Saturday, October 8, 2016

Unpacking Casual Offenses In Class

"You're such a bitch," T said to another male student in class.

"What was that?" I asked.

"Nothing. I just called him a girl," T said.

"First, you said 'bitch' but lets just put aside, and talk about the fact that you equated being a bitch, an animal, not a human, to being a girl. So girls aren't people?"

"No. I didn't mean that. I just meant, you know, he's like a girl."

"Let's unpack that."

Several students perked up. They'd seen this happen before. They'd seen people called out on casually offensive statements.

"How many girls in here take gymnastics?" I asked. A few hands. "How many girls in here swim competitively?" A few hands. "Ballet?" A few more. "Field hockey? A bunch of hands. "Soccer? Basketball?"A bunch more. "Okay, I almost forgot Jillani - you're a mixed martial artist, right. So that's one for MMA. How many of you have gotten a concussion, a sprain, or a broken bone?" Almost all the girls in the class raised their hands. "How many of you quit because of one of those injuries?" No hands.

Throughout the survey T slowly realized my purpose and went from a wide grin to an eventual look of embarrassment. "So T, when you called your friend a girl did you mean extremely competitive, tough, and athletic? You understand what I mean?"

"Yeah Mr. Andree."

"Okay," I said. "I knew you just didn't realize what you were saying."

It has been a very disturbing couple of years as a teacher as the tone in the country has become very casual with open racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry - especially as it bleeds into the classroom. Students have become very bold not only in these beliefs, but in bringing their ignorance and bigotry into classroom discussions.

When I first started teaching and I heard a student make an offensive or off-color comment, most much worse than the above example, my responses were very different: "knock it off guys" or "I don't want to hear that kind of talk" or "step in the hall for a minute so I can talk to you privately" or something equally ineffective that didn't stop the problem.

The problem was that kids were saying things that they didn't think were particularly problematic, or offensive, and I didn't do anything to make them understand. The only thing they understood was that there were particular words or phrases that I didn't want to hear in class, but not why I didn't want them said. To them it wasn't a big deal.

But what I discovered was that if I didn't silence the person, and instead asked some questions, talked their comment through, then extended their joking metaphor to a point they never intended, or more to the point, didn't understand they were making -- those kids that made the "joke" realized that their punchline wasn't funny. Through that unpacking they realized why I didn't want them to say those things, and what they were actually saying. Furthermore, the rest of my students in class understood too. I didn't need to have that conversation with thirty kids. Just a few. And the jokes for the most part stopped. It wasn't about shaming someone, but helping that student, and all students in the class understand why something is an issue.

"So you mean that he's attracted to people of the same sex?"

"No, I just meant what he said was stupid."

"Oh, I get it gay means stupid, because gay people are stupid, because they aren't straight."

"No, I just meant that it was stupid. Not about real gay people."

"But you need to understand that what you're actually saying is that if gay = stupid, then you're sending the message to gay people that there's something wrong with them. That they aren't accepted here. You know we have LGBTIA kids in this class, right? Some are open about it, some aren't."

"I didn't mean that."

"I know, but it's what you said."

"What's I and A stand for?"

And the conversation continued, but I never had to mention the problem of using the word gay to mean stupid in that class for the rest of the year.

When I have these small interventions I never attack the perpetrator, or even have anger in my voice. For the most part the students don't mean any harm, so it's our job to make sure they understand when they cause harm, even inadvertently. We can't just say, "that's inappropriate" or "I don't want that kind of talk in my class." We need to help students understand why we not only don't want that talk in our class, but in the halls, or on the bus, or for them to use it anywhere.

Of course this isn't the end all to casual sexism, racism, and all the other various isms of prejudice. There must also be a curriculum that supports students seeing the importance of other people's identities, and working to ensure the social justice every person deserves. But since I started this intervention strategy, this unpacking, of offhand comments it's common to hear kids policing themselves in the halls, and even having a sort of fun with it -- thinking about the vocabulary and metaphors they use, the unintended meanings, and how damaging their words can be, but also powerful their words can be when they speak up and call friends on their casual offenses.