Taking Action on the R-Word

Derogatory language is common at the high school where I teach.
Grade Level

I call students out whenever I hear them calling names or using profanity, and I often get into deep discussions about why it’s a problem. Recently, I decided that I needed to do more. So I developed an interactive lesson plan to use whenever the situation dictates. Each semester, no matter which courses I’m teaching, I abandon my lesson plans at some point to “take action on the r-word.”

As students enter the room, they’re challenged to identify one word that best describes them. Some students choose adjectives like spectacular, fabulous and chill. Others identify with their social group, writing words like jock, emo and skater. They record their word on a name tag and stick it to their shirt so they can wear it loud and proud.

After a brief classroom discussion about labeling, I select five students by drawing names from a hat and bring them to the front of the class. In order not to marginalize anyone, the five selected students randomly choose new name tags I’ve prepared with derogatory words on them (retard, moron, dumb, imbecile, stupid). They’re challenged to imagine how different their lives might be if these were the labels they were forced to wear.

With these thoughts swirling around, we then work through a presentation about the issues of derogatory language. This briefly addresses the history of words, synonymous meanings, oppression and the emotional hurt caused by these words. If time permits, we also explore the similarities between the civil rights movement and the disability rights movement. Examples from students’ personal experiences enhance this portion of the lesson.

With a better understanding of the issue, we brainstorm ideas of what we can do to combat derogatory language. One obvious idea that comes out of this discussion is that students can speak up when they hear the word.

Students work in groups to create skits based on scenarios prepared in advance. In each, they hear derogatory language and have to find an appropriate way to respond. Following the performances, students complete a brief reflective exit pass based on their learning experiences of the day.

Tracy Beck
White Oaks Secondary School
Oakville, Ontario


Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More