The Language of Disability Diagnosises: Writing and Talking Back in Multicultural Settings

Article excerpt

Writing and Talking Back in Multicultural Settings


In spite of the multicultural perspective ofmany ofthe aspects of school life, the language of school records, reports, and evenconversations about"diverse" students are dominated by educational psychology and its increasing tendency to diagnose difference as disability (Walker,1998.) This article explores journal keeping, creative writing, and fiction as a means of including the positive qualities of children of various minority cultures which go unnoticed (Bhabha, 1994; Said, 1994).

These tasks involve using tools which have more commonly been associated with the humanities than social science-poetry, biography and autobiography, and fiction-to redress this imbalance. It should be noted at the outset that this paper is not a refutation of educational science in that we recognize that differences in ability, learning styles, and motivation can and do exist. Rather, the emphasis in this project is on how language of measurement dominates thinking and omits important information about students, characterizing their intelligence as lacking in dimension and thoughtfulness.

In Part I of this paper we analyze traditional writing in social science as a type of literature. Here we trace some of the origins and limitations of the metaphors of weight and scale used to quantify learning and understanding. We show how these metaphors appear as part ofthe "objective" reasoning of educational science; as such they call for psychological and medical remedies. In Part II we demonstrate how imaginative writing about students casts doubt on the validity of psychometrics and diagnostics in school reports, records, and discussions as complete portraits of students' abilities. We believe that these stories provide a different way of reasoning about ability and a fresh way of thinking about schooling in multicultural settings.

Part I

The Metaphors of Social and Educational Science

The prestige and influence of science, seemingly infinite in our computer age, is nonetheless quite limited in drawing compelling portraits of human passion and motivation. Much of the literature of the social sciences is modeled on the procedures of the sciences, especially measurement, in demonstrating the truth or falsity of an idea. Measurement is the chief metaphor ofeducation (Fendler,1999). Unfortunately, the use of measurement and its effects on children can be negative, especially as descriptions of complex human subjects (Sleeter, 1987 ). In recent years there has been an increase (Apple,1993) in the influence of assessments and measurements of all kinds in curriculum planning and educational policy. This trend courts dangers of onesidedness and sterility.

As the philosopher of science, Bruno Latour, writes (1993), science is undoubtedly about "truth," on some level, but it is also about culture, as well as about power. these forces are intertwined and tied together in an inextricable fashion which he refers to as a "Gordian knot." Policy and curriculum theory utilize metaphors and images that, when analyzed, reveal partitular cultural and political interests (Apple, 1986). As Said (1994) says, "All [academic] writing is writing and delivers figural language, be they in the codes of (imitation), metaphor, allegory, or irony."1

The philosopher Michel Foucault wrote: "Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its general politics of truth: that is the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true."2 Cushman, drawing on Heidegger's concept of cultural clearings, or "horizons" argues that truth functions as a circumscribed cultural and intellectual space in which we are free to function and to construct meanings, but which makes it difficult to think, feel, or perceive, anything which falls outside of these limits: "Horizons are created by the culture's particular way of perceiving. The placement of the horizon determines what there is "room for" and what is precluded from view..."3

In so far as education has been limited by the low horizon of social and psychological diagnoses, a more representational multiculturalism will attempt to open up this constricted space.

Allegories of Psychometric Testing

An allegory is an enactment, through symbolism, of some aspect of human life. Educational psychology uses different sets of symbols to measure different, supposedly discrete aspects of what it is to be a person. Inthe case of schooling,we have,for example, instruments for measuring "intelligence" and for measuring academic skills or "achievement."Intelligence and ability testing are bolstered by images of measuring devices which recall measurements made on physical objects.

Early intelligence researchers such as Samuel Morton (could, 1981) tried to estimate intellectual capacity by measuring the volume of buckwheat poured into an empty cranium; today psychometric vocabulary is built on terms such as "measures," "scales," "Charts," "graphs," "gauges," "Categories" and "divisions" which are redolent with connotations of standardized tools for physical measurement. Standard measures function much 'in the waythat a rain gauge measures liquid; that is they exclude qualities that might have "impurities" or "contaminants" distorting the test result. In this way, clusters of emotional, perceptual or cognitive patterns fostered by a variety of back grounds or historical circumstances are computed as "lacks" of qualities which the statistical majority possesses in larger quantity. Allegorically speaking, many of these symbols enact notions of inferiority or superiority.

