An Open Letter to Poets in Schools about Pronouns


I’m not sure how (or if) you tell students which pronouns you use and/or how (or if) you invite students to share which pronouns they use, but I wanted to offer some thoughts and resources in case you do (or want to). And if you don’t (or are afraid to), I hope you’ll keep reading and consider integrating these practices into your pedagogy. To get you caught up on current discussions about how to integrate pronoun awareness, please read “Pronouns: An Introduction” by Meg Bolger on the Social Justice Toolbox and Dean Spade’s excellent article, “We Still Need Pronoun Go-Rounds.”

To begin, I want to emphasize that the importance of pronouns is not the exclusive domain of trans and non-binary students (nor that of trans and non-binary teachers). Every person in your class, regardless of gender identity, has a name that resonates with who they are (and studies show that using that name can actually make a life and death difference for trans folx) and most have a set of pronouns that also resonate. (Note: there are lots of people who do not use any pronouns in place of their name and this is important to acknowledge and respect, as well.) None of this is about preference – which is why I don’t use the phrase “preferred pronouns” – and it’s not a negotiation. In the same way that the pronouns cisgender and/or gender conforming folx apply to themselves aren’t a negotiation, neither are the pronouns of your trans and/or non-binary students.

Including a note that indicates your pronouns in your email signature is probably the most common way to integrate pronoun awareness. It’s as simple as:

- TC Tolbert (he/him/his and I love to be referred to as “Hey grrrl!”)

I’ve noticed this in email signatures from a variety of workplaces and while it’s probably not going to make the world a safer place for trans and non-binary folks, it does signal that you are aware and a likely LGBTQ ally. (Go here to read more about how common violence against trans and non-binary folks is and why knowing that there is a safe person in the room is a big deal for trans and non-binary folks.) Anywho, the pronoun in the email signature is a good place to start but don’t stop there!

Another simple step is to clarify the name you wish to be called and the pronouns you use in your syllabus and/or any introductory materials you handout on Day 1. Ideally, do this right there at the top/beginning. (Psst, this is also a great time to clarify if you want to be called “Professor X” or “Dr., Ms., Mr., or Mx.”) (To learn more about the honorific, “Mx.” go here.) My syllabus begins:

English XXX,

Sect 001: Spring 2019

Instructor: TC Tolbert

(pronouns: he/him/his and I love to be referred to as “Hey grrrl!”

TC stands for TigerCakes and you may call me either/both)

That said, I recognize that visiting writing teachers don’t often use syllabi or email with their students, so let’s get to an activity.

The activity I’m about to describe comes from a Culturally Relevant Pedagogy training that I attended in the fall at Kore Press with educator and scholar, Mariah Harvey, M.Ed. (who was incredible – if you can take a training from her, please do!). The activity is relatively easy to facilitate and it sets up a collaborative, inclusive space from the beginning that also makes room for a pronoun discussion to seamlessly be included without putting students on the spot – a win/win/win! I could see using this in grades 6 and up, though I’d probably feel most adept using it for 8th grade and up. That said, I’m certain someone with more skill than I could adapt this for lower grades and when you do, I hope you’ll post about it.

To understand the nuance of the activity below, you should know that many well-meaning folks simply integrate the “pronoun go-round” into the first activity of every new class (and I have done this myself). The pronoun go-round is when you go around the room and have folks say their names, and you also ask them to state the pronouns they use. For instance, “my name is Arden and I go by they/them/theirs” or “my name is Sam and I use the pronouns she/her/hers.” The upside of including a pronoun go-round in your name go-round is that it makes pronouns explicit and normalizes the practice of asking how someone should be addressed. That is awesome. However, it can also put trans or non-binary students in a hyper-visible position (and this is especially problematic if they don’t wish to be out) and this can lead to discomfort and a variety of other negative consequences, which is what the activity below beautifully avoids.

