Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

What's up folks. I'm coming to you with some thoughts on checking language practices. Sometimes we talk about the importance of relationships and part of developing relationships with our students is the way that we communicate with them. Right? That makes sense. Right? That's part of how we connect with our students. You might be asking me, "Well, what does language practices have to do with equity?"

               Now, before we get into that, always, I want to remind you that if you're looking for some training, if you're looking for some professional development, keynote presentations, things of that nature, if you have some students, affinity groups that you would like for the Leading Equity Center to work with you on as well, feel free to reach out. You can find a link to consulting services and different subject matters that we have available through the Leading Equity Center. Feel free to check that link, or you can go to Leadingequitycenter.com/consulting.

               I want to tell you a quick story. When I was teaching in a Virgin Islands, I was learning the language. It's funny because in Virgin Islands, you know, everybody speaking English and I'm speaking English. However, a lot of words mean different things. I remember part of my process of getting to know my students was just checking in on them to see how their weekend was.

               I remember there was a particular Monday morning where the kids came into my classroom. They were excited. They were like Mr. Eakins. We went to a concert this weekend and saw a local artist. A local artist. I was excited. I was like, "Tell me about it. What's going on?"

               So they're telling me about all the different songs that this local artist sang and how the band was and just the experience overall and just going to the concert and everything. And then they told me, "Well, after the concert, they Robby." I didn't catch that at first. They were like... I said, "Excuse me." And they said, "Yeah, they Robby." I said, "Well, we were just talking about this local artist. I don't know who Robby is." And they kept saying, "No, no, no, no, no. They rob he." And I said, "I still, I'm sorry. I don't understand." Then one of the students finally says, "Mr. Eakins, they robbed him."

               I said, "Oh." I said, "My bad. My bad." I didn't understand because again, I'm connected with my students. I'm taking the time to develop these relationships with kids and I had absolutely no idea who Robby was and I forgot, well, in the way that they speak English is a little different than how I would say it in the states. So I'm glad one of the kids took the time and said, "No, no, no, no, no, no. They robbed him," so that I could understand what they were saying because we were going back and forth for a minute. So we'll talk about how language shapes our world and how we see things. Stay tuned.

               Welcome to the Leading Equity Podcast. My name is Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins. And for over a decade, I've helped educators become better advocates for their students. What is an advocate? An advocate is someone who recognizes that we don't live in just society. Advocates aren't comfortable with the status quo and are willing to speak up on behalf of others. No matter where you are in your journey towards ensuring all of your students are equipped with the resources they need to thrive. I'm here to help you build your knowledge and confidence, to ensure equity at your school.

               As I said before the break, language shapes our world and how we see things. The words we use and the way we use them are tied to how we view this world. Check your language practices and what you are inviting students to be and how they are expected to speak. Allow students to speak comfortably in their language.

               Now here's a question that I get regarding language and this comes up from time to time. Folks will ask me, "Well, should students be allowed to curse in school?" I feel like this is a subjective answer. So my short answer is, yes and no.

               First thing is I want to start with, okay, well what counts as a cuss word? Because depending on who you are, your background, your lived experiences, some words might be acceptable than others. When you think about TV, you think about movies and you know how it has a rating. This is TV-14. This is rated R. This is rated M or whatever it is. So there's those different ratings that are available via the TVs channels and movies that you watch.

               You also will see in our music. You'll see the explicit language content is right there on certain albums depending on what is being said in those lyrics. So when we think about how society has said, "Okay, certain words are unacceptable and some words are acceptable. And no, this one just kind of depends on how you feel."

               So for me, for me, if I hear a student say, "Hell." You know, "What the hell." Or if I see a student say, "Damn." Damn this or damn that, or whatever it is, it may not bother me. Then if I heard the F word or the S word and notice how I said, hell and damn, but then I said S and F, because honestly, with this podcast, if I was to utilize the F word or the S word, I would actually have to put an explicit label on this episode and I don't feel like doing that and plus I don't feel like bleeping it out. It's just not what I'm in the mood for right now.

               So certain words are acceptable in everyday language, just kind of depends on you. Again, your beliefs, your background. So I know many educators wouldn't want to hear any of those words and we're not even going to get into racial slurs. We're not going to get into like the R word.

               I do special education, so I have the special education background, so we're not going to bring up the R word either or homophobic slurs. We're not going to utilize that for now because I think that's a different box. That's a different conversation. We're just talking about general curse words, not talking about any of those racial slurs or slurs that impact certain groups of people. That's not what I'm talking about. I think when we have that conversation, I think, I believe at least, if you're listening to this show, that we can all agree that those words are unacceptable. There is no, depending on your threshold, there is no subjectivity there. Those words are wrong and not only do we need to shut those words down, but we also need to take the time to explain to our students why they shouldn't utilize those words. But that's a whole nother podcast, for a different time.

