On Omission: “Ordinary Violence” + the Absence of LGBTQ-Inclusive Curriculums

“Pushed around and kicked around, always a lonely boy,
You were the one that they’d talk about around town as they put you down”
–Bronski Beat, “Smalltown Boy”

Nine days ago, Matthew Shepard was interred in the National Cathedral as the Trump administration threatened to erase transgender people from legal existence (at least to start), a resounding and chilling act of state violence. Seven states have laws preventing an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in schools, which is a direct statement about whose identities—whose lives–matter. In the New Yorker, Masha Gessen wrote about the sustained effort necessary to make the ordinary violence of our society seem extraordinary:

So, maybe it’s not so crazy that I feel that there is something extraordinary in the internment of Matthew Shepard’s ashes in the National Cathedral. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, it’s not a sign of the times.

Indeed, the dominant narrative—“look at how far we’ve come”—seems to be more aspirational than an actual statement of fact.

Recent reports from GLESN show the continued inability (and sometimes unwillingness) of schools to adequately meet the safety, curricular, and learning needs of LGBTQ students. Indeed, progress toward safer schools has slowed, as students reporting incidents of verbal harassment from classmates and school staff has increased while positive representations of LGBTQ folks in school curriculums have decreased. When marginalized students are unable to see themselves in the curriculum, they begin to feel insecure and unsafe in our school and classrooms, which leads to achievement and opportunity gaps, truancy, and increased rates of bullying and school violence for LGBTQ students. While the merits of being a “data-informed” educator are clear and routinely preached as virtuous by our field’s thought leaders, I’ve heard endless excuses from colleagues for ignoring the blatant inequities for LGBTQ students in our schools—“the standards don’t allow me to add anything” (LGBTQ folks have provided contributions in every conceivable subject area, allowing you to be inclusive) or “we don’t have the resources” (use online resources to supplement those provided by your district) or “it doesn’t fit into our larger equity work” (we can and must serve our multiple equity needs simultaneously)—and these are immoral derelictions of our duties as public educators to teach everyone in our classrooms. The large-scale unwillingness to make LGBTQ folks and their histories visible in every classroom is erasure—an act of ordinary violence—that’s far too common to be considered extraordinary.

Inclusive-Curriculum-Helps-LGBTQ-Youth-GLSEN-Inforgraphic-PosterIn my Humanities course, we spend sustained time on learning about LGBTQ people and their histories, and, each year, there is pushback from even the most progressive students, parents, and colleagues who are disquieted and discomforted with the representations of queer and trans people in the course. Underlying the comments and criticisms in a hushed disgust, as if what’s been displayed in somehow vulgar or illicit, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, we spend time studying the origins of queer theory using some of Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele’s Queer: A Graphic History and thinking about how language can be changed to move away from binary oppositions before watching Paris is Burning and exploring the intersections of race, gender, class, and social geography. In a survey of my classes, only three students said they encountered any direct discussions about LGBTQ people or their identities prior to Humanities, and none of those representations were of queer or trans people of color. When the curriculum has been centered on you—valuing you, seeing you, and honoring your funds of knowledge—it can be a difficult, decentering experience to not see yourself at the center and have to confront certain parts of your own social identity, which I believe accounts for a great deal of the pushback. It might be hard to understand why you would care about those who are on the margins when you’re at the center, especially if you’re not regularly asked to do so. Unfortunately, I’m not alone in experiencing pushback and discomfort: in a Harris poll conducted earlier this year, 37 percent of people said they would feel uncomfortable knowing that their child received curriculum about LGBTQ histories and identities, and those are only those who admitted that they would be uncomfortable to a pollster. While many might argue that the Humanities curriculum is too much too soon, I’d argue that we don’t have time to waste, especially given the dearth of LGBTQ-inclusive instruction prior to Humanities. While the sins of omission on course syllabi and reading lists aren’t new and efforts to disrupt some canonical power is ongoing, it seems like there’s a kind of measured reticence to upending the straight, cisgender canon.

