Jordan walked in on the first day of school full of slouchy teenage mojo. As I surveyed the class, matching names to seventh-grade faces, I took a longer second look at Jordan. Eighties throwback skinny jeans, oversized black hoodie, sneakers created for skateboarding, and side-swept, chin-length hair—nothing about Jordan’s appearance marked an “obvious” gender identity.
For weeks I danced verbally around Jordan because I didn’t want to use the wrong pronoun.
I was so awkward. I overly used Jordan’s name: “Jordan, you’ll be the leader of your group, and Megan, you’ll also be with Jordan. Jordan will lead discussions by showing Jordan’s think-alouds about the text.” I made a special effort to get to know Jordan and Jordan’s friends, hoping to hear one of them utter a pronoun in reference to Jordan so I would know which direction to point my speech. I had no idea how to have a conversation about gender identity with Jordan.
I am a member of the LGBT community. I volunteer my summers in my community’s LGBT activist center, and I work diligently alongside colleagues to bring LGBT issues into classrooms. But I had no idea how to address the fact that, eventually, I’d have to find out which pronoun to use for Jordan.
Three weeks into school, hypervigilance of my pronoun usage failed me, and I called Jordan “him.” I was wrong. I embarrassed Jordan. I felt the full weight my failure fall on me in a matter of moments.
Gender is a social construct. A person may identify with a gender different from his or her biological sex or may express his or her gender in a manner that does not fit with society’s expectation of what a boy or a girl should look and act like. Because gender is so fluid, queer theorists tells us that it’s not only acceptable but also necessary to ask students what pronoun they’d like us to use. Taking the time to do this with Jordan would have saved me—and her—considerable embarrassment.
Further, queer theory offers pronoun usage beyond “him” and “her.” One gender-neutral pronoun becoming more widely accepted when referring to a person in singular form is “they.” A second option is using pronouns that completely depart from traditional usage, such as the gender-neutral “ze” (pronounced “zee”) or “hir” (pronounced “here”).
The problem with these gender-neutral pronouns is that—because they are still not mainstream—using them inevitably draws attention to the person they reference. Students not previously exposed to gender construction, expression and fluidity may be hostile to these ideas; using alternative pronouns could worsen the situation for a transgender or gender-queer student. Creating an inclusive environment for transgender and gender-fluid students means taking the time to have those tough conversations and changing the way we approach gender in the classroom—steps that can pave the way for using gender-neutral pronouns safely if that’s what a student prefers.
In 2010, the LGBT advocacy group GLSEN released a study and a set of recommended practices for creating safe classrooms. The study cited as the most critical steps the need for inclusive language; availability of supportive staff members; curricular resources that include representation of LGBT people; and anti-harassment polices needed to create a safe school environment for LGBT students. The study went on to include important special considerations for trans students. The researchers recommend that teachers must “explicitly address issues and experiences specific to transgender students.” Discussing gender identity, gender expression and society’s narratives about gender roles in the classroom creates a space where students can not only critically examine the construct of gender, but also become more accepting of others’ gender identities.
Additionally, Campus Pride provides resources to help colleges and universities become more inclusive of the gender spectrum. Some of these policies and talking points can be applied in middle and high schools, and the site also links to other organizations that promote best practices for gender inclusivity.
Big strides have been made by and for transgender and gender-fluid students. The group Privacy for All Students has helped the “bathroom law” gain real momentum in California. Facebook recently made a widely publicized shift to add multiple gender identity choices to its profile settings. In our efforts to honor, respect and validate transgender and gender-fluid students and others, we must promote these successes as we work through our own ignorance and mistakes. We must hold each other accountable but also with the utmost compassion as we work toward a more inclusive reality for all of us.
Ricket is a high school English teacher in Ohio.
Editor’s note: Today, Teaching Tolerance releases Teaching the Movement 2014, a report detailing the state of civil rights education in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This post is an excerpt from the introduction, written by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Want to have a conversation about race?
“The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time,” baseball’s first black major leaguer once said. Really, it is the most important issue of every time. Not only is citizenship in a democracy a status one inherits or receives, it is a history each must carry forward to shape the future, a right that withers without constant vigilance and renewal.
Few understood this better than Jackie Robinson, the son of Georgia sharecroppers who, after lettering in four sports at U.C.L.A. and a court-martial trial prompted by his refusal to sit in the back of an army bus, stepped onto the field as a Brooklyn Dodger in April 1947 as a symbol of African Americans’ centuries-old quest to be regarded as citizens of equal rank.
