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It's Not So Elementary: Practices to Disrupt Homophobia in Teacher Education Classes
Anne René Elsbree, Anita E. Fernandez, & Penelope A. Wong, California State University, Chico
Educators are sometimes at a loss as to how to handle Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) issues in the classroom.. This article describes activities that we, as teacher educators, have used to support the award winning LGBTQ educational film It's Elementary, which focuses on how to address LGBTQ issues in elementary classrooms. This article takes two approaches: the reasons for disrupting homophobia in schools; and how educators can use teaching strategies and curricular resources to help future teachers disrupt homophobia.
Multicultural teacher educators often face challenges with many of the topics they raise with teacher candidates because these topics force candidates to call into question often unexamined, beliefs and norms. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) issues can be the riskiest of topics to address but in light of the very homophobic and heterosexist climate in our K-12 schools, it is also one of the most urgent topics to examine. The 1999 Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), National School Climate Survey indicates that students experience harassment on a daily basis with few interventions from school staff. There are legal and educational reasons for addressing this situation in productive and systematic ways. Legally, and there have been a number of cases, laws, and educational mandates within the state of California that direct school personnel to take action to make schools safer and more inclusive for LGBTQ students. Educationally, schools have a number of options for disrupting homophobia including teaching strategies and curriculum resources. This article addresses the reasons schools need to address homophobia, the strategies to do so, and how we as educators can work for change in resistant times.
It's Elementary, an award-winning video talking about gay issues in schools, is central to this article because it was also pivotal to our initial experiences of addressing LGBTQ issues in teacher education. As three California teacher educators from diverse backgrounds, we experienced resistance not only from students, but faculty and administration when including LGBTQ content in our teacher education courses. In our efforts to create safer places for students we had created less safe spaces for ourselves. We individually and collaboratively reflected on how the use of the film positioned students, faculty and administration to be resistant and how our usage contributed to the situation. Therefore, through collaborative reflection, we reassessed how to explore LGBTQ issues with It's Elementary as the anchor for our instructional efforts. We shared instructional activities and strategies that supported the film.
Our Personal Experiences and Investments
While we knew the legal, ethical, and educational reasons we needed to address this issue, we also found it critical to reflect on why we had a personal commitment to this topic. As three assistant professors in the Department of Education at California State University, Chico, we had been recently hired to help address multicultural issues in the teacher credential program. California State University, Chico sits within a conservative community at the north end of the Sacramento Valley. It is located in one of the most impoverished counties of California, but our teacher candidates are primarily white, middle class and predominantly Christian. This region also has a history of intolerance, specifically toward LGBTQ individuals, including three homicides within the last five years and other isolated homophobic crimes. The fact that two of the murderers were former California State University, Chico students, alerted the campus to a more urgent need for campus and community-wide LGBTQ education. To this end, as departments examined their responsibilities on LGBTQ education, we noticed that future teachers were not at all being educated on this issue. Clearly, this climate has shaped how we approach LGBTQ content in our teaching but the three of us all have unique experiences and investments in disrupting homophobia and we come to this place along different paths.
Anne René Elsbree:
I did not come to terms with my identity as a lesbian until I was an adult, a high school teacher. I did not experience K-12 schooling as a lesbian, but homophobia was the key reason for my leaving the classroom and returning to graduate school. I saw students, teachers, administrators, and parents ignored, alienated, and intimidated in some situations until they could no longer participate in the schooling process. One of my students, Carl, committed suicide as an outcome of homophobia. Although Carl never identified as LGBTQ, he was perceived by peers to be queer and was harassed. The homophobic harassment he received led him to his involvement in physical fights, carrying a weapon for protection, expulsion for carrying the weapon, and eventually suicide. Since Carl's death, I have taken a critical look at my actions as a teacher and have made a commitment to be out as a teacher educator, to identify the reasons homophobia needs to be addressed in schools, and provide teachers and students tools to make schools safer and more inclusive for all individuals.
