Mind Your Language

In a recent assignment, my students identified the benefits of comprehensive sexuality education, and their research discovered this quote from Siecus, prompting us to have a conversation about the role of language in the #HealthEd classroom, how it has changed, and how it can make a classroom more inclusive.

I asked my students to consider this prompt: We often change the language we use and the way we speak, depending on who we are with. What examples can you share? My students confirmed that their language changes when they are with close friends, or if they are talking to someone older, or a teacher. Some also talked about using certain words when they are younger without really knowing the meaning behind, or the power of, certain words. We also discussed certain campaigns that have existed to ask people to consider the language they use. My own school ran a series of whole-school lessons targeting the use of slurs.

The conversation above allowed us to identify that language, and education changes over time, just as we do as individuals, and for that reason, Mr. Milne from 1994 (my first year as a teacher), used language that present-day Mr. Milne would find exclusionary and harmful to students.

Consider your own use of language in the classroom, is it fully inclusive?

People-First Language: A person’s identity and self-image are closely linked to the words used to describe them and there would have been a time when I would have referenced a student by their deficits or weaknesses. By using person-centered language we see individuals as more than their behaviors, their illnesses or, disabilities. People-first language respects the dignity, unique qualities, and strengths of every individual.

I shared language with students that can be found in an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and showed how it identifies challenges but also references accommodations and strengths of a student. As a teacher, I now know what I need to provide for a student for them to have success. I can now give that student what they need because they NEED it – that in itself is a definition of equitable teaching.

How might you re-write this ‘deficit-first’ description of AJ? Focus on the grey words to make this ‘person-centered’.

Many of my students raised their hands when I ask if, like me, they have been described as lazy. When asked if that was fair, I challenged students to describe themselves using person-centered language.

“I’m not lazy, I just find it difficult to organize my time”

“I’m not lazy, I prioritize my assignments and I do the ones that I value first”

Gender-neutral language: Health class has changed over time but too often it can still contain gendered language. While 1994 Mr. Milne would struggle with this concept, we have to be “100% there, for 100% of our students”. Using gendered language excludes many students including those who are transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and intersex people. For that reason, I now use language in my classroom that I wouldn’t have used perhaps 5 years ago.

“Male and female condoms” are referred to as “internal and external condoms”. The dated PowerPoint I previously used in class with the label “male reproductive anatomy” is now referred to as the “reproductive anatomy of a person with a penis”. The language has changed, but the message is that I’m including ALL students in my teaching, not just those that conform to ‘traditional’ constructs and labels.

If changing your language feels odd initially, that’s OK. I have told my students to call me out if/when I refer to them collectively as “guys” as that’s language that I’m trying to change. I know that through repetition, and practice, gender-inclusive terms will become part of my everyday language, normalize those terms, empower my students to use them, and not feel awkward.

Here’s 1994 Mr. Milne (I grew into my looks eventually). He didn’t think his approach or language was harmful, but we can see that it is. What advice can you give Mr. Milne so that his health class is fully inclusive?

My students didn’t hold back in their feedback to the image above and I reminded them that I am only the teacher I am today BECAUSE of the feedback I have received INCLUDING the feedback from my students. If only I had created a safe space for my students in 1994 to speak up against my harmful teaching practices.

The final prompts I ask my students to consider ALWAYS result in good conversations:

Where do you see evidence of teachers using inclusive language at our school?

In what ways can our school do better, and be more inclusive?

Where can students go if they seek to make change here at school?

I want my students to get the “A in life” that they deserve, and to be thriving global citizens who can “plan their futures and protect their health”. Teaching them through my 1994 white, European, cisgender, heteronormative lens would do them a disservice. Only through constantly trying to do better, aiming to be as inclusive as possible, and providing my students with the opportunity to learn, practice, and use health skills can I set them on the path towards living the healthier and happier life that I hope they achieve.

This microblog post was a featured post in #slowchathealth’s #microblogmonth event. You can search for all of the featured posts here. Please do follow each of the outstanding contributors on social media (including Andy Milne, the author of this post) and consider writing a microblog post of your own to be shared with the global audience of slowchathealth.com

Pair this blog post with the following:

Life-Affirming for All, Life-Saving for Some by Gender Spectrum (blog post)

Principles for Gender-Inclusive Puberty and Health Education by Gender Spectrum (PDF)

Give Students Language by Nicole Collins (blog post)

The Need for Gender Inclusive Reproductive Health by Michea B (article)

Person-Centered Language by Center for Practice Transformation (article)

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