For instance, the "point scale" used by the Stanford-Binet Test, (Binet & Simon, 1911) as well as the majority of other aptitude tests illustrates the power of metaphors that characterize intelligence as a known quantity to be measured as if it were a physical substance. The term"scale"(which, is a metaphorical extension of the meaning of a tool used to calculate weight) appears repeatedly in discussions of psychometrics, as well is in the names of various tests such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. Given this allegorical quality of measurement, it is highly unlikely that we will consider the possibility that there is some other, quality which a person in the 25th percentile has to a much greater degree than a person in the 98th, and that the very quality not included in the test may be an intelligence useful in other contexts.

Finally,many psychometric"measures" make use of standardized assumptions about the rate and pattern in which human beings acquire cognitive abilities (Freedman, 1987; Bloch, 1987). These standards are also presumed universal. For example, a report published in 1968 bythe Southwest Educational Development Corporation (Brussell,1968) calls for increased preschool education, which supplies the parent/child interaction thought of as optimal (the imaginary middle class home) to repair a 10 to 15 point gap between the IQ scores of Mexican American children and "Anglo" children.

Hence the following logic regarding their "needs.' Since many of the problems associated with poverty and cultural difference which Mexican-American children suf fer are similar for all disadvantaged children, Mexican-American children should benefit from the provision of facilities that appear to help other economically disadvantaged children. The most widely accepted of these facilities is a program of preschool education. The belief that preschool education may alleviate or reverse the effects of experiential deprivation rests on what appears to be sound psychological bases."4

In the Reagan era, the literature on early childhood education makes an argument that uses different words, but repeats the same theme-children from poor families are "lacking," or "deficient" in relation to other children, and that these lacks must be compensated for in the form of early childhood education: "[The seven studies reviewed in this paper] have focused on children living in poverty.. . . The best documented preschool effect is an immediate improvement in intellectual performance as represented by intelligence test scores. Of the studies reviewed here, the six that collected such data all attest to the immediate positive effect of early childhood education on IQ Four studies reported a maximum effect of between on a half and one standard deviation ( 16 points on the Stanford-Binet test) however, statistically significant effects disappeared by age eight."5 Both liberals and conservatives accepted the idea that low income children were intellectually "lacking" in relationship to their "middle class" counterparts, and that this lack could be measured "objectively" and presented unidimensionally in the form of IQ scores. The two groups merely differed in the solutions they offered to this problem.

We can see the same language recycled in the 1990s by the authors of works such as The Bell Curve, (Herrnstein & Murray,1996) who argue that certain groups in U. S. society (i.e. `Blacks" and "Hispanics") are genetically inferior based on IQ scores. Their opponents argue that such differences are due to environmental factors. Many writers try to argue against the main premise of The Bell Curve, which is that IQ scores are genetically programmed at conception, and that they differ across racial and ethnic lines, without challenging its underlying imagery: intelligence is something uniform, significant, and measurable. They instead try to argue that poor prenatal care and malnutrition (Austin, 1995), ineffective parenting (Beardsley, 1995), or poor environments (Wickham,1995) cause IQ "deficits" for certain groups.

So far reaching are the metaphors that they are also seen as tools for "measuring" and comparing different levels of environmental influences. For example, attempts to determine the degree to which sociocultural values affect scores on various IQ measures such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test found that there was a significant (and statistically calculable) cultural factor influencing such scores. By multiplying raw IQ scores by the amount of estimated correlation, one comes up with a set of IQ scores whose statistical mean is identical across lines of race, ethnicity and social class, and can codify standard formats for applying such calculations across the board in order to give "fair" assessments to children from diverse backgrounds.

Although such"corrections"to IQ scores may, indeed, wipe out the differential scores which fuel the writing of books such as The Bell Curve, and while they maybe based on the assumption that intelligence measures are not culture neutral, they also come out of, and simultaneously reinforce the assumption that such tests can measure cultural factors.

Allegories of Impairment

The language of psychological or psychiatric impairment shows a complex pattern of resemblance to, and difference from, the language of psychometrics. Like psychometrics, disease metaphors of mental health assessment draw on an the idea that specific elements can be separated from the rest of a person's culture and life experience and judged and compared with others in a neutral, value-free manner.

However, unlike psychometric discourse, mainstream mental health discourse generally rejects the idea of human functioning as a continuum, and instead makes strong distinctions between people who are "ill" and those who are "healthy."

Thus, although mental health workers make use of a scale designed to measure overall life adjustment, called the GAF (General Assessment of Functioning) Scale (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) on which scores run from 1 for the most severely troubled, to 100 for exceptionally healthy people, most aspects of mental health diagnosis make categorical distinctions between those people who are "normal" and those who are not. This image of a clear, unequivocal, and qualitative difference between "diseased" and "healthy" experiences has been reflected in the use of the GAF through publication of the DSM III (American Psychiatric Association,1980). DSMIII uses words to describe psychological distress such as "disorder," "disease" and "illness," replacing older terminology such as "neurosis"or"condition"which maintained this type of distress in a strictly mental realm. Like other metaphors, the disease imagery enacts the allegory of the "at risks teenager andhis/her inscribed fates.

