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From Sidewalk to Workplace

Teaching Appropriate Language

I teach in a high school across the state line from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. We have a unique mix of students from a small town, farms, and the nearby urban area. We have White, Hispanic, Hmong, and Black students in our classrooms and hallways, and we recently hired a full-time ESL teacher. Break dancing and the urban youth culture are evident on the sidewalks in front of the high school, and with it, the accompanying language of the streets.

As an English teacher, I have a responsibility to prepare students for college and working life. In some of my junior and senior English classes, the focus is on students who will work after high school or attend a one- or two-year technical or vocational program. Typically, these students come with emotional baggage, and many of them have not been successful in high school, need additional credits, and are at risk of not graduating.

The way they speak to one another is not the way they will be required to speak in the workplace. Their speech reflects the general decline of language and increased use of vulgarities in all popular culture. Slang terms, swear words, and vulgarities pepper their speech much as it adorns the lyrics of their favorite rap and hip-hop tunes. In many cases, the language they hear from adults in their lives, as well as from their peers, supports their use of such off-color speech. Many of my students have only a vague idea of the difference between workplace language and street language.

Introducing Poetry

To help develop a civil tongue, I teach poetry. I flummox them by insisting that they bring their favorite song lyrics to class the next day. Those who still care about “being in trouble” grow concerned, and wonder if they can bring rap lyrics. Others look forward to the chance to share their favorite rap and hip-hop lyrics.

Many students have actually memorized lyrics from their favorite artists. Some students surprise me by producing notebooks of their own dark, brooding lyrics. As we read them and talk about them, they begin to see that the song lyrics they listen to, memorize, or write are poetry. I demonstrate with some classic examples. My favorite lesson is when we analyze the meter and rhyme of Shakespeare after we’ve done the same with some rap lyrics.

Addressing Language in Neutral Terms

Invariably, the discussion leads to the use of language. Rap and hip-hop are notorious for their use of vulgarities, racial slurs, swear words, and other uncivil language. My students and I discuss how language of this sort can be hurtful and harmful in many contexts, but especially in the workplace where another level of language is required for them to maintain employment. They grasp the importance of this idea quickly.

I believe this approach works because from the outset, I am accepting (with some exceptions) the legitimacy of such language in art. I am not approving of it, and certainly I express my opinions about the use of such language even in song lyrics. But I recognize and respect that in their music, such language has its place as part of free expression and art. This approach allows me to address the use of language in neutral terms since it is the language of the song lyrics, not their own, and the students seem to recognize that much of the language is in fact inappropriate and uncivil.

Making the Connections

They make the connection to their own language, and understand that it is not that such language is bad or wrong. It is simply ineffective, or worse, in most workplaces or other more formal environments.

The unit doesn't prevent uncivil language, but it gives me a way to talk meaningfully about language and the practical implications of using the wrong words in the wrong place at the wrong time.

About the Author

Paul Hambleton has been teaching in various roles for over twenty years. He currently teaches English in grades 9-12 at Baldwin-Woodville High School in Baldwin, Wisconsin, and serves on the NEA Board of Directors. Hambleton attained National Board Certification in 2000.


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