model that young people become. They become readers and writers and they situate themselves within what I call genres of self."

These theoretical concepts hit the road at the Center for Applied Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities (CAITLAH), where Kirkland and Ellen Cushman are co-directors. Both are also faculty members of the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures. CAITLAH aims to support educators across the arts and humanities, in part by researching languages and cultures within and across boundaries of difference.

CAITLAH's programs fall under two broad umbrella areas, "Urban Literacies" and "What We Owe."

Urban Literacies

Michael Cirelli takes notes at a ULITT workshop, June 2012.

The Urban Literacies initiative currently supports three research projects. One is a study of homeless youth and how they use language and writing to negotiate homelessness. Another is a study of what Kirkland calls "found literacies, looking at the everyday iconographies that tell the human story." Finally, he said, "We are researching the ways in which rural youth appropriate urban symbology and linguistics. What does the rural contribute to the shaping of the urban?"

"The relationship with MSU is reciprocal. It opens doors in the academy to validate our work, and it also gives legs to what Dr. Kirkland believes in—a grass-roots educational approach. It puts street cred [credibility] together with academic cred. Kids trust us, so we must be doing something right."

Michael Cirelli
Executive Director of Urban Word NYC

The initiative also supports the Urban Literacies Institute for Transformative Teaching (ULITT). "This is a summer institute where artists, teachers, K-12 students, and MSU students come together to explore pedagogical social justice possibilities around spoken word poetry, hip hop culture, and new digital and multimedia practices," said Kirkland. "We work with Urban Word of New York City, which does literary arts education and youth development programs in creative writing, journalism, college prep, literature, and hip-hop. They do poetry slams."

Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC, said that "The relationship with MSU is reciprocal. It opens doors in the academy to validate our work, and it also gives legs to what Dr. Kirkland believes in—a grass-roots educational approach. It puts street cred together with academic cred. Kids trust us, so we must be doing something right." About ULITT, he said, "We create conferences that are both academic and hands-on. We give the theoretical context and bring in community teachers for the practical approach. It's exciting for the teachers to see there are academic research and educational models that support what they're doing intuitively."

What We Owe

CAITLAH's What We Owe initiative derives its title from a talk given to the American Educational Research Association in 2006 by Gloria Ladson- Billings, who was at that time the Association's president.[2] As Kirkland explained it, "Billings gives us this notion of the education debt. What she means is that the ‘achievement gap' works from a deficit model. Her shift in metaphor from gap to debt suggests that the kids who occupy the low side of the gap are not at fault for failing to get an education. We owe every student an education. However, we're only paying some and not others. So with this initiative, we are looking for ways that the College of Arts and Letters can create opportunities for all students to learn."

What's been created at CAITLAH is what Kirkland calls a "pipeline project, where the assumption is you're going to college. You take a curriculum that will prepare you for the university. You meet people who go to college. You have college visits as early as age 12. All of these things make a huge difference in terms of whether a student will go to college. So one set of programs is aimed at creating social and educational supports for students to come here."

The other half of this recruitment-and support agenda is what happens when these students arrive. "In order to increase graduation and retention rates for students of color, first generation students, and English learners, you have to have a critical mass of those students represented in universities," said Kirkland. "We lose a lot of students of color. The research bears this out.

The university has some programs aimed at supporting these students, but they often see those programs as top-down. At CAITLAH we constructed a mentoring program—by students, for students—to support those who fall in those less dominant populations."

CAITLAH is relatively new and many of its programs are just starting up. However, plans to evaluate them are already underway. "We're measuring whether we've increased the rate of students of color accepted into Arts and Letters, and eventually we will do a longitudinal review of whether or not they finish," said Kirkland. "We're also using efficacy scales to rate the likeliness of students to come to MSU based on these programs, as well as their likelihood to remain at MSU and graduate." "It's a lot," he admits. "But it's so needed. I can't underscore how much this work is needed."

  • Written by Linda Chapel Jackson, University Outreach and Engagement


  1. Kirkland, D. E. (2010, April). Teaching English in a sea of change: Linguistic pluralism and the new English education. English Education, 4, 231-235.
  2. Ladson-Billings, G. (2006, April). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.

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