Using this type of language, it becomes logical to view students through a set of standardized diagnostic criteria to determine which ones are likely to succumb to "disease" without treatment. By extension it becomes important to recommend a therapeutic set of procedures with which we can predict negative consequences not only for that particular group of students, but for society as a whole. What we see then, are a set of criteria for "diagnosis and "treatment" for various groups of students who, for any of a variety of reasons, are seen to be outside of the "norm" and thus become reduced to a set of numbers, pathologies, and diagnostic treatments.

There is therefore a cumulative effect resulting from the use of measurement/ scale metaphors which appear to make plausible a wide variety of disorders and impairments. Recently attention has been focused on increasing numbers of school children relative to the overall school populations who have psychological or psychiatric diagnoses in their school records (Wisconsin,1999). There is an explosion in numbers of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, psychological diagnoses are still disproportionately given to minority groups. There are a number of different psychological "instruments." DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), currently in version IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1980, 1987, 1994), is the one most commonly used as it is popular with health insurance companies(Caplan,1995) and has turned its various categories into a common language for mental health professionals (including school psychologists).

The idea that people maybe genuinely distressed by difficult external circumstances becomes almost unthinkable in the discourse of mental suffering as a "disease," one which has internal, organic causes. In fact, in this model, an insistence on the part of someone who has been diagnosed with a psychiatric "disorder" that external circumstances contribute to his or her problem is generally seen as pathological. The exception to this disease model are "adjustment disorders" which the authors of DSM IV have allowed for in three categories (309, axis iv, and v codes) related to social reality and stress. This relatively small place for environment causality leaves the internal disease model intact while dealingwith the social environmentonly in passing. As Caplan (1995) writes:

With close to 400waysto be abnormal in the DSMV .. it's hard to imagine any pathology oriented therapist being unable to find some way to label almost anybody as abnormal.... If you have been abused or have endured other terribly upsetting events and are thinking about them a great deal, struggling to come to terms withit all, you maybe diagnosed as obsessive compulsive or as having a generalized anxiety disorder.... In regards to phobias, the DSM authors specify that [your phobia must be] excessive or unreasonable. If you have been hitten hard by a dog whom you trusted what is an unreasonable amount of fear?6

Caplan suggests that many types of mental suffering or even strange behavior are understandable or perhaps even "normal" under certain circumstances. However, the very scope of DSM IV, with nearly 400 categorical impairments, makes it dif ficult to avoid description that is not captured by a poetics of defect. Clinicians (including, ofcourse, school psychologists) who insist on describing children in terms such as "sad" instead of"suffering from Depressive Disorder" or "bored and restless" instead of having"Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder" may be compromising their professional reputations.

The notion that human personality and mental function is relative, and culturally and historically contingent, is incommensurate with the DSM view of mental health. Even a casual glance at history shows that personality traits which are common and accepted as "normal" in one context are dysfunctional or even unimaginable in another. Furthermore, theories about the causes and consequences of human functioning and human suffering are so different from one culture to another, and historical era to the next; that it is impossible to set out a universal and culture neutral schema detailing human mental "disorders." Phillip Cushman ( 1995) writes:

Itis important to remember that the predominant configuration ofthe self in our current era is not universal and transhistorical. The self has been configured in order to conform to the requirements of a particular time and place .... There are not universal illnesses any more than there is a universal self.7

What this theme of an incommensurate or relative self makes it possible to see, then, is the great variability in the human sense of self across cultural and historical lines. For example, Labruzza and Mendez Villarrubia (1995), in a book that explains the use of the DSM IV in a manner that overwhelmingly accepts its objectivity and usefulness, warns readers to be careful of ethnic, class, and cultural differences that may result in "incorrect" diagnoses.

In a chapter they wrote about psychiatric diagnosis with "Hispanics" (by which they mean low SES Puerto-Rican immigrants in Connecticut), Labruzza and Mendez Villarrubia, mention a number of characteristics they find specific to "Hispanic" culture. These include "docility and submissiveness" (among both men and women) which "may be connected to cultural difficulties with the expression of anger," "machismo" in which "the husband continues to dominate the household... [and] the Hispanic women adopt a subservient role vis-a-vis their husbands,.. . which has negative consequences when the Hispanic...tries to adapt to the American culture" and, finally, "the cultural need of Hispanics to belong to a group and gain face in the community [which] may have negative personal, family and social consequences."8 However given this accommodation to a "different" culture, it becomes difficult for the idea of cultural difference, in the context of a universal classification system for "disorders" to be seen in terms ofhealth, functionality or strength. In fact, it is almost inevitable that cultural differences be pathologized.

