Code Switching

Code Switching

In Question Bridge’s video on code switching, a participant asks if other black males had to change who they were to be successful. His question stems from the idea that certain spaces, such as universities or business offices, compel individuals to behave and interact in a certain way, and in order to succeed, individuals—black males, in particular—give up some aspect of who they are.

Responses to this question echo concepts from the Individual Condition—who we are changes over time and depends on our environment. Participants responding to the question encourage rethinking the idea of self-change. When people change, they are not necessarily taking away who they are but rather are adapting, adding layers to themselves. By experiencing new environments and pushing themselves to grow, individuals can acquire more tools for navigating the world successfully.

Discover ideas for using the Prism.K12 strategies to develop interdisciplinary activities in the section below, and explore Question Bridge’s educator resources for additional content on Code Switching.

Using the Prism.K12 Strategies

As one participant explains, the “evolution” of an individual adapting to new situations should not be viewed negatively. Only by adapting new skills, words, and ways of being—i.e. “codes”—can we succeed in a variety of environments.

Through the activity in he section below, students will identify different scenarios in which code switching might happen and learn to empathize by considering the context. Students may also synthesize their understanding of code switching through an art-making exercise.

In the Classroom

This activity combines writing and acting to help students identify when a character might code switch in different scenarios and roles, as well as to empathize with that character to discover why the code switching happens. Ultimately, students will synthesize their understanding of code switching by creating self-portraits.

While success can look different depending on the individual, most environments and roles within those environments come with a set of norms, or “codes,” that people use to adapt in order to be successful within that environment.

Decide on two or three real-world scenarios that students will act out, for example, an office setting, a family reunion, or a sports event.

Next, have students identify roles for each scenario and write out a short script—for example, the office scenario may have an administrative assistant, CEO, job applicant, other applicants, and cleaning staff.

Once the roles have been decided on, assign students to each role. The students should consider who their characters are, decide on names and backgrounds for their characters, and even select clothing or accessories that help define or identify their characters. They will then act out the scenario in front of the rest of the class. Next, have the students act as the same characters but in a new scenario.

After the scenarios have played out, ask the class to identify ways in which the characters’ behavior or demeanor changed as they interacted with one another. Did they act differently towards the CEO than they did the administrative assistant? What kinds of conversation did they have with the other applicants compared to the conversation they had with the cleaning staff? How were the characters different in a new scenario? Did they use slang in some situations, but not in others? Why?

Students may synthesize their understanding of code switching by considering ways in which they do in their lives. Have students create two self-portraits that represent different roles they play in their own lives, for instance, football player/big brother or artist/math scholar.