In Defense of Student Profanity in the Classroom

I’ll be the first to admit that classroom profanity is an issue that most likely impacts me more poignantly than the average high school teacher, as I work in a private Christian school. The contemporary Christian tradition frowns fairly heavily on profanity in most if not all contexts. And, to be fair, I appreciate the intense thought and care that goes into the way my school approaches some aspects of language as a result of this sensitivity to profanity. However, I’d like to take a moment to assert my very deep and passionate belief in the importance of creating educational spaces that allow and perhaps even invite student experiences and interactions with profanity.

The tough thing about unilaterally barring classroom profanity is that profanity is a delightfully and infinitely complicated and nuanced entity. It can encompass certain words that are considered taboo or inappropriate, or it can more generally refer to concepts or ideas that shouldn’t be discussed per cultural norms. Some profanity, particularly racial epithets, can be taboo without technically counting as swears. All profanity is highly cultural. As this BBC article points out, there are curse words in some languages that quite simply don’t exist in others or invoke none of the shock value. The reality is that none of these words carry intrinsic, profane meaning; they are only loaded with the cultural value that we have charged them with. The whole idea of profanity is fundamentally subjective, which means that it’s going to be a tough thing to take an objective attitude towards.

Because profanity is profoundly subjective, each educator has to decide for themselves how best to integrate it into their classroom. With that in mind, please allow me to propose just a few of my reasons for considering profanity an important and necessary presence in the composition classroom.


1 – Swearing is actually a high-order language device that requires a fair amount of skill and rhetorical awareness to wield well. I often hear protests in some way or another implying that those who swear are limited in their vocabulary or fluency. The belief here is that swearing is the poor man’s resort when no other course of action can be devised. In reality, as Emma Byrne points out, “swearing is often impressively strategic, and a fluency in crass language typically correlates with verbal fluency in general.” Whether to offend, amuse, empathize, or express deep pain, swearing is a very complicated tool relying on highly nuanced linguistic and social skills. An effort to give students flexibility and fluency with communication through language should, at the very least, expose them to the wealth of linguistic and cultural power harnessed through profanity.

2 – Swearing is a powerful tool for expressing pain. Curse words are intensely expressive and cathartic. When teaching our students how words can be used to emote effectively, I’m not sure how one can entirely overlook profanity. Richard Stephens of Keele University conducted a study that suggests that individuals can withstand more physical pain when swearing than when not, pointing to the power that swearing has with regards to human suffering. I teach my students to use their words to express and release emotion. For some students, giving them the option of using profanity to do that can be extremely meaningful. It is equally if not more important for my students to understand this power in profane words used by people around them. This is an important element of empathy and hearing the pain of others through their words.

3 – Profanity is already saturating their existences. It feels a little like denial to me to avoid student profanity in the classroom. Our students are immersed in profanity constantly. I feel negligent when I choose not to equip them with the experience, tools, and awareness they need to meaningfully process the roles and uses of profanity in their environment and to exert the control they need to make kind and ethical choices with their words.

4 – I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the added complications surrounding swearing and gender. I am very conscious of the fact that women who swear often face a double standard. Societal expectations pressure women more than men into politeness, morality, and good behavior. While cultural stereotypes of male swearing usually suggest strength or rogue rebellion, female swearing is often perceived as distasteful, immoral, and unattractive. This is a manifestation of deeply problematic social standards, and, as a feminist who promotes female agency in my classroom, it is important for me to undermine this. My students should choose for themselves the role of profanity in their self expression, but their gender should not be the reason they do so.


Words matter. All words matter. My goal with my students is to teach them that their communication, with words and otherwise, needs to always be intentional, careful, and kind. Their purpose should never be to tear down those around them, but should only be to build goodness in a broken world. Words are one of the many tools we use to do this. It is my belief that profanity is a part of using and understanding the power of words. My students should know the power of profanity to devastate and dishonor, but also to connect, understand, and communicate.

Do I think my students should swear all the time? No. But not because swearing is bad. My students should be very conscious of whether or not they swear, when, where, and/or how they swear because profanity is powerful and prevalent. How they want to wield that power is outside of my control, but I’ll be damned if they’re going to head out into the world without some understanding of and experience with it.

