The Problem of Teaching Bi-gendered Language in a Multi-gendered World

Someone I know, who is training to become a teacher in a fairly progressive setting, posted a question on Facebook. The problem, as I understood it, was this:

How does one teach masculine & feminine nouns, without reinforcing gender stereotypes and/or alienating those whose experience is located beyond our currently short-sighted definitions of male and female?

The prescribed lesson requires dividing children into groups of male vs. female, and identifies both masculinity and femininity in terms of a male or female’s capacity to become a mother or father. In the context of recognizing and respecting gender diversity, this is somewhat problematic. One proposed solution was to eliminate the lesson completely. Another was to,“talk to (any) child who might be hurt by the activity, beforehand”.

I have a few thoughts on the matter…

First, talking to a child (or anyone) who may be hurt by an activity, or potentially exclusive exercise, prior to engaging in that activity is NOT a solution. Such a conversation will serve only to a) single out the child; b) mark the child as an anomaly; and c) undermine the child’s trust, safety & sense of belonging. Such a conversation is a salve for the teacher, not the child. It does not help to exclude a person from a community exercise. It does not help to say to someone about to be wronged: “I know this is wrong.” and then go ahead and do it anyway…

Our responsibility as teachers, individuals, and as a society is not to gloss over our short-comings by expressing remorse and politely asking the 'other' to sit on the sidelines as we carry on about our business. Rather, our responsibility is to change the way we conduct our business so that the 'other' is recognized and included as a valued member of the 'all'.

Gendered language is a reality in our society, and children learn it, with or without the benefit of a classroom setting. The beauty of the classroom though – is that a conscientious teacher has the opportunity to initiate thinking about the confines of gendered language, at the same time as teaching it.  For these teachers, it goes without saying that the act of dividing kids into groups of male vs. female is outdated and harmful.  It is also unnecessary.

By locating discussion of gendered nouns in external imagery only, these lessons can, at the very least, be taught without forcing participants to self-identify with gender designations that may or may not fit. In settings that allow for it, a pro-active teacher could even include images that reflect gender diversity – creating an environment of visibility and acknowledgement, without having to single out any member of the group. For teachers willing to go the extra mile, these images, whether of humans, animals, insects, plants or inanimate objects, can also serve as the catalyst for