(This is the first post in a two-part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What can teachers do to most effectively support LGBTQ students?
We teachers need to support all our students, including those who are LGBTQ.
This support is especially needed now as some politicians and others are specifically targeting transgender students for harassment.
Today, Jennica Leather, Silvina Jover, and Jennifer Orr share their suggestions. Jennica and Silvina were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
You might also be interested in a previous post, Six Ways Educators Can Support LGBTQ Students During COVID-19.
Love in the Classroom
Jennica Leather has been teaching English for 15 years and has been an EL coordinator for seven. She teaches at her alma mater, El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Calif.:
The thing teachers can do to most effectively support LGBTQ students is just to love them.
Let me tell you what that looks like in my classroom. The way this starts is by including pride decor and art on the walls of my classroom. Seeing that will hopefully show them that I am most likely an ally. I say “most likely” because some students will understandably not be convinced by a few posters. So I back that up with my words. My Getting to Know Me presentation for the first day includes my preferred pronouns. It also includes a picture that says “People are people” in rainbow colors. I share with them my “motto”: It does not matter to me which pronouns or name you use, what you like to wear, your favorite colors or foods, or who you love. I care about how you treat others and how you treat me.
Supporting LGBTQ students in my classroom also looks like giving them various ways to share their preferred name and/or pronouns. I have had loud and proud students who share that information on day one as I read off the names on my attendance sheet. Last year, I added a question on the questionnaire they fill out for me that asks for their preferred name, pronouns, or any other information they find important for me to know. This also looks like a sincere apology when I mess up a pronoun or name. When appropriate, I apologize in front of the whole class, but I also apologize personally. Teachers are human, and our students understand that and actually appreciate our ability to admit to our mistakes and be sincere in our apologies.
This also looks like doing my best to avoid using gendered pronouns while teaching. Much like teaching classes of English-learners helped me stop saying “mom and dad” when I tell students to do things like get their syllabus signed, I have been learning to avoid saying “ladies and gentlemen” or anything similar when addressing the class. It has been a struggle to unlearn the use of gendered pronouns and language, but I know it makes a difference to students who don’t feel like they fit inside of those groups or who have friends who don’t fit inside those groups. When a student of mine brings a friend to my classroom for Tutorial or during a rainy lunch period, I am honored because I have learned that often means they know that their friend will feel welcome in my room when they might not feel welcome in other places.
I have had several students who shared with me that they identified as transgender, but the one who stands out the most is the one whose journey began during the time period he was in my class. He started the year as a girl, returned from the long Thanksgiving weekend with shorter hair, and then returned from winter break with an even shorter haircut and a completely new wardrobe. He started writing his chosen name next to his dead name on his assignments. One day I wrote a little note on his paper: “You don’t need to write your old name on your paper. I know who you are.” His mother later told me that moment was significant because I was the first teacher to accept him. She thanked me for helping him through that time in his life. But I don’t feel like I did anything special. All I did was love him for who he was. That’s it.
Our LGBTQ students are no different from our other students. They love some classes and hate others. They probably procrastinate too much. They laugh and love. They have struggles we know nothing about. They want what we all want: to feel like they matter in the world. Support them the same way you do all your students, by getting to know them. Be there for them through their struggles and celebrate their victories.
Silvina Jover is a bilingual social studies teacher in Las Vegas. Originally from Uruguay, she has been an educator and advocate for immigrant students and their families in the U.S. for the past seven years:
Building a classroom community should be at the top of our priorities as educators; without it, even the best-crafted classroom-management plan will, at some point, fail. Although it is an ongoing process, we need to be intentional about it at the very beginning of the school year. It is about relationships, and these can only be created by making connections and developing our emotional intelligence and our students’.
Being intentional when building a community translates into choosing activities that will create the necessary space for each of us and will allow us to talk about ourselves, about our identity. These activities can only succeed in an environment that is also well-thought to convey its feeling of being a safe space for all our students.
