Making the curriculum LGBT+ inclusive (with MFL examples)

Since starting this academic year as a Newly Qualified Teacher and taking the reigns of my own teaching content and style, ensuring my teaching is both conscious and inclusive of LGBT+ identities has been a top priority of mine, alongside promoting gender and racial equality. In this post I will lay out the importance of creating an LGBT+-inclusive curriculum and offer some insight into the small – but perhaps significant – steps I have taken towards achieving this in my own Spanish and French lessons. My two main goals in adapting my resources are Normalisation and Embodiment, which I will explain and explore in due course.

Image result for lgbt

Why should we change the curriculum?

The short answer: to reduce suffering and promote happiness (always a worthy cause). In 2017, Stonewall’s School Report found that almost half (45%) of LGBT+ pupils had experienced bullying due to their gender or sexual identity . For trans pupils, this was 64%. It also found that two out of five (40%) students had never been taught about LGBT+ identities in their school and that more than two in five trans young people had tried to take their own life.

You may think that teaching a non-binary pronoun in Spanish and featuring same-sex couples in reading activities won’t stop homophobic or transphobic bullying, and you are probably right. Independently these small changes may cause nothing more than a ripple in the ocean of the education and socialisation of young people. Nonetheless, if we can cause thousands of these ripples across the curriculum they can go a long way towards normalising identities that, at present, exist only on the margins of society.

Instead of only hearing about LGBT+ identities negatively, as suicide news stories or through others’ prejudices, or only explicitly learning about them at school as a vulnerable group, I think that children should see these identities everywhere in the curriculum in very normal terms. They should come across same-sex couples and non-binary people in textbooks, without their gender/sex identity even being called into question. I would argue the same for representation of minority ethnic groups (which textbooks have done pretty well more recently), as well as of people with disabilities (which are still largely invisible in curriculum content).

Normalisation

This brings me to my first aim: Normalisation. This is about targeting an LGBT+-inclusive curriculum at everyone; not just a token gesture tip-of-the-hat to our LGBT+ students, but an attempt to help other students (who make up a majority) come to accept, respect and protect their minority peers.

A bit of a thought experiment now: Imagine you are a thirteen-year-old boy questioning your gender identity, neither feeling ‘like a boy’ nor ‘like a girl’. Now imagine the only experience you have of learning about non-binary and trans people was in a one-off assembly where you could hear your friends snickering and saying unkind things about the person in the picture. Would this make you feel comfortable speaking to someone about what you are experiencing? Would this make you want to love and accept the person you may be becoming?

To you, accepting what you are feeling could mean taking on an identity that you have no real positive concept for. In another reality, you could have seen and heard about lots of ‘normal’ examples of trans or non-binary people, not as objects (“This is a non-binary person, a vulnerable person in society”), but as subjects (“This is Alex. They are a nurse. *Pose subject-specific question*).

Sometimes the only way to normalise something is to tirelessly present it as normal.

Normalisation > Representation

Representation alone doesn’t create normalisation if the representation is biased or only presents the group in question as a victim group. For example the abundance of predominantly Black-cast films about slavery – whilst incredibly important as historical commentary and to raise awareness of present-day inequality – do not inspire young Black children in the same way that Black Panther did. The difference? Black Panther offered Black children a world of possibility where they are empowered superheroes, not seen for their Black-ness but for who they are. We need to create this world of possibility for all of our students, including those that identify as LGBT+ who possibly have the least positive representation in mainstream culture.

This follows the same logic as ensuring children are exposed to an abundance of successful female role models in occupational areas where women are still significantly under-represented (like engineering). Just as we would like our female students to be able to imagine themselves as engineers in the future, can we not also wish for our LGBT+ students to imagine themselves as healthy, happy and accepted people in the future who are not characterised by their sexual or gender identity? How can they imagine this future if it is nowhere to be seen, even when it does exist ‘out there’ in the real world?

How have I attempted to normalise LGBT+ identities through my teaching?

The first example that comes to mind are the reading comprehension tasks I have created for Spanish. In the example below, Sofía describes her family members and mentions having “two mums” (in purple below to make it easier to find, but not in the original). As I said before, these are small things that only cause a ripple, but for me that ripple is significant. I remember teaching this lesson back in November and a student asked: “Sir, it says “mis dos madres”. Does that mean she has two mums?”. I replied, “Sí”, and nothing more was said.

Nothing more was said, but that doesn’t mean nothing more was thought. The fact that it raised a question highlights the fact that the example was almost out of place, unexpected. That one phrase forced everyone in the class to acknowledge the existence of both same sex-couples and same-sex couples who raise a family. Most importantly, it didn’t ‘make a fuss’ about it, which is the key to normalisation – presenting commonly ‘otherised’ identities as ‘normal’.