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Checkology: A Tool for Teaching Media Literacy

Despite the common impression that high school students are tech-savvy and fluent in their digital media navigation skills, time and time again we see that this is not actually the case. Although the average high school student does spend an admittedly sizeable amount of time reading and writing in digital realms, they still remain in need of the same skills they were in need of before the dawn of the digital era: strategic and flexible reading and writing skills.

It is my belief that, as teachers of reading and writing, this is our responsibility. This is one of the most important, relevant, and enriching gifts we can impart to our students: how to wield the power of the internet wisely and ethically. The wide arrays of strategies, approaches, and ideologies for doing this can be daunting; however, I would like to use this blog post to call attention to a particular tool that I have found helpful in equipping students to navigate the resources of the online world in productive ways: Checkology. But before I get into the beauty of Checkology, allow me to explain the particular problem that Checkology attempts to address.

One of the larger subcategories of teaching digital and online literacy is educating students on how to insightfully and critically approach information presented to them through digital media and news sources. This can include Twitter, Facebook, news sites, blogs, advertisements, and a wide variety of online media compositions that are designed to have very specific impacts on their audiences. Sometimes that specific impact is honestly intended to inform; however students need to understand that, more often than not, informing an audience is not the only or not even the primary goal of online media sources. Very frequently these pieces are intended to persuade, sell, entertain, or accomplish things very different from strictly informing. And our students are, as it turns out, unable to tell the difference.

A recent study by Stanford university assessed middle school, high school, and college students’ ability to evaluate the credibility of information and data presented through a variety of forms of online media, and the results were concerning to put it mildly. The data from over 7,800 surveyed students over 12 different states showed that MOST students were unable to determine when online news sources were fake, intensely biased, or attempting to sell them products. Students did not know when or how to evaluate author credibility, bias, sponsorship, or a long list of factors that would impact how they should interpret an apparent fact or set of information. Articles by NPR and The Wall Street Journal elaborate on the results of this study more thoroughly, but suffice it to say that your average high school student is easy prey for a well-composed online piece that aims to manipulate them. If we want our students to be able to competently read and interpret the things they find on the internet, we’re going to have to take the time to teach them how.

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This is where Checkology comes in. Checkology is a creation of the News Literacy Project, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to working with educators and journalists to teach students “how to sort fact from fiction in the digital age.” It is essentially a FREE interactive platform for classroom use that walks students through a set of lessons geared towards effectively approaching the complicated world of media literacy. In Checkology’s own words, “It equips students with the tools to interpret the news and information that shape their lives so they can make informed decisions about what to believe, share and act on — and ultimately become active members of civic society.” The 12 lessons focus on topics such as identifying rhetorical goals in a piece, recognizing bias, understanding personalization algorithms and sponsored content, and a variety of other tools necessary to deconstruct media sources in insightful, meaningful ways.

The Checkology curriculum uses current and relevant examples from a wide variety of sources to demonstrate their points and give students opportunities to see the principles they are learning about at play in the real world. Users can purchase a premium model of the Checkology platform that includes additional resources and options; however, I was more than satisfied with the resources and lessons available through the free model. While I myself did not actually ask my students to use the checkology online program, I worked through the lessons myself, gathering materials and ideas to integrate into my already-existing unit.

And this year was undoubtedly my best year yet for media literacy. Throughout the course of the unit and our associated discussions, students said and asked things like:

  • NO WAY! And they do that on purpose??
  • Wait, so how do I really know when something is true?
  • I think I may have only been reading things I already agree with for basically my whole life.
  • I’m never reading anything without looking the author up on Twitter ever again.
  • Now I know what to say when my crazy aunt shares those insane articles on Facebook!

Students connected deeply and practically with the values involved in vetting their own online information sources, and I do believe that they will go on to be smarter, more effective members of society because of it. So Media Literacy remains a critically important topic to include in standard high school classrooms, and Checkology’s tools help make that an accessible and low-stress option for teachers everywhere. Check it out! And get your students ready to meet the onslaught of complicated media messaging head on.

