Most children need explicit language instruction to discuss difficult or sensitive issues. This strategy introduces a framework to help students process and verbalize their thoughts about troubling subject matter. It also provides an opportunity for you to model and scaffold language instruction as students become proficient at reading, processing and responding to critical social issues.
- Introduce relevant words and phrases, such as culture, stereotype and appreciation of lifestyles different from our own. Ask children to listen for words that make them uncomfortable during the read aloud. Older students can follow along in this activity, using the Stereotype Chart.
- Read aloud a central text about a lifestyle dramatically different from that of your students (e.g., a description of daily life for a child in another part of the world).
- Discuss the characters, setting and events depicted in the text.
- Listen to student comments and note words used by students that may be judgmental or insensitive.
- Ask children for ideas about how to discuss difficult issues related to diversity.
- Using your students’ responses, construct a list of guidelines for these conversations. Consider making an anchor chart to display in your classroom.
- Revisit with students the list of possibly insensitive words or stereotypes heard in the class discussion about the read aloud text.
- Have students evaluate the words and reflect on how the words might make someone feel.
- Discuss why these words and stereotypes are harmful.
- Develop a list of alternative words to use in place of the hurtful language found in the central text.
- Listen to students as they identify stereotypes or offensive illustrations and storylines during read alouds.
- Continually offer positive alternative language for students to use during difficult conversations.
English language learners
Hearing accurately used language provides necessary modeling and reinforcement for English language learners. However, learning to follow group conversations can be a challenge. Establish participation guidelines and limit the number of people speaking at one time. Display the final list of guidelines in a visible location to help students convert new information into manageable chunks.
Connection to anti-bias education
Discussing critical social issues with children is crucial, especially when we consider that we are preparing them for democratic participation. Discussing these issues opens a space for children to “respond to diversity by building empathy, respect, understanding and connection” (Anti-bias Standard 9). The strategy gives children the opportunity to understand the difference between intent and impact through examining word choice in classroom discussions that are open, safe and collaborative. Students can practice voicing their opinions about language that is and is not uncomfortable for them to hear. They will be aware of to why certain words are inappropriate or hurtful. Practice modeling positive listening skills to demonstrate and confirm that all members of the classroom have a voice that is respected and heard. These initial conversations about the impact of words will encourage children to examine texts, and the world, throughout their lives.