Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dropping the F-Bomb: Insight on Constructively Incorporating Swearing in High School Classrooms

Disclaimer: There will be swear words in this post.  Read at your own discretion.

This blog, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a blog dedicated to thinking critically about the craft of teaching human sexuality.  Although I write this post as a student earning their M.Ed in Human Sexuality Education, I’ve been rocking sex education in American classrooms since 2003.  So when the assignment of writing a ‘how to teach sex-ed’ blog post was given, my mind went in a million different directions.

As a sex educator, I have stood in front of a diverse array of American classrooms.  I have taught comprehensive sexuality education to high school freshmen.  I have taught adults how to become more fully orgasmic, love their bodies more than they thought possible, and how to pleasantly surprise their partners with a lil’ something extra in the bedroom (or on the kitchen counter).  I have fielded questions from 12 year olds to 80+ year olds about masturbation, BDSM, safer sex, sex toys and body hair. I have taken high-risk youth and given them sex education and community by being open and honest about sexuality issues that affected them.

Needless to say, that list isn’t exhaustive.

At the end of my reflection on my experiences thus far, the only thing that I could say was constant across all these interventions was swearing.

I am a huge potty mouth.  I am of the opinion that there are simply some emotions that cannot be expressed without letting a good four letter word tear across one’s lips. And although substitutes like ‘dang,’ ‘fudge,’ and ‘shoot’ can be used … it’s kinda like watching Arena Football* when NFL and/or NCAA ball isn’t in season.  (Or for those of you what aren’t football fans, it’s like drinking de-caf when the pot of caffeinated coffee is empty.)  It kinda gets the job done, but is not even half as satisfying.

I also reflected on how the bulk of my experience is in teaching high-school aged teens.

So, as the cliché goes I’m going to write what I know.  I’m going to discuss how swearing – something normally forbidden within high school classrooms – can be utilized constructively within the context of a sexuality classroom.

First, I’m going to give you some context for how the use of swearing within my sexuality classrooms was done.  Then, I’m going to show you why I have support for allowing swearing in the classroom.  Finally, I’m going to pull it all together in a neat little package for your further consideration.

1. You can say, “Fuck Yeah,” but not “Fuck You”
When I told my students they could swear, it was within a context of a larger ground rule entitled, “Respect Yourself, Others, and our Space.”  Essentially, my students were told that non-directive swearing, or “bad” language, was fine so long as it was used within the context of respect.  Students were also allowed to express any particular words that triggered negative emotions so that other students would be aware and try not to use those particular words.

2. After-School Programming
This particular program was a once-a-week after school program that students volunteered to be a part of.

3. Group Rules vs Teaching Rules
Although I allowed students to swear in the program, I explained to them that it was not cool while they were teaching condom use in freshmen classes during school hours.  Although I told them I was aware that freshmen also swear, I elucidated for them that even though we had rules set-up for swearing, not all classrooms were set-up similarly.

4. When I Swore
(And oh did I swear.)  I swore judiciously.  I either did it as a natural part of my speech patterns during more informal parts of our session, or did it when emphasis that only swearing can provide was needed.  And I never, ever tried to use swear words or “bad” words that felt uncomfortable coming out of my mouth.

Other Considerations
·         I was a school district employee, but not an employee of any particular school.  I actually facilitated three different groups at three very different schools within one school district.  So while I tried to respect most school policies and rules, I was only partially accountable to the school administrations.
·         I was young-ish when I taught these classes.  My students ranged in age from 14-19, and throughout the duration of my teaching, I was anywhere from 23-25.
·         I grew up in the neighboring school district to the schools at which I was teaching.  I never attended any of the schools at which I facilitated these after-school groups, but I had a pretty good cultural understanding.

Now you know the how.  But … did it work?  And how do I know it works?

Not surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot on using swearing effectively in a classroom.  But what I do have is access to Hedgepeth and Helmich’s (in my opinion) amazing text that outlines strategies for making a classroom an effective space for sexuality education.

Thanks to the internet and facebook, I also have access to my incredible, amazing, fantastic, and extremely honest former students. (Yes, I am so biased in their favor.  Even though it’s been anywhere from 2-4 years since I’ve spoken to some of them, they continue to inspire me to this very moment.)  When I decided to write this post, I asked those of them who had the time to shoot me an e-mail or a facebook message telling me about their lives AND how they felt about being allowed to swear.  18 out of around 90 responded.

