Table of Contents

    Cover Theme
  • Free Celebrating Transgender Students in Our Classrooms and in Our Schools

    By the editors of Rethinking Schools

    What can teachers, schools, and districts do to meet the needs of trans students? To make them visible? To keep them alive? To celebrate them?

  • Free On Behalf of Their Name

    Using They/Them Pronouns Because They Need Us To

    By Mykhiel Deych

    The staff advisor for their high school’s Queer-Straight Alliance delves into the complexities of a student-led training for teachers on the importance of using students’ preferred pronouns. >>> Adrienne Rich’s quote illuminated the projector screen welcoming teachers as they entered the library for a 90-minute training on gender and sexuality acceptance led by the Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA) — a student organization that I am the staff advisor for. Our large urban school holds about 100 staff members. Maybe 3 percent looked forward to this training. The rest sat with their arms crossed, present only because admin mandated their attendance. . . .

  • Free Teaching Them into Existence

    By Mykhiel Deych

    A high school English teacher (also the QSA staff advisor) wrestles with the suicide of a transgender student and calls on heterosexual and cisgender teachers to integrate LGBTQ authors, themes, and history into their classrooms. >>> Teaching isn’t supposed to include life-or-death consequences, but it does. When it comes to LGBTQ students, we fail to hold space for their existence. Heterocentric, cisnormative curriculum writes out the existence of LGBTQ lives. Campaigns such as Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better,” spur and go viral precisely because we aren’t actually reassuring youth that their existence is acceptable, real, normal. We need an “It Gets Better” campaign because high school is awful for LGBTQ kids, high school is fatal. . . .

  • Free Queering Black History and Getting Free

    By Dominique Hazzard

    A Black freedom organizer demands that teachers and activists radically change their frameworks around Black history by lifting up the stories of Black LGBTQ people like Marsha P. Johnson. >>> Queering Black history means canonizing Marsha P. Johnson as a matriarch of Black America. Putting her face on those calendars and poster collages right next to Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Coretta Scott King, and Michelle Obama. It means studying her ACT UP campaigns in high school classrooms. It means mourning her too-early death just as we mourn the deaths of cisgender men like Malcolm and Medgar. It means examining why it took 20 years for the NYPD to investigate that death as a murder, and having conversations about the role of the Black freedom movement in bringing about trans liberation today. . . .

  • Free "What Kind Are You?"

    Transgender Characters in Children’s Literature

    By Lora Worden

    A school librarian describes children’s books with strong transgender characters and themes. >>> Some of those who wished to remove George denied that it was because of the book’s transgender protagonist, and instead cited concerns over passing references to dirty magazines and characters who erased their internet search history in order to hide that information from their parents.

  • Features
  • Free Teaching Social Activism in Prison

    The Leap Manifesto and Incarcerated Youth

    By Rachel Boccio

    A Connecticut educator who taught English to incarcerated young men for 20 years describes what happened when she introduced her students to the Canadian “Leap Manifesto.” >>> Manson Youth Institution is a maximum security correctional facility for adolescent males tried and sentenced as adults in the Connecticut Department of Correction. Its population is composed mostly of poor men of color with histories of abuse, detention, and truancy. Education is mandatory for the majority of Manson’s inmates: boys file up to school — right side of the yellow line, no talking, IDs out, shirts tucked, heads down — bearing the anger, frustration, fear, and loneliness that inheres to incarcerated life. . . .

  • Free You Need Rank and File to Win: How Arizona Teachers Built a Movement

    By Noah Karvelis

    An elementary teacher who helped organize Arizona educators to strike explains how their movement formed and operated, and how it can inspire other teachers’ movements. >>> Across the nation, from Puerto Rico to Kentucky and Colorado to California, a powerful teachers’ movement has been growing. The potential of this movement first became apparent when West Virginia’s teachers went on strike in February and ultimately won a 5 percent raise for all public employees. Following this, Oklahoma’s educators mobilized and won raises and additional funding. After that strike, teachers in my own state of Arizona went on a six-day strike and won $406 million in funding. . . .

  • Free My First Year as a Teacher of Color

    Teaching Against the Grain

    By Juan Córdova

    A teacher of color writes about obstacles he faced during his first year in the classroom and the support he received — and did not receive — from other teachers and administrators. >>> Interviewing for my first teaching job out of school, I arrived excited in a suit and tie as I was walked to a sunny corner office to meet the principal. A charming middle-aged white woman with a bright smile, a bubbly personality, and contagious excitement, she seemed eager to get to know me and asked to hear my story and find out how this man of Color decided to go into teaching. . . .