The Best Kind of Assignment

In my humble opinion, the best kind of assignment is no assignment at all. Allow me to explain myself.

The most valuable kind of work a student can do is work that is voluntary, self-motivated, and unassigned. This is the kind of thing a student thinks of and pursues independently, just because they think it’s cool. Despite the elusive and difficult-to-quantify nature of uncoerced student productivity, it is unquestionably the richest, most meaningful work of all. Students learn and retain more by exercising their own creative and independent ideas than they will ever completing our imposed tasks and assessments. This self-propelled work is often the best use of everyone’s time.

The logistics of creating space and opportunity for this kind of work in the classroom, however, are incredibly tricky. The very idea requires a lot of careful planning and trust in students on the part of the classroom educator. It involves trimming down compulsory classroom work to the bare necessities so we have time and energy for intellectual play. It requires me to strategically cultivate attitudes of exploration and curiosity over time so my students are increasingly predisposed to come up with, recognize, and act on creative compositional impulses. Relationships between the students and myself and between the students themselves must be mentored into bringing about the kind of collaborative environment that naturally erupts into spontaneous acts of creation. It’s actually kind of exhausting, but, in my experience, TOTALLY worth it.

The central, anxious questions haunting my dreams as I try to design a classroom environment that invites voluntary work always go something like…

  • What if students choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration?
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly?
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits?
  • How do I grade this madness?

This is an adapted list, as the complete one is approximately 30 times as long; however, I have found that there are pretty practical, simple answers to these questions.

  • What if students just choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration? Some will. Others won’t. As time goes on, the number of students choosing to do nothing will dwindle as they observe their peers interested and engaged in really cool, individualized work. Some students choosing to do nothing with the space might actually just need space.
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly? What I often perceive as incorrect application of a skill or principle I’ve taught can, on closer inspection, just be a student’s very different take on what we are learning together. However, if the student genuinely struggled to understand what I was teaching, there is NO better learning opportunity than when underway in an applicable, interesting project. 
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits? My answer to this has been balance. I do not recommend doing away altogether with compulsory work that encourages students to stretch in all directions. I am however preparing my students for a world in which creativity, individual motivation, and ability to self-direct will probably get them a lot farther than any discrete content I have to teach them, so my classroom design needs to account for that.
  • How do I grade this madness? I grade effort, progress, and reflection. Have I watched the student struggle and overcome? Has the project evolved into something significantly more complex than the first draft? Can the student insightfully converse with me or peers on their intellectual process? It’s not scientific, but I find students rarely disagree with my final grades.

What I’ve learned while experimenting with this idea of creating space for students to act independently and then stepping back is this: when you invest in teaching your kids real world skills that are flexible, applicable, and multipurposed, they start doing really cool things just because they can. Teaching students how to flex their creative, activist, or design muscles can trigger a number of students to authentically desire to play with their newly discovered skills. We can and SHOULD stay up late at night designing strategic, well-integrated, and thoughtful assignments, but we also need to face the facts that the only people who can really create understanding and productivity in our students is our students themselves. So let’s do what we can to back them up!

 

A Defense of Classroom Tea Parties

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This whole thing started because I personally drink a lot of tea. And, since I’m usually brewing said tea in bulk, I often end up sharing the extra with whichever interested students are in my immediate vicinity. Over my time here at LCA, the classroom tea situation has evolved into something of a ritual. Particularly on days when we read and discuss together, we all get out our mugs, I boil the water, and we drink tea. Lots of tea.

I never meant for this to be a central or strategic feature of my classroom pedagogy; however, as time has gone on, I’ve discovered some hidden advantages to our classroom tea parties. As a colleague and I were discussing this somewhat bizarre classroom expectation that I have accidentally cultivated, I found myself reflecting on some of the ways in which a hot cup of tea can bring out the best in my kiddos. Am I looking for psuedo-pedagogical reasons to buy/brew/drink more tea? Yes. But hear me out.

