I always get a bit nervous when we get to this discussion, which I’ve used online for three years now. My 8th graders are reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and talking about the N-word is an important part of understanding the book and its historical context.
I make clear up front that kids are not to use the word, either speaking or writing. I also tell them that some people think they shouldn’t read this book, because those people think they can’t distinguish between a word they read and a word they can say – which my students find insulting.
At the start, I thought kids might just parrot ideas from the readings I gave them (which included an Ebony editorial, and an article about censorship of the word in a dramatic version of To Kill a Mockingbird). There was a bit of that, but while middle school kids can suck up, they tend to leap directly from brain to output, without benefit of a whole lot of editing.
What happened in the discussion forum was a real conversation, with kids saying what they really think. From one telling people to get used to hearing the N-word since it is popular in the black community, to another stating the word should be able to be used by either all groups or none, to another asking about its use in literature (we had been talking about the Huck Finn controversy).
Here’s another cool thing. The work was due before Tuesday morning, but here it is Wednesday night and they’re still posting to the discussion. When they’re not interested, the conversation stops on the due date. But here, there have already been two extra days of discussion so far.
And everybody is part of the conversation, including those who never used to talk in class. This is one of the things I like about online discussion - everybody gets to play.