A Lesson on the N-Word

You can’t teach the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and not discuss the n-word. Ignoring it is irresponsible. So, how does a teacher engage her class in a discussion around this very controversial and complicated word? 

It begins with love. I teach this because I hope to impact my students in a way that causes them to become critical thinkers. I want them to challenge the world around them. I want them to see others as humans and not repeat the atrocities committed against other humans in the past. So, I lead this lesson from a place of love.

Students need to speak and be heard. My lesson begins with the acknowledgement that this is uncomfortable and touchy. I address the tension in the room and use my sense of humor to diffuse that a bit. I also preface with some rules for engagement, and let them know that this is the perfect time to ask those questions that have been burning in them. This lesson, this day, is a great opportunity to make a mistake. Here’s one of the slides I use to start the dialogue:

N Word

It’s important to offer diverse voices and points of view. The selection of materials for this discussion has to be delicate, critical, diverse, and thoughtful. I can’t show superficial videos or read articles that will shut down any sides to the conversation. A well rounded set of sources provokes critical thinking. We usually watch this CNN clip featuring Marc Lamont Hill. We also watch this exchange between two television anchors as they debate about Former President Barack Obama’s use of the n-word. We also watch a selection of videos from this Washington Post Project called The N-Word.

Independent reflection space is key. When we are done with our group discussions, I believe in independent processing time. I offer students a writing assessment where they can use to reflect on points made and develop their own stance, to the best of their ability. The expectation is that they will go beyond synthesizing into developing a point of view. My goal is to have them explore this issue and think deeply; be prepared to engage outside of my classroom and defend a thoughtful stance. Here’s what the prompt looks like:

N Word (1)

Individual engagement with me is necessary. How I respond to those one page responses is also important. This is where I can encourage, challenge, critique, and/or question statements and stances that students develop. We do it on an individual level, via my comments on their Google document instead of in public in front of other students. This type of individualized attention continues to build my relationship with each student and builds trust. When it’s time to engage (again) in a whole group discussion about these controversial and uncomfortable topics, students feel supported and acknowledged and this is why they participate.

A lesson on the n-word is not easy. It’s not comfortable. It can’t be a simple lesson plan that a teacher copies because this requires YOU to be present and engaged. You need your own swag. But for sure, start with love, push them into discomfort, and wait on the other end with open arms. 


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