  1. Holding a warm cup of tea and taking periodic sips gives nervous, fidgety students an outlet for some of their anxiety. Classroom discussions can be a genuinely overwhelming prospect for certain personality types. Oddly enough, I have found that handing an intimidated student a mug gives them something to steady their hands and to intermittently retreat behind, channeling their anxious energy.
  2. A sleepy student who is tired or has a tendency to disengage and nod off is much more likely to stay engaged and alert when they have a (lightly) caffeinated beverage to sample throughout the block.
  3. Sharing tea creates a classroom culture of community and care. Students feel known and connected when I make them tea. It cultivates trust and camaraderie between us, both of which are things I need from them in the work we do together.
  4. Even though taking the 3 minutes of classroom time to fill mugs doesn’t really detract from our overall time together, it communicates to students that I am not looking to rush them in the hopes of maximizing our productivity. It demonstrates that I care about their experience and process in my class. It invites them to lay the academic rigamarole aside for a block and just focus on what we like and what interests us.

I recognize that I am uniquely privileged to teach smaller classes that allow this tea time tradition. LCA classes tend to max out at around 18 kids, so it’s more feasible for me. I also don’t really mind doing the dishes somewhat regularly, although students usually do them for me throughout the day. We do sometimes break mugs or spill tea on books, but, if I’m being honest, that’s part of the fun. And it’s part of my process of modeling what it looks like to honestly enjoy literature, discussion, and collaborative discovery. So, bottoms up to classroom tea parties!

 

 

Playing with Padlet

My recent posts have centered almost exclusively around the looming demise of Storify. I swear I’ll move on from that soon, BUT I did want to write a post about the program I used to get me through one of my assignments this year that I usually use Storify for! I have since then discovered Wakelet, which I blogged about here and which I will most likely use for this particular assignment in the future, but I did get some interesting experience with a new option in the meantime.

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Created in 2012, Padlet has been around for awhile. I’d heard teachers talk about it, I’d seen demonstrations, and students had shown me some work they’d done using it, but I’d never actually used it. When I discovered that Storify was dying approximately 24 hours before the class in which I needed to use it, I shrugged and decided to give Padlet a try.

Padlet has been described quite accurately in my opinion as “an online virtual ‘bulletin’ board, where students and teachers can collaborate, reflect, share links and pictures, in a secure location.” Upon creating an account, users can set up a background using any color or image on which they can arrange the information they choose to curate. That information can either be imported using links to images, sites, social media accounts etc. OR it can be uploaded directly from your computer. The Padlet creator can then decide if they want their Padlet to be public or private and if they want to invite collaborators to contribute to the work.

For this assignment, students had to research and create a summary of the rhetorical situation surrounding a set of photos by a particular photographer as a pre-writing activity to an essay in which they read the photos.

Pros:
Padlet worked well for the students in that it was profoundly flexible. Unlike Storify, which featured a single, linear layout, Padlet is more open-ended. Students could arrange information and links in ways that were more spatially and visually diverse. This reflected their individual learning styles more accurately. The linear thinkers could choose a layout more similar to Storify, but some students chose layouts that more closely resembled word webs or flow charts. The visual nature of Padlet, much like Storify, prompted students to consider the way their visuals communicated the ethos of the photographer they were researching, engaging some unconscious multimodal thought. Also, much like Storify, the shareable nature of the information made it easy for students to collaborate and compare notes.

Cons:
As with all things in life, there were aspects that created difficulties. The open-ended nature of Padlet was overwhelming for some students, particularly those who were not as experienced in visual composition or those who did not have much background using digital apps. These students tended to shy away from thinking too deeply about the role of their information’s layout, which led several of them to simply throw information onto the board in a haphazard manner. For these students, a pre-determined linear layout would have been beneficial. The difficulty of learning an unfamiliar program was stressful for some students, although I believe that is an important process for them to experience safely and with my support.

Ultimately, while Padlet actually created more affordances and opportunities for some students, it was a little too free-form for others. Because of this, I will most likely use Wakelet for this assignment next time, but I MAY recommend Padlet to a few select students who I think it would be a good fit for.

