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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Language, Learning, and Lodestones

I love language, though I am not a linguistic professional.  I love the arts - especially film and theater, in which I have performed.  Language used by a character reveals much about them - their moral compass, passions, strengths, weaknesses, perception of reality, etc.  Sometimes the language can be crude and downright ugly.  

The strength of language can be understood in this passage, "Beware lest ye shed the blood of any one.  Unsheathe the sword of your tongue from the scabbard of utterance, for therewith ye can conquer the citadels of men's hearts." (Baha'u'llah, 'Epistle to the Son of the Wolf'

So powerful is a word that it is equated with a sword.  This is not the first use of such language.  Take a look at Proverbs 12:18 in the Bible - "Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing."

What kinds of words are 'reckless', when teaching?  Can a wise person use strong language?

When I performed on stage and used certain curses that fit the character, I was not disturbed by the words.  When I watched "Freedom Writers", "25th Hour", and "Goodwill Hunting" (to name a few) for the first time, the strong language fit the characters and didn't shock me.  Do I use this language in my everyday vernacular?  No.  Do I think that it is appropriate to spew such language for effect?  No.  I have watched films and heard everyday people use strong language and, at times, it just doesn't make sense.  But, when a person is deeply in pain (physically or mentally) - a primal scream seems logical.  You may ask - what does this have to do with learning?  Well, a teacher was recently suspended for 18 months for using the book "Freedom Writers' Journal" in class - even after getting 149 approvals out of 150 from parents.  You can read the details here - LINK 

Now, I don't claim to know intimate details of the situation and won't claim who is in the right, but the story is one for us to consider how language can be used to engage students.  I tend, rightly or wrongly, when speaking with someone to begin to blend my accent with theirs.  I believe this is a subconscious way to fit in and empathize.  It doesn't mean that I use the same strong language - but mimicking another (of which I became conscious of it after college) has an effect of opening up the conversation and walls begin to fall (perhaps conquering those citadels?), such that a connection can be made.  Isn't this what some, if not all, teachers do?  They connect (not to be confused with becoming like another student) and are better able to find those 'gems within' or help the student discover those 'gems within' himself/herself.

After reading the link above, you know that the book that the teacher shared with her students was filled with strong language.  It also demonstrates individual transformation and empowerment over the course of the book.  The transformation and empowerment was of individual students in similar life situations as those who were reading it.  The characters in the journal (real students and real journal entries in a class from L.A.) were models of transformation.  

How does the following quote fit with the aforementioned situation?

"A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men.  It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding" - Baha'u'llah, from 'Epistle to the Son of the Wolf'

As Baha'is we are to have seemly conduct.  In the Book of the Covenant, Baha'u'llah states, 
"Verily I say, the tongue is for mentioning what is good, defile it not with unseemly talk.  God hath forgiven what is past.  Henceforward everyone should utter that which is meet and seemly, and should refrain from slander, abuse and whatever causeth sadness in men."  In the same book He states, "We exhort you to fear God, to perform praiseworthy deeds and to do that which is meet and seemly and serveth to exalt your station."

Can strong language, when understood in context, be used to exalt one's station?  Can it be used to transform lives, to connect one's soul to one's true destiny and shake the dust from these shells called 'selves'?  Watch Anis Mojgani (two-time national and recent world slam poetry champion who is also Baha'i) perform his poem 'Shake the Dust'.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film 'Freedom Writers', is one that includes a student reading his journal entry recalling his summer.  He is the boy who begins with "This summer was the worst summer of my short 14 years of life..." - LINK
When watching the film, I thought that this had to be rewritten to increase the drama and make the audience cry.  Well, apparently it was lifted directly from a student's journal (the director stated as such).  These students were transformed and empowered - what more do we want?

I can see many tangents from this topic - the use of language to control, language as a political or power play, language as a divisive tool.  I leave you to take it where it may go in the comments.

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