As a high school teacher I didn't really think about gender identity or whether my students were gay or straight –until one very memorable incident. As the advisor of the school newspaper, the superintendent of our school district questioned why I was publishing an ad for an LGBTQ youth help line. This superintendent saw no need for such an ad, as he was sure "there are no gay youth in our high school." From that point on I felt committed, as a straight ally, to speak out for all those students who didn't have a voice and who didn't exist in the eyes of many people. Today my investment in LGBTQ issues has become more personal, not only as a teacher of teachers but also as a mother. I want my children to grow up with an understanding and appreciation for all forms of love and all types of people. I've committed myself to these ideas by how I parent my children. In another way, I've committed myself to trying to impact future teachers by integrating LGBTQ issues into my multicultural courses for teacher candidates. Both of these investments are for the same reason which is to ensure that our children, whether our own or those we teach, have an understanding of and compassion for all people.
I was introduced to LGBTQ concerns through general human rights issues in three distinct episodes in my life. I recall having an out gay high school student and responding strongly when a student in that class used the term "gay" in a derogatory way. I remember taking time away from our lesson to discuss the term's use, the lack of respect of the usage, and the expectation that it would not be used again in class. As a student teaching supervisor, I witnessed a group of high school boys for over thirty minutes verbally "gay bash" another student. The student teacher never responded to their behavior. When I brought it up with the student teacher at the post observation meeting the student teacher claimed he was unaware of the young men's behavior and assured me if he had been, he would have intervened. Later I came to read a very homophobic paper this student teacher wrote in one of his teacher education courses. I realized that he may have been aware of the incident, but chose not to intervene and it clarified to me the need to address homophobia as a teacher educator.
Despite the different paths we took to get to this point, we all have a story to share and this was important to realize because by sharing these stories with students we are modeling a willingness to be vulnerable; implicitly acknowledging how personal and emotional this topic is and extending an invitation for students to risk sharing their own stories. One of the fundamental lessons we learned in teaching this topic was the necessity for creating a safe environment for open and honest dialogue before viewing the film It's Elementary.
Sharing our personal stories with each other and our students was helpful because it reconfirmed our commitment to why we needed to prepare non-homophobic K-12 teachers, but such stories don't provide answers about how to educate future teachers. In retrospect, we now realize that collaboration and support has made this task possible. This article is a result of these collaborations and is an effort and an attempt to assist others with similar goals.
Although there is growing recognition that sexual diversity and homophobia issues need to be addressed in education (Britzman, 1995; Kumashiro, 2000a; Sears, 1999; Sumara & Brent, 1998) and are important to multicultural education (Gollnick & Chinn, 1994; Grant, 1995), few have worked toward a goal of addressing these issues in teacher education (Kumashiro, 2000b; Mulhern & Martinez, 1999). Many practitioners and scholars remain silent to this pervasive problem in schools. A few empirical studies in this area are focused on K-12 schooling; however, little is done to investigate how teacher education programs are preparing teachers to use non-homophobic pedagogies. Strategies to address homophobia in teacher education are essential for preparing teachers to work against homophobia.
According to several studies, schools in the United States are homophobic and heterosexist. A study conducted among 496 youth across 32 states accessing community based services, by Gay Lesbian Straight Educators Network (GLSEN) in 1999 found that 91.4 % of LGBT youth reported that they sometimes or frequently hear homophobic remarks in their school (such as "faggot," "dyke," or "queer"); 33.6% of the youth reported hearing homophobic remarks from faculty or school staff; and 41.7 % of the youth did not feel safe in their schools because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. A more recent study by GLSEN (2001) indicates that 32% of LGBT students had skipped a class at least once in the past month because they felt unsafe based on sexual orientation; 31% had missed an entire day. In 1999 The Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported that Gay Lesbian and Bisexual (GLB) youth are over 4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than those who identified as straight, over 3 times more likely to miss school because of feeling unsafe, and over 3 times more likely to have been injured or threatened with a weapon at school. While these statistics are often overlooked by administrators, recent publicity of a number of cases addressing the safety of GLB students have helped to raise some awareness of legal issues surrounding LGBTQ issues.
