by: Dustin Hixenbaugh
Once a father and mother took their son to a preacher with the hope that this man who had baptized their children with his own hands would provide a cure for their son’s unimaginable impulses—for his attraction to men. After hearing the parents out, the preacher replied that he had known the young man his entire life, that he had developed a great faith in his character, and that he could not condemn him for following his heart. In his view, it was the parents, not the son, who needed “curing,” for it was they who had allowed the fear of the unknown to come between them and one of their children.
This is a story that I read a long time ago in one of the issues of The Reader’s Digest or Guideposts that my own parents stacked in their bathroom. But I found myself retelling it a couple of weeks ago in front of a crowd of teachers in a presentation on “Supporting LGBTQIA+ Students” at the University of Houston. Of course, a lot has changed since I read the story in the late 1990s, and arguably gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are better represented today in popular culture and more accepted by family members, teachers, and peers, than they ever have been. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for teens who are, or who may be perceived as, transgender—a term that distinguishes people who claim a gender identity that does not correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans children, who are bullied at school and smeared on social media, are in desperate need of adults who will stand up for them the way the preacher stood up for that young member of his congregation.
At this point, I should clarify that my intention in this post is not to convince you that trans children exist or that you should “approve” of them. The former is a demonstrable fact—1.04% of West Virginians between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as transgender, according to a study by UCLA’s Williams Institute—and the latter, your approval, is beside the point. As far as I’m concerned, a teacher’s job is not to tell students who they are, but rather to make space for students to discover who they are and to develop the skills and mindsets they need to be their best selves. Moreover, trans students’ unique needs require that teachers do more than turn a blind eye and wish them the best. Research suggests that trans students feel unsafe in schools and earn lower GPAs than their cisgender peers unless school personnel take deliberate steps to help them feel welcome and secure.
So, what can you do to foster a welcoming environment for the trans students you will almost certainly teach? Here are five fairly easy suggestions:
1. Let students introduce themselves. It’s the first day of school and you’re gazing upon a sea of unfamiliar faces. Do you take attendance by calling names off a roster? Or do you ask students to give their names to you? For many teachers, this is a six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other decision, but for students who are transitioning between genders and who may be using names that are different from the ones printed on their official school records, it can be a source of anxiety and embarrassment. My advice? Ask students to introduce themselves to the class using the names they prefer, and if you can’t match a student’s preferred name to the one that appears on your roster, ask them about it privately. Better to screw up attendance on the first day of school than set a student up for humiliation for the entire year.
2. Embrace gender-inclusive language. On the one hand, this means avoiding phrases like “you guys” and “ladies and gentlemen,” which assume that the people you’re addressing identify with the gender(s) implied in your words. I spent ten years in Texas and have grown to appreciate “y’all” as an inclusive alternative, but you may find another phrase (“folks,” “friends,” and so forth) that you like better.
On the other hand, embracing gender-inclusive language also means accepting “plural” pronouns (they, them, their) in the place of gender-specific “singular” pronouns (he, him, his; she, her, hers). If you’re a grammar stickler, you may be loathe to allow a student to write a sentence like, “My friend Mary invited me over to their house.” But English thrives as a world language because it is constantly evolving, and, if you think about it, the sentence is entirely accurate if your friend Mary is trans or gender non-conforming.
3. Educate yourself. Make an effort to learn about the lives trans teens lead in- and outside of the schoolhouse. You can start by tuning into the TLC reality series I Am Jazz, about a young trans woman who is navigating high school and looking forward to gender reassignment surgery. You can also track legislative efforts to protect/curtail trans rights. Lately, battles over trans rights have centered around state and local “bathroom bills” that would require individuals to use public bathrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates, disregarding the damage such policies inflict upon trans people. West Virginia does not offer any statewide protections for trans people, and although some cities have passed their own protections, others, like Parkersburg, have given in to opposition from anti-trans activists.
4. Educate your students. Even if you never teach a trans student, you will teach plenty of students who will interact with trans people in college, on the job, etc., and don’t you want them to handle those interactions well? Consider integrating into your curriculum and classroom library texts that affirm the humanity of trans people and give some context to the challenges they face. My favorite book is Susan Kuklin’s Lambda award-winning Beyond Magenta, which features the personal stories of a culturally diverse group of teens as well as a stunning collection of photos. But you have many options. Alex Gino’s George and Jacqueline Woodsen’s “Trev” (anthologized in How Beautiful the Ordinary) are appropriate for middle schoolers, while Julie Anne Peters’ Luna, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish, Cris Beam’s I Am J, David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, and Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl appeal to the YA crowd.
5. Have your trans students’ backs. Someday, you might find yourself sitting down at a table with parents who oppose their child’s desire to wear different clothes or adopt different pronouns. Even if you regret these parents’ circumstances, I beg you not to join an effort to redirect a child’s gender expression. Rather, please put yourself in the position of advocate, like the preacher I described at the top of this post.
“I can see that your family is under a lot of pressure right now,” you might say to these parents. “And while I cannot tell you how to parent your child, I can assure you that kids who identify as transgender do grow up to be great human beings and productive members of society. More importantly, I know your child well, have great faith in their character, and know that they would not do anything to hurt you. I encourage you to approach your child with an open heart and mind.”
