07 January 2014

Empathy & Acceptance: Toward a gender-neutral classroom

Through Her Eyes Film

The debates within and surrounding LGBTQ communities about gender identity and sexual orientation, and how individuals (and groups) express themselves, are reaching a sort of critical mass. Educators would be remiss to ignore it. Nobody explains the situation more fluently than Peter DeWitt, author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students.



In the classroom, the first step can only be to tear down obvious and ubiquitous bias. As Dawn Casey-Rowe documents in the article, Does Gender Bias Affect The Way You Teach?, the negative effects of bias persist even when it arises from positive intentions. Pernille Ripp addresses the issue from a different perspective by asking, Are the Boys Welcome in Your Room?. I would argue that even the notion that boys and girls have stereotypical preferences should be categorically rejected in the classroom. Societies do not need any help promoting traditional gender roles. In fact, I believe that the messages from media and commercial ventures about gender and sexuality should be subdued, filtered, and contextualized in order to empower every individual to thrive.

As an elementary educator, I feel the responsibility to promote a culture of Empathy and Acceptance. I am also in an ideal position to do so.

While I may not directly address gender and sexuality issues in my classroom as one would in secondary education, there are several practices that I have adopted in order to make my classroom a welcoming place for every learner. If we seek to design and manage a learning environment which is safe for inquiry, exploration, creativity, and collaboration, it must be based on trust. If children trust that the adults in their lives will never embarrass or pass judgment on them, particularly regarding such personal topics, a potential obstacle to learning has already been overcome. Modeling those behaviors for other students also nurtures a positive and supportive community.

Here are a few of my policies:

- Never group students according to gender. In fact, I would prefer not to indicate gender on role sheets because if the environment is truly inclusive, the only reason to know a person's gender in advance would be based on an extraordinary special need. If a child tells me 'I'm a boy', then he's a boy; if a child tells me 'I'm a girl', then she's a girl. Otherwise, it doesn't matter to me and shouldn't matter to anyone.

- Never generalize based on gender. For example, make statements like 'some people prefer' rather than 'girls prefer', or 'people enjoy different activities' rather than 'boys like sports'. Freeing myself from gender stereotypes has been very liberating and helps my students to feel more at ease and accepted as they inquire into their identities. Play Fair is a wonderful blog whose mission is 'fighting to end stereotyping in children's toys and media'.

- Students in my school change clothes for physical education classes, and I wish there were a more private option to having 'boys' and 'girls' changing rooms. Ideally, we would have private changing booths like clothing store dressing rooms, although I recognize the logistical challenges this would pose.

- Design situations so that gender-based preferences or exceptions should never be necessary.

- Rather than trying to appeal to perceived preferences related to gender, appeal to learning modalities, various forms of intelligence, and directly to students' interests, as in Independent Inquiry.

- Directly address conflict and debate related to gender and sexuality issues from the perspective of empathy and acceptance, and actively model the behaviors and thought processes associated with an open-minded point-of-view.

Considered choices in classroom language can contribute a great deal to a culture of acceptance. In the Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language by the National Council of Teachers of English, many simple and powerful suggestions are made.

Substituting for inherently biased terms is also a good habit to establish. One of my favorite bloggers on Tumblr, Ben Crowther, shared a photo of a table of 'Suggestions for Reducing Gendered Terms in Language'. Some that are immediately applicable in an elementary setting are to use 'humanity' instead of 'mankind', 'firefighter' and 'police officer' instead of 'fireman' and 'policeman', and 'kinship' instead of 'brotherhood'. Many of these have become conventional already, and I expect that this progress toward more inclusive language will continue.

Singular 'they' is a fascinating idea, though I must admit it feels rather awkward to use 'they' or 'them' when referring to one person, but has the potential to begin to dissolve the gender-specific nature of language. Another option is to simply use a person's name whenever referring to them instead of using a pronoun and/or avoid assigning pronouns to people at all. It may sound strange at first, but with a bit of creativity, becomes as fluent and natural as the gender-based system we currently use.

'When Sam is done with her assignment, she should give it to her friend to read.'

What if Sam identifies as a boy? What if Sam doesn't identify with a gender at all? Avoid assigning her a pronoun a pronoun to a person like this:

'When Sam is done with the assignment, it should be given to a friend to read.'

Save the pronouns for the things, and the dignity and privacy for the people!

I certainly wouldn't consider myself an expert, but I think this is a conversation educators should be having candidly. After all, how can we expect to model empathy and acceptance if we don't practice it ourselves?

(2014.01.08 edit: Just discovered this poignant e-book, Let's Talk About Gender & Sexuality: A guide for friends and family of LGBT*QIA individuals.)