Legal Justifications for LGBTQ Education
A third-grade class discusses how they feel about anti-gay slurs and explores hurtful language. A child is Troubled that teachers don't intervene.
Student: At this school a lot, like "fag" and "faggot" has, have been used.
Teacher: At this school?
Student: Yeah, it's amazing how teachers, no offense, but it's amazing how teachers don't notice all the stuff that's going on. Even like they don't necessarily use the word "fag", but they say " Oh, what are you gay?" Or something like that. And it's really, it makes you feel, like, weird in you r stomach. (It's Elementary, 1997)
The third grader in the above scene from It's Elementary is being generous; in her naiveté, she is assuming teachers don't hear homophobic remarks. However, with a relatively high number of faculty and staff making homophobic remarks as just pointed out, the percentage of teachers who ignore such remarks must be even higher. We find that clarifying what responsibilities educators have in regards to LGBTQ individuals and issues is a productive place to begin. We use four legal justifications to compel educators to disrupt homophobia: recent legal cases, A National Education Association resolution, the California Education Code, and teacher preparation standards, known as the California Teaching Performance Expectations.
Over the last decade students have held schools responsible for being homophobic. In 1995, a landmark case in Madison, Wisconsin set precedence for school's to be responsible for protecting gay students. Jamie Nobozny, a high school student in Ashland, Wisconsin, was "mock-raped in a classroom, urinated on in a bathroom, and kicked so badly he required surgery to stop internal bleeding. When he and his parents complained, a school official told them he 'had to expect that kind of stuff' because he was homosexual" (Jones, 2000, p.21). The courts ruled that Nobozny's 14th Amendment rights to equal protection had been violated. The Ashland School district was forced to pay him $900,000 in damages.
Two more recent legal cases in California and Nevada are following Wisconsin's lead. In Visalia, California, George Loomis sued his school district for not intervening when he was harassed and subjected to homophobic taunts from students and teachers. Loomis reported being spat upon and the target of anti-gay epithets with no support or productive intervention from school personnel. "Loomis alleged his teacher, Juan Garcia, had told him, in front of a classroom full of students: 'There are only two types of guys who wear earrings -- pirates and faggots -- and there isn't any water around here.'" (Heredia, August 14, 2002, Page A-19)
As a result of the suit, the school district was ordered to implement anti-gay harassment training for school personnel that include annual updates by professional consultants and peer-to-peer sessions lead by Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) Network students. The Visalia case provides other schools an example of policies and procedures for ensuring that their schools are safe for all students.
In Reno, Nevada, Derek Henkle won $451,000 from his school district for not protecting him as an out gay student. The courts found that he had a constitutional right to be open about his sexual orientation. The lawsuit required the district to have new policies to protect LGBTQ youth. In an interview Derek Henkle expressed the fear he felt at school:
I was terrified every moment that I had to be out of my house, every moment that I had to be around people that were my own age. You never knew what was going to happen. You never knew if someone was going to hit you, or punch you, or call you a fag. It got to be so common, hearing these things every day. It was just beat into my head over and over and over again. I started feeling really, really, really bad about myself, and started over the next four years, some really self-destructive behavior – not taking care of myself, doing things that weren't great, and hanging out with people who weren't great. (Frontline, June 6, 2002)
These landmark cases were certainly necessary and provided immediate response to these violent crimes. However, they are only part of the solution. Long-term, continuous education and guidelines that speak to a K-12 school climate were also needed.
Resolutions and Education Codes
At its annual meeting in 1998 The National Education Association, one of the most influential educational organizations in the U.S., affirmed that LGBTQ students are guaranteed equal protection in schools. Resolution C-26 states, "all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, should be afforded equal opportunity within the public education system" (Marinoble, 1998, p. 57).