               At the end of the day, kids will test us to see where the threshold is, on what they are allowed to say and do, in our classroom. You might even say to yourself, "Well, you know what? Honestly, why do students need to curse anyway? Why do they feel that they need to utilize these words?"

               I might add to this conversation also in regards to curse words, because sometimes when we say, "Oh, kids were cursing in class." Sometimes we just default middle school and high school. But no, no, no, no, no. This extends from pre-K all the way up. Yeah. Our little ones. Our little ones learn words. Maybe they learn it at home. Maybe they learn it from TV. Whatever it is, but our little ones, you utilize curse words as well. So this is everybody.

               One of the things about kids swearing in class, or in the hallways, or in school, is there's often a level of social acceptance. It's cool to utilize these words. Then there's also people that are just, this is how they express themselves when they get angry. Some sort of emotion. Let's just put emotions in there. When they have emotional responses, sometimes they'll respond with curse words. So you might be asking yourself, or you might be listening to this and you're thinking, well, what do I do? Because I'm one of those educators that says, "You know what? I will not allow any curse words in my class whatsoever." Or, it might be an actual rule in your school handbook about curse words.

               First thing I would want you to do is just take some reflection, some self reflection, to determine why some of those swear words bother you and how you plan to discuss this with your students because I would start with discussing with students, what words are acceptable and ways of respectfully speaking to one another. I'm a big proponent of rather than making a set of rules that say, "Don't this. Don't do that. Don't do this. Don't do that. Never this. Never that." All these negative words, as opposed to saying, "Here. No, do this. Here are the words I would love for you to utilize in class. Here's some acceptable words that I would love to hear you say. This is how we speak respectfully to one another."

               Notice I didn't say language because we're going to get to that in a second but setting these norms are helpful for your class discussions and interactions with each other and I'm going to take some time later on in this episode to kind of share with you some ways that you can set those norms. So just hang on and I'll get there.

               Now I know that in a perfect world, you would only need to have this conversation with students one time. Just here's first day of school. This are the things. These are the things that are acceptable when it comes to language. First day of school, we are done, in a perfect world. But the likelihood is that you may need to reinforce these norms a few times. It's part of the process.

               Now for me personally, curse words, don't bother me and again, I'm just referring to curse words. I've interacted with some cultures in my career and in some communities. Honestly, swear words are the norm. It's almost as if they aren't even considered curse words. I've worked in school communities like that. So when it's those type of situations, to me, and again, this is Dr. Eakins opinion. To me, punishing students for their words and making students change their word choices is asking them to change their habits and I've witnessed situations where students don't even recognize that they're cursing until you call them out. Sometimes kids just forget. And like I said, a lot of stuff this is just the norm, utilizing some of these words. I'm going to share a quick story with you regarding that.

               A new principal comes to a school, middle of the school year. Now this principal does not reflect the demographics or background of the majority of the student population and staff. This principal comes into the new school with their values and their beliefs and that is how they operate and runs the school.

               One day the principal was in the library with just kind of observing and there's a class in there and the kids are watching a video and one of the students says, "Damn. That man hit that person really hard." The principal overhears this and comes up to the student and tells the student, "Hey, you need to apologize for what you said. There are women in this room and you need to apologize to the librarian."

               The student refuses. He says, "No, I'm not apologizing. What did I say? What did I do? All I said was, 'Damn, that man hit the person really hard.'" The principal gets angry because this child is, in his mind, being insubordinate. And he says, "If you do not apologize, I will call the police." Keep in mind, again keep in mind, this student said, "Damn." Again, depending on your beliefs and values, that may not be a big deal. Is that really worth policing [inaudible 00:12:47]? Is it worth telling a student that you will call the cops on them if you don't apologize? I don't think so.

               The student again refuses and now he's upset because he's been threatened about the police and this is a student of color who has seen and interacted, and had some instances regarding situations and police officers, and he didn't want to get himself in trouble, get involved or get in to that type of situation, so he walks out of the library. But guess who follows him? The principal's following him and he's telling the student to stop. You need to come to my office. You need to apologize. You're being disrespectful and the student is also saying some words as well. So there is this power struggle.

               Now here's a part that I want you to understand. When I talk about understanding the community that you're serving as an educator, whether we have that same background or experiences that a lot of the kids that are in that school have, we have to keep in mind that when we are in someone's community, we need to understand their culture. This principal did not. Was by the book individual. A lot of the way he viewed education, learning, leadership was from his own understanding and background.