[And as a not-so-aside-aside, here’s a friendly nudge to check with your program or school to see if they have a Diversity/Inclusivity statement that could be foregrounded with your class – many do but are underemphasized. This statement can help frame and/or support your pronoun discussion. For instance, the UA Writing Program Course Policies include: “The Writing Program values creating an educational environment of inclusion and mutual respect. Writing Program classes are safe spaces that support practices such as elective gender pronoun usage and self-identification related to race, gender, (dis)ability, religion, culture, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.”]

  • After folks come in and get settled, do whatever you normally do to be sure folks know which class this is and that they/you are in the right place.
  • Have them get out some paper and pen (or laptops) and explain that instead of doing the usual “what’s your name and your major” go-round, you’d like for them to take some time to think about 1) what’s important for the class to know about you 2) what would be useful for you to know about your classmates and 3) what about your identity do you want to share? (In order to make this more accessible, have the questions written on the board or display them on the screen.) Give them 3-5 minutes to work alone on generating ideas.
  • Then (without sharing or discussing yet) have them count off in such a way that they are divided into groups of 3. (Anytime you are putting folks in groups BE SURE to facilitate this process – in other words, PUT them into groups, don’t just say “get in groups." You don’t want students to be left out and, inevitably, folks are left without a group if the process is not facilitated and too often this falls on folks who are most vulnerable already! Anyway, this is easily avoided by saying “count off to 7” and if there are 21 people in the room, there will be three people who are number 1--and they are now a group!--and so on.
  • Once they are in groups of 3, have them share lists with each other and take 3-5 minutes to come up with their top 3-4 as a group. •    Give each group a marker and have them write their top 3-4 on the white board or have them call out ideas and you type them into the projection. (You retain veto power to edit out anything that seems inappropriate.)
  • By the end of this, you should have over 20 different student-generated questions/prompts (although there will likely be some overlap) for getting to know each other.
  • If pronouns did not make anyone’s list, you can simply say, “you know, I want to be sure not to make assumptions about pronouns so I think it might be helpful to know which pronoun people use. Do folks know what I mean when I talk about pronouns and which ones you use?” (If not, this is a perfect time for a quick primer and once that’s complete…) “Awesome, let’s add pronouns to the list.”
  • Now that your class has this list, go around and have each student answer ONLY 3 things from the list – and it can be ANY 3 things (the pronouns now become a choice to share and thus the trans and non-binary students know that you are aware, they know this is a safe classroom, and they know they won’t be unintentionally outed by you and that you want to follow their lead – the other students see you role modeling making space for student input and a variety of answers – and many will also learn something new about gender and respect in a pretty casual way).
  • You should participate in the activity too and here I would suggest that you do include your pronouns (role modeling, etc).
  • End to end, this activity will take about 25 minutes and I find it is a great tone-set for the semester!
  • It can also be an interesting follow up to have the groups explain why they chose the top 4 they did and to also have folks dialogue a little about why they answered the ones they did. There are so many things you can learn about your students in just this discussion!

FWIW, I’ve had great success integrating pronoun awareness via this activity. I’ve had several students come out as non-binary and several others share that they learned something about pronouns they didn’t know before (and even a few say, “oh, I wondered why your email said that!”). I think a lot of times folks assume that because I’m trans, I’m automatically at ease having a discussion about pronouns with the class but the truth is, I’m always excited to learn about intro activities that incorporate pronoun awareness and to continue to develop my facilitation in this area. Holler at me with your thoughts. And when you do, be sure to holler, “HEY GRRRL!”

with heart,


TC Tolbert often identifies as a trans and genderqueer feminist, collaborator, dancer, and poet but really s/he’s just a human in love with humans doing human things. The author of Gephyromania(Ahsahta Press 2014) and 3 chapbooks, TC is also co-editor (along with Trace Peterson) of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books 2013). His favorite thing in the world is Compositional Improvisation (which is another way of saying being alive).