“You can do an awful lot of damage with a handful or words. Destroy a friendship. End a marriage. Start a war. Some words can break you to pieces.
But that’s not all. Words can be beautiful. They can make you feel things you’ve never felt before.”
– John David Anderson, Posted
At the beginning of this school year, my 8th graders read a story from the book Flying Lessons & Other Stories, a collection of diverse short stories for teens edited by Ellen Oh, co-founder of We Need Diverse Books. Since it was our first piece of literature to read together, I gave my “No Hate Speech” speech to all my classes; basically saying that in this class, we will read stories about people who identify in many different ways and that reading about someone different from themselves is just that – reading – so no derogatory comments, noises, or gestures would be tolerated. They all nodded, and we read, learned, and enjoyed the story in peace. At the end of one class, a student stopped by my desk and said, “Ms., what you said about hate speech – that was cool. Thanks.”
Later, as my classes worked together to come up with our social contracts (an agreement on behavior between students and teachers), I added my No Hate Speech clause again. One student asked, “Ms., why do you keep saying that?” I explained that although most middle school students don’t mean to be hateful, they often use words meant to describe certain groups of people to insult each other (even in jest), and that we have to be aware of how those words can be hurtful and make an effort to not use them. I gave examples, we discussed why certain words used as insults would be harmful to certain people, and my students learned.
During independent reading time, one student approached me in between reading conferences to show me a page from the book she checked out from our school library. “Ms., what should I do about these words?” she asked, pointing to a few curse words on the page. Confused, I asked her what she meant. “I mean, do I just not read them? Like, skip over them?” she clarified. It took all I had in me not to laugh – she was asking me if she should censor her own SILENT reading. IN HER MIND. Hiding my smile, I told her if she is uncomfortable with what she’s reading, or if her parents are uncomfortable, she is welcome to pick a new book, but that I will never tell her what she should or shouldn’t read; that is her choice. Surprise showing in her eyes, she chose to keep reading the book.
During Open House Night, I pulled aside the parents of one student and shared my concern that he wasn’t bringing a book to school each day to read, and he had nearly refused to check one out from the library or from my classroom library. I explained to his parents the importance of having a book to read in class every day. My student’s father then told me that his son is reading a book at home, but they had not allowed him to take it to school for fear it would be confiscated due to its inappropriateness. My interest piqued, I asked the title of the book. “The Shining, by Stephen King,” the father said. I nodded, then told him his son is welcome to bring the book to school, assured him it would not be confiscated, and the only “inappropriate” book for his son is the one he and/or his son are not ready to read. The Shining showed up with my student at school the next day.
When sharing beautiful words (a Book Love by Penny Kittle strategy) in our books on Fridays, one student wanted to share, who was reading Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete, but said he didn’t think it was appropriate to read aloud because the poem was about racism. I encouraged him, and told him any book that is available in our school library is appropriate to read aloud, even if it is about a difficult topic. A few gasps erupted throughout the room – I mean, the white teacher just said it’s okay to read aloud about racism – and the student shared Tupac’s beautiful words with the class.
On the first day of school, after I explained my classroom library checkout system and the students were book shopping, one of my PreAP students, a black girl, saw Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give on my shelf. She squealed and said, “OMG, Ms., you have this book!? I love this book! This book is about black people and what we go through!” So I showed her some similar books. Her arms full, she said, “I can’t believe you have all these books about black people! Teachers never have these books! I can really check them out? Like, for real?” I told her yes, and she plopped down on the floor to look through the stack, taking home three titles that very day.
I tell these stories, not for ally cookies (please don’t), but because it is so surprising to me that THEY were all so surprised. Students, and parents, were all surprised that I would openly discuss hate speech, let kids read books they brought from home or checked out from our own school library, make diverse books accessible to students, and allow students to read aloud about difficult topics. Inclusivity and acceptance are, unfortunately in our world, surprising. As Banned Books Week kicks off, I’ll be talking to my students about how Words Have Power. I hope that, all school year, I can convey to them the importance of words, the ones we shouldn’t say in hate, and the ones we should even when they’re difficult.
What banned, powerful, beautiful words will you share with students this week?