I am an educator and recovering homophobe. As such, I seek to help foster a school community where homophobia no longer exists and safe and inclusive spaces are the norm for every student.
The research is incontrovertible. According to the GLSEN 2017 National School Climate Survey, school can be a hostile and unsafe place for students who are LGBTQ. There are still a significant number of students who are harassed and bullied because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and/or identity. The suicide rate for adolescents who are transgender is up to four times that of cisgender peers.
At the 2018 Annual Convention, I delivered the keynote address for the session entitled Amplifying and Celebrating Intersectional and Transectional LGBTQ+ Voices.
I have been a part of this work at both the classroom and policy level. As Michigan Teacher of the Year 2016, I supported the establishment of the Statement and Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for LGBTQ Students. This document provides information and resources to schools to ensure that they support students who are the most vulnerable in ways that range from allowing students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity to referring to kids by their preferred name and pronouns.
As a 5th and 6th grade teacher, I let my students know that they are welcome, no matter who or what they are. There is a sign hanging outside my door that declares my classroom to be a safe space for all people. I emphasized this principle on the first day of school by reading the book I Am Jazz aloud to my students. The story chronicles the life and transition of Jazz, a transgender girl. The theme of the story, “Be who you are” resonates with everyone and establishes an atmosphere that is welcoming and inclusive.
This ethos is embodied in our classroom library. It is a critically important resource and contains hundreds of titles from multiple genres. Every year, my students and I co-create the categories for the library. Inspired by Donalynn Miller’s work, I want to make sure students have books at their fingertips, that they actively own their independent reading life and that I have the ability to continuously supply kids with books that match their needs and interests.
This year, inspired by Caitlin Ryan and Jill Herman-Wilmarth’s book Reading the Rainbow, I knew it was time for a category of books in the LGBTQ genre. I knew I needed my students to understand and own the creation of this genre so they would own and utilize it.
I began by asking them to consider groups of people who have been treated unfairly in our country just because of who they are. They created an exhaustive list which contained every marginalized group imaginable. I then asked them to consider this question, “How would hearing stories about the lives of people from these groups help all people understand them better?” The students quickly established that stories build empathy and that empathy changes people’s hearts and minds.
The one group that had not been mentioned on our list was people who are LGBTQ. I asked them if they had ever heard anyone make fun of somebody because they were LGBTQ or thought to be LGBTQ. They all raised their hand.
At that point, I reviewed some age-appropriate definitions of “LGBTQ.” I then taught the term “intersectionality” as a condition that exists when a person belongs to more than one group of people that has been treated unfairly. Next, I borrowed a collection of picture books for children featuring characters who were LGBTQ from Oakland University.
I asked my students to work together with a partner and do a book pass, where they examine the book and read as much of it as they can for three minutes. Together, the students were asked to write a response to the question “How could this story help people who experience intersectionality?” for each book.
The responses ranged from, “This book can show people that being gay or lesbian is okay and that your parents can be of the same gender” for Heather Has Two Mommies to “Dresses are okay to wear for everyone” for 10,000 Dresses to “More people can understand that people can love whoever they want to love even if its a boy and boy or girl and girl” for And Tango Makes Three to “Speak up, be who you are” for Morris Mickelwhite and the Tangerine Dress.
The students’ responses validated the presence and utility of the LGBTQ book bin in our classroom library. These stories fulfill a potentially life-saving role in normalizing the experiences of people who are LGBTQ in our classroom and in the larger communities beyond our school. Our students, all of them, deserve access to these stories.
Rick Joseph was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 2016. He currently teaches language arts and social studies to fifth and sixth graders at Birmingham Covington.