In terms of the environment, symbols and books tend to dictate the personality of my classroom. Whether you are a member of the LGBTQ community or an ally, have the corresponding symbols close to your door so your students know they are walking into a space that will not judge them. The rainbow flag is a good place to start in terms of symbols, but remember that it is not the only flag that represents the LGBTQ community. In my “identity corner,” I also have the trans flag because I have loved ones who are trans, and sharing my own story makes my students feel safe, too.
The second element that creates our classroom environment is our library. My high school doesn’t have a library (I have no comments!), so I decided to invest on my own. It has been growing little by little and it has become a bilingual library, too. I teach social studies, but those are not the only types of books we have. I’ve been intentional when selecting the books I bring and, thinking about our LGBTQ students, I look for books either written by a member of the community or that narrate the stories of characters who are going through the discovery of their own identity as LGBTQ or already identify as such. Multiculturalism and diversity in the literature that we introduce to our students is important. Even if you only have a few coffee-table books to display, make sure to have one that tells the history of the queer community in the U.S., for example.
Regarding activities that allow for community building, there are many out there from games to journaling; the show and tell that the little ones like to be part of is definitely an activity that allows you to talk about identity even with that age group. Because I teach high school, we do the “adult” show and tell—The Identity Bag. After some background conversation and ice-breaker activities, I let my students know they will have homework (oh, no!). The Identity Bag is literally a bag (I use those brown paper bags) that I ask my students to decorate and then put inside three elements that represent who they are (hence, homework). The following class we create a circle and share the stories behind these elements. It is during these times that the more shy LGBTQ students may let you know about their preferred pronouns and probably other details. We need to honor this request as it refers to who they are … their identity!
Overall, creating a space that is not only welcoming but relevant to our students who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, or are in search of that space, is the first step in building an inclusive classroom community. And the challenge is maintaining it.
Jennifer Orr is a national-board-certified elementary teacher in the suburbs of Washington. She is a mother of two and an obsessive buyer of children’s books:
I am a mother of two teenagers and I am an elementary school teacher. What my children’s friends need in the way of support may look very different from what my students need. There are young children in the LGBTQ+ community living as themselves, and they definitely need very visible support. I think, however, that many young children are not yet openly in the LGBTQ+ community for many different reasons. That doesn’t mean they need our support any less.
As in all things that may be challenging in a classroom of young children, I turn to books. When a child is able to see themselves in a book, in whatever way that might be, that is powerful. My own white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied daughter, who I would think sees herself in books regularly, was superexcited in elementary school to get an American Girl magazine because the girl on the cover had glasses and braces, just like my daughter. I had no idea those two things made her feel as different as they did. Representation in books, magazines, movies, ads, games, and more is critical for kids.
So my classroom library has books with characters in the LGBTQ+ community. When I began teaching more than 20 years ago, this wasn’t true. Partly because such books were hard to come by and partly because I was afraid of pushback from the community. Over time, I decided that risking the pushback was worth it in order to be sure all of my students saw these characters in books. (It should be noted that I have not had any pushback.) There are also more and more books every year with characters in the LGBTQ+ community.
And Tango Makes Three was one of the first I bought and is now one I often read to my class. It’s a picture book based on a true story of penguins in the Central Park Zoo. I Am Jazz is another picture book, an autobiography by a transgender girl. These two books are wonderful as they are true stories and written in picture-book form for young kids. However, I also want my students to see characters in the LGBTQ+ community in books that are just about kids being kids. They don’t only have to see books that are focused on better understanding of what it means to be in the LGBTQ+ community. The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is a chapter book about a family with two dads and four boys. It’s a story of brothers and school and friendships, and the kids happen to have two dads.
Having these books available in your classroom library for students is just one step, albeit a small one. But for many kids in the LGBTQ+ community, they may never have seen such characters in a book before. Meeting these characters in the pages of a book as they read in your classroom offers them some support, some affirmation of who they are.
Thanks to Jennica, Silvina, and Jennifer for their contributions!
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