Many students, however, embrace the challenge of confronting their own identities, understanding the political implications and power of their gaze, and working to develop oppositional ways of looking at media that work against the dominant culture’s ways of seeing. Students are asked to take a scene or a stillshot from Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning in order to analyze it using our class texts and their lived experience as a basis for unpacking it, and the results were tremendous. Students could do written work, or they could produce videos. In both cases, students needed to make imaginative connections between theory and practice, History and history, and themselves and someone potentially unlike them that they’ve never met, something David Levi Strauss calls an “epiphany of the other.” For all of the disquiet and discomfort, these students were able to interrogate their positionality, challenge their subjectivity, and exhibit the highest imaginable level of social-emotional intelligence and critical thought. This felt disruptive to ordinary violence; their work was extraordinary and transformative.

Those who spoke at the interment of Matthew Shepard’s ashes frequently spoke about the way violence is normalized in LGBTQ communities; it’s part of the identity. Existing outside the dominant culture means preparing to be targeted by those who see your very existence as a mortal threat to their social order and its attendant power. Matthew Shepard’s dad spoke at the interment, saying: ““It is so important we now have a home for Matt…a home that is safe from haters.” Imagine if we could make school a place where our LGBTQ students—yes, our students—could see themselves, know themselves, and have their classmates know them beyond negative stereotypes, representations, and half-hearted inclusions into the curriculum. Imagine if every teacher in every subject found ways to represent the rich, diverse histories and identities of LGBTQ folks in their curriculum. Imagine if a school could be a home that’s safe from the haters.

That would be extraordinary.

Redefining “Rigor:” Trust, Choice + Inclusion

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As the director of a secondary school writing center, I’m used to the skeptical questions about the rigor of our program from colleagues, from students outside of the writing center, and even from college admissions officers who question the value and the difficulty of our work despite having six years of quantitative and qualitative data that suggests we’re having a real-deal impact on narrowing existing achievement gaps in our school and preventing ones from opening.  Much of the skepticism about the rigor of a class called “Writing Center” stems from the way it calls into question traditional educational models that rely on direct instruction; there’s no teacher giving lectures, and there aren’t worksheets to do, but, instead, students go through a training process that engages them in thinking about how to use their role as a peer to honor their classmates’ literacies and funds of knowledge, promote growth-oriented thinking that moves away from education’s infamous deficit models, build relationships with classmates through writing by sharing their own vulnerability, do community-facing work with local universities and organizations that promote K-8 literacy, where achievement gaps begin, and engage in meaningful reflection about themselves as tutors using their own experiences with writing and substantive writing center pedagogy.  This is all while trying to navigate complex peer-to-peer relationships, peer-to-teacher relationships over writing, peer-to-writing relationships, and structural and institutional inequities within our community in order to make lasting, positive change.  This work, while learner-centered and learner-led, seems legitimately rigorous to me even without an Advanced Placement designation or its standardized test at the end; students are using the collective knowledges and resources in an effort to solve pressing real-world, real-time educational issues impacting their friends, their school, and their community.

Narrow definitions of what constitutes rigor in schools extend beyond the Writing Center.  Notions of rigor are frequently discussed when we discussing issues of making space for more choice reading in classes, as there’s an intractable belief that students will scam the system, taking the easy way out.  Indeed, this belief is so pervasive that a recent conversation with a colleague revealed that they were reticent to share their amazing choice reading practices because of negative optics; it simply doesn’t seem hard enough.  However, we know that choice in the classroom promotes high levels of student engagement, and high levels of student engagement encourage students to persist through learning obstacles by thinking metacognitively to find solutions.  We also know that students have an exceptional degree of pride when finishing tasks that they’ve chosen, making them deeply invested in both the process and the product.  The belief that students will somehow scam a system in which they have choice is not only unhelpfully distrustful, but it also further ensconces the idea that we need to force students to learn in spite of their unwillingness to do so.  This hasn’t been my experience; students are deeply passionate and want to expand their literacies in areas that are relevant and meaningful to them.

When given the opportunities to make choices about their learning and their educational process, there’s a palpable energy.  If that feels too anecdotal, then there’s a proverbial boatload of research that there’s a direct relationship between literacy growth and reading volume: an hour of independent reading a day gives students access to 4.3 million new words each year.  Additionally, Judy Willis finds that:

“The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and ‘aha’ moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of ‘exuberant discovery,’ where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.”

