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MOMBIAN What's possible in LGBT-inclusive classrooms
by Dana Rudolph
2018-08-29

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As the hot days of August try to tempt us into laziness, another influence pulls at many of us parents—the increasingly loud voice in the back of our heads that says school will soon be starting for our children. Can we fit in one more trip to the beach or to visit family? What's on the school supply list?

For LGBTQ parents, back-to-school time can also bring worries about whether our children will have their family structure and identities supported. Will the school and classroom climate be safe and welcoming? Will they find a community of supportive peers? Will the curriculum reflect families like theirs? It can all be a bit overwhelming. For those seeking advice and assistance, I've updated my annual annotated list of LGBTQ Back-to-School Resources at mombian.com .

I want to focus here, however, on my favorite new educational resource of the year, for it offers a wonderful model of what is possible in LGBTQ-inclusive education. Reading the Rainbow: LGBTQ-Inclusive Literacy Instruction in the Elementary Classroom ( Teachers College Press and GLSEN ), by Caitlin L. Ryan and Jill M. Hermann-Wilmarth is a slim ( 160-page ) volume to help elementary school English language arts ( ELA ) teachers introduce or deepen classroom discussions around LGBTQ identity and gender. It's full of practical tips and ideas backed by curricular standards and classroom experience—but even if you're not a teacher ( or teach another subject ), it may provide much food for thought. Its brilliance lies in the way it offers tools for teachers who may have varying degrees of experience or comfort in addressing LGBTQ topics, and in showing how classrooms could become more inclusive even in schools resistant to such topics.

Ryan and Herman-Wilmarth each have years of experience teaching in elementary classrooms, although they now hold positions in higher education. They draw not only from their own experiences, but also from those of three other teachers whose classrooms they have studied ( and in some instances, co-taught in ) for several years. Ryan and Herman-Wilmarth both identify as queer, lesbian, cisgender and white, as does one of the other teachers; the remaining two are white, straight, cisgender allies. I wish this panel had been more diverse—teachers of color and transgender teachers would have added important perspectives—but they nevertheless provide a starting point as well as allies' ways of looking at the intersections of gender, race, and other identities.

By including LGBTQ people and ideas in classrooms, the authors explain, teachers provide students with "new windows and mirrors of the world around them." The authors offer many examples of how their panel of teachers helped students use inclusive texts to better understand their own lives or the lives and situations of others. Along the way, students practiced language arts skills, such as learning multiple meanings of words, using more nuanced vocabulary, and crafting arguments.

At the same time, the authors caution that a single LGBTQ-inclusive book cannot show the full range of LGBTQ lives—and indeed, the number of such books for elementary-age readers is still limited, particularly in showing LGBTQ people who are not White, suburban, or partnered. For this reason, and because some teachers may still find it challenging to overcome ( unwarranted ) parental and administrative concerns about LGBTQ-inclusive books, Ryan and Herman-Wilmarth also explore how to "queer," i.e., "mess up and complicate," traditional categories related to bodies, gender, sexual orientation, and love, even when not explicitly reading or talking about LGBTQ people. Classrooms can explore ideas of gender expectations, for example, even in books without LGBTQ characters. The authors acknowledge that this approach can, if mishandled, lead to the ongoing silencing of LGBTQ identities, but as a supplemental approach, it may begin to shift students' understanding, especially in places where discussion of clearly LGBTQ characters may not yet be possible.

Ryan and Herman-Wilmarth also say that teachers should go beyond simply asking if LGBTQ people are represented and look more closely at "how they are represented and what the overall message is to students as a result." For example, how can teachers expand the representation of LGBTQ people but also critique the ways in which portrayals are limited by race, class, or other intersecting identities? Again, the authors provide examples of this in practice, and connect them to specific ELA skills, such as clarifying terms, conducting independent research, writing prompts and engaging in classroom discussion.

They also offer resources for finding support and recommend that teachers familiarize themselves with their states' nondiscrimination and safe-schools laws ( or lack thereof ). Laws aside, they also suggest various ways of talking with parents and administrators about introducing LGBTQ-inclusive books or topics. And they list a small selection of picture and chapter books, media resources, and lesson plans.

Reading the Rainbow is a nuanced, practical volume, showing how a truly LGBTQ-inclusive classroom, benefitting children of all identities, means more than just reading a book or two. ELA teachers should value it—but it may also provide inspiration to teachers in other areas, including history/social studies and art, to get them thinking about similar approaches in their own fields. For us parents, it may even offer a model to guide the ways we read and discuss books with our children at home.

I chose to highlight this book because we deserve something positive to start the school year. I don't want to minimize the challenges we may face, individually and collectively—but I hope we take heart, knowing that such resources—and teachers like the authors and their colleagues—exist.

May our children have a school year full of friendship, inclusion and learning.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian ( Mombian.com ), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.


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