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Diverse Books Means Literature for All

by Autumn Dodge
 | Jun 16, 2015

Teachers know the texts they choose for students to read in school serve myriad purposes and offer students various opportunities. One of these opportunities is for students to immerse themselves in the experiences and worlds of the characters they find in the pages of a book. Students read about people and places different from what they’ve experienced; their eyes open to new worlds, and their knowledge and views expanded. When a book is written well, students can get inside the world of characters, empathize with their experiences, and feel like they are in those characters’ minds and worlds. Even if the characters in the book are different in time and context, students can find connections to experiences in their own lives.

Take, for example, a student reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in her seventh-grade language arts class. In the pages of the book, she finds herself identifying with the romantic ups and downs the March girls experience. Perhaps, on the basis of a current or past relationship, she identifies with the tension between Meg and Jo—two girls in love with the same man. Now, let’s turn to another student in this same class. As the class reads Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges” aloud, he identifies with the tentative touches, the treasured moments of a 12-year-old boy walking on a chilly night with his girl—his attention to the corners of the girl’s smile, the light in her eyes, holding her hand in his.

These are the aesthetic experiences students have that can build a love for reading. What may be less evident to the teacher of this seventh-grade class is that the story and poem above reflect one particular reality and experience with which these two students are able to identify with—young love, specifically young, heterosexual love. Many teachers are not aware of the ways in which the texts they use in their classes, those that are considered staples or classics and those in the Common Core’s Appendix B (like Little Women and “Oranges”) maintain an atmosphere of heteronormativity in schools, extending and perpetuating the same status quo that lies outside the school walls.

Although this may not be intentional, by presenting heterosexual identity and relationships as the norm and “what is,” any other form of love is consequently set up as “other,” not normal, and even unacceptable. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and queer (LGBTQ) students, the feelings and experiences they have often aren’t valued or reflected in the books they read. At the same time, LGBTQ identity is often maligned in and out of school; LGBTQ students are subject to slurs and bullying in school, while outside school many decry their identities as sinful, abnormal, a threat to constructed social norms. Although some LGBTQ students may have family who support them, others may not have revealed their identity or may not have support in their home. School should be a place where every individual feels valued, included, supported, and safe. The literature teachers assign can provide a modicum of safety and small—albeit important—opportunities to experience acceptance.

Incorporating texts that reflect the experiences of LGBTQ students is a way that teachers can be supportive of LGBTQ students and contribute to a school environment that validates their identities and values their experiences. For heterosexual students, reading books with LGBTQ characters can help them expand their understanding of the nonheterosexual experience and build empathy, contributing to a safer and more open school environment.

For teachers, however, choosing and incorporating texts with LGBTQ characters may be challenging or problematic. Aside from concerns teachers have about approval from school administrators and parents, how to choose texts and how to integrate them within existing curricula, and possible discomfort with the topic on the basis of personal beliefs, religious or otherwise, is another issue. Few teachers, in their preservice experiences, spend significant (or any) time learning about addressing the needs of LGBTQ students and how to make curricular choices that make the classroom an equitable, positive, and safe space for these students.

Many teacher education programs spend significant time discussing the importance of embracing diversity and developing culturally responsive teachers, but most often such focus on diversity is situated in contexts of race, ethnicity, language, and culture. Diversity of sexual orientation is less often a focus in preservice teacher education because, in many cases, it is still an uncomfortable topic for students and teachers. This is all the more reason that teacher educators need to step up to the plate to bring preservice teachers into conversations about the LGBTQ students who will be in their future classes.

How can we expect the teachers we are sending out into the world to be prepared to make curricular choices to incorporate LGBTQ texts in their classrooms if we don’t make this an explicit focus in our teacher preparation programs? The responsibility of making the school and classroom a safe, welcoming, and affirming space for LGBTQ students is not a responsibility that rests just on the teachers in those classrooms. Such a space needs to be cultivated and built long before our teachers step into the classroom. Everyone in the education community—especially the teacher educators who are preparing tomorrow’s teachers—has a role to play in disrupting the heteronormative environment in schools and truly embracing diversity in all its forms. Let’s begin making LGBTQ issues an explicit issue of diversity and social justice that we discuss and act on in all our teacher education programs.

autumn dodge headshotAutumn M. Dodge worked as an assistant professor in Literacy at St. Bonaventure, NY for two years and will start as assistant professor in literacy at St. John’s University, NY in Fall 2015. Her teaching and research interests include issues of social justice in education, especially addressing, recognizing, and integrating LGBTQ identities and experiences in the classroom; using multiple text types, including YA literature, across content areas to richly address CCSS; and examining student self-efficacy in varied reading contexts.

Dodge will present a session entitled “Using ‘Linked Text Sets’ Examples to Integrate LGBTQ Perspectives in Inclusive Literacy Classrooms” on Monday, July 20, at the ILA 2015 Conference in St. Louis, MO, July 18–20. This session will provide concrete examples of linked text sets that meet CCSS goals, promote equity and diversity, support LGBTQ identities, and integrate LGBTQ experiences. Visit the ILA 2015 Conference website for more information or to register.


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