“In order for America to be 100 percent strong—economically, defensively, and morally,” Robinson said, “we cannot afford the waste of having second- and third-class citizens.” The mission he had undertaken, what for decades members of the civil rights movement signed up for, was not simply an African-American or regional concern, but a model of resistance worthy of the nation’s founding ideals, too long subsumed. “Negroes aren’t seeking anything which is not good for the nation as well as ourselves,” Robinson explained. He was a true American hero.
Yet, despite the fact that his is the only number retired by every professional baseball team, Jackie Robinson is, at present, required teaching in only nine U.S. states, which, when it comes to preparing students in history, are in charge of what is and what is not covered. As surprising a fact as this is, Robinson fares better than other game-changing pioneers of the civil rights movement.
Two years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project sounded the alarm over the pervasive neglect of this history with its one-of-a-kind report card measuring state education standards. In that initial study, 35 states received a failing grade of F. Now, the SPLC has done it again, with improved benchmarking and greater state involvement. Yet, while there has been noteworthy progress since 2011, there are still 20 F’s out there, with twelve states requiring no teaching of the civil rights movement at all. To be commended are the three A’s in the group—Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina—as well as California, which jumped from F to B under the SPLC’s updated evaluation system. Remarkably, however, when you add up all the A’s and B’s, seven out of 11 are former Confederate states, only reinforcing the dangerous misperception that black history is regional or only necessary where large pockets of African Americans reside.
Even more disturbing to me: Fewer than half of U.S. states today include in their major curriculum documents any information on Jim Crow laws, which, for a century, divided citizens by color according to the paradoxical formula, “separate but equal.” If students don’t understand these laws, or how they impacted the course of history, how will they ever be able to grasp the century of delay following emancipation that Dr. King pivoted from in the spontaneous “Dream” section of his iconic speech at the March on Washington in 1963? Or what the lawyers in Brown were up against? Or why the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were and remain necessary manifestations of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws”?
Want to have a meaningful “conversation about race”? That conversation, to be effective and to last, to become part of the fabric of the national American narrative, must start in elementary school, and continue all the way through graduation from high school. Teaching naturalizes history; the content that is taught in our schools makes knowledge second nature. And until the contributions of African Americans become second-nature to all American school children, desperate calls for one more “conversation about race” are destined to repeat themselves—in an endless cycle—following the next race-based hate crime.
Want to honor the people who gave their lives and risked so much during the movement? Ask your school leaders to improve their design for teaching the history of the civil rights movement and for interweaving the sweep of African-American history into your child’s social studies curriculum. It must be taught. It must be nurtured. It must be sustained.
Gates is an Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
February and March present a special problem for social justice educators. While everyone from administrators to advertisers are promoting Black History Month contests and Women’s History Month programming, you find yourself annoyed by this co-optation of content that you take seriously all year long. But this is also the time of year when more folks turn to our community—and to you—for ideas and perspectives on how to integrate diversity into their curriculum.
Within the TT community, to say that educators should do more than celebrate heroes and holidays is to state the obvious. But, however problematic Black and Women’s History Months may feel, staying home from the party on principle doesn’t quite jibe with the spirit of inclusive education either. No matter how we feel about it, February and March are when many civic organizations and the television, film and publishing industries choose to promote films, seminars, exhibits, news features and other programming about the topics we all so deeply care about. In other words, they are opportunities to make your point about yearlong inclusions while people are listening.
Here are some suggestions if you’re ready to tell folks outside “the choir” why and how they should teach black and women’s history all year long:
Explain the problem
There are likely teachers in your building who think the activities they plan for Black History Month are a fine solution to the underrepresentation of African Americans in the other nine months of curriculum they deliver. Try to be patient and non-judgmental. Acknowledge their attempts and then share the scholarship about multicultural and anti-racist education. In their seminal works, both James Banks (1993) and Peggy McIntosh (2000) place the reductionist and trivializing messages students receive from heroes and holidays lessons near the bottom of a pedagogical food chain—distinctly above a D.W.E.M (dead white European males)-centered curriculum but far from the goal of socially transformative teaching and learning. Paul Gorski at EdChange provides a helpful synthesis of their work and of how the heroes and holidays approach falls short.
