For some folks, there were specific classrooms from their K-12 experience that made them feel welcome, safe, and confident in their ability to succeed. Perhaps the content matter was special because it aligned with their specific goals or talents, or a teacher was especially inspirational.
Students are more successful in classes when the content is tied to their lives. GLSEN research shows that LGBTQ students in schools with an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum were less likely to miss school in the last month due to feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, and were less likely to say they might not graduate high school. Moreover, LGBTQ high school seniors were more likely to be interested in studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) in college if their relevant high school classes had included positive LGBTQ content.
Mathematics teachers have a unique role to play in the lives of their students, because understanding algebraic concepts and statistics has become a central focus for creating productive adults, and researchers have determined that LGB high school students are less likely to complete Algebra II than their non-LGB classmates.
Mathematics educators play an important part in reversing this trend by creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ students and trans and non-binary students in particular. Unfortunately, GLSEN research shows mathematics teachers are the least likely to teach an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, but there are many ways for math teachers to include LGBTQ content in class.
An example from Algebra II could be a linear programming problem constructed with the goal of finding the cheapest possible way to attend prom. The problem could include the cost of tickets per person, tuxedo rental, dresses, dinner, and a limo ride, and be explicit about including LGBTQ couples in any formal attire they choose. The teacher might also include the average cost of dinner by collecting data from the class. Once the least expensive way to attend is determined, the class can have a discussion regarding how our society determines prices and how those prices influence the choices available for students.
Another activity could be to model the spread of the use of the singular they/them/their pronoun. By starting with a community of a given size, perhaps 25,000 people, and giving the probability that any encounter will lead to a percent of the population adopting the they/them/their pronouns as part of regular use, the students can determine how long it will take for the entire population to adopt the use. A modeling activity such as this one is easily adaptable for any level of algebra and can help reinforce the idea of rate of change in relation to the real world.
Mathematics teachers are also responsible for teaching statistics curriculum that often includes students collecting and analyzing data from surveys they themselves create. As teachers teach about data collection and relevance, they should include whether it is beneficial to include gender or biological sex, being sure to reinforce the difference between those two terms. When students are creating their own surveys, if they want to include data for biological sex, teachers need to be sure they include both intersex and other as choices, and if the students want to include data for gender, a variety of choices need to be included, such as agender, genderfluid, female, male, nonbinary, transman, transwoman, and other. These additional categories will create more work for the analyses of the data sets, give more representative results, and deepen our students’ understanding of both statistical analyses and the diversity of the human population.
Mathematics educators need to be diligent about creating classrooms that are safe and welcoming learning environments for all of their students. The relationship building between teachers and students, no matter what the content, requires the acknowledgement of LGBTQ students and an affirmation of those students’ lives. Mathematics teachers need to be respectful of students’ names and pronouns, they need to be sure their classes do not alienate any students, and they need to support LGBTQ activities such as Day of Silence, Trans Awareness Week, and Ally Week. Mathematics educators must do a better job of including our trans and non-binary students, as the futures of those students are in their hands.
Kyle S. Whipple is a trans educator and a PhD Candidate at University of Minnesota.
Want more tips on how to make your curriculum inclusive? Check out GLSEN’s LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum guide.