As teachers and teacher educators in California, we also have support from the state. The California Education Code clearly states that schools are responsible for implementing programs to promote school safety as well as being responsible for preventing hate crimes including those inflicted on students due to their perceived sexual orientation. In 2000 AB 537, the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of changed California's Education Code by adding sexual orientation and gender to the nondiscrimination provisions. Additional resources are available at www.ab537.org for understanding this change in the California Education Code, guiding individuals through the complaint process and evaluating one's school for AB 537 compliance.
The resolutions and the Education Code are specifically concerned with K-12 school climates. While these actions are helpful they only address part of the problem. If we are going to realize long-term and systemic change in our educational institutions teacher education also must directly address these issues. To this end, California's Teacher Performance Expectations hold teacher candidates and teacher educators accountable to confronting homophobia.
California Teacher Performance Expectations
Along with the Education Code, the Teacher Performance Expectations (TPE's), mandated by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing also explicitly call for teacher candidates to examine their own biases and values which can be an excellent starting point for future teachers to disrupt homophobia whether it be their own, or that of their future students. The TPE's illustrate how homophobia can be part of a larger culture of biases.
Candidates will be able to systematically examine their stated and implied beliefs, attitudes and expectations about diversity (race, ethnicity, language, culture, class, religion, gender, and sexual orientation) as specified in TPE 12. [Standards 5(d) and (e)]
Together the National Education Association resolution, the California Education Code, and the California Teaching Performance Expectations demonstrate a political commitment at the California-state level to ensure equity in education for LGBTQ students. The stance of the state is unequivocal on this point. The National Education Association's leadership in writing a resolution to support LGBTQ youth is a model for all states to follow. By addressing LGBTQ issues in the California Education Code, the state is ensuring that all practicing teachers are aware of their legal obligations in this area in the educational arena. By addressing LGBTQ issues in the Teacher Performance Expectations, the state of California is ensuring that prospective teachers are prepared to support LGBTQ students. Using legal cases and other legal documents together creates a strong foundation for "why" we need to address LGBTQ issues and helps articulate how educators can disrupt homophobia in schools.
While the legal realm provides some explicit and clear support for teachers' responsibilities concerning LGBTQ topics, simply knowing their legal requirements and rights is not enough; it's also about fulfilling an ethical obligation as an educator to ensure that LGBTQ students are treated equitably and fairly in our classrooms. It is at this point that the legal investment also becomes an educational one. How can teachers create a safe and supportive atmosphere for LGBTQ students? How can educators move beyond legal mandates to protect LGBTQ students to educating whole school communities about LGBTQ issues? How can educators reach the mainstream populations in creative, proactive, and provocative ways that educate them about LGBTQ issues?
Strategies for Disrupting Homophobia
A middle school English class debates the use of LGBTQ curricula in the classroom:
Student 1: If kids are too young to be taught about homosexuality then they're too young to be taught about heterosexuality. And you've got to teach equality and instill equality from the very, very beginning, if you're going to read, you know, say you're going to read Cinderella, you should read, you know, the one about when the two princesses go to the ball and they fall in love and live happily ever after.
Student 2: Is there a book about that?
Student 1: Well there should be. (It's Elementary)
How do teachers address LGBTQ issues? Part of the answer lies in concrete teaching strategies, curriculum materials, and classroom environment approaches. There are a number of strategies that teachers can use in their classroom to disrupt homophobia in education. We have chosen to elaborate on activities, curricular resources and classroom strategies with which we have had the most success. First, we discuss an activity that establishes the context for affectively preparing students to discuss LGBTQ topics. Next we describe how various curricular resources, such as The Laramie Project, can be used to address LGBTQ issues. Finally, we discuss classroom strategies to help promote a safe climate in the classroom.
