Words Matter: How Can We Teach Respectful Language in the Classroom?

Recent news surrounding the bullying epidemic against Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender youth and coverage of the DREAM act have highlighted the impact of words. Disparaging language against GLBT and undocumented youth is what researchers call microaggressions-- the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color or any other marginalized group.

How can this form of discrimination be addressed in the classroom? The Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Colorlines have started movements that address words that discriminate against marginalized groups.

GLSEN sponsors No-Name Calling Week to raise awareness about how damaging words can be to students and to eliminate name-calling in school communities.  The event was inspired by James Howe’s The Misfits, a story about a group of students in seventh grade who were continually taunted because of the weight, height, intelligence, sexual orientation and gender expression.

Colorlines has started a movement called “drop the I-word” to prevent the word “illegal” from being used to refer to immigrants in media.  The movement advocates that using illegal to refer to people promotes fear, dehumanizes and racially discriminates against immigrants and people of color.  More recently, articles about the DREAM act and the experiences of undocumented youth shed light on the negativity that “illegal” perpetuates.

The classroom can be a powerful forum for modeling and teaching students communication that is respectful and inclusive of all identities.  Teaching Tolerance and GLSEN have a few activities that can help facilitate those conversations.

What’s so Bad about “That’s so Gay”

No-Name Calling Week Resources

Brush Up on Respect

Test Yourself for Hidden Bias

Word Origins

After reviewing the resources provided, answer the following questions:

  • What words do you notice your students using that could be addressed using the activities provided?
  • How can you integrate respectful language into your classroom?
  • How can the importance of word choice and their potential influence on marginalized groups be addressed school-wide?


CRUE Book Studies:

To learn more about culturally responsive education practices consider signing up for a CRUE Center Book Study like John Vitto’s book Relationship Driven Classroom Management: Strategies that Promote Student Motivation. Earn 1 CEU for just $75. For more information visit http://www.cruecenter.org/book_study.php or email us at contact@cruecenter.org.

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