Community Vernacular: Healing Fear Through Shared Language
I am so lucky to co-teach an English course for high school juniors, American Voices, with Kate Schenck and Megan Griffin. This past summer, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery, I found myself continually thinking of our course and grappling with my role as language teacher in a profoundly hurting American community. Considering the pain and protests across our country, I returned again and again to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “In final consideration, riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”
As a white woman with authority over a classroom, I have been allowed to not hear the pain of other members of my community. Unhearing, I have caused harm with my language. So, as I finally began to hear, I was struck dumb. I literally did not have the words. Moreover, I found I was not alone in that paralysis. Not only were we as a country failing at talking to and hearing each other, we and I had been failing for a long time. I came to see our failures of community as failures of communication – failures of language.
So, what do you do and say when you realize that you have been failing at language, indeed that as a country we seem to lack shared language for the world we live in? I saw many react to that question in similar ways: either becoming angry, insular, and loud, contending that former understandings of words were good enough; or becoming fearful, paralyzed, and silent when we have a duty not to be, terrified of being wrong.
Neither reaction heals.
But how do we solve that problem? How do we create a paradigm for building the community of a shared language? How do we care enough about words to risk being wrong and to learn to be right?
In the end, it was my students who inspired me most and helped me begin this journey of words: they are so brave about learning, risking, and growing, as long as they understand the reasons and the process. So, I set about organizing a process or scaffold to build a Community Vernacular for our classroom to start the messy ethical conversations we need to have to heal our community. Each of the following steps occurs during our class opening journal, or first ten to fifteen minutes of class time.
Step 1: Norms
The foundation for our Community Vernacular is knowledge that our great intuition and great fear is true: language is powerful and dangerous. Words are slippery and nuanced. Context is vast and elusive. Therefore, we needed the following list of norms to guide us as we approach language as a classroom community:
We assume best intent. Language is an ever-changing thing. Words have histories, connotations, and contexts that shift; ethics have gray areas; and, we all have blind spots. So, to brave peering into those blind spots, we agree to assume everyone in our class is trying (messily) to do the right thing.
We note and intentionally avoid words that we know cause harm. We do not ever use slurs. There are more than enough gray areas to go spelunking in without playing with words that are knives.
We seek out the best voices. While everyone’s voice is welcome and necessary in creating a shared language, there are people who have a deeper knowledge about certain words and experiences. These voices are prioritized and featured in researching and agreeing on our shared vernacular.
We talk through everything. No words are defined unilaterally. The value of a shared language is that it is shared. Everyone in our classroom community has her fingerprints on every definition.
Step 2: I am curious about…
As with all good learning, we start with curiosity. Fortunately, my students are endlessly curious! Not always about vocabulary in the abstract… but always about personal lives, ethics, and community. They are practically starving for the right language to engage with their world.
So, on this shared page, we have a list of “I am curious about…” words. Students create the list, adding to it at any time, using any words they encounter in their reading, social media scrolling, and conversations. My role is to remind them to use this process for words that feel particularly powerful – words where the dictionary does not give us enough context to feel safe using them. Words that need the context of a community understanding.
Step 3: Journal, Research, and Question
We begin each week with the same question: What word are you curious about this week? The class will select one word from our shared “I am curious about” list, then we use techniques I have shamelessly stolen from Kate, Megan, and the Institute of Writing and Thinking at Bard College to write and to think about our curiosities. I ask the students to take stock of and own their current perspective by privately journaling on the word for five minutes. Even if we think we do not know the word, we bravely push through the paralysis of “I don’t know anything.” Instead, we write and consider together: What do I know or think about this word? Where have I heard it before? What does it sound like?
Step 4: What context or questions do I have or want?
After about five minutes, we then take time to peer into our blind spots, looking for the best voices to supplement, support, or challenge our thinking. In other words, we spend eight minutes Googling. It sounds short and silly, but you would be surprised how many articles, facts, historical contexts, etc. a community of eighteen girls can generate in eight minutes with a search engine. Also, this process trains us that the first response to curiosity and confusion should be responsible independent research, and taking responsibility for our own learning versus leaning on others, especially those who shoulder the burden of the words, to educate us. As they find credible sources, they paste key phrases and links into the “Research” column on the “Words I am Curious About” page.
After this research, we then open up a class discussion. Everyone shares at least one part of their research. This is not the time to nail down a definition, but rather to have conversations, share better voices, ask better questions, and challenge our assumptions. During this time, I will serve as scribe for the conversation in the “Class Notes” section.
When we have a set of bullet points related to our word, we finish for the day. We give ourselves time to percolate because growth takes time and space to breathe.
Step 5: Craft a Shared Definition
This brings us to Definition Day. The next day of class starts with our word for the week posted into the “Definitions” Page.
Again we start by journaling and writing individually. Each person reviews the notes from the previous class and drafts a definition for the word. Everyone is expected to generate both a definition and a “Note” to help use the word, informed by its context. Notes range from examples, to history, to context, to preferred usage, to connotations, to alternate or contrasting terms.
Then, one at a time, everyone gets their fingerprints on the definition. It is worth noting here that “everyone having her fingerprints on the definition” does not mean that everyone’s say in the definition is the same. We are done when each person has added to the definition, condensed the phrasing, added necessary context, given an example, provided a better voice to guide our shared definition, or edited for clarity.
Finally, once we have agreed to a shared definition, we cite our sources.
In this process, I have been blown away by the conversations that my students have. About these challenging words – yes! – and still more about the communities that they belong to and their vision for the world. They fill me with so much hope that the failures of community are no more permanent than failures of vocabulary. Certainly, learning new words takes time, work, context, correction, and humility. Ethical community even more so. But we can work toward a community that is that brave. We can joyfully see that our individual definitions (and worldviews) are incomplete without the careful intentional use that connects them to others--to meaning. We can learn to listen for the best voices and to truly hear in words, not only in riots. We can speak when we ought to. We can cultivate a shared language.
Rachel Davies currently teaches mostly junior and senior level English at an all-girls independent school. She has also taught middle school and high school English in Central Texas, and K-8 Music at a Title I charter school. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Dallas. Beyond her background in English and teaching, she also has a Master of Music in Opera Performance, and has a career as an operatic mezzo. Rachel is an inimitable young troubadour who composes both melodies and manifestos, spreading joyful truths while on her sojourns.