Writing Outside the Lines

Growing up, teachers had always praised Teaira McMurtry ’09 ’11, PhD, as a gifted writer. So when one of her first college composition papers was returned with a “come see me” note scrawled on it, she wasn’t worried.

“I thought — wow, the professor was really impressed with my work. Heeey now!” recalls McMurtry, then a student at a public university. “So I went to her and she says, ‘Teaira, you know, you’re just not writing at the college level. I think you need to read more.’”

The professor red-penned grammatical errors of standard English in McMurtry’s writing, chipping away at her identity as a strong communicator and introducing doubt as she worked to become a teacher.

McMurtry, however, persevered, and junior year brought a breakthrough. In a college textbook on linguistics, she discovered that scholars recognized African American English as a distinct communication style.

“These are some of the things that I say! This is what my parents say. This is how my community talks,” she recalls thinking.

Her epiphany spurred her to write an undergraduate thesis called Ebonics: A Distinguished Dialect, which prompted yet another call into a professor’s office. This time, however, she was validated.

“My thesis advisor told me she learned so much. That’s when I realized that you could teach teachers,” McMurtry says.

This discovery sparked a desire to learn more, and she felt called to advocate on behalf of children who faced censure and discouragement for the way their intelligence and talent manifested itself to a world limited by its own lack of knowledge.

Her quest brought her to Alverno, where she became a licensed teacher and, in 2011, earned a master of arts in education. Her capstone research project focused on students’ awareness and use of African American Vernacular English and Standard English, helping them become adept at switching between the two styles.

As McMurtry continued her studies at the doctoral level, her research evolved to focus on preparing teachers to teach African American adolescents in a manner that respected their culture and linguistics. She earned her doctorate in philosophy, language and literacy from Cardinal Stritch University in 2018 and then won a highly competitive fellowship from the National Council of Teachers of English.

As a Cultivating New Voices Among Scholars of Color fellow, McMurtry shares her research through speeches and conference presentations. She recently spoke at the Race, Inequality, and Language in Education conference organized by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.

In the Alverno way, McMurtry also applies her research to her job as a writing curriculum specialist for Milwaukee Public Schools. She designs and facilitates professional development to ensure that teachers and school leaders are using culturally responsive teaching practices.

“I am connected through and through to this topic,” McMurtry says. When she realized why her writing was different from what one professor expected, and that she wasn’t alone, she came to accept that her use of language was just as valid as the next person’s.

“It was extremely empowering, so much so that you just want to tell the world,” she says.

A big part of McMurtry’s work now is helping teachers shift their mindset. Instead of viewing deviations from so-called Standard English as a deficit, she urges educators to see this form of student expression as an asset. In the process, she confronts, and encourages others to confront, long-held biases.

“These ways of thinking have carried on for so many years. We don’t stop to question it,” she says. “Being able to present on these national platforms now, I’m able to play with language and dance on linguistic boundaries.”

Educators, want to learn more? Check out the chapter that McMurtry co-authored in Teaching Language Variation in the Classroom: Strategies and Models from Teachers and Linguists. Learn more about the book and download free e-resources here.

This article appears in the fall/winter 2019 issue of Alverno Magazine.

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