To Bleep or Not to Bleep? (Ideas for Solving An Age-Old Teacher’s Dilemma)

2 May
Vector drawing based on Image:Profanity.JPG En...

Vector drawing based on Image:Profanity.JPG English: swearing in cartoon Suomi: Kiroileva sarjakuvahahmo Nederlands: Schelden en vloeken in strips 粵語: 粗口 中文: 罵髒話 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writing teachers are supposed to encourage students to express themselves openly on paper–but what about when students want to use profanity to do it? Should we let them?

I face this question all the time, especially since I often work with students from neighborhoods where profanity is an important part of the vocabulary (and I don’t mean this sarcastically–words that might be offensive to me are often, to these students, signifiers not of disrespect but of cultural identity, familiarity, and even affection). Should I play it safe and tell these students to censor themselves (risking turning the students off to writing and stifling their voices), or should I let them express themselves openly in their writing (risking making principals or PTAs upset or, worse, failing to teach my students how to speak in a formal setting)?

Here are some of the solutions that I have come up with that have worked well for me:

1. Separate “casual writing” from “publishable writing” and provide a time for each. I ask my students to keep a free write journal in which they are free to use whatever language they like, including profanity. I comment on their free writes, but only in a social, “pen pal” kind of way. This has a huge effect on their motivation in class, including on the more academic assignments (which I refer to as “publishable pieces” since the goal of a Deep writing workshop is publication).

2. Have an open discussion about why profanity makes for boring writing. When you ban something because it is “bad,” you only make it seem cooler to your students. But when you show them how it makes for lazy, uninteresting writing, they will decide for themselves to abandon it. (For example, why would you use a lazy and extremely vague word like “b*tch” to describe an annoying person when you can make your writing much more interesting by telling us something that this person did that illustrates who they are and what makes them a unique and memorable character? Taking the lazy shortcut just makes your writing sound mundane.) This tactic has had a tremendous effect on my students’ writing without making any of them feel like I was censoring them.

3. Allow profanity if it is in a direct quote or if the word itself is a subject of major importance in the piece of writing. Great modern authors use profanity all the time–but they always use it for a specific reason. I tell my students that I will accept the same from them. I would have missed out on a lot of fantastic writing if I had not allowed this exception! Honesty is a crucial element of truly great writing, and if a student grows up in a family where profanity is commonly used, and you ask them to write a story about their family, you can’t in good conscience expect them to lie about what other people say–that would make the writing bland, and it would also make the student feel as if they have something to be ashamed of. (Though if I publish these pieces, I usually warn the student that I will bleep it out for the sake of the principal, etc. The students don’t usually mind this.)

What do you do to deal with profanity in your students’ writing? Feel free to share your ideas!

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2 Responses to “To Bleep or Not to Bleep? (Ideas for Solving An Age-Old Teacher’s Dilemma)”

  1. valleygirl96 May 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    I not only “like” but completely agree with your solutions. I find that conversations surrounding solution #1 are especially good – not just for dealing with profanity but overall vocabulary since audience and purpose in writing are SO important and yet often not discussed thoroughly enough in school! Thanks for the suggestions (I may appear to be new, but I’m the artist formerly known as brainvomit!)

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