New Gullah Geechee Initiative To Help Teachers Cross Cultural Divide

By Barney Blakeney

For many Black Charlestonians, Gullah language and speech has become a source of cultural pride. But the language and speech rooted in the Gullah culture also has produced embarrassment and confusion outside its cultural community. As the language and culture ascends to its rightful place in society, a new effort to help teachers and students better understand its impact in the classroom is underway.

Charleston County School Board member Priscilla Jeffrey is on the committee of the new Gullah Geechee Initiative. The initiative includes a partnership with the Gullah Geechee Corridor Commission, Dr. Hermon Blake as an advisor on the project and Dr. Jessica Berry as a facilitator.

Jeffrey explained, “I too am an educator and agree that students should speak/learn Standard English in school. The goal of the Gullah Geechee Initiative is to inform teachers that some of our students speak a different language at home and may need special attention when learning English as it is taught in school. It is my understanding that in the past students were shamed by this fact or teachers didn’t even know about the Gullah language.

“Therefore, we are conducting professional development in August for the teachers who may have Gullah speaking students, so they will learn that their students may speak two languages. The goal is so that they will be better able to teach their students to code switch, as I assume students have had to do in the past without the support of their teachers. This committee was formed to address this issue because we want all of our students to be successful and there was a concern that some teachers did not know about Gullah language.”

Jessica Berry

Berry is a native of Huger who attended Cainhoy Elementary/middle and graduated from Hanahan High school in 2004.  She completed her Bachelors’ degree at Winthrop University and her Master’s degree at South Carolina State University in Speech Pathology and Audiology. She completed her doctoral studies at Louisiana State University in Communication Disorders with a minor in Linguistics. Her dissertation which focused on the grammar patterns of children with Gullah Geechee heritage, recently has been published in the Journal of Speech Language Hearing Research. She is currently an Assistant Professor of speech pathology and audiology at South Carolina State University.

As a Lowcountry native, Berry is intimately familiar with the impact of coming from a background rooted in the Gullah Geechee culture and speech on students and their instructors as well as its social impact in relationships with peers. For children who speak Gullah moving outside that community comes with almost constant scrutiny of their speech. It’s a cultural clash that hasn’t been addressed, she says, and it often creates a difficult learning environment.

The idea that Gullah speech more often is reduced to a concept of broken English rather than it’s recognized as a child’s first language results in the admonishment, “You need to speak English” and t the child’s native language is neglected. “Code switching” between the first language and the expected language to be used in school and other settings becomes more difficult.

Berry says the issue is multilayered and addressing it is a long term process. “We know that dialect impacts learning and that learning happens when there is mutual cultural respect. If teachers can’t identify with the culture of the language, that creates a bad environment,” Berry said. “So in the absence of a lot of data on the subject, the first step will be working with early childhood teachers. This is to facilitate a positive, culturally comfortable environment. To help them relate, encourage and empower their students.”

As the district embarks on this innovative new venture Dr. Millicent Brown, a Senior Research Fellow and retired Associate Professor of History in the Department of History and Sociology at Claflin University in Orangeburg notes the untested waters should be waded into cautiously. She says there’s a slippery slope between investing in respect for Gullah culture and ignoring the very real need for English fluency.

She offered, “Assumptions being made about which students are authentically tied to dialect and which have never been properly taught. Easily relegating any Black child to an experience they are not really a part of. How a training session is going to overcome low expectations for children’s ability to do ‘code switching’ is doubtful. Respect for the culture cannot lower the challenge to teach Standard English. Since Charleston County School District has no history of actually caring about what is best for Black students, it will be particularly sensitive to see how this supposed effort to cross the cultural divide works to their children’s benefit. Opportunity exists for pandering to the issue and excusing teachers for not teaching skills needed for operating outside their communities.  Are coordinators being guided by models of bi-lingual instruction?”

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