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.

Reflections from the 2018 National Day on Writing: Imagination, Empathy, Equity Highlight Why We Write

On Friday, October 19, 2018, my tutors from the Skyline Writing Center traveled to the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan to celebrate the National Day on Writing with Christine Modey’s tutors. The National Day on Writing, sponsored annually by NCTE, is a time to remember the reasons that we’ve been compelled to pick up a pen, open a computer, and share our thoughts.  I wrote in a recent post that while reading has been rescued from the doldrums of compliance by a committed group a big names in the field, like Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher, writing has yet to undergo the same transformation in our schools, as students still mainly write for internal audiences, for standardized testing and college admissions ends, and for grades.  There’s very little to fire the imagination or stoke passion, and, by the end of high school, writing can even be something dreaded, particularly if the institutional ecology isn’t equipped to or compelled to raise student voices in any substantive way.

The student choice movement in reading is having huge impacts on students in my classroom and classrooms around the country: twitter chats are springing up about choice reading, teachers are sharing their successes daily on social media, and studies are being done to provide additional support for schools, administrators, teachers, and parents that are reluctant to embrace the power of getting students paired with the right book.  This is exceptional work, as building students’ literacy skills is the key to building equity in our schools and districts, but we often leave writing out of this vital discussion.  Getting students to reconnect with writing as fun–as a legitimate way to share feelings, expand thoughts, and create change–can have huge impacts on our goals to close achievement gaps by raising and amplifying student voices.  We can change the institutional ecologies around writing, slowly, but surely, and recuperate writing from its position as the thing you have to do rather than the thing you choose to do.  Practicing writing in volume–in all of the disciplines–is a great way to help students get better, particularly if they can see the impact of their words.

The opening “icebreaker” sessions were designed to get students thinking critically, working collaboratively, and engaging creatively with writing and with one another.  Students rotated through three stations: a station where students completed the phrase “I write because…” on paper circles that would be displayed in our Writing Center and shared their responses with their group, a station where students completed an “Exquisite Corpse” activity that encouraged students to play with language, and a game where objects were tossed around a circle in a pattern to model the many academic, social, and emotional demands of peer tutoring and the importance of teamwork and communication in an often-stressful environment.  This year, the Skyline Writing Center welcomed 30 new tutors, our largest number since we opened, and with limited time during the school day for community building, having genuine opportunities for students to connect, build trust, and share vulnerability in a contextually meaningful way was vital for the social-emotional growth of our tutors and the edification of tutor-to-tutor relationships foundational to our continued success.

The next part of the day would center on getting students to consider how they can use their voices as everyday advocates for educational equity at Skyline, in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, in our region, and even as part of large national networks.  Students were able to write letters to local, regional, and national officials suggesting reforms to elements of their school or schools more generally that need to be shifted so that all students have equal opportunities to achieve, students could make videos about times when they saw writing make a social change, and they were able to create art that will be displayed in our Writing Center to help other students see the importance of literacy and writing, especially as we try to narrow persistent achievement gaps. 

Edifying trust and sharing vulnerability earlier in the day with our “icebreakers” was vital, as students worked in small groups to share ideas about writing and social change, which required them to be open about their beliefs, values, triumphs, and tribulations and to listen to and be empathetic to experiences potentially far different from their own.  Our Writing Center, which contains multitudes of diversity, requires students to engage with one another on socially cellular levels to have “epiphanies of other,” which activities like this encourage.

Our final activity of the day was an ekphrastic writing competition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), which opened early to accommodate our group.  Ekphrastic writing has been shown to be instructive for students learning to be empathetic, which was part of our day’s intent.  Tutors had the run of the Modern Contemporary gallery, and were given about 20 minutes to compose a poem based on a piece of art they select.  Students were put in groups to select one poem to move to the final round, which was judged by Raymond McDaniel, the world-famous poet.  Students not only had to take perspectives when telling stories based on the art, but they were treated to the perspectives of other students, compelling them to engage in stories and experiences that aren’t their own.  This was an exciting creative experience for students–it was fun, public, and sharable–and it was an important lesson in the importance of stories to our fundamental humanity.