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Summer, Street Language, and Self-Regulation

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 This post is by Kathleen Cushman, a journalist and educator who co-founded the nonprofit What Kids Can Do. In September 2015, Harvard Education Press will publish Cushman's forthcoming book with her WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools. 

 Shrieks of youthful laughter floated through the thick July heat, as I headed up my street toward the subway, in one of New York City's dense and diverse neighborhoods. There's not much to do here in summer for teenagers, except hang out on the block. Some of these young people I knew by sight or by name, and I lifted my hand in greeting. Nice kids.

Harvest-79 cropped, hi-res.jpg

But their language that day--not so nice. No doubt, they meant their f- and b- and n-words as merely summer banter among their peers. Did they think the words would land on others in the same way? I thought of the classrooms these youth had emptied in June, and of their teachers striving for a culture of respect.

Must summer mean a vacation from self-regulation as well as schoolwork? What would have to shift in order for youth themselves to monitor their language, when no adults were doing it for them?

Unpacking words as signals

Recently I talked with several teachers who had reframed the conversation about "bad language" by calling on adolescents' own passion for respect and fairness. "At our school we call these things 'oppressive language,'" said Amber Lancaster, a longtime high school science teacher at June Jordan School for Equity, in San Francisco.

Issues of respect and culture intertwine when students use inappropriate speech in the halls or in class, noted her colleague, T.R. Amsler, who teaches the humanities.

"If a student says, 'Oh, you know, I talk with all my friends this way,' I'd be like, 'Well, do you talk with your grandpa that way?'" he said. "'No, actually . . . I know your community actually holds this line in many places.'"

As he talks with students about the historical use of language to oppress and humiliate, he added, the issue of offensive epithets takes on new meaning to them.

How to intervene?

Interventions that merely punish or exclude an offender, therefore, overlook the opportunity for youth to develop new perspectives on how language relates to identity.

Early in the year, when one of Amber's students used an epithet to describe another girl, the teacher stopped the lesson and gathered the class in a "talking circle."

"We all sat down as a community," she said. "And everyone spoke to the fact of injustice . . . like, "That wasn't right." Both students apologized, because the offended student had hit back in response. And the group as a whole agreed that offensive language affected them all. "The entire mood of the class changed," said Amber, "because we'd addressed it from the very first."

The route to agency

As I continued walking to the subway, I thought about the challenge that every adolescent faces: acquiring a sense of personal agency in a world where others hold most of the power.

In that context, I mused, transgressive language may actually seem to young people like an effective route to agency.

And for them to self-regulate their use of language--on the summer streets as well as in the classroom--a shift like the one at School for Equity may have to happen.

In June Jordan's approach, personal agency emerges as youth begin to develop deeper knowledge of themselves and their communities.

Teenagers themselves start to evaluate the implications of their language, think it through, and compare it to other norms. That very process can spark the motivation to regulate the way they speak--and not just from September to June.

Photo: What motivates adolescents to "watch their language" -- in and out of school? Answers emerge as we connect language with identity and community. Listen to teachers talk about inappropriate language in the classroom. (Photo by Nick Whalen)

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