work in communities and classrooms by Shirley Brice Heath

Shirley Brice Heath

Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms

New York: Cambridge University Press. 1983.

The classic anthropological gambit:

In communities around the world ... features of the cultural milieu affect the ways in which children learn to use language. The place of language in the cultural life of each social group is interdependent witht the habits and values of behaving shared among members of that group. Therefore, any reader who tries to explain the community contrasts in this book on the basis of race will miss the central point of the focus on culture as learned behavior and on language habits as part of that shared learning. (p.11)

but isn't it possible that an insistence on culture as learned, shared, and habitual, indirectly reconstructs race--if not in the biological sense, but in the sense that birth conditions are the fate of the child? (note that Bourdieu is listed in the bibliography but "habitus" is not listed in the index)


black and white communities, tied to the textile mills in different ways, were in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, caught between their families and the school, between community and classroom in their urge to be 'on the rise'. Two such communities are Roadville and Trackton.

The two communities hold different concepts of childood. (p. 145)

Chapters 2 to 6 constitute the argument that this is so.


On cross-community awareness, and deliberate effort to teach language forms

Trackton adults recognize that they do not talk about the bits and pieces of the world and that their general way of introducing their yound to "knowing" differs from that of hte maintstream middle class, which many of the women come to know intimately from service as domestics in their homes. ... Instead they use among themselves and direct to their children analogy questions, requests for nonspecific comparisons of one time, event, or person with another. (p. 109)


But there are "really" THREE communities

"They've come up with some new rules to make 'em feel important."  .... townspeople -- teachers, preachers, politicians, ... (p. 236)

or more:

new timers vs. old timers ... black vs. white. (p. 237)

though very soon we are back into the characterization of habits mode of writing:

Many families plan... Homes are almost always... Parents [do]... Townspeople rarely have... Almost all mothers... (p. 244)

statistical generalization is not addressed as an issue. That Heath does not give any systematic evidence does not seem to concern her even though her whole analysis is dependent on these matters being indeed matters that are "shared among members of the group."

the disjunction between "townspeople" and the others, as noticed by townspeople teachers, with methods for changing the children so that they are not any more a problem for the teachers. The "difference" argument at its most typical:

Roadville children had several ... features which bothered teachers ... More troublesome were differences in the uses of language the children brought to school. (p.278)

When Trackton and Roadville children go to school, they meet very different notions of truth, style, and language appropriate to a "story" from those they have known at home. (p. 294)

and thus no attention at all at power even though the only difference that ends making a difference among the three (or more) communities is that the townspeople control which cultural arbitrary is the one that will be used to determine who is to be in difficulty in school. See Successful Failure, Chapter 6 and 7 for more on Heath (Varenne and McDermott 1998)


October 19, 2010 [2007]