Sunday, 2 November 2014

On De-Gendering Your Language

As much as I’ve enjoyed getting more and more into writing blog posts, I’ve equally enjoyed coming across other blogs to read, be inspired by, and learn from. There is something so powerful about teachers across the city, the country, and the world being connected online. My wheels are still turning from one such blog – the incredible Tracy Pickard’s “How Language Impacts Learning”. If you haven’t read it yet, get to it - How Language Impacts Learning

Tracy's insightful post highlights the power that seemingly minor word choices can actually have on the students in your classroom. It’s terrific and helped me to examine a lot of my own language use in the classroom. I was delighted to see lots of educators online discussing this topic, as it’s often overlooked and deserves attention whether you’re a brand new or veteran teacher.

Thinking more about language choices in the classroom, specifically through my own lens – one which is admittedly focused on staying away from overly gendered roles, led me to want to write a bit about how language can also be used to create an atmosphere that is inclusive for all. I know many of the educators reading this will have already thought of the following suggestions and likely make them part of their daily practice. However, I’m not blindly optimistic – I know that in many classrooms today there isn’t a single thought given to any of the following. This is something I’ve always felt strongly about, and is at the forefront of my beliefs as an educator. So, with regards to de-gendering your language in classroom, consider the following:

-       “I need some strong boys to help me move this table”.

I really hope I don’t have to explain what’s wrong with this one. Boys are strong. Girls are also strong. People are strong, and all people can work to be stronger. Let’s encourage that sort of thinking in all of our students, and not plant the seed that boys are physical and athletic, while girls are delicate and frail. This outdated notion serves absolutely no purpose in an educational setting. Let’s encourage all qualities in all students. Don’t present the Art Studio just to girls and the Building Area just to boys. All humans possess different characteristics, interests, and strengths, and one of the greatest joys of a play based learning atmosphere is providing students with opportunities to look at themselves as capable in ALL areas as they discover who they are and what sort of activities they enjoy.

-       “There are some new princess books for you girls in the Book Centre!”

The concept that certain books are for certain genders has never made sense to me. A book is a book. The lovely thing about working with a whole group of students is that they come with varied interests. Sure, many of your male students may like Lego and Ninjago, but that in no way guarantees that ALL male students will. If a boy wants to look at a princess book, that’s his prerogative and doesn’t really require any sort of attention. It’s irrelevant. And while we’re on the topic of “princess books”, can we all work to ensure our classroom library reflects all facets of “being a princess”? Check out “Not All Princesses Dress In Pink”, “The Princess and the Pizza”, “My Princess Boy”, “Princess Smartypants”, and of course, the classic “Paper Bag Princess”. Challenge your students who adore the Disney princesses to think critically about the idea of what being a princess really means. Time and time again, I’ve seen even the youngest of students embrace these new ideas. Princesses can be much more than beautiful and helpless ladies who need to be saved and it’s our responsibility as educators to recognize this.

-       “Boys line up here, girls line up here!”

I know this is the one that most educators have never thought of, as it seems like a pretty arbitrary way to divide your students. No judgement at all to teachers who have done it before, but a call to make yourself a life long learner who can reflect on their own practices. At OISE, I remember a guest speaker, transgendered, speaking about the anxiety felt as a child when the “boy/girl” division took place. Maybe all your boys identify as boys, and all your girls identify as girls – or maybe they don’t. The point is, we don’t really know, so don’t assume. This guest speaker spoke of feeling tormented as a child because their inner gender identity didn’t match their physical appearance. If you were doing something in your teaching, that unbeknownst to you, caused unnecessary stress to one of your students, wouldn’t you want to stop it? I’ve been in one too many classrooms where a boy or girl happens to follow the wrong group – and yes, it’s publicly pointed out by the teacher and corrected. Sure, maybe the child simply wasn’t listening and just went with the wrong group – or maybe it’s something more. Again, we don’t know. For that reason, avoiding this kind of sorting is simply best practice for all. Challenge yourself to find more creative ways to divide your students outside of gender.

I could make additional suggestions, and likely will follow up on this topic in the future, but for now I’m going to leave it at that. Removing gender stereotypes from my classroom is one of the most important things to me as an educator who values equity and inclusion in schools. It’s my sincere hope that this blog post either reaffirmed your current practices, or inspired you to look at things in a different way. Here’s to life long learning, and to creating safe learning communities where all students are valued, encouraged celebrated, and encouraged to be themselves!

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