So through the use of my (very informal and not scientific by any means) survey in conjunction with methodological considerations, I’m going to break down how swearing fits into the idea of an effective sexuality classroom. When I include how actual, real, living, breathing teens felt about being allowed to swear and hearing their facilitator swear, they will be directly quoted.  I will also include three pieces of demographic information about them:

  1. Gender (M or F)
  2. Ethnicity (A = Asian, B = Black, L = Latin, W = White)
  3. Year in Group (’07, ’08, or ’09)
I’m not including their names or the name of the group in order to protect their privacy.

Let’s get started.

Hedgepeth and Helmich (H&H) discuss how one of the elements of an effective sexuality classroom is the need for programming to respect and empower students.

Right away, H&H discuss how creating respect and empowerment within programming hinges upon interfacing with the reality of students.

Let’s take a look at what some of my students had to say about whether or not allowing swearing reflected their realities:

“I think swearing is an essential part of how teenagers communicate.  It is hard enough to be yourself in high school without being able to express yourself the way you want to.” (F, W, ’07)

“I feel like letting us swear … gave sex-ed [class] a sense of reality. ... In reality, most people, if not everyone curses.” (F, W, ’09)

“I think that swearing is just a part of teenage life.” (F, L, ’09)

“I know it makes me feel more real if I didn't have any vocabulary limited when I try to voice my opinion and experience out.” (#1 M, A, ’09)

“C'mon, these folks are in high school. Ya gotta understand that most teenagers incorporate cursing in their day-to-day 'language' …” (#1, F, A, ‘08&’09)

“but as for about swearing? i loved it, like to me swearing is nothing, its like talking regularly.” (#2, M, A, ’09)

It would appear that many of the students who responded to my query agree that allowing students to drop the occasional F-Bomb (that’s ‘fuck’ in case you were wondering) simply reflects the greater reality of how teens express themselves.

H&H also outline how the classroom that fosters “respect, confidentiality, openness, collaboration and mutual support” helps students to become comfortable enough to engage critically with the learning (pg 21). 

Amongst many of my students, there was an idealization that swearing fostered a sense of openness for how they could express themselves:

“In regards to swearing in Sex-Ed, I think it helps with allowing everyone to feel comfortable. It's better that you allow people to say what they feel and not let them feel contained in a box, … just knowing that it's allowed won't make students feel like they have to act a certain way, especially if not swearing is way far from who they actually are....” (#2, F, A, ‘08&’09)

“I'm a potty mouth. It was nice being free to express myself during sessions without being judged or hushed.” (#1, F, A, ’08)

“…i felt more free with my expressions. like if i was fairly pissed off, or extremely happy can say what i felt in the words that fit right instead of having to chose words with lesser meaning in my mind.” (F, L, ’08 & ’09)

“Swearing essentially allows everyone to talk about their passions more freely and creates a classroom environment when [sic] students are more comfortable having discussions.” (F, W, ’07)

“Being able to swear in class is awesome. Its like you bring the YOU out of you. You dont have to keep everything in and replace it with something your not, and that is just being true to yourself and everybody. It kept me confident knowing that i could say whatever i want comfortably in front of my peers, even outside of class.. HAHA! Its soooo AWESOME.” (M, A, ’08 &’09)

Although those are just a few quotes, almost every student responded with some form of affirmation that being allowed to swear helped them to be comfortable with either expressing themselves, being in the classroom, or engaging with the learning.

Some also spoke to the importance of the fact that swearing was set up in the context of fostering support, rather than being used for malicious purpose.

“[Swearing] should be used to bluntly express, not to belittle someone.” (F, W, ’09)

“Swearing should be used to empower, not to tear down.” (F, W, ’07)

“…there's a line between sprinkling swear words into a sentence and addressing someone offensively. If swearing doesn't interfere with the learning environment, then there should be nothing against it.” (#1, F, A, ’08)

Creating a Democratic Learning Environment
Within the context of empowering students, H&H discuss how many contemporary classrooms mirror “benevolent dictatorships” more than they mirror the democratic structure in which American students are expected to become a part in the future.  I agree with H&H in respect to their assertion that this means encouraging greater student agency over decision making and responsibility in the classroom.