Here are some examples of students who created what I consider to be really smart Padlets that served as their research hubs for the essays they went on to write:

  • Padlet on Sergey Ponomarev’s photos of Syrian refugees

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  • Padlet on Uriel Sinai’s photos of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake

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  • Padlet on Uriel Sinai’s photos of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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At the end of the day, if you give smart students cool tools, they’ll do smart and cool things with them. And Padlet is a cool tool to have in my set.

 

 

Teaching Composition as Activism in the Real World

My 10th graders and I just finished Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. To say that we loved the experience of working through it together is not only minimizing, it doesn’t capture the heartache and heaviness that we shared as we grappled with the reality of human suffering. We were moved by it.

When designing the unit we would use together, my goals echoed what I understand Wiesel’s to be, which is to push everyone, students included, to understand the critical weight their voices hold in the age-old battle against those who would oppress, consume, and destroy humanity. Following the publication of Wiesel’s memoir, his countless books, speeches, and essays all seem to focus on one central theme: what can we do to stand with and for those who suffer? In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel states clearly,

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

For me, the design of this unit had to strengthen critical thinking and composition skills while also honoring Wiesel’s legacy by asking students to engage personally and practically with issues of human suffering in the world around them. As it turns out, these two goals complement each other in beautiful ways.

The unit itself was a truly meaningful one to share together; however, where my students blew me away most was in the final assignment. The assignment, based on this one which I found from a fellow teacher’s blog, asked students to choose a current instance of human suffering and pain and then to use their composition skills to create artifacts that enacted change in the world around them to benefit those in pain as a result of the issue they had chosen. See the assignment statement below for what I gave them to work from.

As you can see from the assignment, the constraints were few. They had no rubrics. They had a high degree of choice. They had total control over how they implemented and pursued the choices they made. I was nervous that they would go rogue or use this as an opportunity to avoid work. They were nervous that I wouldn’t like what they did or that they wouldn’t get a good grade. We pushed through it, and, per usual, they stunned me into silence.

My beautiful, kind, clever, empathetic, and motivated students made this project their own. They chose a wide array of issues ranging from the faraway, like the drought in Somalia and the Syrian refugee crisis, to the local, diving into homelessness and sex trafficking in Boston. They built blogs, pamphlets, videos, sculptures, audio pieces, children’s books, and maps that informed, implored, and supported. Their creations traveled extensively within their communities, with letters being sent to local government officials, funds being raised within churches, information being shared with friend groups, and resources being distributed in all of these. Students created complex, strategic compositions with specific rhetorical goals that we then set loose into the real world to see how they performed.

Returning to my two initial goals, which were to build composition skills while making an impact on human suffering, I can see in retrospect that they are meant to walk hand in hand. When you give students a real reason to compose, and then you assure them that their compositions can make an impact, they rise to the circumstances. Using real-world activism to teach and explore composition not only gives students real-world experience with how their compositions can work, it shows them why good composition matters and how it can change the world around them.

I’ve compiled some shots of samples from different projects so you can see the smart and creative things students ran with. The gallery below has a variety of the visual pieces.

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The digital creations were no less impressive.

Some students made informational sites like…
– this one on South Sudan
this one on the persecuted Yazidis in Iraq
this one about the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar (complete with a Storify outlining the background of the conflict if you’re interested!).

Other students created videos like…
this one about working with children in rural Chinese schools
this one on the genocide in Darfur
this one on the persecuted Yazidis

Another student conducted first person interviews with individuals directly involved in combatting homelessness in Boston, two of which can be heard here and here.

Students made incredible use of social media, using Instagram to share artwork along with facts and links to organizations that can support those suffering OR using Twitter and Facebook to gather first hand accounts to compile into profiles. One student wanted to gauge the impact Planned Parenthood had had on those she was connected to, so she placed an open call for firsthand stories of experiences with and care received at Planned Parenthood. She received a wide variety of responses and was able to synthesize those into an audio/video presentation to her class.

I could go on, but I know I have gone on too long already. All I will say in conclusion is that correcting these projects has been one of the most wonderful and inspiring things I have ever done. Students used their developing composition skills to chip away at injustice, both in the world at large and in their own lives. In reflecting on this project, I take heart that the future of our world will be placed in pretty good hands.

All student work shared with permission.