#16Days

November 25-December 10 is internationally known as the 16 days of activism to stand against and commit to ending gender-based violence. Black women and girls, FNMI women and girls, racialized women and girls, women and girls with disabilities and members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community are at high risk of gender-based violence. November 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and December 10 is World Human Rights Day. Let’s amplify the voices of those who are subject to gender-based violence, listen, learn, and demand safety, inclusion and acceptance for all. Let’s begin these conversations in our classrooms. ETFO has provided some ideas here about how to get yourself and your students involved in the #16days of activism. 

The significance of the activism this year is greater than ever before due to the increasing amount of gender-based violence reported over the course of the pandemic. 

Gender-based violence facts 

Gender-based violence both directly and indirectly affects everyone. Victims of gender-based violence experience trauma that can be intergenerational in nature. To eradicate gender-based violence we must acknowledge it exists and victimizes people of all genders, races, abilities, sexualities, ages and classes in all geographic locations. We cannot advocate for feminism without intersectionality. 

What can we do?

  • Educate our students and community about gender-based violence from a trauma informed approach 
  • Educate even our youngest learners about the importance of consent and advocating for their own mental health and well-being
  • Listen and learn from experts, community organizations and survivors
  • Support local and global initiatives that commit to advocating for people of all genders and putting an end to gender based-violence 
  • Use our privilege as educators to advocate for change
  • Continue to model acceptance, inclusion and teach using an anti-oppressive framework

“Pink is a Girl Colour.”

If you teach young children, you may often hear their opinions about what is meant for ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ voiced on a daily basis:

 

“Pink is for girls” 

“Boys don’t wear pink”

 

Analyzing this through a feminist lens, this ideology and the socially constructed roles and responsibilities associated with gender are forced upon children from birth – and arguably even before birth. If you don’t believe me, think about the colour of blankets given to swaddle infants in hospitals. 

This is not just about pink. It’s about creating a learning space for students to be themselves, feel empowered and continuing to challenge injustices they encounter now and every day.

How can we challenge gender stereotypes in education?

  1. In a previous post, celebrating International Women’s Day – I stated that “You cannot have feminism without intersectionality”. In order for growth to occur, we must represent all people in our pedagogy -students who are part of the ​​2SLGBTQ+  community, students who are Black, FNMI students, students who belong to racialized and marginalized groups and students who have disabilities. Not only should students see themselves reflected, but their families, their friends, their neighbours, their community members, and other humans that walk this earth with them. We cannot dismantle one single stereotype without teaching from an ant-racist, anti-oppressive framework. 
  2. We can be mindful of the learning materials we use in our classrooms. From toys to textbooks, there are hidden messages about gender everywhere. One of my favourite (but really least favourite) examples to think about is kitchen centres for young children. Kitchen centres are wonderful learning spaces in Kindergarten classrooms and provide many opportunities for developing social and emotional skills, practicing math concepts and promoting oral language. Now, think about why many of these sets are pink? 
  3. We can include critical literacy and books that challenge social norms in our program on a regular basis.
  4. We can critically reflect on our own understandings of gender as a social construct, amplify the voices marginalized people and commit to continuous learning and growth by actively listening to our students needs. 

 

Pink is for everyone. 

 

 

On Being a Queer Educator in Ontario Schools

If you read Part 1, you’ll know by now that my experience as a student sucked. By the time I went to teacher’s college, I had fully embraced my queerness. I had a reasonably good handle on my identity. As I took my first baby steps into the world of teaching, I had decided that I was going to do better for my students than any of my teachers did for me.

Oh, to have that same youthful optimism and fire.

After ten years, so much of it has been chipped away by constant reminders that the school system and almost everyone in it are still perpetuating the idea that there is a “default” and then there are aberrant identities that are outside of that norm.

Think about your experience as an educator and whether any of these moments have happened at your school:

  • Being asked to “balance” the distribution of boys and girls when creating class lists.
  • Playing “boys vs. girls” in Phys Ed.
  • Having a “boys team” and a “girls team” for intramurals.
  • Creating groups of desks to intentionally mix genders.
  • Having “boys” and “girls” washroom passes.
  • Splitting the class based on gender for health class.
  • Saying “boys and girls” to address your class.

Do those feel innocent to you? No big deal? Look, it’s okay if you have done these things and never thought twice about them. Most of us have. But we have to acknowledge that those types of small actions contribute to the sense that we have a specific set of expectations around what it means to be a “boy” or a “girl.” That we expect all students to even fit into that binary. We have to be better than this.

Students notice these things. Some of them are obvious, like the Phys Ed example, while others you may think are more “behind the scenes” like class lists, but students notice. And when students notice those things, they draw conclusions about what the Institution of Education thinks about who is attending their schools.

And then, there’s how educators approach students who don’t fit those expectations.

