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Calling For a Code of Ethical Talk About Children in Educational Settings

There is a universally available way to accomplish a significant educational reform with positive outcomes. This reform requires serious work, but needs very few additional resources! It can be accomplished right now by people of common purpose who wish to make a significant change in their school or workplace. It can be individualized to any university teacher preparation program, K-12 school, or agency serving children in any capacity. This reform has the power to stand against the forces of bias and discrimination that are couched in the ways in which children and families are discussed every day. It is a practicable and doable way to improve educational opportunities for every child.

This reform would be the creation and adoption of a code of ethical talk about children in educational or child-service settings. Language is the cultural tool with which constructions of deficiency and superiority are made, and the “language environment” of an institution is how these constructions are put into practice.

My work focuses on the language environments created by “talk” in educational institutions. These environments frequently embody labels, stratifications, and classifications about children that can encourage or stifle their progress. In my experience, many dedicated and hard-working educational professionals have not had the opportunity to think about how their words should be guided by ethics whenever they are creating cultural representations of their students – in school and in society. Language embodying negative or discriminatory assumptions about some children and families can be the unexamined “norm” in many institutions. I enjoy working with professionals in a variety of settings who have the desire to reflect on their language environment and develop an ethical code for language about children. This new environment can be realistic and honest while also reflecting the most important educational ethic — no child should be harmed in the process of education!

Why are children harmed by adult conversations out of their hearing that demean their abilities, their characteristics or their families? They are harmed because talk is an action and a behavior that makes things happen and continue to happen. For example, although kindergarten entry readiness tests should not be used for placement purposes, a school might possibly group the children who score the lowest in a “transitional kindergarten class.” Ideally, that class should help the children catch up where needed. However, if the educators and administrators routinely refer to the class as “the kids who aren’t ready” – that becomes an unfair label of deficiency that can follow the children from grade to grade. This can continue to lower expectations in a way that negatively affects school outcomes. Unfortunately, the generalized use of a term implying deficits has an even more damaging impact when the children deemed to be “not ready” are experiencing poverty and/or have racial or ethnic characteristics that create further unjust marginalization.

Talk matters! The above scenario does not have to take place! A code of ethics implemented in a school or educational institution can focus on misuse of language about ability, classifications, tracking, test scores, family and community characteristics, and racial or cultural assumptions. Language can promote the kind of open-mindedness that helps educators to notice and capitalize on changes in children that labels of deficiency can hide.

Thank you for entering my blog! I will continue to write about ways in which “talk” has the power to create positive and negative outcomes for students – and how we call all be a part of a change for the better in the ways children are discussed in educational environments. 

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Announcing Beatrice Fennimore’s new Workshops and Professional Development program, “Talk Matters.”