               Here's the thing. It was totally acceptable in that student's community, in that student's background. We're not just talking about at home, but we're talking about in general, as part of community. The use of damn and some other words that are considered curse words in some societies, or again, that are considered curse words, depending on who you're talking to and he was like, "No, this is how we talk."

               Fortunately for the student, the other teachers that were there, that witnessed this whole thing take place, were able to sit the principal down and discuss with the principal and let him know, "Hey, you need to understand the culture. This is how, not only the kids, but this is acceptable language in their setting."

               Now again, I understand that when we think about what professional settings look like versus what a informal setting looks like, that's going to be different, but a principal had to be educated on, "Listen, you're in their space. You're serving this community. The community's not serving you and you need to understand that what you may believe is wrong and what you may believe is not the right way, is what you believe because what we do here is acceptable. What is being said is acceptable." So the principal ended up apologizing. The student ended up apologizing and their relationship was better. I wouldn't say it's perfect, but it was better.

               Now I know what some of you might be thinking. Well, allowing students to curse is, is not going to help students when they want a job or are in professional settings. I believe that students should be taught about being themselves and also learn about how being themselves may come with some consequences, if it comes off disrespectful. Help students learn to make choices on what they say around friends, versus what they say in professional setting. I think we need to educate kids on the benefits of expanding their vocabulary beyond those four letter words.

               Sometimes again, when we think about what's traditional, I say, we need to avoid what we consider as traditional because what we consider as traditional, may not be traditional to again, the demographics that we are serving.

               So when we have this, this is how you should speak and how English should be spoken. In other words, I want you to be open to different modes of expression and don't let communication differences become a barrier to the exchange of meaningful ideas in the classroom. Again, I started off this podcast with the notion of, we cannot forget how the way we communicate with our students impacts the relationships that we develop with them.

               Here's another thing to consider. Students may feel more comfortable speaking in a mixture of their native tongue and English. Such as Spanglish or African-American vernacular, as a couple examples. Students need to know that it is safe to engage in dialogue that is comfortable to them to spark more engagement in your classroom. For students of color, being in their comfort zone of how they can speak and the way they can communicate and discussions, is important. It's vital. If your students talk over each other and communicate with vigor on topics that they are interested in, don't stifle or suppress their communication practices by structuring a rigid discussion format. Allow conversations to flow in all their complexities. Allowing students to freely communicate in their familiar manner may be uncomfortable at first because it disrupts the way we have been trained with how a class discussion should be. At first, it might feel like mayhem. However, pay attention to the richness and thought provoking contributions that students give to class discussions.

               Now I know that this may sound difficult to do. As educators, we often want full control of our classrooms. This includes comprehending all the language used. So if things are said that we don't understand, whether it's not in English or someone's utilizing slang. We just don't get it. And sometimes I know it's hard to be okay with that. But listen. I challenge you to let it happen and see how the discussion develops when you participate in a student-led debate. Interruptions from students and discussions may to an increase of participation and engagement that may not have happened if students were called on or facilitated in a manner that was deemed appropriate.

               Understand that not everyone engages in a calm, hand raising, turn taking, way of discussion that is generally viewed as accept. That's not the only way a meaningful and intellectually rigorous discussion can unfold. Establish an understanding of students respecting each other's opinions, while allowing them to express themselves in a manner that comes naturally.

               Again, it's okay for your room to be loud, as long as the discussions are engaging and meaningful. While loudness can be construed as unruliness, in the context of lively academic discussion, it may actually be indicative, a passion for and engagement with, the topic. Appreciate the richness of other types of language and what it means in learning.

               If you are disallowing those kinds of conversations to unfold because they are uncomfortable for you, or if you're disallowing students to switch back and forth from their first language to a traditional English format because you don't fully understand everything, you are perpetuating a form suppression that have many students of color experience in school.

               As the educator, if a student uses terms from another language, you are in a great position to request a translation of the term during the discussion, even if it requires an interruption. Such an overture constitutes inclusivity for both those who do understand the term and those who don't. It also shows that the educators actively engaged and interested in what the student finds to be important and relevant in the discussion.

               Here are some questions that I want you to ask yourself. Here's that self-reflection time.

               How am I valuing and appreciating language practices that are different from mine? If I'm feeling excluded in class dialogues, because I don't understand all the language being used, what can I do to better engage in the conversation? Asking yourself these self reflective questions, places emphasis on whether your classroom norms, marginalize, surpress or hinder students abilities, to maximize learning and growth, as a means of countering potentially negative outcomes.

               Consider exposing yourself to new knowledge that directly ties into your students lives. For instance, you can learn their language. This is a shift in which you are learning more about your students, but there's more to it than picking up the ability to follow conversations and know what students are saying when they talk in another language. You'll begin to understand what it's like to learn a second language, thereby giving you an appreciation of the challenges students face to articulate their thoughts that are often in a different language from their natural language.