Despite my agreement, I would actually take it a step farther and say that to truly demonstrate ideals of democracy, you have to allow and role-model them.  Freedom of expression is our 1st amendment.  The first one.  The one our ancestors wanted to make sure got on the books.  And yet in classrooms across the country we shut down certain forms of expression completely, rather than role modeling responsible, harm-free use of truly powerful ways to express oneself.

I didn’t, however.  As I said, I swore all throughout all three years of running these after-school programs.  Here is how it affected some of my students:

“You swearing like we did helped to create a bond.” (M, B, ’09)

“I think when you (Becca) used swear words, it made people more comfortable with you because it let people know that you were here to teach us, not to discipline us like the image people have of most teachers. It also put us all on the same level. Instead of being afraid of you we respected you.” (F, W, ’08)

“When you did it, i felt really comfortable being around you, since i didnt have to watch myself every single time and it felt like you were really one of us. You weren't our boring, get in class, read and get done homework "teacher" you were our mentor and I really did consider you as my friend, because of that I was more than glad to go to class and always excited to learn all the new things you were about to discuss. … I've always had and still do have a huge respect for you.” (#2, F, A, ‘08)

“…but also made me feel that you were one of 'us ' more then someone higher that we had to almost impress.” (#3, F, A, ’08)

“When you swore, it created a more relaxed environment and I felt the teacher/student divide lessened.” (F, A, ’07)

“when you swore along with us it made me feel like we were all on the same level, you werent any greater or lesser than us (even though you did have power haha) it didnt feel like we were being forced to be under your conrto [sic]” (F, L, ’08 & ’09)

“I can look up to you as someone that I can talk to as an equal. …  Not only that, when you talked about your day in SES, it was actually pretty amusing to hear a swear word here and there...having your period with the fucking cramps, It just made it more easier to understand how you're feeling and in all honesty, I can totally relate.”(#3, F, A, ’08)

As you can see, my use of swearing did a great deal to change the power differential.  Although the students cite respecting me, and looking up to me, there was less of a constraint around feeling like they had to express themselves the way they would to a teacher.  Which, going back to H&H’s previous point, also helps the classroom to be an open, comfortable space for exploration.

Let’s Bring This Home
As a potty mouth who had potty mouth students who all loved swearing … I am highly biased toward allowing it to occur.

But what about you and your sex ed classroom?  Keeping the aforementioned discussion of effective sexuality education classrooms in mind, here are some questions I would ask myself before hopping on the F-Train.

To Swear or Not To Swear
1.      What are your organizations’ rules around swearing?
a.       Is the language ambiguous to the point where swearing could be considered appropriate if properly defended?
2.      What are your students’ thoughts and feelings about swearing?
3.      If swearing is prohibited or frowned upon by your higher-ups, do you think you could convince your bureaucracy of why it’s a good idea?
a.       Despite my perceived benefits of allowing swearing to occur in a classroom, H&H do encourage having your administration on your side when setting up sex-ed.  I’d have to agree.  It’s better to keep your job and prohibit swearing than to allow swearing and risk your livelihood.
4.      Is swearing conducive to encouraging comfort and learning?
a.       Example: Reproductive biology is sex-ed.  Is swearing necessary to help students learn this?

If You Can Let Swearing Go Down
1.      Can you defend your reason for allowing students to swear?
2.      How can you set up ground rules that make swearing constructive and not destructive?
3.      How do you plan to enforce transgressions of any ground rules that occur?
4.      If having a power differential is a part of your educational style, how can you ensure that the power differential stays intact, despite allowing a broader range of student expression?

When You Swear
1.      What words are swear words that you use normally, if any?
2.      If you’re going to swear, what are your motivations?
a.       Are you swearing to ‘look cool’?
b.      Are you swearing for emphasis?
c.       Are you swearing as a part of your normal form of expression?
3.      Based on who you are, how do you think teens will respond to you swearing?
4.      How can you role model constructive, supportive use of swearing?
5.      Are you okay with allowing teens to swear even if you choose not to use swear words?

If the answers to the question are not conducive to increasing learning and engagement based on Hedgepeth and Helmich or the learning philosophy you live by in your classroom, swearing may not be the best strategy for you and your sex ed classroom.

However, if you can manage to make it something constructive, I hope that you’ve seen the possibility for how it can positively affect a classroom space.

Fuck yeah!

Becca Brewer

*My sincerest of apologies to any Arena football players or fans.