There are hosts of examples like this one highlighting the ways in which independent reading is both purposeful and rigorous when implemented with fidelity to researched practices.

Here’s the rub: when we anoint ourselves as keepers of rigor, beholden to traditional academic models of what that word means, my fear is that we’re creating more walls than doors, especially for students already on the outside looking in. All students deserve access to lessons that meaningfully challenges them within their zone of proximal development, but rigor doesn’t have to have an AP designation, take the form of standardized test preparation, or be completely teacher-centered. These practices measure exceptionality by exception; the gatekeepers are effective enough without legions of allies. Instead, rigor should—even must—engage our sense of curiosity, the imagination of solving relevant, real-world issues, and the deep metacognition that comes from reflection. As Peter Rorabaugh, Sean Michael Morris, and Jesse Stommel write in “Beyond Rigor:”

“We must move past our traditional definition of rigorous academic work, and recognize that a learning experience or a pedagogical methodology can be both playful and also have the qualities of the best academic work, if not the reagents of traditional rigor.”

Like school itself, traditional notions of rigor work for a very small subset of folks whose funds of knowledge and literacies tend to be highly valued. These funds of knowledge and literacies generally tend to be those possessed by white, middle-and-upper class, cishet males, which sends strong messages of exclusion to those who don’t share those literacies or the values, beliefs, and ideals inherent in them. As Rorabaugh, Morris, and Stommel argue, we need to shift our definition of rigor away from reading really long books that are assessed with really hard multiple-choice questions to finding ways to get students to use their funds of knowledge to imagine, explore, and maybe most of all, create. This new notion of rigor requires rethinking power asymmetry in school and empowering learners to use their agency to seek their rigor and relevance in forms and content central to their interests and assets using inquiry, play, and metacognitive reflection, and we have to trust our students—all of our students—to do the learning that they want to do. It’s here where we can begin measure exceptionality by inclusion rather than exclusion.

The Politics of Policing Reading in Secondary Schools

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On this week’s #CELchat, I mentioned one of the central pedagogical tensions in the schools I’ve taught in is how to hold students “accountable” for assigned readings, a job that mostly has fallen to some sort of assessment mechanism like a multiple choice or short answer reading quiz that measures recall of a text’s key details.   It’s difficult to eschew practices that are engrained part of a school’s culture, and my eventual unwillingness to engage in policing reading through pseudoassessments, which are more guessing games than anything else, has earned me some blank stares, dirty looks, and stern lectures over the years from colleagues, department chairs, and administrators. 

My opposition to these practices has two parts:

  1. Grades don’t motivate students who aren’t reading to start, and grades compel compliance-based reading for those who are engaging with class texts.  Signaling to students that the virtue of reading is about earning a number in a learning-management system creates an entrenched ideology that it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself, which would send me to surfing to SparkNotes or Shmoop in a second.
  2. Assessments need to be about more than whether a student read the assignment, which opens up a host of questions about what students’ rights are with respect to turning away from a text, even one that was assigned.  My sense is that teachers take it personally that students don’t read, and, in my theory, why so many pseudoassessments are given: it’s a way to command authority and respect through rituals and practices.  The less students read, the more we double down on making sure they know they didn’t read, a move which rarely works.  Amy Hasinoff recently wrote about this control-seeking behavior and it negatively impact on our relationships with students.  It’s important to recognize that students may have a host of complicated reasons for not reading that have nothing to do with laziness, apathy, or disdain for a teacher.  A student should still be able to engage in and learn from class even without having read a whole assigned text closely (and, maybe, even at all).

These two beliefs open up interesting ideological and pedagogical questions about what we mean when we ask students to read and what the rights are of someone we’re willing to call a “reader.”