This activity, The Identity Molecule, is from The Anti-Defamation League's A World of Difference Curriculum. To begin this activity, students are asked to fill out an identity model worksheet, a cluster of six circles, one center circle with five circles branching out from the center circle. The student puts his/her name in the center circle and then the names of five groups with which s/he identifies in the surrounding circles. Next, students identify which group they identify with most strongly and are asked to scribble out that group. The facilitator then describes how scribbling out this identifier can be equated with how an LGBTQ person might feel having to always hide her/his most significant identifier. This activity usually proves to be a very quick and effective way for students to gain some understanding of what it means to affiliate oneself with a group that is silenced.
GLSEN advocates a comprehensive curricular approach to teaching LGBTQ issues in the classroom. The most natural adaptation would be expanding the preset curriculum to include LGBTQ individuals, perceptions, and issues. For example, studies addressing the Civil Rights Movement can be expanded to beyond African Americans' rights and include the gay rights movement and events such as the Stonewall Riot in New York City. Another example for other content areas such as English, Math, Art or Music would be for teachers not to leave out facts about the sexual orientation of famous writers, mathematicians, artists or musicians when discussing their backgrounds as a way to normalize homosexuality. Some questions we have asked our students to generate these discussions are: Does sexual orientation matter with respect to individuals' accomplishments? How so? Does this information change your view of this person? Why or why not? Does this information impact your view of their accomplishments? Why or why not?
Students are influenced daily by the media in multiple ways and educators should capitalize on this for current events and issues. The media (television, film and radio) can be incorporated in the curriculum in an effort to understand LGBTQ issues and people; can be utilized to highlight current issues in the news; explore LGBTQ story lines in films and television; and to promote out LGBTQ role models. The media can and should be used to challenge stereotypes and misinformation, and to help students develop informed opinions.
We have found that the current climate in the American media fuels an awareness of current LGBTQ events and issues. Students are now noticing these topics independently of us demonstrating an active awareness on their parts. New American television shows such as Queer Eye for The Straight Guy and Will and Grace, have begun to normalize being gay in America although some may argue they are perpetuating stereotypes about homosexuality. Additionally, American television shows that are bringing up homosexuality in one episode, such as Everybody Loves Raymond, or talk shows, such as Oprah, demonstrate the increasing acknowledgment of the presence of gays and lesbians in our communities. These shows offer a point of critique for our students in dispelling stereotypical myths or beliefs about homosexuality.
Just like television, feature films fall into the two categories of either portraying homosexual individuals or issues in a realistic light versus a grossly exaggerated, stereotypical light. Both types of films are valuable for critically examining how attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals are perpetuated and additionally how to deconstruct these attitudes. Some films we have used with our students are
It's Elementary, That's a Family, Family Fundamentals, Ma Vie En Rose, and Out of the Past. It's Elementary highlights excerpts from mainstream feature films that perpetuate homophobic stereotypes and thus offer a starting point for deconstruction. Some of the films it highlights are Ace Venture Pet Detective and Clueless. Finally, current events highlighted in the news such as the battle for gay marriages offer a panorama of differing perspectives on the topics and provide a model for future teachers and how they can use current events in their classrooms.
Literature can be also be an excellent tool for including LGBTQ issues and images in the curriculum. Having books that include LGBTQ images can be a powerful way to validate difference and demonstrate that LGBTQ issues are valid topics for writing and discussion among all audiences. Highlighting the LGBTQ identity of authors such as James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf can help students recognize and value the contributions of all individuals.
Additionally, educators can go a step further and explicitly include literature that addresses LGBTQ topics for children and adolescents. A few suggestions of well-received children's literature titles are Daddy's Roommate by Michael Willhoite, Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman and Diana Souza and Gloria Goes to Gay Pride by Leslea Newman and Russell Crocker. Some titles for young adults are Jack by A.M. Homes, The Misfits by James Howe and Deliver Us From Evie by M.E. Kerr. For annotated bibliographies of additional age-appropriate literature visit www.glsen.org.
