Broken Bell Education in Israel - Monkey-See Monkey-Do

Broken bell classroom
Broken bell classroom

How many bars of soap would it take to wash out the mouths of our most vulgar students?  I'm not advocating such an archaic punishment, but if I hear just one more Junior High school student offer greetings and salutations to his peers with a: "wassup beeach"? or "how'z it mother f@cker?", I am going to lose my composure and thrash someone with a complete, unabridged Webster's dictionary. Young teenage boys are readily emulating the language of violent rap musicians and street gangsters.  Everyday in our school, I hear English expletives spewing ad-nausea from our adolescent males.  And yet sadly, many of these boys can't communicate at the most rudimentary level in English.  So why are they making concerted efforts in an esoteric area such as "black English." (for an excellent description of black English see Lazarus and The Hurricane :Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, St. Martin's Griffin, New York, 1991.)

Anyone familiar with inner city speech – I worked the streets of urban Hartford, Connecticut for ten years as a social worker – is exposed to a curious mix of street phrases, profanity and harsh language. People are often very direct with their diction for day to day survival and "keeping it real".  But this oral venue is somewhat different than the prolific misogyny and violent themes competing for our children's developing minds and souls on the airwaves in modern western culture.

Many of my students, particularly those enamored by high profile athletes sporting fashionable tattoos, and rap stars characterized in MTV videos as macho shepherds tending their flocks of promiscuous bikini and lingerie brothels, have outright explained to me that: "we want to talk like the niggers."  Most of these kids have never conversed with an educated or culturally sophisticated person of color, leaving any notion of Black culture to be conveyed via the airwaves of Hollywood, YouTube and MTV.

An education in Black History would show these students that African-Americans calling one another degrading terms like "nigger" were a sign of self-hatred resulting from centuries of colonialism and slavery.  As Chaiton and Swinton say: "to be educated is to be able to discriminate a fact from a fiction, to be hip enough to know when you are being misled."  For such an "on your toes" society like Israel, the deception of our own Israeli youth by the globalization of western culture is tantamount to intellectual and cultural genocide.

Rap is a wonderful art form revived from the early bebob days of American Jazz.  There are plenty of talented, contemporary rap artists and urban musicians (one of my favorites are The Neville Brothers) who write inspiring lyrics to heal and restore respect to broken communities.   We should steer our children in the direction of more positive artists, helping them to realize that options are available and conscientious decision-making is a sign of spiritual health and moral maturity.

Swearing can have many origins.  I tell my students that people who swear tend to have poor vocabularies.  Difficulties controlling anger can also preclude this tendency to use "four letter words." Now I do agree that certain words just feel better rolling off the tongue during bouts of stress; darn, heck and jeez just don't seem to lead to a cathartic experience necessary to release our rage.   But do we have to compromise our entire lexicon at the risk of sounding like video lackeys?  On the contrary, I am looking for substitutes, words that you could use to express annoyance, surprise, and disbelief. (see

People learn a language in chunks, so swears are easily stored and retrieved as bits of authentic language.   Kids think they are speaking coolly but in fact they are parroting the low brow ideals of their entertainment heroes.  While it may seem "weak" to refrain from swearing and consciously choosing other words to vent what's troubling you, with practice it can be quite uplifting.  I've encouraged my own kids to substitute "rats"  - thanks Charles Shultz -  for the now popular "shit" in Israel.  Once they get used to it, you'd be surprised how happily they accept the arrangement.

Once in a blue moon, students are given the chance to select music to be broadcast over the public address system at our school.  On the last occasion, during a twenty-five minute break, a sexually explicit song that essentially described a man's infatuation with his girlfriend's genitalia, blared over the speaker like an unrelenting, disembodied voice at a POW internment camp.   I doubt that few of the English as a Second Language speakers on campus caught the "gist" of the song.  Actually most  of the students seemed to enjoy the music, for lack of a better word.

The following day, I heard a student performing for his friends during another break between classes, chanting a line from the song verbatim, with rhythm, incantation and gesture.  They all seemed so amused and impressed with his English prowess.  I didn't have the heart to convey how thoroughly embarrassed I felt for him.  Some things are better left unsaid.  Maybe I'll download some "Arrested Development" for him instead.

2 comment

english teacher5 year, 5 month ago

Nothing works like telling the truth. I came up with the perfect solution to the use of the "F" word in my seventh grade(!) class. Sick of hearing S--- and F--- bandied around freely in my lessons, I decided to reveal all. First I gave them a quick lecture about why not to swear in any language (my arguments were similar to yours) and proceeded to tell them, in polite Hebrew, the exact meaning of the S and F words. They were so embarrassed that I have never heard them swear since.

David Siegel5 year, 5 month ago

I like your approach. Many of these kids are desensitized to swear words. Contrastive analysis of these words to their native language sounds like it was the right medicine! The only hitch I have encountered in the upper grades is that many kids aren't easily embarrassed these days. You must have really laid it on thick. Thanks for sharing your success story!