I had a conversation with a student during this past week, on the sixth day of class, who sheepishly confessed that she didn’t make it through one of the denser readings I assigned, and students were surprised when I asked them to get as far as they thought they could in another dense reading before coming to class to hash out what they learned.  In An Urgency of Teachers, Jesse Stommel writes: “I try to encourage students to be honest about how much they read, what the reading looks like, when they stop reading, when they start again.”  Indeed, we frequently assume that reading is a linear process with universal outcomes; the idea that everyone can and should be done with your assigned readings at the same time and obtain the same information is a problematic ask.  Rather than giving quizzes or bemoaning my students’ reading abilities in commiserative teacher talk, I like to engage students in a conversation about different types of reading strategies and their reading process: why they read a section closely, why a passage stood out to them, how they made meaning from what they did encounter, and some ways they might consider making meaning next time.  A significant part of education is learning about your own learning and understanding the processes you need to make critical encounters with texts.  Psuedoassessments to shame students into writing shut down these reflective conversations in which students and their teachers can imagine alternatives.  Discussions about assessment grades and points, whether their formative or summative, can tend to cloud these conversations with an unhelpful, unspoken subtext.

It’s also vital to consider as educators the compelling reasons that a student might look away from a text, as there are likely very good reasons we’ve done the same in our own reading lives: boredom, pain, we’ve gotten what we needed.  Abandonment, disengagement, skimming, scanning, and all of the other strategies are readerly choices or moves that deserve our consideration and, more importantly, the consideration of the readers themselves.  Put slightly differently, I’d rather have a student skim a text or stop halfway through than be completely apathetic to it.  Apathy represents a kind of intellectual nihilism, while other strategies represent a more active choice, a kind of important agency.  What matters is not whether students read in the way that we think they should; what matters is what they do in response to the reading.  What matters is what kind of reader they become, and becoming a reader requires space to make real-deal choices about not only what to read, but also how to read and how much to read of texts they encounter.  This isn’t disdain, disrespect, or disengagement, but, instead, it’s the opposite.  Later in An Urgency of Teachers, Stommel quotes Mark Sample: “what is broken is also twisted and beautiful.”  Breaking our deeply held notions of what it means to read or be a reader may make room for greater discovery even in the uncertainty of ceding control that we seek so desperately to regain through methods like pseudoassessment.  As Stommel writes, we need to find ways to have honest conversations around systemic and structural common sense that we refuse to replicate in our own classes.

I used to have language in my syllabus that mirrored my department’s culture that likened coming to class without having fully read as cheating and thievery; you’re riding the coattails of someone else’s work, which is a phrase I think I actually used.  These statements were definitely inequitable and probably caused some students to shut down entirely. Embarrassingly, I gave myself license to disengage from those who weren’t reading, and, in doing so, gave them reason to disengage from our community of learners.  This not only robbed them of significant learning opportunities, it also denied our classroom of their voices.  Stommel’s co-author in An Urgency of Teachers, Sean Michael Morris, cites Seymour Papert:

Almost all experiments in purporting to implement progressive education have been disappointing because they simply did not go far enough in making the student the subject of the process rather than the object.

Since ditching the mandates to police reading, I’ve been working on passage-based assessments that allow students to participate in our discussions and our learning no matter where they are on their journey through the text. The goal here isn’t to see whether students have read every page, but, instead, to see how they make meaning from texts using critical theories central to analysis. More plainly, it’s a whole lot more about skills than it is about individual texts, which is a move that has created, believe it or not, even more engaged readers than before. On these assessments, students are asked to closely read a passage, annotating it, and, then, they’re given an open-ended prompt that they use their annotations and close reading to compose.

We can’t be in the business of silencing students in our classes, especially those that our educational systems and its attendant values have harmed and hurt and who might be text-averse when they come to us because of the shame they’ve felt previously. Creating readers won’t happen with grades and threats—students, when push comes to shove, probably don’t care about pseudoassessments and their outcomes beyond the fleeting moments they took them. What they might care about is thinking about what it means to read and be a reader in a way that allows them to participate in class, be fairly assessed on their skills, and rethink reading and what it means to be a reader.

A Critical, Relevant Challenge: Shared Vulnerability, Hope + 38 Tutors’ Mission to Close the Achievement Gap

Today, the Skyline Writing Center begins its seventh year with more new tutors, 31, than any single year since we opened.  These tutors, chosen from the largest applicant group we’ve ever had, are some of the most emotionally and academically intelligent students I’ve met during my 14 years in public education.  My incredible excitement to welcome these amazing students to our team is mixed with some undeniable nervousness because our purpose, our moral imperative—helping close Skyline’s persistent achievement gaps—is as urgent as ever, and we’re starting at the very beginning.  I know that our tutors, new and returning, are capable of helping our school community create more equitable learning conditions, but it’s incumbent upon me and the Writing Center’s student leadership team to ensure students are trained and ready to help in just a few short weeks.

