5 Ways to Make Health and PE Class More Inclusive: Students Speak Out

Have you ever asked your students what they need from your class and how you can best support them?

Asking these questions will help you make your health and PE class more inclusive. It’s important, because if students can’t see themselves in what you are teaching, it won’t matter how great your lessons are. Learning will fall flat.

As a health and physical educator, I often tell people that I teach life. I teach my students the skills they need to communicate with others, make decisions, set goals, advocate for themselves and access resources that can help them get through the challenges of life.

I’ve found that creating an inclusive learning space takes time and honest reflection on current practices. By combining both honest reflection and feedback from students, educators can build the most inclusive and brave space for all students.

I recently surveyed 11th and 12th grade students enrolled in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) course at Washtenaw International High School (Ypsilanti, MI) to find out what high school students feel are the most important or meaningful ways to make health and PE class more inclusive.

Here are their top five suggestions:

1. Preferred Pronouns? Hold the Preferred.

First of all, let’s celebrate the growing practice of sharing pronouns. While we are far from normalization, each day I hear and see more people explicitly stating their pronouns.

With more frequent practice of asking for or stating pronouns, it’s now time that educators drop the use of “preferred” when asking what pronouns someone uses. A student doesn’t prefer that you use she, her and hers pronouns when referring to them, they expect you to use she, her and hers pronouns.

Pronouns aren’t a preference just like calling a student by the correct name isn’t a preference, it’s the expectation. When I asked students what they hope a teacher does to create an inclusive classroom, a frequent response was “ask for pronouns.”

When you introduce yourself, share your pronouns. This is especially powerful on the first day of a new course. By telling everyone what pronouns you use, it normalizes doing so. When students see and hear the teacher doing this, they become more comfortable sharing their pronouns.

It’s also important to remember not to require a student to share their pronouns. The student might not feel safe or ready to share their authentic pronouns in that space and as a teacher we need to respect that and continue to build positive relationships, so students feel brave enough to be their authentic self in your space.

Are you teaching students over Zoom? Add your pronouns to your Zoom name.

2. Watch Your Language!

Using gender neutral language — especially when talking about reproductive health — allows for students of all identities to see and hear themselves in the curriculum.

A’liya Spinner (she/him), a senior in the DEI course, stated that one of the most inclusive parts of health class was when she heard the teacher use language such as “pregnant people” and “people with a uterus.”

Tess Seibert (she/her/hers), another senior in the class, stated that she felt the teacher using the term “menstruator” emphasized that sex doesn’t determine gender.

Making simple changes to the way we talk about bodies can leave a lasting memory with students of what an inclusive health classroom can be like.

These language changes are just as easy in PE. Do you still split students up onto boys and girls teams? Have you considered how this might impact a student who doesn’t identify as a boy or a girl? By creating boys-only and girls-only teams, you could be unintentionally causing harm to those who do not identify as boy or girl.

This is one of the first slides I show when talking about reproductive anatomy with students.
Read the HuffPost article

3. Diversify Your Curriculum

One student, who requested anonymity, said, “I hope teachers are constantly making an effort to make their curriculum more inclusive by assessing the material they teach.”

Another student went on to say, “I also think it’s important for teachers to consider the perspective of marginalized groups in their education since they are often not discussed as much. This includes POC, members of LGBTQ+, disabled individuals, etc. and how the experiences that come with having these identities intersect with the subject being taught.”

Whether you teach health or physical education — or both — diversifying your curriculum is important. It goes deeper than having pictures of Asian people on your health slides or hanging posters of Black athletes in the gym.

When you teach lacrosse skills, also teach about the Native Americans who created the game. If you are in the basketball unit, include discussions about the WNBA and the athletes’ fight for justice. Sports have a huge platform, and many athletes use this platform in positive ways. As health and physical education teachers, we should connect our curriculum to these movements and bring awareness to them.

Respecting and understanding cultural and religious values in health class is also important. Teaching how those values connect to health education allows for all students to feel seen. I recently added the topic of female genital mutilation* (FGM) to my reproductive anatomy discussions. While I can’t be sure, it’s very possible that I have students who have experienced a form of FGM and by not talking about it, I’m further stigmatizing what they have gone through.

During mental health discussions, lift up organizations that can specifically support your Black and Brown students who may be living in environments where mental health is not discussed. When you teach how to eat “healthy,” recognize that those “healthy” foods are the most expensive and many young people just hope to have something, anything in their stomach at night.

4. Give Students Voice and Choice!

Do you want to know what students said was the most important thing a teacher can do to build an inclusive community?

Give students more voice in curriculum selection.

In fact, the response was overwhelming. Seibert stated, “Not only will you have a better idea of what YOUR students need but they’ll feel all the more comfortable coming to you when you repeatedly establish yourself as a learner.”

One way to provide student choice while still meeting required standards and objectives is through assessment. Choice boards have become a popular way to give students choice in how they show their learning. Educators select what options go on the choice board to ensure that all options meet requirements and from there the students choose what they do based on the options.

Another idea is to start the new semester with a survey for students to complete. As one student said, the surveys or feedback forms are helpful, and teachers should provide students the option to do them anonymously, so they feel more comfortable sharing.

Sample of questions asked to students at the beginning of a new semester.

5. Start the Change in Your School

There are many ways that health and physical education teachers can help make their school a more inclusive, safe environment for students.  

One option is to help set up one or more affinity groups in your school, such as a Gay-Straight Alliance, Black Student Union and/or Hispanic/Latinx Student Alliance. These groups can provide students a trusted support system within the building.

You could also take the necessary steps to create a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion course or a Diversity Alliance club, which can help bring awareness to different issues within your school and community.

At my school, the Diversity Alliance club leads the quarterly EDJI Days (pronounced Ed-G) which center on equity, diversity, justice and inclusion. Four times a year, the whole school pauses classes for several hours, gets together in small groups, and works to learn more.

EDJI days are led by the students in Diversity Alliance who have spent hours training and preparing to lead the activities and conversations, while teachers are participants, learning alongside their students.

EDJI Day purpose slide.
Norms from a previous EDJI day. These norms are adapted from Justice Leaders Collaborative.

Be a Lifelong Learner

If you want to make your health and PE class more inclusive, but still aren’t quite sure how to start, here are some ideas:

About the Students

A’liya Spinner (she/him) will graduate from Washtenaw International High School in May 2021. In the fall, she will attend the University of Michigan to study biology. Eventually, A’liya wants to go to graduate school for paleogenetics and spend his career pursuing science in collaboration with people around the world. She is a passionate community activist and educator, as well as a published and practicing author. In the future, along with his work in the fields of science, A’liya hopes to use writing not only to entertain audiences with tales of magpies and dinosaurs, but to uplift the stories of marginalized identities and create space for people of all backgrounds in art.

Tess Seibert (she/her) will graduate from Washtenaw International High School in May 2021. In the fall she will attend Goucher College as a dance major with a minor in Spanish and public health. Tess is looking forward to pursuing service activities in her new school community and joining the improv club.

All other students requested anonymity.

*According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation is a medical term used to describe the partial or total removal of external female genitalia. This term is not inclusive and is used in this article to recognize the medical terminology currently used.

Featured image by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

Additional Resources

Rachel Hervey

Rachel Hervey (she/her) is a health and physical education teacher at Washtenaw International High School. She was a 2021 Michigan Teacher of the Year nominee, is an International Baccalaureate Workshop Leader and School Site Visitor, and has presented at local and national health and physical education conferences. Connect with Rachel on Twitter at @HerveyPHE.