               Here's a final piece that I want to share with you before we wrap things up. Let's talk about what is setting norms for conversations. What does that look like?

               Sometimes you're going to be in a situation where some of those conversations might be a little difficult for you to handle. When was the last time you engaged in an honest dialogue with your students about a difficult conversation? You may remember how difficult that conversation was to navigate. Now, imagine facilitating a discussion about maybe racism with an entire group of people. The difficulty intensifies.

               In our current context, many educational leaders find themselves in roles where they must skillfully navigate conversations about racism and anti-racism, and bias, privilege, with groups of stakeholders. I'm going to give you a couple guidelines and again, I'm not a checkbox guy, but couple guidelines for establishing those conversation norms, which will enable you to facilitate challenging conversations about tough topics effectively.

               Now, why are conversation norms necessary when we're having these difficult conversations? Well, conversation norms concert to promote equity within the discussion. Conversation norms can provide individuals with concrete strategies for communicating through strong emotions. Conversation norms can guide the discussion towards solutions and healing. Finally, conversation norms can enhance empathy and understanding.

               First thing I want you to do is involve discussion participants in the creation of the norms. Don't just do the stuff by yourself. Conversation norms are most effective when they are produced through a collaborative process, so allow discussion participants to reflect on what they need to feel safe, respected, and valued, which may go back to what I was mentioning earlier, in regards to allowing students to freely speak. Use the needs they identify, as starting point for drafting your conversation norms.

               Now, next thing we want to do is select a few concise norms. Consider selecting only three to five concise norms to encompass your students needs. Keep in mind that most of the discussion participants mental energy will be devoted to the dialogue itself. Choosing only a few conversation norms will make it easier for everyone to adhere to them, as they engage in the discussion.

               The next step is, and this is optional, but I would consider or recommend, that you display those norms prominently during the discussion. So ensure that the conversation norms are clear and visible to all participants during the discussion. This will not only ensure that the individuals can hold themselves accountable for following the norms, but it will also give them the language to interact with others, should the norms need to be addressed.

               Again, I want to be very clear about this. Setting up conversation. Norms is helpful, but don't utilize those conversation norms, or rules, in a manner that's going to suppress and oppress the creativity, the critical thinking, the language practices, of our students.

               Now here's the next thing that I would suggest. You can designate a process observer. Select an individual who's rolled during the conversation is to keep track of the extent to which participants adhere to the norms. Explain to participants that the process says observer will help the group monitor and adjust the conversation norms by noting points in a discussion when the norms are either broken or ineffective.

               Again, it's okay for your classroom to be loud. It's okay for kids to utilize their hands and be passionate in their expressions towards the conversation. But you do want to try to keep the conversation on par, relevant to the discussion. Sometimes we tend to go off track. Rather than you as the teacher being the one that's telling, "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, let's get back on track," that's why we designate a process observer. You're having a student support the efforts of again, keeping the conversation and keeping those norms observed, not the teacher. Remember this is a student-led discussion.

               Next, you want to time to reflect on the norms. Every participant will not adhere to every conversation norm, 100% of the time. We talked about that. But it's okay. Intentionally, include a few minutes at the end of your allotted discussion time, to allow participants to reflect individually, and debrief collaboratively, about the conversation norms. Invite students to acknowledge their missteps and consider the growth opportunities. Honor each participants experience by giving them the space to engage in honest reflection.

               Final step that I want you to consider is to reassess your norms often. We know that humans are complicated and having difficult conversations is not an easy thing to do sometimes, especially when we're dealing with elementary, middle school and high school kids. Because of this, the same set of conversation norms will not work every group or across every context. Building a community that is safe and equitable requires constant reflection and refinement. Ask what might be done differently to promote a safer, more equitable space, for dialogue in your learning environment.

               These are just some conversation norms to kind of get you going to get you started, as you are seeking to create an environment where students feel safe to express themselves, in whatever language is most comfortable for them.

               Again, if you are looking for some training, if you're looking for keynote presentation, if you're looking for some in-person work, if you're looking for some student work, feel free to reach out. I would love to work with you. I would love to work with your school. I have several schools that I am working with right now and I would love to work with you as well.

               If you're needing some references, I also have those available, but the first step is to shoot me an email. [email protected] or you can go on a website. Again, there's a link to our consulting opportunities that are available for you as well. So, feel free to reach out and let's remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "If you can't fly, then run. If you can't run, then walk. If you can't walk, then crawl. But by all means, keep moving."

               Let's continue to be a voice in leading equity. This episode was brought to you by the Leading Equity Center. For more podcast interviews and resources, head on over to leadingequitycenter.com.


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