Ace Schwarz, of Teaching Outside The Binary, recently published an amazing blog post about introducing pronouns to students at the beginning of the year. We asked for their permission to share an accompanying blog post on our page about what you could modify to make to do this work with elementary school students.
In the blog post, Ace makes a very important point: when we are asking about pronouns, we are not asking about someone's gender identity. You can explain and introduce pronouns to young children without having to explain the many dimensions of gender (yet).
When we do this work in with students in Kindergarten-fifth grade, a little background and build up is needed.
- First, you can ask for student's (and family member's) pronouns privately during home visits or 1:1 meetings before school begins. You can say something simple like "When you talk about me and use my name, you'll say 'Ms. _____ is my teacher.' When you're not saying my name, the little words you will use instead are 'she' and 'her'. So you might say 'She is my teacher, her hair is short.' When I'm not saying your name, what little words would you like me to use? Those are called your pronouns!"
You can record these pronouns on a simple form next to the child's name on record and the name they wish to be called at school. If you sense that there is not agreement about the child's name or pronouns from their caregivers, it is okay to follow up with the student privately later, asking specifically what they would like to be called at school.
We would recommend having these conversations 1:1 with elementary age students instead of having them fill out a form so that you can explain terms and help them understand what you mean. Remember that it is ok for children not to know their pronouns, or to have them change! Keep reading to find ideas for how to help kids understand pronouns.
- Then, you will want to follow up with books that explicitly teach about pronouns or simply normalize the use of non-binary pronouns.
These three texts are foundational and could be read in this order:
They, She, He, Me: Free to Be by Maya and Matthew
They, She, He, Me, Easy as ABC by Maya and Matthew
What Are Your Words? A Book About Pronouns by Katherine Locke
The next texts either explicitly discuss pronouns or simply weave in they/them pronouns in ways that can help your or your students practice using them:
Neither by Airlie Anderson (this is an excellent book to help children understand why people use pronouns other than he/him and she/her)
From The Stars In The Sky To The Fish in The Sea by Kai Cheng Thom
Peanut Goes For The Gold by Jonathan Van Ness
When Aidan Became A Brother by Kyle Lukoff
It Feels Good to Be Yourself by Theresa Thorn
- Next, you might consider having a class pet, stuffed animal, or mascot. You can intentionally introduce this item mentioning their pronouns explicitly: "This is our class puppy Sequoia. When we aren't saying Sequoia's name, we will use the little word 'they', like this 'They have light brown fur and dark brown ears.' We will also use the little word 'their', like this 'Their paws have spots on them! Sequoia's pronouns are they and them.'
During distance learning, this is the form Katy sent to her students to fill out. They actually filled out pronouns for their puppies before disclosing their own, which provided great opportunities for discussions. It is okay to use children's names until you know their pronouns!
- Finally, you can work together to make a class pronoun book. Students can be invited to share their pronouns, but not required (they can always simply use their names). In K-1 classrooms, this might look like each child drawing a picture of themselves and writing their pronouns underneath. In 2nd-3rd grade classrooms, this might look like students interviewing each other and writing a page about their partner, like "This is Ava. They love to swim." In 4th/5th grade, this might look like students creating identity maps and choosing whether or not to share them with the teacher or the entire class.
This foundational work will set the stage for a year where students feel safe, seen and affirmed.