It’s not a stretch to connect multicultural education to the instructional best practices your colleagues already know to be effective. Here are two:
Multicultural curriculum mapping. A problem with the heroes and holidays approach reinforced by heritage months is that it places non-dominant groups in silos outside of the standard curriculum, thus perpetuating marginalization. Take the Wikipedia-esque biographies and factoids about famous women and African Americans off of the bulletin board. Leaving them there fails to teach students about people, groups, events, experiences and accomplishments in authentic context, an important historical thinking skill.
Here are some examples of less trivial and more intentional places to teach February’s famous figures, across disciplines and any time of year:
- Social studies: Nazi Germany (Jesse Owens and the 1936 Berlin Olympics); segregation (Jackie Robinson and the Negro leagues), the Vietnam War (Muhammad Ali and conscientious objection).
- Science: Physics (Mae Jemison’s experiments on weightlessness in outer space); biology (George Washington Carver and biotechnology); electricity (Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods).
- English: Symbolism (Richard Wright’s Native Son); dystopia (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower); flashback (Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God); author’s purpose (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave).
Anti-bias essential questions. Another problem that emerges during “the months” is the focus on a few successful individuals from a particular identity group rather than an examination of the larger systems that impact the lived experiences of an entire group.
To help students think about the “big picture,” pose critical essential questions that transcend the single story. Such questions invite student voices and perspectives into the curriculum and can teach them to adopt multiple lenses as they view the world.
Consider how the following anti-bias EQs could be used to integrate women’s history, and gender studies in general, across disciplines and any time of year.
- Identity: How do gender and society’s attitudes about gender influence who we become?
- Diversity: How are the lived experiences of women around the world different and similar?
- Justice: What bias and injustice have women experienced because of their gender?
- Action: What actions have individuals and groups taken to challenge gender inequality?
Teachers across disciplines can use EQs to co-plan lessons. For example, along with these questions a math and social studies teacher could co-plan a lesson related to unequal pay and the underrepresentation of women in government.
“The months” are when multicultural and anti-bias educators are most needed to engage that teacher next door, contribute to staff development, and draw students in to authentic discourse that hopefully continues all year. The conversations we have in February and March will shape the ones we’re having in April and beyond. Seize the opportunity—don’t be silent.
Chiariello is a teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.
I am invisible, understand, simply
because people refuse to see me.
--Ralph Ellison, Prologue to Invisible Man, 1952
How does a piece of literature become a “classic”? How is the “very best” of any culture determined, and by whom? Is there a checklist? Who creates it? What values are inherently connected with any kind of “best” list?
The story of American and Western literature is a story about historical absence, invisibility or marginalization of women, LGBT individuals and people of color. This is also the case with children’s literature, and nowhere is the concept better demonstrated than in Amanda Scherker’s February 2014 essay, “9 Life Lessons Everyone Can Learn From These Beloved Classic Children’s Books,” which seems to teach its own lesson—one about invisibility relative to authors and characters of color.
Scherker alleges her purpose for the listing is to show how children’s books have given “us” valuable lessons about living and life. “… the very best children’s books also helped us understand the world around us,” she writes (emphasis mine). “Over the years, they shaped our imaginations, our aspirations and our sense of right and wrong.”
Scherker’s list includes:
- Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are
- Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears A Who!
- Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince
- Lois Lowry’s The Giver
- E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web
- Frances Hodgson’s The Secret Garden
- Roald Dahl’s Matilda
- Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this list. However, the sense that this is some kind of universal list with which everyone can or should identify is problematic.
These books may be “classics,” but when offered as “the best that ‘our’ culture has to offer,” such a list upholds white privilege and clearly values some “life lessons” over others. Scherker relies on lessons that are alleged “universals” in a world where in which there probably are no real universals.
From the 1930s through the 1970s, early readers introduced generations of children to the “universal” world of Father, Mother, Dick and Jane. This world, which shaped the culture of alphabet literacy in the United States, was not racially or ethnically integrated until the 1970s when Pam and her family moved into the neighborhood (and that brown assimilationist family was “just like Dick and Jane’s family”). This world taught young readers not only how to make sense of letters on a page, but implicit and explicit lessons about family, gender, race, sexual identity and class. Writes Billy Collins in his poem “First Reader”: “I can see them standing politely on the wide pages/that I was still learning to turn, Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,/playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos/of the backyard, unaware that they are the first characters,/the boy and girl who begin fiction.” Like Scherker’s list, the fiction of Dick and Jane taught readers as much through absence as through what appeared on the page.
