This week it seems the opportunity to discuss language be it written, read or spoken, and the power that comes with it has popped up many times in class.
My students came in at the end of Wednesday for their last period class after a long weekend and were very excited to talk about the fact that Don Cherry was fired over comments that many perceived as racist others claimed xenophobic and at the very least ignorant regarding immigrants to Canada while on National Television. One of my students proclaimed that he shouldn’t have been fired because of Freedom of Speech so we addressed myth number one.
Freedom of Speech does not equal Freedom from Consequence.
Because my class was not so much up in arms about his racist comments, that I challenged next, as they were his “rights” being violated I want to discuss that first. I think as teachers we are doing kids a disservice by promoting this idea of Freedom of Speech over all things. The amount of times that a student makes a rude remark, a racist or homophobic remark and when corrected claim Freedom of Speech would be hard to keep track of. This week alone I have heard it multiple times. This time I decided we needed to take a step back and discuss. It was helpful that their Social Studies teacher told them to ask me my opinion on this topic. When it first came up I told them it didn’t matter what I thought about Don Cherry personally but that we need to look at the power language holds. That as a language arts teacher I love it so much because of the power words have to make us better, to fill us up, to feel. The power stories have to make us connect. But I followed with the power words have to do harm. Spoken aloud words that tear us down stick, they erase the proceeding words that may have been great because the stain of the offensive, harmful words distract us from the rest. On reflection I remembered last week as a students gave a fantastic book talk in class, he was animated, the class was into it. As he wrapped up he said to the class, “If you don’t read this book (dramatic pause) well you are gay” My immediate reaction was shocked, students gasped and I took the moment to discuss why this was not ok. That using calling people gay as a way to knock them down was not only inappropriate but it was offensive. He recognized his mistake and we discussed how his choice of language distracted from an otherwise great book talk. I still struggle with how to address the use of racially insensitive comments in class and even racist terms being used with as the kids say “permission” from their non-white friends. It is a constant discussion but I am hopeful that they will see how damaging and harmful these words and this language can be. Even yesterday I spent the last moments of the day explaining to a student why it was not appropriate to refer to another students culture as “your people” when discussing a restaurant. While these might not be big moments they are teachable ones.
We need to raise awareness to create change
Yesterday and well every day I see teachers, mostly white, refer to their friend group on Twitter as their “Tribe”. Every day I see IBPOC educators doing the work correcting this word use. Requesting that another word is used as Tribe has significant meaning in their culture and would rather it not be thrown around. Often those asking this simply request are met with aggression. I am always disappointed when I see this display of whiteness so deep that we can’t even admit that perhaps a cute instagram post about your “Tribe” with some cute clip art hold more value to you than the human being asking you to respect their culture. The idea of “when we know better, do better” made famous by Maya Angelou (not some Social media post attached as a hashtag) is one I try to live by. I use to joke about someone who has inspired me being my Spirit Animal, I think at the time I claimed it was Carol from The Walking Dead. I had multiple folx call me out in this as insensitive to first nations people and the suggestion was made to self edit and use Patronus from Harry Potter instead. It was an easy adjustment that was followed by an apology for my initial missteps. Last week while writing a student asked me to read through an initial draft. We sat down and I began reading. At one point he referred to a character in his story as disabled. I asked him where he was planning to go with the character and why “disabled” he said it was because the character was really annoying so, you know, disabled. I asked them if they understood what ableism was. How discriminating against disabled people by using disability to describe a character in a negative way was something they needed to change. Their attempts to self edit became all just more examples of the same. You can I am sure imagine the words. We talked about representation we discussed a need for compassion and how our word choice matters. I am hopeful as I prepare to look at finished drafts that this problematic wording was removed.
The power in words.
I discussed with my kids why words hold so much power. We talked about the transformative experience both fiction and non-fiction work can have if we are open to being changed by them. I always go back to Kylene Beers on this. Reading should change us. It should teach us. It should help us grow. My students are still developing an appreciation for the world around them. They are still working to understand the power of language. I am still learning it too. I am grateful for all the examples I have that help me to see the power of words. As I sit on a Saturday watching Disney + writing and planning I am preparing to start some book clubs. My students are going to jump in and explore amazing characters and beautiful words crafted by authors of all different backgrounds. The idea to reach beyond where we are and move to something more empathetic, more accepting, more inclusive.
Words have the power to do that.