Textbook and Heteronormativity

Charlotte’s lips had been tightly pursed since the beginning of the activity. While other students were busy with drawing or writing, she was blankly looking at the paper for almost ten minutes. So I knelt down next to her and asked her why she refused to do the work. She didn’t say a word. Instead, tears were welling up in her dark brown eyes.

Before I go further, I want to explain the context. In Quebec schools, subject matters are organized by the competencies students need to acquire. To develop the competencies, the Ministry emphasizes that all aspects of learning should be ‘relevant’ to students’ life. That is, lessons, materials, and school experiences should reflect the realities experienced by the students. The underlying idea is that students learn better when they can connect the learning experience to their daily life.

So if you flip through an elementary school level ESL textbook, you will find topics such as school, sports, food, animals, and family. These are usually organized by the degree of familiarity. That is, students will encounter more familiar topics at the beginning of a school year and less familiar topics later. Consequently, if you follow the sequential order of the textbook, you will most likely teach the so-called “family unit” in October or November. In this unit, grade 3 or 4 students usually learn vocabularies related to home and family relations in conjunction with possessive determiners (e.g., my, your, his, her, their).

When I arrived at Charlotte’s school as a substitute teacher in early October, my predecessor had already started the family unit, and she kindly left the entire lesson plan and materials for me to follow. The morning Charlotte refused to do her work, we were at the end of the unit. The students were expected to draw a picture of their family and write a short description of their family members to demonstrate what they have learned.

My previous experiences with similar groups of students taught me that the final activity could create a lot of confusion: “I live in an apartment, should I draw a house in the background like the textbook?” “We don’t have a pet at home, should I draw a dog like in the textbook?” “I don’t live with my dad, should I draw him like in the textbook?” The confusion often originated from the gap between the textbook model and their personal realities. Each time I led the activity, I had to assure the students that they don’t need to follow the textbook model and that having a different kind of family is not a bad thing. Usually, the words of assurance cleared away the major confusion among students.

But it was different that morning. Charlotte was determined not to do the work. I asked her the reason, but she would not answer. I had no choice but to assign different work to Charlotte that morning.

During the lunch break at the teacher’s lounge, I explained what happened in the morning to Charlotte’s homeroom teacher, and asked her whether Charlotte had a problem at home. She was surprised by what I said and told me that there was nothing of which she knew. She further added that such behaviour never occurred before. I was bewildered.

My bewilderment didn’t last long. At the end of the break, Charlotte’s homeroom teacher for the previous two years told me that it might have something to do with her experience: When Charlotte was in the first grade, Charlotte and her classmates had a family portrait drawing activity. At the end of that activity, the students introduced their families to the rest of the classmates. When Charlotte was in front of everyone, a little murmur stirred through the classroom. The teacher could see why. In Charlotte’s drawing, there were two white ladies and a cute little Haitian girl with a ponytail. So the teacher had to stop the class and explained to them that there was nothing abnormal to have two moms or to be adopted. “I guess Charlotte didn’t like that classroom experience,” added the teacher.

That was a watershed moment for me. I was well aware that textbooks often fail to reflect the reality in which students live, but it never occurred to me that textbooks implicitly reflect heteronormativity. Once I became aware of the issue, I could see why a student could feel ill at ease. For example, I used to tell my students a story of a princess who rescued a prince from an evil dragon, and they got married at the end of the story. I thought it was a good story to tell since it transposes the gender roles of a typical fairy tale, but I never questioned why a princess should always marry a prince.

It was not that I had a hidden agenda to purposefully propagate heteronormativity, but my entire upbringing implicitly taught me that heterosexuality is the norm and other ways of life are not even possible. Probably, the authors of the textbook had the same view as me. The textbook and I conspired to reproduce the idea of heteronormativity. This seemingly innocuous, at the same time careless, conspiracy brought unhappiness to a nine-year-old girl.

The next day at lunch break, Charlotte, the homeroom teacher of the previous year, and I were together in an empty classroom. We said to her that we were sorry that we had hurt her feelings and that there was nothing shameful about having two moms, and we promised her that we would never allow anyone to tease her about it.

In the end, Charlotte completed the drawing, and she agreed that I could display it at the back of the classroom until I left the school the following year.

I wonder whether the readers of this blog have had any similar experience with an ESL textbook.

If you need further information about children whose parents are LGBT,

http://www.familleslgbt.org is a good place to start.

(N.B. Charlotte is not the real name of the student)

By Babble^2


7 thoughts on “Textbook and Heteronormativity”

  1. Thank you so much for this powerful post. It is so important that we, as teachers, make thoughtful selections of texts and materials. Do you know Todd Parr’s books (http://www.toddparr.com/books/)? One, in particular, called “The Family Book” is a really great resource for elementary school teachers because it provides openings for validating different identities (the opening line is “There are many different ways to be a family”), rather than closing opportunities for children to see themselves in the texts and practices of the classroom.