Additionally the Arts (exhibitions and plays) can be a wonderful asset for addressing LGBTQ issues. In the past, we have had our students attend a local production of The Laramie Project. The play chronicles the events surrounding the murder of Mathew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. Our intention was to have the students experience the arts as a medium for understanding the effects of homophobia. We prefaced the students' attendance with some basic information about the play and Mathew Shepard. Afterwards we led discussions about how education can take a role to disrupt homophobia and the responsibilities educators have to create safe places for all students and to support LGBTQ youth. We realize that not all communities may have a local production for students to attend, but there is a film available on video from HBO and there are many other live and video taped productions that could be used as interventions.
The interpersonal curriculum can include curriculum that is built into the core curriculum and school climate. Jackson refers to this as the hidden curriculum, the curriculum that is taught/learned while directly teaching/learning about other things. It includes what is left out or silenced, what is unsaid and minimized. The hidden curriculum is the unofficial curriculum that occur as the content of the official curriculum is taught. Examples of this include: are there expectations for what boys and girls will do during recess? Have students asked to take information home to their guardians or their mothers and fathers? Subtle language can create climates of inclusion or exclusion with little effort. Educators need to take responsibility for recognizing these messages and changing the messages to be more inclusive and safe for all individuals. GLSEN suggests that educators can create safe and inclusive schools by addressing name-calling (e.g. gay, fag, dyke, queer…), language, behavior, and interpersonal factors.
In an effort to assist teacher candidates to create safe classroom climates for all youth, we have guided them through numerous scenarios such as Challenging Homophobia in Schools, (2000) by The Gay and Lesbian Educators of British Columbia. This activity provides opportunities for students to be able to: a) identify with hypothetical conflicts; b) identify possible problems and solutions; c) examine different sides of complex issues; d) gain insight into a variety of issues faced by LGBTQ individuals, their friends, families, and allies; e) differentiate between times to act immediately and times to plan carefully; and f) gain knowledge about school and community resources (The Gay and Lesbian Educators of British Columbia, 2000, p. 43).
This group activity provides questions to guide students through problem solving:
One example of a scenario is:
You hear the other students (male and female) making sarcastic comments about lesbians. These comments are mostly about women in the movies and the music industry rather than about anyone particular in your school. One girl does not join in with these comments or say anything about them but just chats about other things. You have a strong sense that her mother may be a lesbian. What can you do, or say? (Gay and Lesbian Educators of British Columbia, p. 45)
Giving students a chance to discuss such scenarios helps them to consider multiple perspectives as well as come up with possible solutions to each scenario. Once groups have discussed their scenario, they report out to the larger group allowing for a class discussion. Our intention for using these scenarios is to expand our teacher candidates' notions of safe classroom climates.
As educators we not only have a responsibility to create safe classrooms for our students but to also assist our colleagues with this process. While there are challenges with students when teaching LGBTQ issues in the classroom, there is often also resistance from faculty and administration. Nevertheless, an LGBTQ educator has a responsibility to educate their colleagues about these issues and the importance for their inclusion to create a healthy and safe school environment for all students.
Being able to create schools that are safer and supportive of LGBTQ issues and individuals is a critical and urgent endeavor. Educators need to explore what the individual, legal and educational investments are in their communities in order to successfully disrupt homophobia. This exploration can aid in understanding their local communities and what strategies may be successful. Strategies can include instructional activities to assist student comprehension of the issues, curriculum to increase visibility of LGBTQ individuals and issues, the media to bring in current events to compliment the standard curriculum, and literature and the arts to represent LGBTQ in equitable ways.
Although we all have the same goal – disrupting homophobia through education – the three of us came to this process along very different roads, yet we realized the strength that came from sharing our ideas over a common experience, the film It's Elementary. There is no one method for teaching about these issues and what works with one educator may not work for others. Therefore, it is critical to collaborate, converse, and reflect on this issue if any positive social change is to occur.
The Anti-Defamation League's A World of Difference Curriculum: http://www.adl.org/awod/awod_institute.asp.
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