James Paul Gee
Many years ago a close colleague of mine who worked in education brought me tape recordings of stories told by certain first-grade African-American children at "sharing time" in various schools. "Sharing time" was "show and tell" without letting the children have any objects to point to. The stories were about the children's pets, their families, their birthdays, their activities, their day-to-day problems. My colleague told me that the children's teachers thought their stories were disconnected and rambling. Indeed, they thought their stories did not make much sense. The children, they felt, had some sort of "deficit."
At the time my colleague brought me these stories I worked in linguistics, not education. I knew nothing about schools and schooling. What my colleague told me and showed me shocked me. Many a sociolinguist would readily have recognized these children's stories as excellent examples of the sorts of well-formed and creative "oral stories" found in many cultures across the globe. These are cultures with long historical traditions of oral storytelling as a "cultural encyclopedia" of stored values and knowledge.
People in these cultures are usually literate now. However, they retain allegiance to storing profound cultural meanings in stories told face-to-face. Some of these stories are "repeated" in roughly the same form from occasion to occasion. But sometimes they are stories of everyday and current events that still, nonetheless, contain deeper layers of meaning germane to larger themes, meanings similar to or influenced by the more fixed stories. Indeed, this form of storytelling is often referred to as "oral literature."
Linguists knew that many African-Americans had clear ties to such a culture, both from their roots in Africa and in the development of an early, indigenous, and on-going African-American culture in the United States. Indeed, even at the time my colleague showed me the children's stories, I