Gender Inclusion in K-5 Distance Learning: An Interview with the Creators of Gender Inclusive Classrooms

Blog Post
Sept. 8, 2020

As teachers around the country tackle distance and blended learning, one of the biggest challenges is making sure all students are supported and able to learn. Fostering a safe, inclusive, and productive learning environment is key to this type of success, but doing so virtually may look different than it does in the physical classroom. Digital technology, change of space, and being disconnected from peers or supportive faculty can be particularly challenging for LGBTQ students and the teachers supporting them. Luckily, Gender Inclusive Classrooms is here to help.

Kieran Slattery, a fifth grade public school teacher in Northampton, MA, and Katy Butler, a second grade teacher in San Francisco, CA, started their project to help teachers support LGBTQ students in the classroom long before the COVID-19 crisis. Now, as instructional methods and classrooms have shifted, Slattery and Butler have created a resource for teachers to best support their youngest queer and trans students virtually. I sat down with them to talk through what gender inclusion looks like and how it can be adapted for distance learning. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What is Gender Inclusive Classrooms and how did it get started?

Butler: Gender Inclusive Classrooms is a resource for teachers and a source for inclusive content. Our goal is to provide a platform that will help K-5 teachers create safer and more affirming classes, which we do by both amplifying the work that others are doing and by creating our own book lists, reading guides, and curriculum guides. We hope that as teachers embark upon their journey to create more gender inclusive classrooms, we can be a launching point and a catalyst in their learning.

Some people may be surprised to hear that this kind of inclusion can be started in elementary school. Whether in distance learning environments or not, what does this look when teaching students who are this young?

Slattery: Talking and learning about gender is imperative for students in the early years. Think about it this way: when babies are born, a doctor or midwife assigns them a sex. In most countries around the world, their sex is also assumed to be their gender. Most often, they are raised and dressed and treated in specific ways based on the gender that is ascribed to them. By the time they’re old enough to understand their own gender identity and communicate it, they have already experienced years’ worth of gender biases and assumptions that follow them the rest of their lives. Young children have an innate sense of their own gender, and unfortunately, also have a deep understanding of how most of society responds to them and what is expected of them based on their perceived and assigned gender. Teaching gender to young children empowers them. It allows them to understand and speak confidently about their own identity, as well as understand the vast array of gender identities in our world. It helps them to become sympathetic friends and powerful allies. It is important for adults to remember that teaching about gender and teaching about sexuality are two completely different identities that are often mistakenly conflated.

How do you define gender inclusion in K-5 teaching and learning? What does this look like in practice?

Butler: Gender inclusion is about interrupting and dismantling oppressive systems and replacing them with more freedom and creativity. In many ways it is a process of decolonizing. The [gender] binary is limiting for all of us, and gender inclusive classrooms recognize that there are more than two genders and ways of being. Gender inclusive teaching is expansive and operates with a “both, and, and, and” philosophy. Students learn to look beyond stereotypes and bias, think critically about what they consume, and explore their multifaceted identities.

Slattery: Ideally, educators in gender inclusive classrooms try their best to approach situations with an open mind and an open heart. They relearn how to speak about people in inclusive ways, such as using the gender-neutral pronoun “they” until they know someone’s gender and pronouns. After first or second grade when they learn pronouns, they ask adults and children what pronouns they use, and normalize pronoun questioning and use by modeling it for other staff and faculty. They practice using phrases like “Toys, clothes, and names don’t have a gender. Only people do” and “We don’t know someone’s gender until we ask them or they tell us.” They practice not assuming certain people are male or female, or partnered, unless it is made explicit. Bottom line: They practice. They make mistakes, recover, and keep practicing.

Your recent resource, Gender-Inclusive Distance Teaching, explains some approaches that teachers can use to ensure their virtual classrooms are inclusive of LGBTQ and gender diverse students. Could you walk us through some of the key points in this resource?

Butler: We looked at each section in our Year-Long Curriculum Guide and asked ourselves “How would this be different when teaching online? What implications could it have on trans, nonbinary and gender expansive youth in our classrooms?” So much of what we do to be gender inclusive is also applicable online—interrupting traditional binary narratives, looking critically, making space for creativity. The biggest takeaways are that we must also consider gender in online spaces. We must recognize that students need to feel safe and affirmed to be ready to learn.

Slattery: Teaching remotely provides educators a truly unique opportunity to take a step back and prioritize what is most important: the basic needs of our students. Kids across the globe have experienced collective trauma, often atop of existing trauma related to being a member of one or more marginalized populations (identifying as Black, Brown, Indigenous, a person with a disability, and/or LGBTQIA+). Now, more than ever, educators need to acknowledge these realities, and then find ways to elevate and celebrate students who feel overwhelmed, alone, confused, and missing basic daily needs. They need to feel affirmed, loved, and seen, and often, educators are the only people in students’ lives who do this for them. More than ever, students will look to their classrooms, albeit from home, as safe spaces in which they can be vulnerable, make mistakes, let their collective guards down, and be themselves. Simple gestures like teachers greeting each child by their preferred name or referring to them by their chosen pronouns can color their entire day. Giving students a voice or highlighting an accomplishment might be the only time that happens to them all day. This is life giving, life affirming work.

In your experiences, what are some of the unique challenges to creating gender inclusion in remote learning spaces?

Slattery: Gender inclusion in classes is all about creating communities wherein students feel safe, welcomed, affirmed, heard, and seen. This is more difficult, but not impossible, via distance learning. Some technological challenges are present virtually. For instance, school online databases rely heavily on students’ legal names, or names assigned at birth, as well as their sex assigned at birth. These identifying factors are often presented more publicly than they would be on, say, a roster in the physical classroom. They can pop up on login information, student email addresses, attendance records, or in names on Zoom or Google Meet, for instance. For trans and nonbinary students, whose names and gender may not align with those they were assigned at birth, seeing this information repeatedly can be quite harmful. Educators should take extra care to ensure students’ safety and security.

What can schools do to assist teachers trying to create inclusive virtual classrooms? What support can they provide?

Butler: The most powerful thing a school can do to support their teachers in gender inclusive work is to have a clearly stated policy that anti-bias, anti-racist, social justice work is expected and encouraged at the school. If they are upfront about the fact that teachers will be teaching about LGBTQ+ identities and issues, it gives the teachers protection and freedom to do so. This policy could be written into a guidebook, and reiterated by administrators, so that any pushback can be met with a unified school response. This support looks the same regardless of whether we’re teaching virtually or in-person.

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