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.