Images of Social Danger and Dysfunction

Once children have been "diagnosed" with any of a variety of the cognitive, emotional, or behavioral "disorders," the next step in the process is treatment. Whether such children are seen within a clinical setting, a school setting or both, the fact that they have a "disorder" or a learning "disability" necessitates treating them, in order to compensate for the problem, and make them function like other children. Although the following passage was written 30 years ago, during the social reform movements of the late 1960s, it uses a language to describe this process which remains strikingly modern:

Academic deficits can be] as much of a handicap socially speaking as a cleft palate, deafness, etc. are in organic or physical terms. [These] handicaps can be overcome by intelligent diagnosis and special instruction directedat the problem facing the child."9

At present there is a debate about the cause of increasing numbers of diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and its consequent reliance of Ritalin as a remedy (Degrandpre, 1999; Diller, 1998:, Walker,1998). One study (Wisconsin,1999) finds that 26 percent of school children on a Native American reservation have been diagnosed with disabilities while only 6 percent of the children in an affluent school district near Milwaukee have these diagnoses. Of all the disabilities, "learning disabled" now accounts for 41 percent of the special education categories, and is the most loosely defined and subjective category. In five years the diagnosis for autism increased over 400 percent. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instructions's report notes:

...the continued growth of special education enrollments at rates higher than the growth in total school enrollments has led question whether schooldistricts are over-identifying (those) who could be served by regular education.... some believe the higher proportion ofAfrican Americans (relativeto their enrollment numbers) may reflect inappropriate placements...1

A word we use today, but one more frequently heard in the 1980x, is the notion of an "underclass." Although the word has been used by various political groups, it seems to have been most popular with conservatives who associate it strongly with "abnormal" and "pathological" behaviors. The following quotes (in which the emphasis is ours) show the association made by many of these writers between poverty, "dysfunctional" attitudes and behaviors, and risk to the health of society as a whole: (The underclass] feels excluded from society, rejects commonly accepted values, suffers from behavioral as well as income deficiencies. They don't tend to be just poor; to most Americans their behavior seems aberrant.... 11

Members of[the underclass] combine relatively low income with functioning problems such as difficulties in getting through school, obeying the law, working, and keeping their families together. 12

We have a 51 percent dropout rate [among poor African Americans in Chicago.] The reasons are legion; (teen)pregnancy is the biggest.... Only 60 percent of the parents come in to sign their children's report cards, which is a three-times -a-year duty. Of the 800 boys at Du Sable, as many as 100 are former inmates of a home for juvenile criminals."13

Writers from a wide variety of political persuasions argue the potential danger to society as a whole of allowing young people from segments of society which foster low IQs, poor academic performance and "dysfunctional" values to go without help or special treatment.

Complex and demanding tasksthose that are expected to characterize workin coming yearsmay be beyond the current skills of many young adults. For example, workers often willbe expected to use information on computer screens, make calculations, consult documentation, and then type new instructions.14

One third of preschool children are destined for school failure because of poverty, neglect, sickness, and lack of adult protection and nurturance.11 Hodgkinson who is quoted above, also mentions that since large segments of the population do not have the survival skills to function in society the United States as a whole can be expected to pay high costs in terms of both money, and social chaos. In this sense, then, we can see that the language used in the three allegories, psychometrics, of mental health diagnostics, and "at risk" assessments, leads to a commandeering of available time for discussing students and from there to the discouragement of staff and students in so far as these allegories skip over that very aikeness which makes them avid learners on their turf.

Part II Imaginative Literature as Social Science

We propose that teachers' and staffs' writing mend this imbalance in our picture of the diverse population in schools. The traditions of writing fiction accommodate all kinds of contradiction and complexity in portraits of human life and society. For instance, in relation to schooling and "diverse" children, North American literature produced at least two masterpieces on the subject-Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, (Poirier,1973) and J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye give form to this idea.

Creative writing also brings out identities which have not been seen before. Homi Bhabha (1994), Salman Rushdie (1988), and V.S. Naipaul (1980) have explored marginalized voices of peoples from colonial empires. In their work, cultures become mixed up, neither European nor Indian, neither East Indian nor West Indian, but something of a different order to be reckoned with humorously and ironically. In Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, irony is the chief means of showing the way India has produced Anglicized ethnic Indians who are more at home in England than in India. In the spirit of the aforementioned novels we present writing on children who have traditionally been"othered"and estranged by the mechanical allegories of social science.

