Supporting the Use of Non-Binary Pronouns in Schools

“Transgender and nonbinary students are urging educators to use inclusive language, but not everyone is on board.” L. K. Wertheimer,The Boston Globe September 28, 2021

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Alia Cusolito, a sophomore at Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett. Credit- Harry Scales. The Boston Globe

Excerpt: ‘A very scary thing to tell someone’: The debate over gender pronouns in schools, explained By Linda K. Wertheimer September 28, 2021, The Boston Globe

“On the first day of school at Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett, Alia Cusolito donned cool, 3-inch, dangling sword earrings. The sophomore also pinned a circular black button with ‘they/them’ in silver letters onto their shirt and a pink ‘they/them’ pin to their backpack. The buttons were a plea for respect and for acknowledgement from teachers and peers of Alia’s identity and preferred pronouns. The teen identifies as nonbinary.

‘The language we use to describe ourselves is a choice, but the gender I am is not a choice,’ says Alia, who switched from she/her pronouns to gender-neutral ones in ninth grade. ‘Nonbinary fits me. My identity isn’t a choice.’

As president of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance club, Alia, who is 16, wanted to attend class and walk the halls without the worry that someone, teachers included, might misgender them…Before the school year began, school librarian Allison Barker, adviser to the Gender Sexuality Alliance club (known around the country as GSAs), slipped sample get-to-know-you forms in every teacher’s mailbox. The forms, which students would be asked to fill out, included a blank space to fill in their pronouns and preferred names. Barker has distributed such forms for the past three years to help teachers ease the way for students who may feel anxious to announce their names and pronouns in front of the class.

But Alia’s first two days of school this year were a disappointment. Only three of their nine teachers gave students a way to provide pronouns and names of choice…Many teachers and school administrators I interviewed, including the principal at Old Rochester Regional, say they’re listening and making changes… While asking for pronouns has become routine in some school systems, it isn’t at all commonplace at others.

In some cases, administrators say they’re moving slowly because for many teachers the concept of gender-neutral pronouns is relatively new. And community backlash is a realistic fear. Gender identity, as well as anything to do with the LGBTQ community, used to be a hush-hush topic in schools and elsewhere…In Virginia, a gym teacher sued the Loudoun County school system, contending that his free speech rights were violated when he was suspended for saying at a school board meeting that he wouldn’t refer to transgender students by their preferred pronouns. In August, a judge ruled in his favor… Advocates say the pronoun/name forms are necessary for health and safety reasons. ‘Simply respecting a student’s chosen name and pronoun is the single most important thing you can do to prevent suicide and mental health issues,’ says Kimm Topping, program manager of the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 60 minutes.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

KWL Chart

Directions: Have students use the KWL chart to list the information they already know about transgender or non-binary terms. Later in the Post- Reading segment of the lesson, students can fill in what they’ve learned about the topic.

II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Try to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. You use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. Some people identify as Transgender.
  2. Many teens identify as non-binary.
  3. Alia was president of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance club.
  4. Many students feel anxious saying their names and pronouns in front of the class.
  5. I’ve seen  a new trend myself as a parent.
  6. My son is an eighth-grader in a suburban Boston middle school.
  7. Those who oppose the distribution of pronoun forms, include parents and conservative Christian groups.
  8. At Old Rochester Regional, a collaboration is taking place  between students and the school educators.
  9. Some teachers still called students by their dead names on the first day and some were misgendered.
  10. Students upset about teachers who didn’t distribute the forms expressed their angst on an Instagram site.

Vocabulary Cluster By


Grammar Focus: Identifying Prepositions

Directions: The following sentences are from the news article.  For each sentence choose the correct preposition from the choices listed. Note that not all prepositions listed are in the article.

Some Prepositions: at,  as, across, around,  by, during,  for, from, in, into,  of, on,  to, over,  off, through, up,  with, since,

Devoll, the school’s principal___13 years, wanted___ know how they could fix it. Barker believes consistency is the key. She gave Devoll a copy___ a form that’s gone viral, created___ a Pennsylvania middle school science teacher who runs an Instagram site called Teaching Outside the Binary. Barker praised the form’s inclusion___an option ___students___decide who should know their new identity, including whether guardians and parents should be___ the list. “That’s ___their safety,” Barker says. “They don’t feel comfortable being out ___their parents, but___school, they have found safety___being able ___express their true selves.”

Reading Comprehension Identify The  Speakers

Directions: Read the following quotes from the speakers in the article. Then identify the speakers.

  1. “I think it’s not asking very much to simply ask a child what they would like to be called.”
  2. “I think everyone who cares about children is on a learning curve. Our understanding of gender identity has evolved in the last decade.”
  3. Advocates say the pronoun/name forms are necessary for health and safety reasons. “Simply respecting a student’s chosen name and pronoun is the single most important thing you can do to prevent suicide and mental health issues.”
  4. “Expanding the curriculum and letting students be called what they want in school are both part of making schools safer.”
  5. “What other emotional and mental labor do queer and trans kids need to put in before we’ll be shown basic respect?” 

III. Post Reading Activities

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing

Directions: Have  students discuss the following questions/statements. Afterwards,  students share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics mentioned.

  1. Do you consider yourself transgender  or non-binary?
  2. If so, how do you want others to address you?
  3. Do you know someone who identifies as transgender  or non-binary?
  4. In this article how does Alia identify?
  5. What was one of Alia’s fears going back to class?
  6. Which pronoun has been in use since 1375?
  7. What did the school librarian suggest students do before the school year began  to help teachers get to know them?
  8. Did all of the teachers comply with students’ preferences?
  9. What is a ‘dead name’ ?
  10. Why was Alia frustrated? How did they feel about the teachers’ support?
  11. How does Alia’s father feel about the situation at her school?
  12. Why are so many teachers and administrators afraid to use gender-neutral pronouns?
  13. Why would there be community backlash over using gender-neutral pronouns in schools?
  14. What incident occurred in the Loudoun County school in Virginia?
  15. How do opponents of transgender and non-binary pronoun forms view this topic?
  16. According to the recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, what happens to youths who identify as LGBTQ in Massachusetts?
  17. What happened during the Stonewall riots in 1969?
  18. (Groups might research the riots and  share presentations with the class)
  19. After reading this article list three new ideas  that you’ve learned about the topic from the reading,  two things that you did not understand in the reading, and one thing you would like to know that the article did not mention.  Share your responses with your class.