I can’t tell you how much it hurts every single time I hear these things:

They’re too young to know they’re trans.

They just want attention.

I think they’re lying.

The other kids won’t get it and will all want to use the all-gender washroom.

I have to inform their parents. 

Fine, but I’m not going to change how I teach.

I can’t talk about this in class because parents will get upset.

I don’t know enough about this to teach any of it.

I don’t have time to do anything that isn’t in the curriculum.

Why do we need a neutral washroom if we don’t have any trans or NB students?

You think you’re commiserating with a colleague. You think you’re just expressing your frustration and stress with a colleague. What you’re doing, when you’re saying these things to a queer colleague, is often retraumatizing them. You’re reminding them of their otherness. You’re showing them that you consider their existence extracurricular and optional.

You’re showing not only your students but your colleagues, too, that you do not think their existence is worth the time to learn about, integrate into your teaching, and normalize.

But wait! There’s more!

Remember back in Part 1, when I talked about fear? And how it kept coming up at the PD day a few weeks back when we were discussing how to use a 2SLGBTQ+ resource in the classroom?

I want to talk about that fear.

When you say you’re scared of parent backlash, what exactly is it about that idea that scares you? What do you think will happen?

Will a parent post about you on social media?

Will a parent complain about you to the board?

Will a parent remove their child from your class?

Or are you scared that a parent will make an assumption that you are queer?

Are you scared that a parent will decide that you are unfit to teach their child?

 

Most importantly, why is it that you think that your fear is more important than your responsibility to your students to support them, validate them, see them, and show them a world where they are not something other and are, instead, just… normal?

 

Do you realize that your 2SLGBTQ+ colleagues and students have lived with fear their entire life? That we hesitate before putting our family photos up in our classrooms, the way that some of you do without thinking twice, because we are worried about the reaction?

 

And we notice, Reader, when you turn equity lessons into events instead of building it into your everyday teaching. We notice when you inform (let’s call it what it is: warn) families before discussing equity in the classroom. We notice when you give families the chance to opt their child out of lessons on equity.

As a queer parent, when I get a letter home “informing me” about an upcoming lesson where the class will be talking about a “challenging topic,” it signals to me that the educator and the school behind this letter consider this topic to be controversial. That there will be different points of view and that those have to be “respected.”

But my life is not a point of view. I have an absolute, inalienable, unassailable RIGHT to exist. 2SLGBTQ+ people are not a matter of debate, we are not an opinion – our existence is objectively right and we have an obligation, as educators, to promote and defend that existence just as fervently as we do all others.

When you leave space for debate, when you “respect all points of view” in your classroom, you’re telling your queer students and colleagues that you think it’s okay that some people believe that their existence is wrong.

And we notice that.

We notice when you refer to teaching about 2SLGBTQ+ as a challenging topic. Why is it challenging? 

Does it make you uncomfortable? Examine that, because that’s some problematic nonsense right there. 

Do you feel like you don’t know enough? Then educate yourself, just like you probably look up half of the Science curriculum every time you change grades. Or maybe that’s just me.

Are you scared of having to defend your teaching? Your board and union have both taken public stances in defense of 2SLGBTQ+ rights and they’re protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, so settle down.

Do you think you’re going to face a lot of questions from students that you may not know how to answer? Isn’t that… pretty much a daily experience in teaching, no matter what subject? Embrace learning WITH your students.

I’m glad that it’s becoming more commonplace to talk about 2SLGBTQ+ experiences, identities, and perspectives in class, but if you feel like you need to or even can warn your students’ families before discussing equity in the classroom, quite frankly, you aren’t talking about equity often enough.

 

Finally, I want you to know all the good things I notice, too.

I notice when you introduce yourself with your pronouns.

I notice when you don’t say “moms and dads” to your students.

I notice when you teach with books showing queer experiences – both as the lesson itself and without making the character’s queerness be THE POINT, because hey, we’re also just regular people doing regular things and it doesn’t all have to be about being queer.

I notice when you tell your students about the gender neutral washroom on their First Day of School tour.

I notice when you don’t say “boys and girls” to get your students’ attention.

I notice when you embrace inclusive intramural teams.

I notice when I can’t find any of the 2SLGBTQ+ picture books because they’re all out in colleagues’ classrooms being used.

I notice when I walk by your students and overhear them talking about what they’re learning in class.

I notice when students feel safe to explore their identity in your classroom.

I notice when students feel safe to come out in your classroom.

I notice when you don’t whisper “gay” like it’s a bad word.

I notice when you don’t wait for me to be the one to say, “This long standing practice is problematic and rooted in homophobia. Can we change it?”

 

There’s a long road ahead of us. When educators are more scared of community backlash than they are of harming their students, we have to call that out.

Your inaction is causing harm.

Your fear is causing harm.

Your students deserve better than that.