Fiction as Truth

The question of the boundary between non-fiction and fiction spans almost every academic discipline inthe humanities from anthropology to philosophy to musicology. The following passage, by Floyd Merrell, demonstrates the way many of these writers blur the distinction between "truth" and "fiction":

Consider a frightened young boy in a movie theater. When a monster suddenly appears on the screen, suppose the boy grips the arm ofthe chair and lets out a scream. This appears to be an automatic physiological response. It seems the boy's subjective self is somehow part ofthe fictional construct on the screen in such a way that there is a direct linkage between the sense data reaching him and his inner imaginary world. The fictional worldis all makebelieve, of course, and the young manis even tacitly aware ofthe fact. Yet he appears, at the instant when he screams, to be imagining himself "inside" the fictional construct and since that construct is part of his sense data from"outside,"he projects it into his real world experiences. becomes....such that he remained for a split second exclusively "inside" the fictional frame: it became his one and only real world.16

The need in the human mind for this staging and blending of the two de&es cognitive unraveling and has been the chief subject of psychoanalysis and branches of psychology for over a century. The scope of the present project does not allow for a review ofthe work of Sartre, Hume, Husserl, Freud, Ricoeur, and others which deal with the interplay between the real and the fictive. "Staging" is the form that the imagination takes that plays out possibilities of action and thought-at least in our fantasy and in our dreams (Gustafson, J., 1997) which we are otherwise barred from.

We now turn to the question of using fictional portraits of students and teachers as a means to uncover the intelligence lying beneath the surface of school procedures and rituals. Suppose that, "in real life," a certain child's permanent folder starts with the following and continues in this vein for the seven years she has been in the public schools:

Female, African American,bom 1986 in Gary, Indiana. Mother: Cynthia Gray. Transferred to Chicago Public Schools, February, 1991. Learning disabled evaluations by school psychologists: "Quiana has irregular attention spans as reported by Mrs. Janson. LD and ADHD (Learning Disability and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) Evaluation requested." Next entry, by Mr. Burns, school social worker, reports "fragmented family circumstances." Now imagine how differently we could see her if instead her folder began with the following account:

I first met Quiana Gray yesterday evening when I was downtown. I had been walking around taking pictures for a book on the urban landscape. I hadjustretrieved my husband's white Mercedes from the parking garage when I stopped at a light and noticed a young black woman and five or six kids moving toward me, wearing sweatshirts and jeans, no coats. The temperature was around 25 degrees; a very bad wind blowing. I pulled to the curb under a No Stopping/No Parking sign. I pushed the "down" button on the window. "Where are you trying to go in this weather?" I asked. "Been tryin' to fin' us a cab to go to the south side," saidthe woman. I made a quick calculation. I could probably pick up my brother-in-law, Sam, take this woman and the kids to the south side and arrive home in plenty of time to go out to dinner. So I offered to drive them. I don't normally give rides to strangers, but it had begun to snow and there was something in the mother's eyes that spoke to me. She was weary; her face reminded me of women's faces on CNN the middle east, Kosovo, that kind of thing. The gray sky framed a tableau I would like to put in my book: Two big girls hold the hand of a toddler while two younger girls flank their mother who has a baby in her arms. The advancing storm whips their thin clothes giving them the appearance of waifs in some windswept Inferno. But there is no time for a picture. Traffic was piling up behind us. The mom and kids bundled into the car. I introduced myself as Shelly.17

Quiana is described in the school records as disadvantaged and learning disabled because she lacks the cultural knowledge and skills to succeed in the mainstream classroom. Indeed this is the "reality' in school. Yet in the paragraph above one can evoke Quiana in the context in which she lives, a context which has defined her almost as a refugee or a colonial subject in the urban space. In an excerpt from the same story quoted above, Quiana interacts with the woman who has given the family a ride to the South side, revealing her curiosity:

One of the older girls sits in the front seat holding my canvas bag with Peterson's Field Guide tapes and some Humanities lectures-on-tape. They are in colorful packets. She stares intently at the Iliad lectures with the picture of Hector, gored, on the jacket. "This a STO-ry?" she intones. "Yes," I answer, my voice sounding flatter than I thought it was. "Like a carTOON?""No, sadder than that ""Who Hector?" she demands. "That's a very long story about war and our history," I answer. "Why he get killed?" "Very complicated.""This a true story?" she asks sounding suspicious. "Very's about us, too," I answer earnestly. "Can't be no STO-ry then if it 'bout us," she says dismissively and puts the Iliad back in the bag. She takes the bird song cassette out ofits green nesting place, then asks, "This music?" "Yes, bird music," I tell her. She inserts the tape into the tape deck. A warbly falsetto chants: "Who cooks foryou? Who cooks for you all? We have just heard the Barred Owl.." A smile breaks across her face, as if something lost had come back to her. She turns toward me and I see that her hair is parted in meticulous corn rows, the ends at the very top of her head shooting up like spray from a fountain. "Can I borrow this to play for my daddy?" she asks. "Sure, now please tell me your name. I've forgotten it." "KEE-ana Gray." she answers and spells it out, "Q-U-I-AN-A. They gotta parakeet on this tape?" "Nope, parakeets are tame birds. Peterson's are wild." She seems to be in deep contemplation of Peterson's work. "If the owl wild, how Peters teach him that `Who cooks for you all?"' "You got it backwards," I say, "the owl taught Peterson." "How he do that?" "A bird expert collects songs by going out into the woods and listens and he takes a tape recorder... It sounds like `Who cooks,' but it's really owl music."18

