top of page

my thoughts

School Kids Investigating Language in Life and Society - Course Syllabus, Part 1

I never thought I would feel confident enough to post a course syllabus here, but this product of so much intense effort has actually been such a joy to work on with my collaborator/co-teacher, that I cannot help but to share it. The course is part of the program "School Kids Investigating Language in Life and Society" aka SKILLS which was co-founded by Drs. Mary Bucholtz (Linguistics), Jin Sook Lee (Education), and Dolores Inés Casillas (Chicanx Studies). Here is a description about the program from a book chapter I collaborated on with another SKILLS co-teacher:

"SKILLS is a 20-week academic outreach program which provides students from minoritized linguistic backgrounds access to an introductory sociolinguistics curriculum that highlights the sociopolitical dimensions of language practices (for more information, see Bucholtz et al., 2018). It combines research, academic preparation and training, and activism by bringing together teams of university faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, K-12 students, and their teachers to work against social, linguistic, and educational inequities [...] SKILLS is a push-in program that is embedded in existing school schedules. It introduces high school students to the fundamentals of the discipline of linguistics [...] It also provides instruction on basic research methods for data collection and analysis [...] Depending on the disciplinary expertise of the SKILLS instructors in class, specific lesson topics and planned activities can vary across classrooms." (Lee, et. al, 2020, p. 52)

I have taught for the SKILLS program for about four years now-- the first year paired with an experienced co-teacher and then for two years alone. Those three years were in classrooms with students designated as English learners. In the 2022 iteration of the SKILLS program, I was placed in the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) classroom with my co-teacher Cedar Brown, a PhD student in the Department of Linguistics. According to the California Department of Education: "AVID places academically average students in advanced classes; levels the playing field for minority, rural, low-income, and other students without a college-going tradition in their families; and targets students in the academic middle--B, C, and even D students--who have the desire to go to college and the willingness to work hard." See more at (I've never loved this meritocratic framing of the students but I will digress...). Our class of AVID seniors was all first-generation and Latinx-identified students.

Given that this was our first collaboration together ever, I think Cedar and I did well to support each other in areas where the other was weaker and in ways that highlighted our strengths. Of course, nothing is ever perfect, but as we wrap up this semester, I'm quite proud of our accomplishments and hope that anyone reading this will find useful activities and resources or of course provide necessary feedback/critique for future syllabi. Nothing is one-size-fits-all so I would urge everyone to take their own teaching contexts and students' needs into consideration before trying any of these things out. I've just copied and pasted elements of the syllabus and then where the course schedule would be I have summarized some of the major questions we were investigating that week as a class and some of the more successful activities. I've also included some anonymized excerpts from students' work and some projects that we-- the instructors-- modeled for them.

Each class is about an hour and a half and though we typically held class once a week, for some more involved topics we went in twice. We covered a lot of topics and engaged in a lot of reflection with students that can't all be covered in this single post so I'm only including some of the major points and hopefully easily transferrable activities. Additionally, I've stopped after week 7 simply because I don't have time today to include it, but that content is coming! Thanks for reading!

School Kids Investigating Language in Life and Society (SKILLS) Syllabus

Dates, Times, Location

Graduate Student Instructors: Samantha Harris, she/her Cedar Brown, they/them

Undergraduate Mentors: [redacted]

Course Description:

This course is part of an academic partnership between University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the local school district that prepares students for higher education by giving them hands-on experience in studying language, race, power, and identity. Throughout this program we will guide you through the process of conducting original research and justice-oriented community action projects on language with your own peer groups, families, and communities.

Course Objectives:

  1. Identify the structural properties and functions of language

  2. Examine language learning and use in real-life sociocultural contexts through the theory and practice of linguistic anthropology.

  3. Describe the formation and deployment of ideologies surrounding different languages, language practices, and language speakers

  4. Practice designing, conducting, and reporting a rigorous research project that focuses on some question related to language

Schedule & Content

Week 1 - Introductions & What is Language?

  • How do we define language?

  • How do linguists define language?

  • Who ‘has’ language?


Create a Wordcloud! I have been told there are different ways to do this. We used and it was very user-friendly. We asked students to "Enter any five words you associate with language" and then discussed the results afterward. Here's what they created:

Write your own definition of language! After looking at and critiquing dictionary definitions and linguistic definitions, we invited students to write their own. Here are some examples from students:

“Language ranges from sounds to physical gestures that give off meaning to another person or thing”

“Language is a way to express yourself and communicate with others”

In our class discussion we grappled with questions of who has language-- do animals have language? do you have to have more than one person for language to occur? Is a painting language? I found it really interesting that some of our students emphasized expression over communication in the end. What is language to you?

Weeks 2 + 3 - Language Varieties and Classification

  • How do people differentiate between named languages and/or dialects?

  • What are some of the problems with these distinctions?

  • What are some alternative ways of defining the way that people and groups of people communicate?

  • Also included an introduction to structures of language.