The fact that nothing more was said makes me think that a lot has already been achieved. When I was at school I doubt it would have been such an unimportant matter. That said, in some ways these ‘seed-planting’ endeavours create an opportunity for teachers to pick up on any homophobic or transphobic sentiment amongst students, thus becoming more informed and better able to protect LGBT+ students from bullying. So in my eyes, it’s a win-win addition to the curriculum.

Another example (below) comes from a French sentence builder designed to get students talking about what they are going to do tomorrow. When saying who they plan to do the activity with, they have various options including “with my girlfriend”, “with my boyfriend”, “with my friends” and so on. Simply using a couple that most would identify as a same-sex couple as the image for one of the options acts as a silent reminder of their existence to students, as well as ensuring any lesbian, gay, bisexual or pansexual students feel in some way represented. Admittedly this does little in the way of non-binary inclusion, which is more difficult in French as I will explain later.

For the same resource in Spanish (below), I was able to add a gender-neutral option thanks to the Spanish word pareja, meaning partner. This is a rare example of a person-describing noun that doesn’t change for different genders in Spanish.

Embodiment

As mentioned, my second goal is embodiment. Embodiment here can be understood as taking control of the narrative of one’s body and identity. LGBT+ people, particularly trans and non-binary people, are too often objectified for their deviation from the heteronormativity and binary conceptualisation of gender that have come to dominate society. LGBT+ identities are so often brought up only as an ‘other’ and viewed in terms of their other-ness rather than as whole individuals for whom their gender or sexuality is but one aspect of a much larger identity.

Using inclusive language in English

Further to this, language itself often denies non-binary people an identity, forcing them into either the masculine or feminine form. This happens in English all the time, which is something that can very easily be addressed across all curriculum areas by using, and inviting the use of, the singular they pronoun. Instead of, “Alex eats four apples. How many apples does he have left?”, simply re-phrasing it “how many apples do they have left” can make a world of difference for questioning or decidedly non-binary students. To most English speakers, the singular they doesn’t necessarily suggest someone is non-binary, but it also doesn’t deny that possibility.

I have heard of many teachers who ask their students to communicate their preferred pronoun to them in some discreet way at the start of term. This could definitely help to avoid mis-gendering a student and subsequently causing any upset, but personally I have found it possible to just bypass gendered pronouns entirely by using students’ names and the singular they for everyone. The English singular they pronoun is a magic fix because decidedly male and female people don’t tend to take issue with it being used to substitute their name. E.g.: “Thomas, William has just gone to the office feeling poorly, can you check they made it okay?”. It doesn’t sound unnatural at all, right? It’s a small linguistic change that does no harm to the majority and considerable good for the minority. I’d call that a win.

Using inclusive language in Modern Foreign Languages

In European Languages, the problem is admittedly a much more difficult one to solve. This is why I believe that teaching the up-and-coming non-binary pronouns, nouns and adjectival endings is important for making MFL more inclusive.

In Spanish, the Claro 1 textbook actually gives teachers a bit of a head start with this, teaching the informal (and perhaps already out-dated) ‘@’ ending which allows words to be read as either masculine (with an ‘o’ ending), or feminine (with an ‘a’ ending). This helps to battle the inherent sexism in languages like Spanish and French where the masculine form is treated as the ‘default’ form and as such it is great for promoting gender equality between men and women. Unfortunately, it fails to give linguistic existence to any identity beyond male or female ones, and since language is the basis of our thoughts, knowledge and possibly even our identity, I would argue this is a problem.

Thankfully for Spanish-speakers, a number of options have come about organically as the Spanish language has evolved alongside societal acceptance (or re-acceptance) of non-binary identities. I have taught my students the X ending, which is great for writing but not speaking, and the E ending which I personally find offers the best solution. As such, the word ‘hermano‘ means ‘brother’, ‘hermana‘ means ‘sister’ and ‘hermane‘ refers to a non-binary sibling (side note: sibling is a great non-binary English word that perhaps isn’t used enough).

I fear that a lot of teachers simply feel that re-working ‘the curriculum’ would be an endless task, but actually there are ways to make non-inclusive content work as well. In the example (below) I was teaching the family member nouns in Spanish using a picture I found on Google. To ensure I wasn’t denying anyone’s non-binary family member the right to exist in the piece of writing they would later do for me, I asked the group to tell me how we could refer to a non-binary sibling. Because they had already learned the E ending (which only requires a few minutes, a whiteboard and a pen to demonstrate), they were able to create the word ‘hermane’.

They then went on to create the words ‘abuele’, ‘tíe’ and ‘prime’ before hitting a brick wall with madre/padre or mamá/papá (we’ve yet to solve that one! mape?). In case you’re panicking at the thought of some retired examiner reading the word ‘hermane’ on a GCSE paper and marking a student down for it, I made sure my students were aware that these are relatively new additions to the Spanish language that have yet to receive official recognition (for example from la Real Academia Española). My students know to use the “officially accepted” forms in exams, comforted by the knowledge that they are ahead of the curve with inclusive language that will undoubtedly become more widely used in the near future.

