Nuance and Nonsense – 7/31 #SOL2021

I’ve rewritten this sentence twenty times.

I often revel and am sustained by the incredible complexities of words taking great joy in teaching English to high school students. As lovers of books and words, teachers gather and talk and debate the merits of particular texts, own voices, whole class novels, literature circles, student choice reading, whole language, prescriptive grammar, and I could go on and on, but I won’t. Because that’s not my point.

My point involves an ethic of care about language use and a recent directive from my school board.

As teachers, as department heads, as leaders and thinkers, we deal in nuance regularly. We know that there is no meaning without context. We provide lessons on denotation and connotation of words, demonstrate the use of punctuation to invert or change the meaning of a sentence. So, I was at a loss for words when some responded with a low level of hostility (or, maybe it was just sarcasm and I read it wrong) to the directive against the use of racial slurs and epithets in the classroom. Someone mentioned “cancel culture”.

A group gathered virtually and I could tell from early posts to our Jamboard discussion that some teachers had not received the slideshow, had not read the FAQs from our Human Rights Coordinator, had not thought about our students and the trauma caused by the use of the n-word at school, in education. Ooph. I didn’t see this as a question of subtlety or nuance about the word. The evidence is clear and damning. If we really listen to our Black students and their experience with To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies in classrooms with White teachers, if we really believe them, then we wouldn’t teach them as we have done. It’s traumatic.

The ensuing discussion was just a blur of words. My mouth felt like it would explode, but I knew it would not end well nor promote understanding, so I did not unmute. Then Matt Dotzenroth spoke in a way which provided an interesting frame for considering the merits of texts in terms of equity and oppression, beyond the simplistic lens of specific words. He asked if the use of a slur or epithet does anything in the book “to advance the conversation” regarding equity. I like this, but want to add another question; does the teaching with the slur or epithet promote liberatory education?

There is nuance in teaching, and nonsense too. I can’t imagine that a whole book can be life changing and is fundamentally necessary to be human, yet simultaneously deny the impact of the word use within that text. That seems like nonsense to me. And, even as I write these words, I know there is a gifted teacher with the ability to teach the troublesome texts generating the critical thinking skills that dismantle White supremacy. But, since the vast majority of us are White, and until the vast majority of us are able, I think we should listen to our Black, Indigenous, Asian, LGBTQ+, and other students of colour who experience the impact of slurs and epithets.

Education should liberate so I want to language to live in books and poems and words of liberation.

9 thoughts on “Nuance and Nonsense – 7/31 #SOL2021

  1. Nuance-sense? 😁 For me this dual dynamic comes less from the texts themselves and the words they use and more from readers (or, often, non-readers) who make decisions about what conversations to hold. Listening, as you say, with our ears tuned for inclusion is a starting point.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I long for education to be a place of inclusion. I long as an educator to be accepted as normal for wanting such. Until then we fight on. Thank you for your fight and words. Your students are lucky to have you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Words. You know, I identify with you so strongly in your love for words, your faith for what they can do, your trust in their power. I read your post just after I finished writing (and re and re and rewriting) my own post about identity. For me, it’s a matter of wanting to get the words RIGHT, and at the same time knowing there will never be right words, or enough words. All that aside, it was powerful to read your thoughts on language in the classroom. It’s true that perhaps your colleagues are resentful of changes they need to make, I’m grateful – and actually, I’m guessing your STUDENTS are grateful – that you are open to reconsideration, to nuance, to evolution. Beautiful post.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! And for myself, I’ve also had to give up the ideal of getting it right. Because I mess up. A LOT. At one point, I had a t-shirt that read, “I’ll make better mistakes tomorrow.” For me, that kind of sums it up…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Y th here is nonsense in education, and thinking a kid can’t live a full life w/out reading TKAM is nonsense. I’m both angry and sad so many educators think it’s cancel culture to ask white teachers to stop traumatizing students.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “He asked if the use of a slur or epithet does anything in the book “to advance the conversation” regarding equity. I like this, but want to add another question; does the teaching with the slur or epithet promote liberatory education?”

    Sadly, what I’ve found is that people who tend to worry about “cancel culture” don’t really care about advancing the conversation around equity or promoting liberatory education. I was watching a podcast recently talking about the outrage over the so-called “canceling” of Dr. Seuss. The host said that these people (people who are mad that a few Dr. Seuss books won’t be published.) will never say, “Here’s the image and here’s why our kids need to see this.” This made me think, what would our colleagues say if we asked them, “Why do you think it’s important for our kids to read this racial slur or see these racist images?”

    I’m so glad I read your post this morning. It’s an important issue we need to continue to to talk about. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also notice people who call it “cancel culture” hold white privilege. People have known that the images in Dr. Seuss are racist for a long time, and I’m surprised that it’s taken so long. Thanks for reading!


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