How do “we” measure progress if we continually harken back to “classics” that perpetuate invisibility and marginalization through these absences? If we are to construct lists like Scherker’s, why not create multiple lists that represent multiple cultural experiences, rather than assuming that life experiences match across the board? They do not. In fact, let us not assume that there are any absolute lessons that “everyone” learns, as Scherker asserts.
Cannot valuable life lessons be derived from Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (1991), in which a little African-American girl challenges the notion that she cannot play Peter Pan in her elementary school play because she’s black and female? Might The Brownies’ Book be added to this list of classics? Published monthly for two years (January 1920–December 1921), this magazine for children included contributions by famed adult authors Jessie Redmon Fauset, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, who imparted important life lessons across multiple cultures. We might include Bill Cosby’s Little Bill series, whose stories offer life lessons but are more inclusive in character representations; HBO's Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child series; The Book of Mean People, Toni Morrison's book about keeping our spirits intact by dealing constructively and imaginatively with everyday meanness and mean people; Nappy Hair, Carolivia Herron’s book about achieving self-acceptance when the world tells us that we are not OK as we are; and any children’s books by poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that readers across cultures can only connect with stories about people like themselves and experiences like their own. Humans have the capacity to empathize, to imagine, and to understand experiences that we have not lived; literature can provide both windows and mirrors. Nevertheless, with lists of the “best,” “greatest,” “sexiest,” and “most beautiful” becoming increasingly popular, critical observers will be challenged to explore the who, why and how of these assessments and proclamations. When alleged universals are colorized as whiteness, whiteness is perpetually presumed to be the norm of experience, language, beauty and excellence.
Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about diversifying your classroom library? Read “Picture Imperfect” in the spring 2014 issue of Teaching Tolerance. You can also learn more about multicultural titles for children up to age 12 and for young adults through the world of Dr. James Blasingame of Arizona State University, or download a list of additional resources here.
Dr. Neal A. Lester is a Foundation Professor of English and Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.
Consider this report card comment. It is very common. If you are a teacher, perhaps you’ve written it yourself: “He’s a great student, but he’s quiet in class. I wish he’d speak up more often. When he speaks up, he has a lot to offer.”
Now, imagine if this comment were written about some other aspect of a student’s identity. I doubt it would be received as well. In fact, it might even cause an uproar.
I think back to my school days. I was, and still am, a quiet person. I am intelligent by the usual metrics (strong report cards and standardized test scores) and genuinely interested in learning. My grades were sometimes docked for lack of verbal class participation. I'd answer when called upon, but I didn't voluntarily raise my hand. I cringed at the thought of it. And, I regularly saw comments about being “quiet in class” and needing to “speak more often.” School was a painful dance.
In a later job working in a K-12 school system, I heard principals and administrators say that their goal was to make every student outgoing. The words of the head of the school system: "If a student isn't talkative, they won't make it as far in life." Administrators and teachers would gather at workshops saying there was a need for more class presentations and more group work and that these approaches should be especially targeted at the quiet students to make them more talkative. I heard one teacher say she seated quiet kids in her class with groups of talkative kids to get the quiet kids to “come out of their shells.” I thought about how those quiet students must dread going to school.
Here's the reality: I'm an introvert. Many people are introverts. And, we have a huge impact on the world. Four in 10 American CEOs are reportedly introverts. As introverts, we think through and solve problems (instead of taking swift action) and contribute to ideas in forums and on paper (and less so in group settings, particularly large groups). We effectively execute ideas without a desire to gain the “Look-at-me!” accolades—we’d rather just do the job and do it well. Yet, we are often pushed hard into a world where we are expected to be talkative, outgoing and so on. America celebrates, and favors, the extrovert.
For many introverts, our pain and discomfort with who we are started early, and quite often that feeling of being the “other” and flawed was due to the action of well-intentioned teachers. You may be a champion of diversity and tolerance, but to introverts—who place a high value on trust—insistence on forcing extroverted behavior feels like betrayal.
Don’t get me wrong. Being talkative is a valuable, lifelong skill. Introverts can and do benefit from verbal interactions, such as sharing ideas in meetings and making small talk about the weather. Likewise, extroverts can benefit from learning the quiet skills of attentive listening, contemplation and thoughtful written communication.
There is an important distinction to be made between learning a skill and being told to modify the core of your personality. The next time you encourage a kid to speak up in class, ask yourself this: Is hearing this student’s voice really necessary to assess learning? Or, am I projecting my values and, as a result, asking him to be something he fundamentally is not?