In fact, watching the Mexican Netflix series Cien días para enamorarnos over the October half term, I was overjoyed to hear one character say to another (in Spanish, as below) “you can be my (male) friend, (female) friend or (non-binary) friend”, using the E ending. I showed this screenshot to my classes, which even got a small round of applause from one class.

In my experience, a lot of students are ahead of us teachers in terms of LGBT+ awareness and inclusive language, and are very welcoming and appreciative of these sorts of changes and content. Just the other day I saw a tweet from a colleague (below) who was thanked by a student for talking about Alan Turing, the English logician who was key to cracking the Nazi Enigma machine in WWII, saving an estimated 14 million lives, who was later charged with “gross indecency” for being homosexual, leading to his chemical castration and subsequent suicide (a particularly reprehensible example of Britain’s historic treatment of homosexuals).

A few more examples of inclusive Spanish resources

In the example below, I included a non-binary option for the free time activity “to go out with my friends” (in purple again just to highlight it), allowing students to refer to a plural group of friends that could include people of any gender or sex identity.

Another example (below) is a resource I recently developed to teach verb conjugation, ensuring a non-binary/gender-neutral option for the third person singular (elle = singular they) and leaving the gendered ending out of the Spanish we, plural you and plural they pronouns so that students can choose whether to add an O, A, @, X or E. [You can download this resource free here]

This is slightly more difficult to teach, yes, and it does take longer to always say “singular they” and “plural they“, for sure. But the price of not doing so is more than I am willing to pay. Let’s re-visit one of the statistics I mentioned at the start: 64% of trans pupils had experienced bullying due to their gender or sexual identity, and more than two in five trans young people had tried to take their own life. If spending a little longer teaching the foundational knowledge of verb conjugation can do anything, however small, to remedy these issues, I think it’s worth the effort. Indeed, I have seen from students’ use of these non-binary forms in their books that it is meeting a demand that does exists and will always exist.

I was pleased to see when I shared this resource on an MFL teacher Facebook group that a few other teachers were quick to show support for my inclusion of these elements (below), a comforting suggestion that MFL teachers are generally open, or even welcoming, to the idea of re-working the curriculum to make it LGBT+ friendly.

Amidst their supportive comment, one teacher said that it was the first time they had seen elle on a resource (below). This is what suggested to me that it’s time to move beyond willingness and to start collaboratively re-working our content and resources. (Did you notice I used the singular their possessive adjective in this paragraph?)

My final example is how I have adapted a ‘small talk’ slide I use to get students speaking at the start of lessons. First we started with the non-changing adjectives bien and feliz, later learning some different adjectives with their O and A endings. Once students learned about inclusive language (the X and E endings), I was able to adapt the resource so that they can choose the ending they wish to use. I personally feel that presenting it in this format causes less confusion than, for example: “nervioso/a/e”, particularly for students who have dyslexia or visual processing difficulties.

Most of my examples are for teaching Spanish, my main subject specialism and a language I have spoken fluently for a considerable part of my life. In French, my second subject area, I feel I lack the insight into popular French vernacular needed to make the necessary decisions around which forms to teach. Indeed, I would welcome any insight teachers can offer in the comments at the bottom of this page. From online research I have found that it is much harder to use gender-neutral language in French.

There is growing use of the pronouns iel and ille, variations on the masculine form il and feminine elle, but these do not solve the problem of gendered adjectival endings. Whilst the E ending in Spanish offers a solution, an E in French often means a word is feminine. This does make inclusivity in the French curriculum harder in terms of gender-neutral language, but it shouldn’t stop us from making other changes like the ones I mentioned earlier in this article.

In French we can still:

  • Feature same-sex couples in activities (as text or pictures/ cartoons)
  • Avoid correcting seemingly mistaken use of the ‘wrong’ form of an adjective without being sure we haven’t ourselves mistakenly mis-gendered a student.
  • Counter norms of masculinity and femininity by using a diverse range of examples of peoples’ occupations (e.g. female firefighter, male nurse).
  • Offer the alternative pronouns iel and ille and offer students the choice to go with either masculine or feminine adjectives, armed with the knowledge that it is a dilemma that has well-meaning native French speakers scratching their chins.

Surely we can do a lot more than this across all curriculum areas. I don’t claim to have all the answers but I’m hoping this may get the ball rolling for a few teachers and, hopefully, we can all get some new ideas and resources to put to use as a result.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Gina Stokes says:

    Excellent article and one that should be published more widespread

    Like

  2. L says:

    This is an excellent article and I would love to talk to you more about your ideas. I have been trying to implement these things in my first yer teaching this year, and this is a massive help to send to colleagues and so on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, thank you for reading and for your comment! I have a video presentation here where I talk about this a bit more 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTDUxbgkn3s

      Like

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