On Being a Queer Student in Ontario Schools

Recently, there was a PD day in my board where the morning was dedicated to equity training. We started with a discussion about a book that has been provided for every school in the OCDSB titled George

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, here is a brief synopsis from Scholastic Canada

A bright, bold debut about a girl who was born a boy, but refuses to let that stand in the way of her dream.

More than anything else, George wants to play Charlotte in her fourth-grade class’s production of Charlotte’s Web. The problem is, her teacher won’t let her, because George is a boy. But George isn’t about to let that squash her dream. With the help of her best friend, George must learn to stand up for her wish — and brave a few bullies along the way.

Transcending all categories and genres, George is a pertinent and poignant middle-grade read for kids of all backgrounds.

As soon as this discussion was presented to us, I felt my heart rate increase. I debated turning my camera off (we were doing this PD remotely) so that my colleagues couldn’t see my reactions. We were given a few minutes to explore some questions about how we would approach this text in the classroom and share our thoughts on a collaborative whiteboard.

Reader, I didn’t make it past the first question: “What biases do we have that we may bring to the text?”

I didn’t make it past this question because I kept seeing the word FEAR come up on the screen in front of me. I started to sweat. My leg started shaking restlessly. I found it hard to sit still. I grit my teeth and started adding my thoughts next to theirs: 

Why do we have to “warn” families that we are going to use this resource?

This implies that there is something controversial about being queer.

As educators, we have to make students feel seen and validated.

I’m not going to go through a detailed account of how that “training” went for me. I still haven’t fully recovered. It was an incredibly difficult day to get through and I left feeling overwhelmed by how much work there is to do in education to do better for our students. I’m going to talk about that “FEAR” idea later, after I put some of this in the context of Who I Am.

What I am going to do here is challenge the idea that discussions about 2SLGBTQ+ people, perspectives, and experiences are a challenging or uncomfortable topic in the classroom. This is going to be a two-parter, so bear with me. Maybe even a three-parter. Who knows when I’ll get to the exact point I’m trying to make.


In this first part, I’m going to talk about my experience as a student in this province.

In my Twitter bio, I describe myself as “Queer AF.” My profile picture has the pan flag as a background. I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s in a small town close to Ottawa and went to Catholic school from JK to OAC (grade 13, that magical year that no longer exists).

I know many people can point to the exact moment when they realized they’re queer, but I can’t. In many ways, it feels like I’ve just… always known. Because I’ve always been queer. What I needed, as a child, was the opportunity to see myself reflected in lessons, stories, media, discussions in the classroom.

That is not what I got.


There is something wrong with me. 

I can’t tell you how many times that thought ran through my head as a child. As a teenager. As a student. I remember watching movies and shows, reading books, seeing families in the news, and trying to imagine myself as an adult. Sometimes, I could see myself in these families. Sometimes, I could see myself fulfilling the role that society was very clearly expecting me to take on.

Sometimes, though, I couldn’t. There would be moments where I’d imagine myself as a Wife to a Husband and it just felt… wrong. Like it didn’t fit.

I got older. People started developing crushes. We’d talk, as friends, about who we “liked.”

I never liked anyone. I never had crushes. That’s what I told myself, anyway, because everything we were taught was that girls would have crushes on boys, boys would have crushes on girls, and that was that. That’s how “biology” worked. 

It wasn’t until later that I realized that oh, I had crushes, they just… were all on girls.

I sat in class thinking about this often. Why was I broken? What was wrong with me? I would try to pick out boys that maybe, one day, I could convince myself I liked. Sometimes it worked, fleetingly, but most of the time, I felt indifferent.

I moved on to high school. I wrote a love letter (yes, it was immediately shared around the school, and yes, it was mortifying) to a boy. I was deeply set in my feeling that everyone can tell that I am very broken inside and I needed someone to think that no, I’m normal, see? I have crushes on boys! I’m just a regular girl! Just like everyone else!

I think I had everyone else mostly convinced that I was straight, but I had trouble making and keeping friends all the same because the depth of that feeling of otherness was overwhelming. I struggled with mental health, self-harm, depression. 

I even tried to be a Good Catholic Girl in grade 11. I became very interested in liturgies. I tried very hard to make prayer work for me. When it came time for Reconciliation, I thought, This is it. This is where I can fix everything. 

I confessed to having feelings for other girls. But also, sometimes boys! I’m– I’m redeemable, right? This is my big chance! I’ll tell the truth, I’ll pray, I’ll do my penance, and then I’ll be “better.”

And at school, in a school-sanctioned (and required) event, with school staff, I was told that I would go to hell. It confirmed my fears that I was broken. Fundamentally wrong. A sinner. Don’t you want to have children? Don’t you want to go to Heaven? Don’t you want God’s love?

These questions, thrown at me like accusations by the school chaplain, are burned in my mind. The memories are like scars. I actually wrote them down. I kept the journal where I wrote that down for years, for some… awful, self-loathing reason. I don’t know why.