  • Free Deportations on Trial

    Mexican Americans During the Great Depression

    By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

    A social studies teacher describes the role play trial she developed around a largely forgotten period: when during the Great Depression the United States deported thousands of Mexican American families. >>> From the late 1920s to the late 1930s, men, women, and children, immigrant and U.S.-born, citizen and noncitizen, longtime residents and temporary workers all became the targets of a massive campaign of forced relocation, based solely on their perceived status as “Mexican.” They were rounded up in parks, at work sites, and in hospitals; betrayed by local relief agencies who reported anyone with a “Mexican sounding” name to the Immigration Service; tricked and terrorized into “voluntary” deportation by municipal and state officials; and forcibly deported in trains and buses to a country some hadn’t lived in for decades and others never at all. . . .

  • Free Who Is Allowed to Teach Spanish in Our Public Schools?

    Documenting the Consequences of the edTPA

    By Sarah Jourdain

    The director of a world language teacher preparation program argues for an end to the edTPA because it bars native Spanish speakers from public school classrooms. >>> Maria found a position in a local private school, but she is still not eligible to teach in the New York state public school system even though her program’s teacher education faculty, as well as both of her cooperating teachers, were unanimous in deeming Maria qualified to begin her career as a Spanish teacher. . . .

  • Departments Free
  • Tax the Rich, Fight Climate Change

    Column: Earth, Justice, and Our Classrooms

    By Bill Bigelow
  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.

Celebrating Transgender Students in Our Classrooms and in Our Schools

Celebrating Transgender Students in Our Classrooms and in Our Schools

Micah Bazant

Students tell us what they need verbally, behaviorally, and statistically. Transgender students also collectively tell us through high dropout rates, absenteeism, their rates of homelessness, and drug abuse. And they tell us through their frighteningly high suicide attempts — 41 percent of transgender students attempt suicide compared to 1.6 percent of the general population. 

In their heartbreaking article in this issue, “Teaching Them into Existence” (p. 12), Mykhiel Deych writes about the suicide of their transgender student, Lilith: “Teaching isn’t supposed to include life-or-death consequences, but it does. When it comes to LGBTQ students, we fail to hold space for their existence. Heterocentric, cisnormative curriculum writes out the existence of LGBTQ lives.”

The issue is compounded because so much of our society works to erase transgender lives. In October 2018, the New York Times reported, “The Trump administration is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in a governmentwide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has deliberately moved to erase the existence, the acknowledgement, the protection of 149,750 transgender youth (ages 13–17) and 1.4 million transgender adults, not to mention those who are born intersex. 

So, what can teachers, schools, and districts do to meet the needs of trans students? To make them visible? To keep them alive? To celebrate them?

Names and Pronouns
Every teacher, school, and district must honor the identities of transgender students by using their chosen name and pronoun, even when it contradicts what’s on their birth certificate or classroom roster. In Deych’s other article in this issue, “On Behalf of Their Name: Using They/Them Pronouns Because They Need Us To” (p. 8), student Olive told the faculty at their school, “Everything in our society is binary, it’s not just gender. But when you don’t fit into that binary, take a step back and you’re like, but what about me? And it’s just — it feels like — there’s not a place for me in this society.”

Naming acknowledges existence. One of the first actions colonizers took when they pillaged a new country was to rename mountains, rivers, roads, every nook and cranny in their own language because to erase a name is to erase ownership and identity. Similarly, during slavery calling enslaved people by a common name, like Sally or boy, or not addressing them with their title and surname, was a means of exerting control. In the same way, refusing to address transgender people by their chosen name or pronoun erases their presence, their right to a space and place in the school or classroom, and it maintains the gender binary social order that excludes them. One of the first actions of newly emancipated people was to rename themselves.

Recognizing this language problem, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) issued its “Statement on Gender and Language” in October of 2018, boldly addressing both the grammar and the politics of pronouns:

Language, which plays a central role in human cognition and behavior, is one of the most common mechanisms by which gender is constructed and reinforced. The words that people use to describe others or objects are often unintentionally but unquestionably based on implicit cultural biases that privilege the gender binary. . . . NCTE is concerned about the critical role that language plays in perpetuating gender bias, including binary understandings of gender and gender norms. Through careful attention to language as it relates to gender, [teachers] have the opportunity to influence inclusive and supportive thought and behavior both directly and indirectly.

