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)