Let Students Pronounce Themselves (On Pronouns and Identity) [Guest Post]

Jose Vilson Education, Featured, Guest Posts

Editor’s Note: Normally, I don’t post things during a break, but I’d like everyone to read this from Kurt Ostrow. Also, this is totally appropriate even right now and any time, not just the first day of school. Enjoy!

In my work as a public high school English teacher, I try to think of ways to center students on the margin.

This summer, as I celebrated the organizing that secured trans rights in Massachusetts and read the visionary platform of the Movement for Black Lives, I thought about my own responsibility as an educator: How can I continue to support trans students and students of color in my classroom?

To do this work well requires serious time and energy—both of which public school teachers desperately lack. Transforming schools into liberated and liberating spaces is hard enough without the pressures of high-stakes testing, punitive evaluations, and a ballot question to lift the cap on charter schools.

But we must, of course, keep doing the work. We must constantly reimagine what we teach and how we teach it. We must make our schools places that welcome and center, rather than simply tolerate or accommodate, trans students and students of color.*

Here’s one move I made at the start of this school year: letting students pronoun/ce themselves on the first day.

When my kids found their seats last week, I asked each of them to write on an index card their name, a phonetic guide to their name, what pronouns they use, and the answer to an icebreaker. I walked them through a model on the board:

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After I fielded questions from the floor and gave students time to fill out their cards, I modeled with my own introduction: “Hi yall! I’m Mr. Ostrow. I use he/him/his pronouns. And if I had a time machine…” Students then went around the circle and introduced themselves. Later, I took the index cards home and reviewed the phonetic guides for practice.

It’s no secret that teachers—particularly white teachers like me—too often butcher the names of students of color on their rosters. I worry this moment sets a dangerous tone, suggesting to those students that there’s more pain, more humiliation, more alienation to come. But when each student has the first opportunity to say their own name—and to say it right, as high school poet Hiwot Adilow demands — this disrupts the traditional, often racialized, balance of power in the room. (In fact, I teach in Fall River, an enclave for many white Portuguese immigrants, and the more times I can hear the proper pronunciation of João, the better.)

Plus, if a student’s given name isn’t the name they use (for any reason, from nicknames to gender transition), then that student doesn’t have to backpedal or clarify. They are who they say they are.

Yes, the pronouns are trickier. Many students aren’t familiar with the gender-neutral they or genderqueer hir. (Or with pronouns at all!) My experience in a working-class public high school, however, suggests that a short conversation can do the trick. (Kids these days!) Taking the time on this—even if it’s uncomfortable—invites trans and genderqueer students to be their whole selves in the room. And it signals to everyone else that we can’t make assumptions about gender or the language we use to talk about it. We have to be deliberate. We have to ask.

This practice grows out of an attempt to see my students as whole people, worthy of respect and dignity, in possession of lives that matter. And I do it because, as I remind my young writers all the time, it’s not enough to just tell them I love them; I have to show them.

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*For ideas about how to engage in more transformative social justice education, I’m a fan of publications like Rethinking Schools and conferences hosted by groups like the NY Collective of Radical Educators.

Kurt Ostrow teaches high school English in Fall River Public Schools. He serves as a vice president of his union local and on the LGBTQ Committee of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.