Deych’s article shares one Gay-Straight Alliance’s (GSA) journey to crack their school’s consciousness by raising awareness and directly asking teachers to attempt to use correct pronouns. Schools and school districts should download and discuss the NCTE statement as they reframe their own language and actions. In fact, they might take NCTE’s advice and “[c]onduct an internal audit of written material representing the school and/or district and, where needed, direct the revision of material to eliminate binary language.”

While adults struggle with the pronouns, the idea of gender fluidity, and transgender people, kids who read or experience transgender people early seem to understand the grey areas and the blurriness way before adults. Nine-year-old Xavier, for example, read the book George, about a transgender girl and talked about how unfair it was that George wasn’t considered for the key role in a play. He’s not confused, nor are his 4th-grade classmates who excitedly read and shared the book that made the Oregon Battle of the Books list, only to be banned by some districts. (See “What Kind Are You? Transgender Characters in Children’s Literature” p. 18.) They understand that George’s issue is not actually about bathrooms, it’s about control and fear.

Schools must normalize transgender lives through literature and curriculum. As Lora Worden writes in her review of transgender books in this issue, students shouldn’t have to wait until they read chapter books to learn about transgender characters. This is a service not only for trans students who feel endangered or invisible, but also for cisgender students. Disrupting bullying against LGBTQ students — who are the most likely to be bullied — can begin with building empathy. As a department or district, teachers should seek gender diversity in their text selection, including texts written by transgender and nonbinary authors and about transgender and nonbinary characters and experiences.

Language arts teachers can also address the ways in which language moves in response to social forces by creating lessons on the politics of grammar and usage. Students might examine the ways Chicago Manual of Style and other style books have changed over the years as they respond to social upheavals, in this case determining that the pronoun “they” is appropriate to use in writing when referring to singular antecedents, including when writing for publication. Teen Vogue’s back-to-school issue in August 2018 published an article “How to Use Gender Neutral Words and Why They Are Important,” which could be used as a model for showing students not only how to make their language more inclusive, but also how to write an essay that teaches others about the bias in language. For example, the article tells students: “When we speak about ‘mankind’ or ‘the achievements of man,’ what we’re doing is confirming the subconscious bias that men are intellectually, morally, and physically superior to women, which is clearly untrue.”

Social studies teachers might follow the lead of a collective of teachers in Portland, Oregon, who created a unit called “Queering Portland.” These high school history and art teachers collected articles and artifacts to help students examine both the history of bigotry and abuse faced by the LGBTQ community locally, but also that community’s resistance.

Teachers across curricular areas should take NCTE’s advice to “[s]eize and create classroom opportunities to discuss and challenge gender assumptions, particularly binary assumptions about gender. This may include teaching students how to be alert and ready to question texts as varied as classroom materials to newscasts to school rituals and traditions — homecoming princesses, prom queens, etc. — that are riddled with sexism, heteronormativity, and dangerously gendered scripts.

In February 2017, the Trump administration repealed a critical Obama decision. According to the New York Times, “In a joint letter, the top civil rights officials from the Justice Department and the Education Department rejected the Obama administration’s position that nondiscrimination laws require schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.” 

While the courts and Trump wrangle over whether gender-neutral bathrooms should exist, they already are in place in many schools, but more are needed in states and school districts that refused to implement nondiscrimination federal policy. Indeed, multiple gender-neutral bathrooms are necessary so that trans students and staff don’t have to traverse the entire school or wait in lines to use the bathroom. In new school designs, gender-neutral bathrooms have become the norm. 

But transgender students currently attending schools cannot wait for the courts to decide where they can pee or for communities to cough up funds to remodel existing bathrooms. If your school does not currently have a gender-neutral bathroom, get creative. Most schools have gendered, single stall bathrooms for staff members. These facilities could be opened as gender-neutral bathrooms. Don’t wait for permission, act for the rights of transgender students now.

Gay-Straight Alliance
As Deych’s article demonstrates, the GSA (sometimes also called the Queer-Straight Alliance) provided a safe space to discuss issues, but also created a gathering place where students nurtured their collective power to exert change. According to a 2014 article at, a large study conducted in Canada demonstrated that schools with GSAs dramatically reduce suicide risks for all students. 

When we build inclusive communities for transgender students, we are all forced to think more deeply about our humanity and how we approach identity. Throughout our history, people in our society have been taught a gender binary that divides humanity in half and assigns some characteristics to one half and different characteristics to the other. We all become poorer in that cleaving. When we introduce transgender people into the curriculum, it allows us to think more expansively and imaginatively about gender and identity, and invites everyone to rethink who “we” are. Every action we take in schools to welcome those who have been traditionally marginalized reminds us that we are doing this work for all of us, helping all of us become better human beings.