Mrs. Ryan's Class

A Digital Learning Hub for students and parents

The Power of Language in Cultural Models

on September 17, 2015

When thinking about cultural models in my school environment, I had a difficult time separating the impact of appearance from that of vocabulary, language, and grammar. I will force myself to focus on the linguistic aspect of this issues this week, and focus on written communication within a school, most often email.

imagesIn my professional community, any grammatical error, misspelling, or omission of a word in an email will likely result in an instant loss of respect from the staff. We have the cultural model that all written communication is proofread, edited, and perfect. When a professional, or even worse, a superior, makes an error in an email or written communication, members of our community can’t help but feel frustrated. This easy slip can result in a slightly less flattering reputation that may not be wholly deserved, but our cultural model dictates that professional language must grammatically correct, and formal.

This contrasts with the cultural model of the professionalism of verbal communication at our faculty meetings, and goal setting meetings. These interactions with fellow teachers and administrators have a much more colloquial and informal tone. This type of “round table” format helps teachers to feel at ease, and comfortable – a helpful state of mind when trying to problem solve and collaborate with colleagues. Everyone present is certainly respectful and maintains a level of professionalism, but the standards of this in person communication are undoubtedly different than written communication.

canyouWhen thinking about my student’s world, a cultural model that comes to mind is classroom management and the “appropriate” way of speaking that teachers expect. We have all likely participated in this conversation at some point (either as a student or maybe a teacher):

Student: “Can I go to the bathroom?”

Teacher: “I don’t know, can you?”

After reading Gee’s thoughts about how cultural models can impact a student’s ability to master a language, (Social Linguistics and Literacies, 2012), I wondered how an english language learner would interpret this teacher-student interaction. This interchange between a student and a teacher is usually presented as a bit of a joke to teach students to use the word “may”, but I do think that we as teachers need to be mindful of english language learners, or really any student who is new to our cultural model and educational system. We need to be careful about the sarcastic tone that can creep into exchanges like this one and confuse children.

Another cultural model that is currently changing is the role of a teacher from the bearer of all knowledge and the ultimate judge of your learning, to a facilitator of student learning and experience. The shift in education to include collaborative learning environments, student generated rubrics and assessments, and student content construction definitely has made an impact on our perspective of “normal” teacher and student roles in school, but I have found many students still perceive teachers as the ultimate keepers of knowledge.  Kids still want to know if they got an A (when we don’t even give letter grades until 5th grade) or simply to know if they did “a good job.” This cultural model is changing, so I can imagine that students who are new to our model would have an even more difficult time navigating this system.

Ultimately, I believe that in order to affirm all students’ prior experience with education it is necessary to develop a set of classroom and school norms that every member of the community can learn. At the beginning of the school year, all students should practice expected behavior for the cultural model for school, because it is likely much different than the individual cultural models for at home behavior. Below, is a photo of my classroom constitution this year.


I follow a process each year, based in Responsive Classroom, to generate expectations for our classroom community that will hopefully make our cultural model of education more accessible for young students.

Class Expectations:

  1. Brainstorm outcomes/rules/expectations that the students want for themselves, each other, and the teacher
  2. Look for patterns in all of the suggestions
  3. Consolidate these suggestions into 3-5 all-encompassing statements
  4. Agree on the new expectations, discuss what they look like in different school settings
  5. Sign the document

In Social Linguistics and LiteraciesGee writes, “Any student faced with the myriad aspects of reality in a culture which might be relevant to the cultural models used by members of that culture could well take forever to master the meaning of language. The typical second- language learner does not have the great amount of time available to the infant and young child learning a first language.”  Here, Gee references the vast capability of infants and young children to not only absorb the cultural norms and models in their environment, but also grasp language skills.

In the video “Two Modes of Talking” from, Dr. Todd Risley presents his researching findings that show the that large disparity in the language abilities of children who come from families who did not talk a lot to their young children (mostly in “business” language giving directions, etc.) and families who talked directly to their young children both in business language and through “chit-chat, gossip, and commentary.” By the time the child is 4, their language and experience differences are vast.

