During a break between classes, one of my students approached me with a conflicted look on her face. She nervously said, “Te quiero hacer una pregunta pero no te quiero ofender.” I want to ask you a question, but I don’t want to offend you. After offering her assurance, she explained that she wanted to know how she should refer to me —someone who is queer and non-binary— when talking to her friends and family members in Spanish.
Although I had shared my pronouns and chosen the honorific of “Maestre” (a gender-neutral alternative to maestro, meaning teacher in Spanish), I was not surprised by her question. I work at a school composed entirely of newcomer students who recently immigrated to the United States. Approximately 80% of my students are from Central America and speak Spanish as their primary language. Unfortunately, Spanish provides very few options for queer and trans individuals to communicate about their identities and experiences, given the gender-binary nature of the language. Words like gay translate to “homosexual” or “maricón,” the latter of which is a slur.
I often find myself balancing to ensure my non-binary identity is respected while not policing students’ language, especially when they are beginning to learn English. However, I believe the context in which I teach exposes my students to various new cultures and languages and a unique opportunity to use nuanced gender-inclusive language and practices.
Though challenges come up, it is a tremendous opportunity to support students in learning new content and language. While my experience is likely different from most other teachers, it highlights the need for teachers to implement gender-inclusive practices, regardless of their students’ learning or language backgrounds.
Introducing Gender-Inclusive Language
To support all students in learning content that includes a variety of identities, our school arranges its teachers into teaching teams that teach the same group of students all their content. Each team has at least one teacher of every subject matter who will be the only teacher that will teach the same group of students in that subject. Our team aligns on language practices to support students in developing English language skills and new content. This framework served as a valuable impetus for our team to implement gender-inclusive practices in our language. Our teaching team also shares the pronouns and honorifics we want to use and how we would like to correct students or other faculty members if those pronouns or honorifics are misused.
As we welcome new students, we allow them to interview each other in their spoken languages and English. In this way, students receive language scaffolds for teachers and peers to affirm their identities. Teachers can help students use these practices by using examples like “Maestre César is from Los Angeles, California and uses they/them pronouns” and then use their examples. This way, students become accustomed to asking their peers for their pronouns when they meet and can practice their language skills in classes.
Gender Inclusion in Science Curriculum
The way science is taught has significantly influenced understandings and biases students develop about race, gender, and sexuality. As such, I make it a point to collaborate with other queer and trans educators to develop materials inclusive of LGBTQIA+ identities. Furthermore, given my students are learning English for the first time, I can present gender-inclusive practices and language as the norm rather than as a shift that must take place.
The science classroom has also become a place to challenge misconceptions about gender and sex. For example, replacing “males produce testosterone and females produce estrogen” to “varying amounts of estrogen and testosterone are present in all people. In this way, the concepts taught are complex, nuanced, and more accurate. These frames are also more easily translated into various languages since they do not contain specific gender associations. They also provide a safe space for students to bring up previous understandings and expand on them in a way that is true to the practice of science.
My teaching curriculum attempts to uphold science as an essential framework to push thinking in our daily lives. Instead of seeing my students struggle with challenging ideas and concepts surrounding gender and sexuality, I see it from the vantage of being a unique opportunity to present inclusive language as a scientific practice that affirms identities. I have found that I can provide students with the opportunity to bring up their previous understandings of a variety of concepts and build on those with empirical/scientific backing.
Building Student Rapport
I have also learned that building rapport with students is the most impactful and lasting way to help students learn inclusive language practices. My teaching pedagogy involves learning who my students are to meet their learning strengths and needs. By doing so, I can co-construct structures of accountability with my students to be responsive to their personal and communal needs. I ask our class to collectively work to support each other in developing inclusive language as much as we do when reading, writing, and speaking in English. Because of the trust built between the students and me, students know I will answer their inquiries honestly and assess whether their questions are appropriate.
As a result, my students will correct their peers and teachers if I am misgendered or misidentified. In addition, many ask me questions about topics and themes relating to queer and trans identities and how to convey their ideas in ways that will not offend others. Though I always preface student questions by telling them that I do not have all the answers, I remind them that I will never refuse a student’s honest attempt at understanding and direct them to resources to learn more.
While being vulnerable to students’ questions and slip-ups can be challenging at times, I have found that it has allowed for a more authentic and accountable learning environment to teach and students to learn from one another. These practices are far from perfect but establishing collaborative structures with other educators has reinforced my gender inclusivity within my curriculum, allowing me to teach students about science across language, gender, and culture.
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