Student recommendations for creating inclusive classrooms for queer, trans, and questioning youth

I have the privilege of being the faculty advisor to our middle school Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA), a space set aside for kids who want to co-create a safer school for queer, trans, and questioning students.  I asked them for their recommendations of ways that faculty and staff can help create safer spaces for all students, especially those who might be questioning their gender or sexuality or have a gender or sexual identity other than cisgender and straight.  Here is a list of their suggestions:

  • Listen to students’ comments to each other.  Call out bigotry when you hear it. This is the comment I hear the most from students about how adults can help create a more supportive community at our school for everyone.  Speaking up when you hear unkind comments about a particular identity (and this extends far beyond gender and sexuality!) really demonstrates to students that you care about them and will stand up for them when they need it.  (For more information/ resources, check out “Speak Up at School” for teachers).
    • Students also recommended that adults get “up to date” on what hateful language might look like for the particular age group they teach.  Asking students for help identifying those moments is a great collaborative project and can lead to some powerful conversations.
    • Another part of being ready for these moments is being knowledgeable about and comfortable with discussing topics related to identity – and gender, sex, sexuality are just the beginning.  May I recommend The Gender Unicorn?
  • Even if you don’t hear the things that happen, show your students that you care and that you will listen when they bring things to you that they’ve seen or heard.  Follow up with them to try and create a classroom and school environment where students are accountable for their words and actions.
  • At beginning of the year, ask students for preferred name and gender pronouns.  This is one way to include space for students’ identity to be affirmed in your class from day one.
    1. Model how to share preferred gender pronouns before students share their own, and explain how they work and why we ask for them.  (This is a great bonus lesson in grammar!)  Be sure to follow up with students who may joke about pronouns or not understand the process.
    2. Make explicit that pronouns change & kids can approach teachers if that happens.
    3. Practice using students’ preferred pronouns, and gently correct students who mispronoun other students in the moment.
    4. If students have pronouns that they use at school but not at home, please ask them to make that clear.  An adult they trust should follow up and encourage them to discuss with parents ASAP, as long as it is a safe/supportive environment.
  • Don’t make groups by (assumed) gender.  Similarly, don’t assign tasks, costumes, vocal parts, or sports teams that way.  Here are some suggestions for other ways of splitting the class into multiple groups:
    1. Month of your birthday
    2. First letter of your first name
    3. Favorite ice cream flavor
    4. Using playing cards/picture cards made in advance
    5. Other ideas here, here, and here.
  • Don’t assume gender!  Gender identity and gender presentation are different.  That’s why it’s important to ask all students for their gender pronouns (if they are comfortable sharing them), and not just kids that you perceive to be trans or gender non-conforming.
  • Normalize conversations that include non-normative genders and sexualities.  Use examples that include queer or trans people, but not in a “look a gay example!” way: this can be seen as tokenizing and harmful.  Practice being comfortable talking about identities different than your own so that when those topics come up, you can model conversations about those topics in a respectful, non-aggrandizing way.  Practice using “they/them” pronouns for people in the third person and practice using those pronouns during everyday conversations with students.
  • Incorporate diverse forms of gender identity and sexuality into your curriculum.  For humanities teachers, this means providing examples of literature and historical figures/events that represent a diversity of LGBTQ identities.  For STEM  teachers, this means using inclusive language when describing phenomena, not oversimplifying biology, and not using simplistic ideas of gender and sexuality when taking data and analyzing statistics.  For all teachers, this includes evaluating current materials and ensuring they don’t center specific kinds of relationships and families at the expense of others. Check out the Safe Schools Coalition Curricular Resources for more information.
  • Be open to students’ feedback.  Ask for feedback regularly, and provide ways for students to let you know when things that you’ve done have un/intentionally excluded them from being comfortable in your space.  This happened to me multiple times this year.  It was super hard, and it was an incredible gift from those students that have helped me become a better teacher.  It is also awesome to model making mistakes and changing behavior for students.
    • Feeling like practicing new words or pronouns is hard?  That’s OK.  Keep working on it.  You can share that it’s challenging with your students, but please don’t say it’s “too hard” for you.  You just haven’t mastered it yet, much like our students working on any number of skills that make them vulnerable and ask them to practice making mistakes on the daily.
  • Honor students’ expertise.  Sentences like “You’re too young to know X” or “Let me tell you what you are feeling right now” are patronizing and remove agency from students who know themselves better than anybody else.
  • Honor students’ right to confidentiality.  If a student discloses their identity or questioning status, even in front of other people, it is always a good idea to check in with them before sharing that with another faculty/staff member or student.  This is especially important when interacting with other members of their family, since not all homes are open to diverse sexual and gender identities.
  • As much as possible, eliminate institutionalized heterosexism and cissexism.  Are intake forms for your school inclusive of many gender identities?  Do students need to report their legal name instead of their preferred name in public spaces like class or email?  Are there bathroom and locker room options available for students that work for their access needs?
  • Be gentle with yourself.  One of my favorite things about my students is that they really see teachers as people, and know that making mistakes is a part of this process.  They want you to know that you can do it!  Treat yourself gently and take care of your own emotions while going through this process.

A glimpse into my reading list

I am in the process of writing a conceptual framework for a research capstone that’s focused on inclusion, belonging, and self-identity as a scientist in the science classroom.  As such, I am reading a lot of good literature and I wanted to share some of my favorites with you!  Feel free to comment below if you have other suggestions of literature on this topic that you’d like to share.

Make Me: Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School

This book by Eric Toshalis was recommended to me through a friend who works in special education – it’s a fabulous read on the political, social, psychological, and pedagogical foundations that lead to student resistance in the classroom – and how to work with that resistance in a productive way that centers students’ desires and agency.

feminist theory: from margin to center

I’ve used the analogy of margin and center for years now, without ever having taken the time to read this classic of intersectional feminism.  bell hooks is a brilliant and prophetic author, whose work has paved the way for more inclusive spaces within feminism for a multitude of underrepresented voices.

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom

I read this book as a young teacher, and it informed the way I think about framing lessons and communicating with students and parents in a way that is clear and holds all students to high expectations.  Rereading it now after teaching for 5 years provides new levels of depth and meaning – and is an important reminder of the ways I have not been holding myself to a high enough standard in scaffolding teaching and communication to include all of my students.  Lisa Delpit also has an awesome book that I just started called “Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children” and I was almost late for work on Friday because I couldn’t put it down!

Small World: Constructing an Inclusive Classroom (No Matter What You Teach)

This article by Mary Armstrong creates an easy-to-read and follow framework for thinking about constructing an inclusive classroom space.  I think it would be a great read for a group of teachers trying to think about inclusive curriculum/classroom practices, even if some of them are thinking about that for the first time.  I didn’t want to lose track of it, so I’m putting it here 🙂

Creating Inclusive College Classrooms

This article, by Shari Saunders and Diana Kardia at the University of Michigan, outlines a number of interventions and techniques for constructing inclusive classrooms at the undergraduate level.  It brought up a number of memories for me about ways in which my college classrooms were mostly constructed in a way that felt exclusive and hard to access… and also raised questions about what the equivalent practices might look like in middle school.  Really excellent read if you’re interested in thinking through what a number of researchers have put together for thinking about inclusion on an institutional level.