Children who hear diverse language have a larger capacity for language and a much larger vocabulary. These children will have a higher aptitude for literacy skills and will likely have stronger decoding skills. Dr. Keith Stanovich argues in the video “The Matthew Effect”, from, that reading does make people smarter because the strength in decoding affects a child’s ability in reading, declarative knowledges, lexical distinctions, vocabulary,  and ultimately how he/she functions in the world.  

Reading and vocabulary are closely connected to speech, so we can make the leap that children who have less of an advantage due to their early childhood exposure to language and talking will likely have a more difficult time speaking up and questioning the cultural models they are in. Are their voices sometimes lost? Gee comments that it is the teacher’s job to ensure that no voices are lost, and encourage students to question and challenge our current models.

We also must consider the members of our population who don’t have a voice – literally. In “New Voices For The Voiceless: Synthetic Speech Gets An Upgrade” we learn that the speech scientist, Rupal Patel, has discovered a way to make a personalized robotic voice for a child, Samantha, who can not speak. 

Although the outcome of such scientific advancement is remarkable and a huge success for children with speech disabilities and their families, I do find it to be slightly unsettling to hear a manufactured child’s voice.

Click Here to listen to “Samantha’s New Voice”

Logically, I know that there is nothing creepy about this – it is nothing more than research based science doing good for humanity…but the emotional side of me feels unsettled that we can be so easily deceived. Do I have a right to know if the sweet voice is a real child’s voice? What difference does it make to me, really? I think the answer comes down to my the desire for experiences to be authentic.

For instance, if I am trying to reach a customer service representative to work out an issue, being forced through prerecorded robot voices and selections does nothing more than infuriate me. In this situation, I need to engage in an authentic, person-to-person conversation to problem solve and respond to my needs. I feel validated when I hear the person on the other end of the phone show empathy, concern, and determination to help with my problem – these are human connections that can not be mimicked by an automated voice.

On the other hand, this authentic human contact is not always needed, depending on the task at hand. I’m thinking particularly of checking a gift card balance, or activating a credit card. In situations like these, direct human interaction over the phone can be more time-consuming and feel like more of an ordeal. I actually don’t need to hear empathy or concern if there is no real issue to solve. In situations where I have a simple task to complete, I have no real issues with the fact, I might prefer it.

This discussion of the impact of voice in our cultural models and everyday communication reminded me of a professor I had in college, Gina Barreca. She taught me an english class, “The Femme Fatale,” and I learned more from her than any other professor I had.

Gina Barecca

Gina Barreca

She was tough, engaging, demanding, passionate, and hilarious. Because of these qualities, Gina Barreca shatters another stereotype of the cultural models of teachers in education.

If you google image search “teacher” you get this:

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 4.56.36 PM

Out of the first 15 images, 14 are women – happy, smiling, women. These women are wearing muted tones, look kind, approachable, and soft. My colleague Keely Garden will also appreciate that all of the women depicted here have pin-straight hair. They are perfect models of put-together, professional women.

Gina Barreca does not fit this mold, and her article “Loud Woman Teaching: Using your Voice to Make a Difference” discusses the impact that teachers can have when they don’t fit into this cultural model. In this article, Barreca recounts a conversation with a student who noted that her “loudness” helped the student to be less afraid, less shy, less lazy, and less irresponsible because you expected a lot from me.”

In this short article we learn that loud doesn’t only refer to voice, but also mannerisms, clothing, the richness of ideas, and the boldness in the expectation that every student has a voice, is engaged, and participates. This is the power that voice, sound, and identity can have.

*Note on the media used to create this response:

I chose to write this response in a traditional blog post format. I did this for two reasons:

  1. This written format allowed me to move the text around on the page a few times after I responded to each part of the question. I tried to achieve a sort of flow by transitioning between topics, and dragging and dropping paragraphs around the page.
  1. I wanted the freedom to embed images, and include links for my readers to access additional information and resources. The blog seemed like the best way to easily incorporate these additions.

2 responses to “The Power of Language in Cultural Models

  1. keelygarden says:

    I love Gina Barreca’s hair and your nod to the stereotype of straight hair as professional! It amazes me that your school expects formal emails. We do not follow that cultural model and often script “tweet-esq” emails in my school. GR8 post!

    Liked by 1 person

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