Teaching The N-Word To EFL Students: Nigger In The Classroom, Or, More Than A Survival Strategy

The survival strategy is quite simple: NEVER say (or write) the N-word. Never speak the unspeakable word: Nigger.

If our EFL/ESL students follow that strategy, they will survive their encounters with anyone who has dark skin, anywhere on this planet. That alone is very valuable, but if our goal is a deeper understanding, then we must bring nigger in the classroom.

The poetry of Alice Walker can help us do that. Who is Alice Walker?

She is the winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize. Alice is probably best known for her 1982 novel, “The Color Purple”, which was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg, with Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover in starring roles.

Walker’s first poem is called, ” Of Course He Said Nigger.” It connects well with Muhammad Ali’s famous decision to not fight for the USA in the Vietnam War, because as he put it: The Vietnamese people, “they never called me nigger.”

Muhammad-Ali-Alice-Walker-Garden-2016-06-04

Excerpt from the poem, “Of Course He Said Nigger” (copyright 2018 by Alice Walker)

Of course he said nigger
You would too
If you hung out with the niggers
He surrounds himself with
When you’re not looking,
In all their gold chains
Wristwatches
And teeth. That’s how
they talk.
Grow up.
Stop talking
About “the N word”
As if it is more important
Than the countries
He bombs
Or the children
He starves.

Nigger has a meaning
You would have to live
Lifetimes
To comprehend…
(end of excerpt)

The second poem by Alice Walker that we want to look at is called,
“Nigger”, In The Language of Love (Turning A Poison Into Medicine)

Pretty soon we might all be niggers –
A just karma is beginning to
snow down upon us.
Maybe you will be happier then:
to find you can indeed
live on your knees
and sometimes create a tune
or fashion a break dance
there.

Among our people,
During enslavement and segregation,
Known otherwise as
“the extended period of identity eradication,”
“nigger” became a bonding word, a word of self-defense,
a claim of solidarity. It could signify intimacy,
brother or sisterhood;
a playful, or anguished invitation to acknowledge
shared abuse. A stubborn standing…
(end of excerpt)

Now, how can we possibly use this deep poetry? Is it too much for our students? Are you saying something like, “The words don’t mean what they mean. It’s metaphorical, figurative, not literal. An EFL/ESL student will never understand that.”

All right. In that case, tell your students: Never say the N-word…

But, if our goal is to achieve a deeper, more profound understanding of the N-word, this poetry is lovely, dark, and deep. It invites our students to actively engage and reflect on what Alice Walker is trying to teach us about the N-word.

All right. First things first. David Ausubel famously wrote in 1968: “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.” So, we need to find out what our students already know about this topic.

I recommend combining a K-W-L graphic organiser with a Pyramid Speaking Activity. I would ask all students to divide a sheet of paper into 3 columns and use one of the letters K, W, or L for each column:

Column K:
This is the What-I-Know column. Here, the students write what they already know about the N-word.

Column W:
This is the What-I-Want-To-Know column. Here, the students write what they want to know about this topic.

Column L:
This is the What-I-Learned column. Here, the students write what they learned at the end of the activity.

Next, after the students have filled in their K-W-L charts, I would put them in pairs for two minutes to share their work with one another. After those 2 minutes, I would put them in groups of 4 for another 2 minutes.

After those 2 minutes, I would put them in groups of 8 for another 2 minutes. After that, I would ask someone from each group to share with the whole class what they had learned from each other.

Pedagogical Comments:

This is a significant learning experience. This activity personalizes the learning, gives each member of the class an opportunity to speak multiple times, and permits the students to work together to construct their own meaning, with the teacher acting as a facilitator. Most of us can recognize this as Vygotsky’s ZPD, a student-centred, constructivist approach to learning.

What’s our next step?

Now, we have to deal with Alice Walker. Who is Alice Walker?

We have many activity options here, but I recommend having students make a PowerPoint (10-12 slides) or a short 3-5 minute video about the biography of Alice Walker.

We want to try to understand how her background might be affecting her poetry, especially her attitude about the N-word. Can we trust her? Is she speaking for herself, or is she the voice of many voiceless men and women?

That is why we find out about her personal history, her life experience. We critically question whether or not she is bringing an unbiased, authentic perspective to her poetry. Later, we will also critically question her poetry in the same way.

Again, we must we be critical, holding what she tells us always to the light of day. Is Alice reliable? To find out, this biographical work is essential for us.

What’s our next step?

Once again, we have many options. Here are a few possibilities:

1) reading the poem aloud, 2) reading silently, 3) re-reading, 4) paired reading, 5) pre-teaching vocabulary, grammar, and/or poetic devices, 6) reading comprehension questions, 7) write a personal response to the poem, 8) visualising, 9) drawing, 10) Performance Poetry (Act Out The Poem), 11) continue the poem/add another verse, 12) change the title, 13) Numbered Heads, 14) Debate, 15) Illustrate the poem, 16) Interview the author, 17) make a movie of the poem, etc.

We literally have a tremendous number of ways to work with the two poems to take advantage of the strengths of our students.

All of the work we do however, seeks to help our students construct a deeper, richer, more nuanced understanding of the N-word.

To conclude, finish up with the KWL activity we used in the beginning. Have your students share with each other what they have learned, the L column of their KWL chart.

At the end of the day, this is a way of bringing nigger in the classroom that is more than a survival strategy.

I sincerely believe our students will have something pretty amazing to share with us that will help to make this world a better place to live in…

Peace.

Chile ╚► https://amzn.to/2CzNORd

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About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
This entry was posted in Black History Month, Culture, Education, EFL, Politics, Reading, Reflections, Research, Teaching Tips, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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