Table of Contents

    Cover Theme: TEACHING IN BLACK AND WHITE
  • Free Black Like Me

    Authored By Renée Watson

    A poem—and the history behind it—about being invisible, yet stereotyped, as an African American student bused to a predominantly white school.

  • Free Dear White Teacher

    Authored By Chrysanthius Lathan

    An African American middle school teacher calls on white teachers to think before they routinely send black children to black teachers when there is a problem.

  • Free Queridos maestros blancos

    Por Chrysanthius Lathan | Traducido por Nicholas Yurchenco

    Una maestra afroamericana de secundaria les pide a los maestros blancos que piensen antes de mandarles los niños negros a los maestros negros cada vez que tengan un problema con ellos. 

  • Teaching the N-Word

    Authored By Michelle Kenney

    A white high school teacher prepares her students to read August Wilson’s Fences by leading an exploration of the n-word.

  • Features
  • Rocketship to Profits

    Silicon Valley breeds corporate reformers with national reach

    Authored By David Bacon

    Rocketship Education, a rapidly expanding charter school chain, shows what happens when the rich control our schools.

  • “Aren’t You on the Parent Listserv?”

    Working for equitable family involvement in a dual-immersion elementary school

    Authored By Grace Cornell Gonzales

    A kindergarten teacher tries to change the power imbalance between Spanish- and English-speaking parents in her classroom and school.

  • Free ¿No estás registrado en la lista de correos electrónicos?

    Por Grace Cornell Gonzales

    Una maestra de kínder intenta cambiar el balance de poder entre los padres hispanohablantes y angloparlantes en su salón y su escuela.

  • Free The Military Invasion of My High School

    The role of JROTC

    Authored By Sylvia McGauley

    A high school teacher describes the problematic impact of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at her school.

  • Departments Free
    Editorial
  • Restorative Justice

    What it is and is not

    Authored By The editors of Rethinking Schools
  • The Children of Gaza

  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.
  • Good Stuff
  • When Girls Are Activists

    Authored By Elizabeth Marshall

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Teaching the N-Word

Teaching the N-Word

My students—black, white, Latina/o, Vietnamese, and Cambodian—all sighed and rolled their eyes in unison when I asked them to write about the n-word. This was not the first time that a middle-aged, white English teacher in sensible shoes tried to get down and dirty over a sensitive subject.

It was the first day of my unit on Fences, August Wilson’s play about an African American family in 1940s Pittsburgh. Fences was always a favorite with my 10th and 11th graders, but I wanted the class to discuss the use of the n-word before we read and performed the play.

One boy in the back of the room mimicked falling on a sharpened pencil to a chorus of giggles. But eventually the students, all 10th graders, got into the warm-up, and wrote more quietly and longer than usual.

“So, what do you know?” I asked after 10 minutes.

“It was used to describe black people,” one student began in a singsong.

“It’s a derogatory word for black people,” someone suggested. Derogatory was a new word from a previous unit, and it was encouraging to hear a student using it. This was progress.

“It’s a bad word,” another student said.

“No.” José picked his head up from his desk. “It was only bad a long time ago, until rappers started to use it.”

“It’s not such a big deal anymore, Ms. Kenney.” Meredith yawned over a SpongeBob doodle she was drawing on the cover of her spiral.

Thus began our n-word talk, a discussion I have repeated with almost every English class for the past 12 years. Many high school teachers like me, white and middle class, approach the topic with trepidation. I can still remember how my own English teacher, Mrs. Kleeg, addressed the n-word only once, while we were reading To Kill a Mockingbird in 8th grade, and then only after James Parker, the class clown and aspiring pain in Mrs. Kleeg’s butt, raised his hand and asked her what it meant and how to pronounce it. “That word . . . well . . .” Mrs. Kleeg blushed and clutched her pearls. “It’s not a very nice word for Negroes. I don’t suppose I really know the pronunciation.”

I probably would have stumbled down Mrs. Kleeg’s path when I began my teaching career in the Portland, Oregon, public schools if it hadn’t been for a local controversy surrounding the teaching of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Several African American students at a mostly white high school objected to the novel, specifically because of the use of the n-word. But even as a novice teacher, I wondered whether the problem in this case was the use of the n-word itself in Huckleberry Finn, or the way many teachers handle it.

I made a commitment to teach my students about the n-word at least once a year. At first, I taught the lesson to avoid offending and marginalizing my African American students, who made up less than 10 percent of the student population. However, over the years, the reaction I got from many of my students convinced me that this was a lesson every student needed to learn.

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