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Language is an Equity Issue

Someplace in America today, a kid will have been sent to the office for offensive language.  He or she will be outside of the classroom for ten or more minutes.  Learning time will be lost. Perhaps the child will have told a teacher or classmate to shut the @#Q$ up or dropped swear words in the hallway. Or maybe a teacher will be distracted because of a cultural spelling; a baseball jersey with last name Fukodome, or a Rick and Morty reference. Both the child and/or the teacher will be upset, and the rest of the day will be emotionally charged as a result.

Is this a symptom of trauma? Often. A behavior issue? Sometimes. But removing a kid from the classroom for language alone is something we need to deal with in schools as a social justice and equity issue.

My Own Note: These conversations are emotionally charged, because they address diversity, societal values, and teacher expectations in the context of discipline and classroom management,  Only when we see the problem clearly can we have honest conversations about how language is needlessly used to isolate students from the learning process.

Diversity Factors: Consider the average teacher, with up to 30 kids in a classroom. Regardless of the educator, some numbers stand out. More than four out of every five teachers are white, and three out of every four teachers are female. That doesn’t align with America’s student population, where almost 50% of public school students are people of color. And that diversity of culture has verbal and nonverbal language expression. That's a disconnect on many levels.

Societal Values: An examination of social media shows that family language standards have shifted. Daily, more than 2.6 million f-bombs are dropped into popular social sites. That doesn’t include use of hashtag references like #wtf, or websites that have conventional swear words embedded into the URL. While the FCC regulates public airwaves for speech and indecency, we live in a world dominated by cable and digital subscriptions, where community language is not regulated. Music of all types regularly references sexual activity, language, and violence, many of which are explicit and can influence our students. Teachers  know this, but it's uncommon to have this frank conversation with students.  Teachers often set the expectations for language in the classroom without student input, and students find themselves wondering why its a big deal when the rest of society uses a particular phrase.

Teacher Expectations: Crude or vulgar language, say many educators, is unacceptable in such a setting as school, and will be unacceptable in the work world. Such language threatens safe environments, as students (or teachers) who do not experience such language at home don’t feel safe with angry outbursts. While these may be valid points, they pale in comparison to issues that many of our children have to deal with, including food insecurity and basic need. Students, the argument goes, must match their actions and their words, to the time and place where they are at. Often, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is referenced in these discussions.  This is where I often raise an crunchy question:

But whose needs are we speaking about? Who really is the uncomfortable individual in the typical classroom?

It’s an difficult discussion, but one that needs to happen in schools.  Why? Because such expectations often end with the student with the language issue in a seat outside of the administrative or discipline office. Statistically, that child is more likely to be male, and more likely to be a child of color. And each minute outside of the classroom is a concern for those students.

As an educator trying to walk-the-talk with social justice issues, how can I respond to such a destructive lose-lose dynamic?  This is a critical question that I have been struggling with the past several years.  Ultimately, it stems from my belief that all students can learn, but that will happen in different ways.  How can ALL students learn if ALL students don’t have equal access to the material being taught?

 

There are no magic answer here, but this is a crucial conversation to have with your team. Here are some follow-up questions I believe are worth considering:

 

1.    How often do deferred consequences get used in your classroom? Making decisions when we are calm is always a better choice than when students are using inappropriate language. "Maybe you could make another language choice," “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or “Go ahead and have a seat and join us in the conversation when you are calm,” can provide a student a way to save face, remain in the classroom, and not escalate into a power struggle. Then the conversation about the underlying issue can happen during guided practice, or at the end of the period.  Note that this is not an invitation to violence or swearing at other students, but an acknowledgment that language is an expression of feeling in a moment in time, and the teacher has ways to let the commentary of the language not stop the learning process.

2.    How do you let students express themselves in a meaningful way in your classroom?  Being able to be authentic in times of stress with your students without pulling out power structures can be tough. Starting classes with a journal or drawing time can combine teacher content areas with the need for expression. Having a emotion journal (kept in a teacher’s room or student work folder, but private for the student) and a content journal allows kids to have choice in expression and helps them gain control. 

3.     How can we use verbal and body language as a communication tool, rather than a weapon? In a world filled with power-struggles, and systems of misbehavior and anger, how can we use verbal and non-verbal language as a tool to respect our students? If a student has continual anger, defiance and resentment in a classroom, it is a difficult but necessary piece to ask ourselves if we are respectful and building relationship with that student, or if our own frustration has gotten in the way.  Fear and anger can mean that  we are unconsciously in defensive stances before an issue exists.

4.    What training or toolkits do we need to help us refocus the conversation? Teachers cannot control their students, but they can provide them with tools to refocus and recommit to the learning. Information about trauma, ACES, poverty, and non-behavioristic systems of discipline like restorative discipline or logical consequences are critical in helping teachers.

5.    What recovery structures and policies are in place to help students learn the content in a non-punitive way? This is a critical piece of the building puzzle.  We do want a safe environment for all students, and that includes a supportive piece for those students who are too angry at a particular moment to be in a classroom.

Perhaps language, whether verbal or non-verbal is not the issue at your school.  But we all have students who need to be aceepted right where they are, regardless of language. Listening to the yearning and need behind the words my students offer in the classroom is a critical part of the equity part of this conversation.

 

1 Comment

Tricia Ebner commented on October 20, 2017 at 6:55am:

Food for thought

This makes so much sense. Of course language is an equity issue. If what I hear at home routinely doesn't match the kind of vocaublary I'm expected to use at school, then immediately, there is a layer of tension and expectation placed on me that may not be on my classmates, who don't have that kind of situation themselves. 

I love the question about who is really uncomfortable in the typical classroom. If we all took a moment to consider that and then share with each other, in an honest, open dialogue, what steps could we take to do better, be more inclusive, less punitive? 

What are ways educators have addressed these issues already? I would love to hear some stories about this. 

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