I was shaken by that. My mental health declined even further. I became convinced that my mental health was just another example of how irrevocably screwed up I was as a person. I mean, everyone else around me was “normal.” People were dating. In movies and shows, everyone was straight. If a character came out in the media, it was shocking. Because it wasn’t “normal.”

I withdrew into the online world even more than I had before. I threw myself into the online roleplaying community, playing make-believe as all manner of characters from different genres. I wrote stories – so, so many stories. I read fanfiction. I learned what “slash” and “shipping” meant.

Most importantly, online, I found the queer community. It was sneaky, at first – just little glimpses of other people who were like me, hidden in their writing and the characters they played. I started to wonder if I wasn’t so alone. In time, this world of beautiful, bright, loving, ABSOLUTELY NORMAL PEOPLE helped me see that it wasn’t me that was wrong, it was the world I was expected to live in that was.

And reader, that made me so angry. I had wasted so much time hating myself, trying to fix myself, trying to be someone I wasn’t. I had hurt myself, and in the process, I had hurt my family, too. I had pulled away from them because I didn’t want to cause them pain by being their broken kid.

Furious at my own ignorance to my identity, emboldened by my online friends, determined that none of this should be this way, I came out as bisexual at school in grade 12.

The reaction was swift, decimating, and brutal. People teased. People joked. In that same journal from before, I kept track of the things people said to me: I was doing this for attention. I was saying this because I was too ugly or weird to get a boyfriend. Besides, I couldn’t be bi if I’d never even kissed a girl to know if I really wanted to. What a weirdo. What a freak. Obviously I’m screwed up, since I also have all those scars on my arms. Hey, is that why I was trying to die? Because I knew how screwed up I was?

I hid. I got quiet. I did not talk about being bi after a few weeks of that misery. By OAC, I think most people had forgotten about my moment of “attention-seeking” and moved on to some other target. It wasn’t until I had moved away and started university that I let myself explore my identity and figure out some small piece of who I am.


So. You’ve read all of that, and you’re wondering what any of this has to do with education, maybe? Maybe you think that none of the responsibility for this fell on the school, because after all, it wasn’t my teachers saying that I was a freak. It wasn’t my teachers saying that I was broken or looking for attention.

The thing is, they also didn’t normalize 2SLGBTQ+ identities. They didn’t talk about them at all. And because they never brought them into the class, not only did I sit there feeling like I was fundamentally broken because I couldn’t relate to what I was seeing – my peers internalized the idea that cis-het is the norm and everything else outside of that is deviant.

In short, school created, presented, and perpetuated a perception that being cis-het is the default. If any other perspectives ever came up, they were immediately juxtaposed with the Straight Experience. If students tries to explore queer topics in their work, they were summarily shut down, implying that there was something about it that was wrong or inappropriate for school.

School let me down.

There was a chance for school to be the place where my peers were shown a wide range of experiences, perspectives, and identities to broaden their worldview.

Instead, they perpetuated one experience and held it up as the one you’re supposed to have.

And we’re still doing it, but that’s what Part 2 of this is going to be about.


If you read all of that, thanks. There’s a lot in here that I’ve never said out loud – not to my partner, not to my family, not to my friends.

But it was time.

See you in Part 2.

Boys vs Girls

A friendly competition?

No. 

No. 

No no no no no. 

 

Boys vs girls in sports? Boys vs girls in games? Boys vs girls in math? 

No again. 

 

Here’s why:

  1. Boys vs girls contests assume there are only two genders and reinforces this idea to children. 
  2. This competition forces children to ‘choose’ which side they are on. For those cisgender students, the choice is simple. For students who are transgender, or identify with genders outside of the two given choices, this is much more complicated. Not necessarily because they are unsure of their gender, but because self-identifying in front of the entire class can be detrimental. Students may not be ready to discuss their gender identity, do not feel comfortable, fear being outed, or they may be working on discovering and understanding who they are. 
  3. Gender roles and societal expectations associated with those roles need to be demolished. Gone are the days where we should teach little girls exclusively to be caregivers while leaving the science, technology and math to the boys. Pinning ‘boys’ against ‘girls’ presents to students the idea that there should be some sort of contest, some sort of competition, rather than collaboration amongst all.

Educators who are seeking to make groups may use alternative approaches to divide their class in order to empower students and create a positive classroom environment. Here’s some ways I like to divide students into groups:

  1. By their birth month
  2. The amount of letters in their name 
  3. ‘This or That’ – ask students to decide, for example, “Do you like blue or green?”
  4. Good old fashioned randomization! Use popsicle sticks with student names, random name generators from the internet, student pictures, the list goes on. Use whatever works best for your classroom.

If you have any more thoughts or ideas on how to make non-gendered groups in the classroom, I’d love to hear from you!