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ILA 2018 Equity in Education Panel Helps Educators Create Inclusive Spaces for LGBTQ Students

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Jul 24, 2018
Equity in Education Panel 2018

For the audience of ILA’s Equity in Education panel, Literacy and Our LGBTQ Students: Starting and Sustaining Schoolwide Transformation, which took place this weekend at the ILA 2018 Conference in Austin, TX, the message was clear: If you want to create a school climate where LGBTQ students feel comfortable, start with empathy.
 
Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group focused entirely on K–12 education, delivered the opening keynote, weaving her personal narrative with statistics about LGBTQ risk factors.

“Today, I’m here as a lesbian who grew up in the U.S., whose life was saved by my relationship with books,” she said. “I simply want to say how much it means to be here with people whose work is dedicated to unlocking the incredible joys of literacy for children now, because it meant the world to me.”
 
Byard also discussed GLSEN’s recent initiatives in response to the wave of discriminatory legislation attempted to roll-back efforts for LGBTQ equity. The organization has been a leading advocate for the repeal of so-called “no promo homo laws” that ban teachers from discussing LGBTQ topics in a positive light. Texas is one of seven states where these laws are still in effect—a fact that Byard used to underline the urgency of their work.
 
“Change is possible; individuals can make a difference,” she said. “You cannot improve school climate if you don’t take these issues on.”
 
She then opened the conversation to the panelists: Kris De Pedro, assistant professor at the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University; Amy Fabrikant, staff developer at the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility; Courtney Farrell, founder of The Journey Project; Jessica Lifschitz, Heinemann Scholar and fifth-grade teacher; Kate Roberts, author and literacy consultant; Dana Stachowiak, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington; and Tim’m West, senior managing director of the LGBTQ Community Initiative at Teach for America. 

After introducing  themselves and stating their preferred pronouns, they spent the next hour unpacking and strategizing on a wide range of LGBTQ issues in education, from language to libraries.
 
The danger of staying silent
 
When asked about their first steps toward creating an LGBTQ-inclusive school climate, several panelists shared their own journeys of self-acceptance. 
 
Stachowiak spent much of her teaching career wearing dresses and heels, skirting questions about her personal life, and avoiding LGBTQ topics in the classroom. Ultimately, it was a conversation with a student that inspired her to embrace her authentic self at work. 
 
“A little girl in my classroom who had been really spunky and really gifted academically just started to go downhill and got quiet. I found out through her peers that she had been writing love letters to other girls in the classroom, and they were uncomfortable with that. I didn’t know what to do because I felt like if I supported her, I would be outed," she said. “I made it all about me at that moment—there was wanting to protect my student and there was wanting to protect myself, and that kind of overshadowed, unfortunately.”
 
When the school counselor failed to take action and the student’s social and emotional well-being continued to decline, Stachowiak realized it was time for her to overcome her fears and focus on the needs of the student confiding in her. 
 
“I just said, you know what? I can’t just continue to watch this happen,” she said. “That was me, as a kid.”

Stachowiak’s story sparked a conversation about the dangers of silencing these topics in the classroom and addressed concerns about parent, administrator, or community pushback. 

“There are a bunch of schools where the adults haven't moved to the same degree as our young people have,” said Roberts. “And I think that’s because, and others will echo, we’re terrified of the parents, we’re so scared of parent communities complaining.”

Roberts reminded the audience that they can be loud, too.

“We can complain too, right? We can be the annoying flashing light that someone’s terrified of, being like, ‘Why don’t you have more books that represent all kids? Why isn’t your curriculum more inclusive?’ I don’t think we do become that squeaky wheel enough,” she said. “So the loudest person in the community is the bigoted one.”

Creating social-emotional benchmarks
 
Before coming out to his students, West had to overcome his own perception of what it means to be a role model, a responsibility he cherished as one of the few black, male educators in his district.
 
“Often when we talk about how our young boys need strong, black men [role models], there’s a lot of gendering and homophobia associated with that,” he said. “It may not be pronounced, but the assumption is that you’re masculine, of center, and heterosexual.”
 
West reached his tipping point when he heard his students using the word “gay” as an insult. Instead of reacting, he decided to use that moment as a learning opportunity; he asked the students to clarify what they meant and, as a class, they read aloud the dictionary definition of the word. 

His next step was to openly identify with that word. 
 
“The power of my own decision to come out in that setting was just remarkable. After that, the way that they treated each other, the way they dealt with things, was so much different,” said West. “We had created a culture, in that classroom, in that school—where being gay was really awesome.”

To West, this experience highlights the need for more social and emotional development work in the classroom. He wants to see more open, respectful dialogue around these topics.

“When we talk about teaching and testing, when we talk about benchmarks—where are people and where do we want them to grow—we have to do the same thing around social-emotional competencies—not only for our students, but for our teachers.” 

Students can be teachers, too  

There was a consensus among all of the panelists about the importance of trusting in students’ wisdom and opening spaces for them to lead inclusivity efforts.

“I think it’s important to remind ourselves that students come to school with incredible funds of knowledge,” said De Pedro. “In many ways, our students are more sophisticated and more involved than the teachers and the adults in our schools. Our students are teachers too; they can actually lead in these efforts.”

Farrell said educators should focus on demonstrating they are truly listening by turning students’ words into actions. 

“It’s learning what it is that the children need from us. Opening up spaces to say, ‘What would you like? What do you seek? What are your experiences?’” she said. “And whenever we open up spaces to hear, and they give us information, following it by action. So saying, “What you say matters, and here’s what we’re going to do about it.’”

You don’t know what you don’t know

Byard closed the panel by asking the panelists to share an action item for attendees to take back to their practices. 

“I would echo the idea that it starts with us, recognizing that we don’t know what we don’t know,” said Farrell. “To dig deep into spaces that we may not have personally lived ourselves. So, a lot of listening, a lot of research, a lot of introspection, a lot of reading.”

De Pedro similarly encouraged the audience to continuously challenge their assumptions and to seek new ways of knowing. 

“Admitting you don’t know something and admitting you’re wrong are the two most powerful things educators can—and should—do,” he said.

Fabrikant urged educators hold regular check-ins where students can discuss their feelings.

"Just to know what everyone is bringing into the room," she said. "I really do believe in having a space just to share what’s alive in us."

Panelists also discussed the importance of intersectional thinking, using conscious language, and fully integrating LGBTQ topics into the curriculum.
 
Stachowiak closed the conversation with a powerful call to action. 

“We need to be those voices to say, ‘Yes I can, and yes I will.’ Believe in yourselves that you can do this work and you’re not alone. Even if it’s just starting with you, just look around this room—this is a room full of accomplices,” she said. “This is where the revolution starts.”
 
The livestreamed conversation, sponsored by Heinemann Publishing, was archived on ILA’s Facebook page and can be viewed here

Alina O’Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily. 

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