In the Classroom: Dealing with Difficult Language

As a longtime 4th grade teacher there are times when racist language appears in our classroom work. Each time I try to educate my students, but in a way that doesn’t seem hectoring, no easy task. For I think it is a fine line we teachers walk — while most of the kids may well take in all that we say, others may be quietly dismissive and go away with the opposite thought.  And I try to keep in mind that what might be horrifying to me because of the history and knowledge I bring to a word, may not be for my young students. I try to consider that even those words that shock me the most may not do the same to my students.  That said, there are certain words I cannot say and I avoid books and work that include them. But sometimes they appear unexpectedly and then there are others, somewhat arguably less charged that also occasionally appear. And I think carefully about those kids and how best to make them aware in a way that helps them throughout their lives.

I’ve been thinking about this because of the conversation over at Betsy Bird’s post about older books that include racist elements and even more so this post by Matt Tavares about his decision to take out a highly racist word in a new edition of his book, Henry Aaron’s Dream.  Because of my classroom experiences I think Matt’s decision is the right one,  discomforting though it is. Here’s my comment on his blog post:

I’m a longtime classroom teacher (31 years at my present school, most of them with 4th graders) and think this is the right decision even as uncomfortable as I am going that way. So kudos to you and Candlewick for making this hard choice.

For me, it isn’t only about the book not getting into its audience hands, but that kids in their own world do take language and own it for themselves and sometimes that can be in extremely hurtful ways. We may not like thinking this, but it can and does happen. The audience for this book is a young one and not yet at the developmental place where they are able to unpack the history around that word (as I would hope those teaching Huckleberry Finn to much older young people would do). And so putting it in may not have them understanding your book as well as you would want.

You might be interested, if you don’t already know it, of the book Desmond and the Very Mean Word — also, it so happens a Candlewick title. I’ve read that to my class and they focus on the result of the word and are fine not knowing what it was.

I really think that we need to be honest about the realities of young children — think hard about what they take in and don’t. Keep in mind where they are developmentally. Additionally, every child’s situation is different — some may know a lot and some may not know so much.

I’ve been faulted for sanitizing the harsher aspects of the Amistad story in my book, but I stand by my choices. Like Matt, I want the story to be known, especially for younger children. Here’s my thinking (in the source notes) about that:

There is no record of Margru’s firsthand description of her voyage from Africa to Cuba. Based on the many other accounts available I can only guess at its dreadfulness and feel it would be presumptuous of me to write about it in detail.  My father, a Holocaust survivor, was not able to talk about certain things and so I imagined that Margru could not either.  I also did not want to frighten the relatively young child audience I have in mind for this book and so tried to communicate the horror without the specifics.

If we want younger readers to know harsh stuff we need to think hard about them, to consider just where they are on their life journeys, what they know and don’t, and what they bring or don’t bring to their encounters with books. Matt, it was a hard decision, but I think you are absolutely right.

3 Comments

Filed under In the Classroom

3 responses to “In the Classroom: Dealing with Difficult Language

  1. Melissa Karter

    Dear Monica
    I am a reading specialist and I teach K through 4. I particularly liked your comment about those kids who quietly dismiss and note to themselves to go the other way. If only most of our classes were filled with those children with rich inner dialogues. For those kids who lack such dialogues, it is so important to model what their comments make us think so that they can change them. I believe it our duty as teachers to use that teachable moment to hopefully build an awareness of how harmful our comments can be.
    You also bring up another issue about how a word our students use may have different, less harmful, connotations in their generation. I agree but I also think that many fourth graders are ready to understand that they need to think of their audience when they speak. They need to at least start to think about how their words will affect different generations.
    Thank you for your inspiring blog. I read everything you write!
    Sincerely,
    Melissa Karter

    Like

  2. Melissa Karter

    Oops I just reread and realized I misinterpreted your words. You are concerned about your students being quietly dismissive of YOUR good words! Rereading is so important!

    Like

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