    I remember struggling with my own family tree drawings when I was in elementary school (I didn’t know how to deal with step-parents or the unique configuration of my newly blended family on the “family tree” diagram my teacher handed out, nor did I know the words in French to talk about my family). When teaching pre-service teachers, I always ask them for a raise of hands: “How many of you could draw your family on a “typical” family tree”? Not surprisingly, very few of them raise their hands. And many of them have stories of feeling invisible in the family units in their own elementary years.

    Thank you for this post. Every pre-service and in-service teacher should read it! (actually, I feel that way about all the blog posts).



  2. Thank you for your post.
    Honestly speaking, considering the English textbooks I have used, I do not think all my teachers have covered all the topics (e.g., traveling, family, etc.) presented in my English textbooks. When I began to learn English systematically in middle and high school, I had to learn what would be examined in the High School Entrance Examination (HSEE) and the National College Entrance Examination (NCEE). Therefore, teachers also paid attention to the content that would be tested and they would skip these topics. In addition, I believe that what depicted in our English books is different from our Chinese culture. For example, in our high school English textbook, we had a reading essay introducing the train journey from Vancouver to Monreal. However, many students may never have an opportunity to travel abroad, which results in the fact that they have difficulties in talking about their own traveling experience.

    colin comment 6


  3. Melissa- Thank you for sharing this. It is greatly unfortunate when any child is led to feel excluded because of the assumptions made by classmates, teachers, and/or the curriculum itself. I had an interesting thought while reading the post. We have talked before about “marked” and “unmarked” language use and how standard English (which is what is taught in classrooms) is considered unmarked. I would argue that this curriculum and the reactions of Charlotte’s classmates when she presented her picture in Grade One stem from the assumption that a family with two heterosexual parents is “unmarked.” In other words, it is seen as the norm. This makes me curious–what is the percentage of families with two heterosexual parents in North America? Of single parent families? Of families with homosexual parents? Transsexual parents? Adopted children? Children whose fathers were sperm donors? What about cultures where the nuclear family is not seen as the base unit? There is a lot the text books do not reflect, but CAN they reflect all possible realities? To what extent should they do so?

    Those are some thoughts I’m pondering in reading your post.


  4. It’s interesting that you posted this as I was discussing a similar issue with a friend a couple weeks ago. Teaching adults, I’m unfamiliar with the textbooks used in elementary school in Quebec. Do you know if the textbook is American or Canadian? I’m asking because Americans tend to be more conservative and there is still controversy over same sex marriages in Alabama. The heterosexual families portrayed in such textbooks are probably average but not necessarily realistic. Unfortunately, there would likely be some parents who would question books portraying same-sex marriages or even single parent families as being inappropriate for religious reasons.


  5. Geraldine Gras (comment 3):
    Thank you for sharing your experience. This exact situation happens more so than not, in second language classrooms like first language classrooms. As an elementary school teacher, my students have a visual dictionary to support them in their acquisition of the language (for writing tasks, reading tasks etc). I absolutely love that my students are able to look up a french word and have a visual description of what that word means, however the word options are limited: “soeur”, “frère”, “mère”, “grand-mère”, “père”, “grand-père”, “oncle”, “tante”, “cousin” and “cousine”. Last year as the children were writing a short piece of their family, a student asked me whether she was allowed to write about her step-mom. “Bien sûr”, I told her. However, two minutes later she was in tears at her desk. I walked over to ask her what was wrong and she said through tears: “You want me to write about my family, but my stepmom is my family but she’s not my family because I can’t see the word in french for family members.”
    I felt terrible. McGill drilled it in my head during my undergrad: If children do not feel represented, they are less likely to engage. I knew this, I had always diversified books and posters but I never thought to check the pedagogical resources (such as the visual dictionary) provided by our school board. I learned my lesson. Schools are very much structured around tradition. I think it is our role as teachers to push away these traditions and replace them with reality: not all families are the same. Ever since, every time a new theme is introduced (ex: family members) we review all the words already in the dictionary and add 2-3 of our own. These vary from class to class, as every class is composed of so many different students with different life experiences.

    Sure, it’d be great if textbooks could represent reality… but let’s not kid ourselves. I think the conversation as to why certain things are not represented in our textbooks is important to have with students so they know that you recognize they are different.


    1. Hi Geraldine,
      I agree. We need to be able to use textbook materials critically and make them ‘fit’ our learners. I love that you have your students add new words to the dictionary so it mirrors their own realities.


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