Saturday, August 27, 2016

We Only Know 4-Letter Words: Let's Talk about Swearing and ELs

We're three weeks in to the school year and my class is finally settling in to a routine and developing relationships with one another...

... Or they were, until we got three new students this week, nearly doubling our class size.

Don't get me wrong, I knew our class would be growing and I'm excited to have more kids in the class. But the sudden influx has left everyone feeling a little unstable in their friendships and changed the dynamics. It also means I can't overhear every conversation happening in the room at the same time.

And somehow, by Wednesday, every time I looked up, someone was raising their hand to tell me someone had called them stupid, told them to shut up, or (and by far most commonly) had said F*** you to them.

That's right. We struggle to answer the question, "How are you today?" consistently in English, but at this point I'm fairly certain every student in my class has either heard or said the F word.

It was happening in all of their classes, and my coworkers and I were completely flummoxed. Why had this started? How did they even hear this word? And most of all, why on EARTH do they say it so much?!

As we continued to enforce our "We do not say that word- EVER" policy, we didn't want to send them to administration or suspend them, because we knew they didn't understand how bad the word they were saying was. But still, we couldn't let them keep saying that. If nothing else, if they say it to people outside of class, they might get physically harmed.

After 4 days of listening to tattles and asking questions about why that word was used, I came up with a theory. Our kids all knew this was a bad word- a really bad word. They were using it in situations when someone else was annoying them in some way- talking too much when they were supposed to be quiet, making fun of them for some reason, knocking something over or bumping into them.

They wanted to express their annoyance and frustration to the other student in a way they would understand- but the only language they have in common is English, which everyone in the room has low proficiency in. So they say the only word they know the other one will understand and will communicate anger and frustration- F*** you.

So Friday morning, we had an intervention during our SEL time. I sat all of the seventh and eighth graders down on the rug in a circle (and assigned their partners). I explained that we have been having problems with hitting each other (another common way of expressing frustration) and saying bad words and we were going to talk about it.

The Lesson

The first thing we did was identify the emotion we were feeling: we were mad.

We went around the circle and made our best mad face, so I knew everyone was on the same page about what we were talking about. It also loosened up the group, because nothing will get you giggling faster than a good mad face.

Then I asked, "Is it okay to feel mad?"

There was a chorus of dutiful no's, but I cut them off.

"YES! It is okay to feel mad. It is no problem to feel mad. It is a problem to hit or say bad words, but when I feel mad, it is okay."

Most of my students come from incredibly rough backgrounds, and school needs to be a safe place for them to learn how to healthily express their emotions. All of us need to be able to recognize when we are feeling mad and decide on an appropriate way to express our emotion. That starts with feeling mad and knowing that's okay with me.

We reviewed that we know we don't hit and we don't say bad words, but we had some trouble (as I expected) coming up with another way to show our frustration. I had made an anchor chart just for this occasion:

We read it together and practiced saying, "I feel MAD at you!" (with feeling).

Then I had one of my most outgoing students come into the middle of the circle with me. I explained that one thing that makes me feel mad is when students poke me to get my attention (this is a true fact), and I told him to do it as annoyingly as he could. He took great joy in this, let me tell you. The rest of the class laughed as I made my best mad face and turned to him and said, "Please STOP! I feel MAD at you!"

We even modeled what I would do if he didn't stop when I said that (raise my hand and talk to the teacher). Then they practiced with their shoulder partners, poking each other and saying, "I feel mad at you!"

When we'd finished, we read, "How Full is Your Bucket?" and talked about how our words make other people feel.

Finally, we did some yoga to help us manage frustration and relax. GoNoodle has a great series of yoga videos called "Empower Tools" and they have one called "Manage Frustration". My students (all 7th and 8th graders, majority boys) all participated and get excited for yoga time. 

The Result

It's only been one day, so we'll have to see how long this lasts, but y'all, I heard the F word ZERO times yesterday. We had 2 small "shut up" incidents, but no one hit anyone else. And even more impessively, I heard "I feel MAD at you!" three times, and one student raised his hand to tell me he had a problem and he had already said, "Please stop."

The only explanation for the incredible success of this lesson is that these kiddos had been looking for other words they knew everyone would understand to express their frustration. They're all going through puberty and the hormone level in my room is currently through the roof. There's a lot of frustration goign around and that's okay. We're learning healthy ways to deal wih it and I'm so proud of these guys. But I'm getting ahead of myself- let's see how Monday goes.

How do you deal with swearing with English learners?

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