With the urgent moral imperatives of the achievement gap demanding action, it would be easy to start our initial training session with loads of tutoring pedagogy and pages of writing center research to ensure that our tutors know everything scholars say writing center consultants need to know.  Honestly, I considered this strategy when I realized our team was facing its most significant turnover ever, and, after checking in with myself about our core values and beliefs, especially our commitment to equity and social justice, I decided on a completely different approach, one that I believe, ultimately, will be far more successful in helping us continue to make progress against achievement gaps in our school.

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Slide from Skyline Writing Center’s 2018-2019 Opening Day Presentation

To continue to make the significant progress against the achievement gaps that are part of our moral imperative, our tutors need to learn—and be comfortable with—sharing vulnerability with each other and the students they collaborate with daily on assignments. Our student feedback and perception data suggest that getting students to visit with tutors is often inhibited by their perception that our work is evaluative, putting an unfair burden on students seeking literacy support. Our tutor data also suggests that tutors, who often face imposter syndrome, are worried of losing credibility when they admit their mistakes, talk about learning setbacks, or say they don’t know an answer. That said, sharing vulnerability is an essential element of getting to students to use our services, so we must constantly train ourselves, primarily by being vulnerable together about the trials and tribulations of peer tutoring, to understand that acknowledging our own areas of improvement makes us stronger, not weaker, in the eyes of our collaborators.

Today, our tutors were given a prompt that compelled them to reveal something about themselves. They had to share that writing with three other tutors in the Writing Center. The prompts have nothing to do with school or Writing Center, but, in my mind, the emotional literacy skills they ask students to perform are central to the kind of sharing and relationship building between students that closing our achievement gaps require. This modeling and practice continued in the afternoon when we had Circle Time to talk about the hopes and insecurities we had after our first day of school.

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Sharing vulnerability and building relationships is an awesome start to closing the achievement gaps, but it’s also important that tutors believe that they and their classmates can learn and grow with proper support. The idea of a so-called “growth mindset” has gotten some blowback lately, and rightly so: a growth mindset doesn’t change the systemic injustices our most vulnerable students face every day. You can’t “grit” your way out of poverty or racism, and asking marginalized people to do so is as insulting as it is immoral. Moreover, growth mindset doesn’t mean telling everyone that they can do everything; they key is beginning with an asset-based approach and working from it to build transferrable skills and strategies. However, working within what Nancy Grimm calls a “pedagogy of hope” is really important to great tutoring that challenges structural inequities within schools and institutions to bring about a more equitable future. What we mean when we talk about a growth mindset in the Skyline Writing Center is that narratives of scarcity can be supplanted and replaced by truths of abundance. Everyone can learn, and if you’re coming to school—and taking the additional step of visiting the Writing Center—you definitely want to learn. When tutors (and teachers) fall into the thinking that some students can’t or don’t want to learn, the structures that enable to achievement gap to continue unabated remain.

In our training, students were asked to consider experiences in school where they struggled to learn an idea or concept and the resources and strategies they used or developed to eventually “get it.” The list of resources and strategies can be a helpful primer to unlocking the truths of abundance that outshine the narratives of scarcity.

When students elect to be a Writing Center tutor, they’re taking on the most challenging, critical, and relevant mission of their young educational careers: working together each and every day to close persistent achievement gaps in our school and in our community.  As Heather Lattimer shares in Real-World Literacies, the costs of not working for more equitable outcomes are far too high: 3,000 students drop out of high school everyday, mostly because they don’t have the literacy skills to keep up, 82% of inmates left high school, and 33% have fourth-grade literacy skills, and 70% of students who leave high school without the necessary literacy skills leave college without a degree or a certificate.  Equity is literacy, literacy is equity, and it’s on us.

Reading pedagogy, looking at tutoring models, and engaging in tutoring simulations are important parts of any training program, but without working toward shared vulnerability and a belief in the power of growth, the root causes of structural inequity will continue to exist. 

Today, then, our first training session had nothing and everything to do with tutoring simultaneously.

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