Quiana's conversation gives us an experience ofthe world through her eyes, challenging even the concept of story. In her dismissal of the Iliad as "no story," she throws doubt on the relevance and familiarity with which we (the educated classes) endow Western classics, as metaphors or markers of our experience. Quiana's concept of a story is something "not about us"- to her, stories in book or tape form are about"others," never herself. When she hears the Peterson tape, she attributes to Peterson the power to teach birds speech in the way we teach a parakeet to imitate words and phrases. In her world, the teacher is someone who instructs, not the otherway around, as it was with Peterson's gathering of bird songs. On this tape, the teacher is in an unfamiliar role, adopting Quiana's own speech patterns. The key to her interest lies in the bird call, "Who Cooks For You All?" which rings a familiar bell both in dialect and content.

Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to review proposals about using Black dialect in public schools, this vignette touches upon some ofthe issues relevant to that debate. It should be said that Quiana was born and raised in Gary, Indiana, in the very heart of a northern industrial city. Thus the episode paints a "hybrid" portrait of her culture, only part of whichis anchored in the years her forebears lived in the Southeastern United States. Not only does her language reach to that geographical experience, but so does her knowledge ofthe world. The school's culture is not entirely strange to her, yet she is estranged from major elements in it.

This excerpt from a teacher's journal shows a student's astuteness in its plays on words -a personal rendering of the diagnostic language:

The first time I saw Difondeau Blake, pronounced 'Fonda, was two years ago when she started violin in Strings Class. 'I was helping outthere one day (I play the violin) when the regular teacher was absent. The next time I had much to do with her was when she sprang into my classroom during recess and announced with a huge grin, "Ms. Warn!! I comin' in your class!" In her hand were the official papers of transfer from another classroom. I set the papers on my desk. Her former teacher had cut a deal with Guidance. The title of the top sheet read: Difondeau BlakeReassignment to Ms. Warren, December 3,1997.

"Wha's tension def fix-it, Ms. Warn? I ain't tension def!"Difondeau said pointing midway down the transfer form in the space for `Reason" where "Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder-Predominantly Inattentive Type" was boldly written along with a number(314.01) fromthe official psychiatric reference book, DIAGNOSES AND CODES. I explained that it meant she had trouble concentrating on schoolwork. "Tha's a lie...probly Mr. Bolger said that 'cause I din' finish the spellin' tests." I assured Difondeau that the words onthe paper meant very little to me since I was not acquainted with her and couldn't tell what attention she might pay to me or to her work. She promised she would be good as long as I would promise there would be no spelling tests. Oh, and one more thing: she asked me to teach her the theme from "Jaws" on her violin. So we cut a deal. Then she sprung outto recess as acrobatically as she had sprung in. I flipped the pages. It was the usual poetic list of High Crimes and Misdemeanors such as "Disruptive Behavior Disorder," "Impulsive Behavior Disorder," "Behavior Disorder." Such was Difondeau's acrobatic school career. On the last page there was a psychiatrist's signature nextto which I lightly penciled in the numbers for "Borderline Intellectual Functioning," "Dissociative Identity Disorder," and "Depersonalization Disorder." I happen to know this particular shrink. At noon I caught sight of Difondeau in the lunchroom, balancing her free federal lunch tray on her head, swinging a bag of milk (yes bag) dangerously close to a fork in her hand. Then she lofted it, with an acrobatic flourish, into the garbage, snapped her fingers to the words, "Throw the sack, get a snack, that's afac'."We waved to each other. I made a mental note to myself that Difondeau had a talent for rhyme."19

The blurring of the words attention deficit with the words "tension deaf" brings out the irony that although the scientific words were foreign to this student, her intelligence ranks them by accidental metaphor as being"deaf to attention."Difondeau knows she does not always pay attention, but that doesn't mean she is deaf to it, that she can if she wants "hear," "act," and "behave" responsively. Difondeau is protesting her categorization as defective (as most would) when the category seems so important and summary of her being as "attention def ."

