Monday, August 13, 2018

Preferred Pronouns

I have a friend who is probably the most organized person I have ever met. They can organize even the most unruly and expansive teams. They can run huge events and keep all the moving parts operational. They have incredible reservoirs of energy and can somehow function on very little sleep, which sometimes leads me to believe that they are part-robot. They also prefer using the pronouns "they" and "their" to refer to themselves.

Switching my terminology has not always been easy. I first met my friend when they went by their "dead" name and it took concentrated effort to use the pronouns they prefer. English grammar lends itself to certain regular sentence constructions. A lifetime of using either "he" or "she" has ingrained those two choices in my brain and mouth, but I can change.

For example, there are several meetings leading up to the big event where my friend and I volunteer. At one of these meetings, we were going around the table introducing ourselves, because we had some new members. I started the introductions and said, "My name is Diana and my preferred pronouns are she and her." This gave my friend the opportunity to mention their preferred pronouns without having to initiate the conversation. I was pretty pleased with myself and my actions, until two realizations stopped the self-congratulations.

First, the only reason I included that statement about preferred pronouns was because my friend was in the room and I knew my friend is trans. Would I have considered mentioning pronouns if they were not present? Shouldn't I be mentioning my preferred pronouns, regardless of who is in the room? After all, I shouldn't rely on a visual scan of the room to decide whether or not someone in the room has a preferred pronoun that might not match the ones society considers appropriate for us.

Secondly, when I shared this anecdote with another friend, she asked if by addressing the pronoun issue, might I inadvertently be putting those who are struggling with their gender identity with making a stand or decision? I think it's better to bring it up but I can understand the conundrum it may put people, even for those who have never considered the possibility that someone's gender may not match their perceptions.

This is why representation in books matter. Maybe not everyone has a trans friend. Exposure to these concepts should not be dependent on whether or not someone knows someone else. I've seen it written that homogeneous schools are the ones that need even more diverse perspectives in literature, so that everyone, not just those who relate to certain characters, can interact on the page with different people. Fellow teacher Rabia Khokar reminded us recently in the Library AQ course during her presentation of the importance of books as "windows, mirrors, and doors".

It's important to have all sorts of books in a school library that reflect various lived experiences, regardless of personal opinions. After all, one of the "rights as a reader" is for readers to abandon books if they do not want to read it; no one is obligated. For some students, books like these may be the only chance to see someone like themselves. A few years ago, a parent asked me through my administrator about what "percentage of gay books" I had on the school library shelves. My original answer to my principal was "not enough". Needless to say, he didn't quite phrase my response to the query in the same way I delivered it. In 2017, one of the Red Maple Non-Fiction nominated titles was Trans phobia: deal with it and be a gender transcender by j wallace skelton and Nick Johnson. I know that this book addressed the topic of pronouns; I just never took the initiative to try the suggestions for pronoun use that the book offered. Hopefully it will not take the presence of a racialized friend to make me pay attention to colour and culture, or a friend with a disability to notice accessibility issues, or someone with financial issues to care about class/economic concerns. Sometimes, it does, because when issues are personalized, and you actually know someone who experiences discrimination due to their identity, you pay attention more. At least, I do. But I can change; I can improve.

Monday, August 6, 2018

I got an N on my report card

During the last week of school, I was away for three of those four days. I had a good reason; I was supervising the Grade 8 students on their grad trip to Albion Hills. It can be challenging to plan a decent lesson for students to undertake with a supply teacher for these "dying days" of school, but I had a risky but useful task. The job of the students was to team up and write a report card - on me. With me away, I felt like they would be more honest about their opinions. I had a wonderful supply teacher, who went over the learning skills and what they meant, explained how teachers cannot decide on grades without having evidence to back up their claims, and helped the students take this task seriously. After all, on the Annual Learning Plan, there is a section where educators can include student and parent feedback on their teaching. This would be an authentic way to gather some thoughts directly from the students.

When I returned from the trip to the Etobicoke Outdoor Education Centre, I found a huge pile of report cards for me to read. Guess what? I didn't need to worry about the students being frank. Two of the seven classes that were given this activity to do did not have as much time as the other groups did, so the occasional teacher did it as a group activity and recorded the whole-class answers.

In case you can't read it clearly, those are "S"s for Organization. If you aren't familiar with the Ontario elementary report card, Learning Skills are given an E for Excellent, G for Good, S for Satisfactory, and N for Needs Improvement.

With some of the other classes, in which they wrote the report cards in small groups, some of the results were even ... harsher. Some groups tried to lessen the blow by giving me Term 1 and Term 2 results and showing some improvement (e.g. I got an N in Term 1 and a S in Term 2). This example I've scanned and replicated here had quite a bit of detail and evidence. I blocked out the "teachers' names" (I loved how many took a creative writing approach to the upper section of the report card), but read this report.

I came home to my family and cried, "I got a N on my report card for organization!"

"This somehow surprises you?" was my sarcastic son's reply

 Now, I have to give the students credit. These marks did not appear out of nowhere. They gave rationales. They provided examples. What I found interesting about this exercise was how they conceptualized "organization" and made it synonymous with "tidy". Have we inadvertently created this idea - equating a clean desk with a good grade? It doesn't say that on the report card description of organization. It seems to be more about time management and completing work. Many student "evaluators" also felt that it was my responsibility (as opposed to a shared responsibility) to maintain order in the school library. Having said that, I realize that keeping things orderly is not one of my strengths and is something to which I should devote more time and effort. We didn't get a chance to go over the report card results with my "teachers". I wonder what next steps, if any, I should take ... both to improve my organizational skills, and to expand student ideas of organization. If you are reading this and have any ideas, please share them in the blog comments or via Facebook or Twitter.