When washing their mouths out with soap isn’t an option.
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Forget the soap
I believe that the use of profanity is an issue that teachers should tackle. Why? First, many swear words have a derogatory history. Even if students don’t know this history, they are engaging in forces of discrimination and oppression. Second, students need to understand the words they use and strive to achieve new levels of complexity in their language. I’ve realized the occasional F-bomb gets my point across in certain situations but realize there are more sophisticated and appropriate ways of expressing myself. If students believe that they are using adult language, they may not push themselves to develop superior modes of expression. As this NPR story points out, children use profanity because they are trying to adopt adult modes of communication and behavior – they are trying to push themselves out of childhood and into adulthood. As a normal part of language acquisition, children pick up these words from parents, peers, and the media.
Third, students need to understand swearing disrupts professional environments. Students should understand that how they address peers on the playground and on the bus may not be appropriate for all social situations. Linguists call this code switching. Successful adults know how to change their manner of speech when necessary. The syntax, grammar, and content of my speech that I use to speak to a dartboard competitor at a sports bar are different than what I would use to communicate with my students.
Here are a few innovative ways that teachers can educate students about the power of their own words:
After overhearing a derogatory phrase or profanity, educate students about why the terms are inappropriate. Many teachers just tell students “DON’T DO THAT!!!” instead of creating a learning experience. Students need to understand the history of the word from a linguistic and social perspective. How has the word been used in the past? Has the meaning changed over time? How do students use the word now?
Then, the analysis needs to go a step further – students need to understand how their use of the word connects to history. Are they promoting values of respect and social justice when they use those words? How might certain ethnic, cultural, and social groups react? On a simpler level – is it ‘nice’ or ‘mean’ to use those words?
Students need to feel like they have control over the language they use. After students learn about the history of a word and the social implications of using the word, the whole class should make an agreement that the word will not be used. Older/more advanced students can discuss the merits of using the word in art, literature, or pop culture.
There are many ways to integrate these ideas into the classroom – the discussions would look different in a middle school and a high school classroom. Maybe you have students make wordless posters about the word or how people feel when they hear the word. If you are reading controversial material that uses profanity and derogatory language (Joyce, Twain, slavery/Jim Crow narratives, the history of the Holocaust, etc) you can discuss these words as they appear in the material and debate whether or not they should be used in that way.
The key is to give students the information that they need to make better choices. This will not work in all cases – there will always be students who choose to use profanity and derogatory language. If students understand the negative history of a word (its relationship to slavery, oppression, the Holocaust, etc), maybe they will be less likely to throw it around in daily conversation. Also, students need to feel like they have a personal stake in the learning environment and understand the power that their words have on others.
Teachers should clarify policies with administrators before they tackle profanity in the classroom – are teachers aloud to teach material that has profanity? Can a teacher utter profanity in certain education contexts? Are permission slips required for these experiences?
If teachers create an environment where profanity is not an issue, we can focus on the development of sophisticated language skills.
Here are a few links:
“Ghetto” – The New “N Word”: Harold M. Clemens that argues that the word “ghetto” perpetuates racism.
Written by TeacherC
3 June 2008 at 11:49 pm
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