Last Saturday I had the opportunity to come together with teachers, youth, families and caregivers at the GLSEN Massachusetts Fall Conference. We spent some time learning together about ways to support early elementary children who identify as gender-creative, gender-nonconforming and transgender. The attendees and I developed checklists of concrete things we can do to make our classrooms friendly for and inclusive of children all across the gender spectrum. Here is what we came up with!
Things We Can Do Right Now
o Find out what pronouns people prefer. Ask rather than assume. This can be as easy as sharing your own. I might say, “My name is Jackie and I like for people to use she/her/hers when they talk about me. What pronouns do you prefer?”
o Mobilize the classroom teddy bear. Use bears or classroom “mascots” to model positions on the gender spectrum. That way, students can get used to what it feels like to use pronouns like “they” for a person who does not identify as male or female, for example. Also critically examine the environmental print, posters and decorations in the classroom to make sure your classroom walls are affirming to people across the gender spectrum.
o Call people by the pronouns they prefer. If you mess up and call someone by the incorrect pronoun, correct right away and apologize. People are usually really understanding and know you are trying your best to honor their personhood.
o Support your own gender inclusive practice in pro-active ways. Find ways to remind yourself that genders exist on a spectrum, not a binary. Ask yourself frequently, “Am I using gender-inclusive language? Or does my language assume gender?” Use sticky notes in your lesson planner or other visible places to help yourself remember.
o Encourage expression and exploration. Encourage children and youth to express themselves by providing safe spaces. Remember, expression can also be quiet: It sometimes helps if young children have high quality, gender-inclusive literature to read and art materials available.
o Support parents, families and caregivers where they are. Remind them that unlearning the gender binary takes time, that you support them on their journey, that you are not judging them, and that you like, believe in, and support their child.
o Make more unicorns. Encourage schools, churches, libraries and municipal spaces to have inclusive bathrooms—sometimes these “unisex” bathrooms have fun names like unicycle or unicorn bathrooms (sometimes with fun pictures on the doors)! These can also simply be “family” bathrooms that are gender inclusive.
o Affirm that we are people first. Be careful of how you use “boys” and “girls” in the classroom. Try not to use these at all and replace them with “people.” As in, “I need three strong people to help me move a large piece of furniture.”
o Make spaces for safe talk. Consider starting a gender group at your school. For younger students, this can be as simple as reading picture books or other literature that opens the door and provides healthy language for talking about gender. Conversations that happen at snack or other quiet times can be casual and productive.
o Support teachers and school communities. Provide opportunities for teachers to talk about gender, especially as it appears in classroom practice. Incorporate materials from genderspectrum.org or other resources in the Professional Development library at your school, and consider bringing specialists to the school to support teachers.
o Get comfortable with they/them/their. If you are teaching grammar lessons or writing word problems in mathematics, use a variety of pronouns, including “they/their/them.” Point out that using They as a pronoun for a single person may “feel” grammatically incorrect, but that we are going to put respect for people ahead of linguistics.
o Lots of different kinds of bodies are healthy bodies. Do you teach the Healthy Bodies or similar unit/curriculum? In the lower elementary grades, most of what we might call healthe education focuses parts of the body. So, when you teach about the body, remember to be affirming and separate biological sex/genitals from gender identity. Also be cognizant that not everybody’s private parts look or function the same way. No need to make a big deal about it, but instead of saying ALL bodies do something, or ALL boys have certain parts, just say MOST or SOME. You’d be amazed at the difference it makes to leave this little bit of wiggle room.
o All activities should be for everyone. This is a hard one. While we know that there are some activities and clubs that are “for boys” or “for girls” for a variety of reasons, make sure that you are critical and careful of how you frame who gets to do what and ask yourself the hard question: do we really need to reify gender in this way? For example, when I was a classroom teacher we had a lunchtime friendship group for girls in response to some bullying among the girls in the classroom. We started the group as a girls’ space, but soon feminine boys in the class wanted to join, then other boys wanted to talk about friendship, and so on. We had to think critically about why we separated girls and boys, and open up to a bigger conversation—one that was a lot harder to have—about what gender was, and what it wasn’t. The group became a group for everyone, one that didn’t force people to identify one way or the other. In athletics, there should be room for girls on the football team, and boys on the field hockey team, and so on.
o Keep school uniforms, well, uniform. If wearing a skirt is an option for some people, it should be an option for all people. Similarly, if pants are an option for some people, they should be an option for everyone. There is no reason why your school uniforms cannot be uniform.
o No bullies, please. If your school or classroom does not have an anti-bullying curriculum, consider getting one. Refer to GLSEN and genderspectrum.org for some good examples of programs that explicitly address LGBTQ folks, and gender and sexuality.