Make a Venn Diagram! We drew the two blank overlapping circles on the whiteboard and asked students: What do you think of when you hear the words 'language' and 'dialect'? We handed out a handful of markers and after each student wrote one thing they were asked to pass their marker to a classmate. This diagram then informed our discussion about language varieties being informed by mutual intelligibility and/or cultural, ethnic, or national affiliation.

Create Language Maps! This activity was inspired by Martînez and Mejîa (2020). We asked students to 1) list the places and social spaces (incl social media) they are in on a daily or weekly basis (thinking about educational, professional, athletic, political, religious, familial, and other social spaces in which language use is central) 2) List the people or different kinds of people (e.g. teachers, priest, friends) in each of these spaces and 3) Jot down notes about ways they use language differently in each of these spaces – identifying any contrasts and then 4) Turn their table into a language map! Students included a lot of personal information in their very creative, detailed, and colorful language maps, so for their privacy, I'll just include mine...

Additional Resources:

Linguistic Privilege Checklist adapted from the Boise State Writing Center (attached).

Linguistic Privilege Checklist.docx
Download PDF • 52KB

Weeks 4 + 5 - Language Attitudes & Ideologies

  • What are some ways that people think/feel about different varieties of language?

  • How do these attitudes and ideologies have material effects on speakers of those varieties?


Line Up 1-10! This activity we adapted from another SKILLS instructor, Huay Chen-Wu. We asked students to physically line up according to how much they agree or disagree with a statement (1 being total disagreement and 10 being total agreement). A paper with the number 1 was posted on one side of the classroom and a 10 on the opposite wall. Statements included:

  • It is important to speak “correctly”

  • People who use bad grammar might not be intelligent

  • You shouldn’t use acronyms in emails like ur or lol

  • I make sure every text or message I send has proper punctuation

  • I hate when people spell their, there, they’re or you’re and your wrong

  • The traditional rules of speaking are the correct ones

  • Some languages, varieties, words, and ways of speaking are only appropriate in some settings (e.g. no slang at school).

  • If you want to learn to speak a language well you should know the grammar rules

  • If you want to learn to speak a language well you should listen to how speakers of that language use it

  • I should be able to say whatever I want however I want whenever I want to

This 1-10 activity helped inform our discussion on linguistic prescriptivism and descriptivism and eventually ideologies of appropriateness.

Create a Linguistic Landscape! Start by looking at examples together and discussing. Wikipedia has several. Instructions: Walk around your school or community taking photos of any visible language. Choose a few of your favorites that are from roughly the same area to be the focus of this project. Create a google slide with your name and include the images you choose. On separate slides, answer the following questions: Where were the photos taken? What language varieties were used? What do you notice about the presentation of the languages? What are the differences in color, font, placement size? What materials were used? Who wrote the text? Who was it written for? What do your pictures and responses to the questions above tell you about the history of that language in that location? What does this mean about the status of different languages in that area? Here's one example with the student's name removed. They took their pictures at the local zoo. These landscapes informed our discussion of language status and how certain languages/varieties became dominant in these spaces and how they're connected to histories of colonization.

Additional Resouces:

Poem "Broken/English" by Bao Phi. (Thank you Dr. Terry Park for sharing!) -- We asked students to consider the title and think about what is actually broken (hint: it's not our language!)

Week 6 + 7 - Linguistic Justice

  • What is linguistic discrimination?

  • What is linguistic justice?


Freewrite! We used this prompt from the Twitter campaign #LanguageIsAVerb hosted by TESOL B-MEIS and the inspirational Dr. Clara Vaz Bauler. Students were very open about their experiences and we used this prompt as a springboard to discuss linguistic justice (next).

Propose a linguistic justice effort! We started by watching the interview with Dr. April Baker-Bell linked below. Then our three undergraduate teaching assistants gave presentations on different language justice projects they were involved in-- they were incredible! Students loved hearing from undergraduates for a change. We then asked students to brainstorm their own linguistic justice efforts. The handout students were asked to fill out is attached.

SKILLS Assignment #2_ Language Justice Proposal
Download PDF • 48KB

Here's an issue one student wanted to tackle in their proposal:

A lot of the proposed efforts included changes to educational structures, raising awareness, but perhaps most importantly, changing the way people think about language!

Additional Resources:

Interview with Dr. April Baker-Bell on "How Black youth experience linguistic racism" We asked students to listen for a "Golden Line" -- a line that sticks out to them because it is powerful, memorable, or because it inspires new questions for them.


Upcoming weeks focus on language and race, language and gender, language and identity, and then finally a few weeks dedicated to students' designing and conducting their own language-based research projects! Stay tuned!

Thank you again for reading and please follow my co-teacher Cedar Brown on their twitter: @brown_cedar


Lee, J. S., Meier, V., Harris, S., Bucholtz, M., & Inés, D. (2020). School Kids Investigating Language in Life and Society: Growing Pains in Creating Dialogic Learning Opportunities. In Reconceptualizing the Role of Critical Dialogue in American Classrooms (pp. 52-77). Routledge.

Martínez, R. A., & Mejía, A. F. (2020). Looking closely and listening carefully: A sociocultural approach to understanding the complexity of Latina/o/x students’ everyday language. Theory Into Practice, 59(1), 53-63.


bottom of page