Judgments about how a family relates (so-called "dysfunctionality") shape what the school expects of students from socalled "dysfunctional" families. These expectations, in turn, are reflected backto the family in both covert and obvious ways. The story "Delta Fry" attempts to play with the idea of "dysfunction." It is about the relationship between Mary, a learning coordinator at a junior high school and a black woman named Brenda. Brenda is the mother of Tameka (who suffers from a "cognitive disorder") and the matriarch of a "fragmented, dysfunctional" family. The situation is that Mary is taking Brenda out to dinner at Delta Fry in order to convince her to administer Ritalin to Tameka once a day. In the middle of dinner Mary recognizes her husband, Jordan (a high-tech CEO), sweep across the dance floor with another woman in tow. Mary leaves the restaurant very distressed and the next day talks to a friend about the disastrous evening: "Seventeen years," Mary explained. "I think he's been having this affair for seventeen years." "As long as Brenda has known Tameka's father," her friend offered. "What are you talking about?" Mary asked me. "You remember, that's what Brenda said. She and Al have known each other for seventeen years.."Mary shot back, between sobs, "So, where does that get me?" "Well," replied her friend, "I just meant that there is some similarity between Al's behavior and Jordan's." "I'm not Brenda...and this isn't helping me one bit," Mary said with a new edge in her voice. Her friend continued, "Look, I didn't mean you are like Brenda. I just meant lots ofwomen get through this.""But I'm 58," Mary offered, the edge in her voice gone. "Yeah," acknowledged the other woman, "but you have a career, You own a nice house. You won't live in dumps without a telephone like Brenda and her four kids, no car, no money."zo

The discourse of mental health and "functionality" invite distance between school personnel and families included in dysfunctional categories. In "Delta Fry" the tables are turned. It is the learning coordinator, Mary, who is having family troubles. The difference between her and Brenda is not as great as she assumed, at least in this regard. The stereotype of the dysfunctional family, especially a minority family, does not do justice to the complexity of relationships and histories involved. The staff or faculty person who gets to know a family's dynamics may feel grief, worry, and sometimes personal failure when some of the same things are true of their own family. The tension between sympathy for that family and worry about one's own stresses is considerable.

There are other anxiety-caused categorizations. This occurs when the teacher intuitively feels that the "remedies" only blur the picture of the students real needs. When teachers expect "performance" from such "disabled" students, the students of ten "resist," which causes the teachers further anxiety. A disconnect in the communication between teacher and student does not have to be a result of disability. It can be a result of curriculum pressures and a lack of flexiblity with that particular student. The following journal entry captures this common predicament of teaching:

The Building Team did a serious evaluation of Darwin. First there were the referral numbers: tardies, absences, suspensions, teacher conferences, office referrals. Then the test data: CATS, the WAS and WAPs tests. Especially the CATS, short for California Achievement Tests. He scored in the 90s and in the 20s, and everywhere in between. He ended up on several disability lists, but I knew Darwin's brain was quite all right. No one on the Building Team thought so. I quickly learned in these meetings to refer to"cases" and not to talk about the children as I knew them. The only book Darwin says he ever read, so he told me, was a school library picture and text account of Charles Darwin's voyage on the Beagle. He carried the book around for months. He gave a talk in science class onthe book and himself.

"My name is Darwin and that's how come the teacher says do this report. So this is my speech on Charles Darwin, the science man, who I read about and watched a video. He was very smart and that's why it takes a long time to understand him. I can tell you about two things he knew. One thing is national election of animals. This means he found out which animals made more population and which ones died. The other thing he found out was that the national election happened to the survivor of the fist. This means ifan animal picks a fight with another one who is a stronger and he wins then the other one is goingto be extinct. One kind of animal that lost a fight was a little sea animal. Now you can't find these more. I'm glad I have a famous name like Darwin,but this video was boring. You couldn't see fights, just rocks. I would tell how the others can get elected. Thisis the end of my speech."

I put Darwin's "speech" in his "portfolio" or permanent file, butwith corrections like fist changed to fittest and so on, just in case they hold me accountable for a writing sample."21 Darwin's ear makes sense of"survival of the fittest" and "natural selection" as survival of the "fist" and "national election," taking us from science to a fact of street life on the South Side of the city. In "national election" there is a beautiful confounding ofthe process of evolution with the voting ritual in which a political leader is chosen. The word accidents yield something both outlandishly hopeful and charmingly naive. While the inventor of an accidental play on words is not fully aware of the convergence of two meanings (which Walker Percy [1979] calls an accidental metaphor), orthe "mistaken"which plunges the reader into Darwin's social world.

In the next excerpt a teacher has housed a family, during a snowstorm, at a pharmaceutical laboratory run by her husband because they have no transportation back to the ghetto where they are staying.

We are left off at a side door of the laboratory housing several hundred rats on serious drugs. I disconnect the alarm with the combination Blaine has given me just in case he was out of town in a rat emergency. This is the largest, most expensive rat trial Reiger Labs has ever had. "Why these rats in cages?"Teshawn wants to know. -The doctors study what makes them happy or sad," I say. "How they be happy in a cage?" she asks. "Happy according to what the doctors see."We move upstairs to Blaine's office and lounge. I call Blaine to tell him where I am. "You damn well better take that Zoloft!!" he shouts into my ear. "He mad," says Teshawn, her eyes open very wide. "Yeah,"I say,"He REAL mad."

Seeing the experiment as it was set up in the laboratory, Teshawn questions the assumptions of the "science" being practiced. She is a perceptive critic, so perceptive that her teacher finds herself adopting her speech pattern. As Teshawn does, so does her teacher: they drop the verb "to be," leaving subject and adjective and thereby emphasizing the stronger rhythm of: "He real mad."

In all of the vignettes quoted here, the teachers and staff (and numerous educators and researchers like them) have been comfortably ensconced in a world that basically coincides with their interests. Suddenly, through contact with others who think, who talk, and who perceive reality very differently from the way they do, they are plunged into chaos, confusion, and, eventually a new, more multifaceted way of understanding truth."In otherwords, these stories show that certain children's worlds, seen before as "dysfunctional" and "deficient" or "impaired," may be opened to reveal an alternate universe in which they emerge as vibrant, alert, and intelligent.

Summary and Recommendations

All social science, educational, psychological, and medical writing is literature, and, as literature, can be analyzed to reveal its underlying structure of metaphors, images, themes, and poetic devices. When the linguistic and poetic devices that construct the discursive realities of these fields are examined through the technique of close reading, we can see that these figures of speech narrow perception and limit what we say or do. On the basis of this analysis, we point out that the diagnoses and remedies constructed by these scientific discourses result from a specific kind of reasoning; at best, they give only a partial view of reality, especially from the standpoint of multiculturalism and children from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Paolo Friere (1970) captured this discrepancy in what he called the "Director Culture"-the measurement of the human being by experts who know what "they" should want and need to learn. Friere also saw that teaching based on notions of deficit produced a culture of silence.

The journal excerpts and fictional vignettes in this project are attempts to break this silence. All of the fictional excerpts were based on real conversations. The details were changed both to maintain anonymity in this project and to promote coherence by making them part of a longer narrative. We see that Quiana's, Difondeau's, Tameka's, or Darwin's capacity to learn is not impaired and that they have quite a bit they can share and build on if their own experience is called forth. With Friere and others who followed him, we believe that a fresher use of language is key in breaking a culture of silence and impairment.

This project is meant to encourage teachers who have an interest in writing and sharing multicultural perspectives with others in their school and community. The selections included in this paper were read by teachers in a group that looked into current issues in multicultural education. Some of the members began to keep teaching journals of observations of life that go unnoticed in the day to day rush to testing and assessments.

Within schools there are other forums, whether inservice days, or informal lunch conversations, or curriculum meetings to which this type of writing would be relevant. Several journal entries have also been read at parent-teacher conferences with the result of a sounder relationship between staff and family. In general we have found that the story concept opens doors for diverse students and families which were shut by an over reliance on the language of psychological diagnoses.


1. Said, 1994, p 3.

2. Foucault, 1980, p. 131. 3. Cushman, 1995, p. 21. 4. Brussell, 1968 p. 8.

5. Schweinhart & Weikart, 1985, pp. 546-48. 6. Caplan, 1995, p. 76.

7. Cushman, 1995, p. 25.

8. Labruzza & M6ndez Villarrubia, 1995, P. 9. Labruzza & MEndez Villarrubia, 1995, 171. 10. Aparicio & Aparicio, 1969, 263-4, 272.

11. Ibid.

12. Auletta, 1982, p. xiii. 13. Mead, 1986.

16. Lemann, 1986, p. 61.

17. Newman & Beverstock, 1990, p. 77. 18. Hodgkinson, 1991, pp. 9-16.

19. Merrell, 1988, p. 21. 20. Gustafson, R., 1998. 21. Ibid.

22. Warren, 1996.

23. Gustafson, R., 1998. 24. Warren.




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[Author Affiliation]

-Dory Lightfoot and Ruth Gustafson are doctoral candidates in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.