In a world where 30% of trans kids attempt suicide, words such as these, spoken with love from a teacher, have the power to save lives.
WVCTE is wondering...
How does your school or district support LGBTQ+ students? What are some ways schools and teachers in West Virginia can provide better support for trans students? How can schools help teachers to better understand the needs of LGBTQ+ students?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with on Facebook!
By Kate Harpel
New school year. New schedule. What’s not new is my yearly need to scrap almost everything I did previously and try something new. It’s a vicious cycle and one not made any easier by the addition of an infant. As a teacher who delights in making teen slang uncool and engaging learners with unexpected connections to the things they love (like the Fallout: New Vegas easter egg *cough*allusion*cough* depicting Indiana Jones’s skeleton in a refrigerator), I found it hard to keep up with popular culture while measuring my life in late night feedings and dirty diapers. One pop culture phenomenon, however, rose up and revolutionized Broadway--Hamilton: An American Musical.
I gave Hamilton a shot with my on-track sophomores, and believe me it was not an easy sell when I announced that we would be studying a musical. We also had to have “the talk” about why writers use strong language and why this particular language was critical for the authenticity of this reimagining of the Founding Fathers; needless to say, my students didn’t mind the language. While the experience was nowhere near perfect, I found by the conclusion of the unit that my students and I had learned more than we had bargained for. At the end of the school year, I caught a few of my sophomore boys making Hamilton references, and a few remembered the rap battles fondly despite hating them during the unit. If you are willing to give it a shot...
Here are a few ideas inspired by and adapted from a curriculum I purchased from TPT seller, Barraug Books and Curriculum authored by Deborah Aughey as jumping off points:
There is so much that you can do with Hamilton: An American Musical. Feel like doing character analysis? Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are perfect foils. Want to dive into historical documents? The Federalist Papers would be excellent fodder for close-reading protocols, and The Declaration of Independence would be a great talking point for analyzing “The Schuyler Sisters” or vice versa! Want to prank your students? A strategically placed, handwritten love letter would be great for you to secretly share with the students. Take one of Hamilton’s love letters to his wife and paraphrase it so that it sounds like something the students would write; they will go ham (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself) over Hamilton affectionately calling his wife a nut-brown maid or as I called her, a Cocoa Puff.
Whether you choose to give Hamilton a shot or not, consider trying something new this school year. My students much preferred analyzing lyrics and videos as opposed to classic literature, and while we still do the latter it was fun to make those text-to-text references in the year. This fall, I may not do a full Hamilton unit (unfortunately many of my sophomores have me as juniors in American literature next year), but I will certainly incorporate more media analysis in an attempt to further engage and challenge my students. Somehow we’ll make it, in the words of the Schuyler sisters:
What will you be giving a shot this year? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
And for the complete Hamilton curriculum that inspired this post, be sure to check out Barraug Books and Curriculum.
Kate Harpel teaches English and Mythology at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. She is a West Virginia native, a graduate of the Benedum Collaborative 5-Year Teacher Education Program at West Virginia University, and has been teaching for the past four years. A full time mother to a one-year-old, a full-time wife, and a full-time teacher, Kate spends her elusive free-time in the company of mochas, YA literature, and Netflix.
One of our most important jobs as educators is to elevate our students’ voices. Our classrooms should be places were students feel that their voices will not only be heard, but that they will make a difference. I want them to consider their roles in their community and world. Right now, West Virginia is facing some extra-ordinary challenges: a struggling economy, a population decline, an opioid epidemic. Young people in West Virginia are discouraged. They constantly hear negative things about our state, and they ignore or don’t know is that West Virginia has a rich literary and art tradition. That our state exists because Mountaineers rejected slavery and valued freedom. Activists and artists are working tirelessly to create accurate reflections of the complexities and contradictions of our state and culture, and preserve our rich, history and traditions.
This year I decided to try something. I wanted find a way to not just engage my students in conversations about West Virginia and our struggles and successes, but I wanted them to be thinking about their place in West Virginia—how as young people they have a unique voice and perspective regarding how fix problems in our region. I believe that West Virginia’s path forward begins in our classrooms. (To read an Op-ed Karla Hilliard and I wrote about this, click HERE.)
This year, I taught my introduction to rhetoric to my Advanced Placement Class through the lens of Appalachian studies. You can see an overview of the unit HERE. The goals of the unit are (like West Virginia) diverse and multi-faceted. I wanted students to master the basics of rhetorical analysis, but also immerse themselves in the rhetoric surrounding our region.
The final culminating project in this unit was for the students to apply what they learned about crafting effective arguments, and create a proposal to present at the 40th Annual National Appalachian Studies Conference. We approached the task as an exercise in rhetoric. I asked the student to first choose something we studied in the unit that resonated with them. We covered a wide range of topics related to Appalachia: literature, poetry, environmental issues, the opioid epidemic, diversity, veterans, and stereotypes.
Then, students were split into teams had to write a proposal to present their chosen topic at the ASA conference. I asked the students to consider their unique voices. They are teenagers in Appalachia today, and they have a chance to share a concern or a topic with a conference of academics, writers, and activists. We read a few sample proposals and studied the conference website, program, and theme. I asked them to think about their proposals as persuasive essays and apply what they learned through our study of effective arguments.
The kids had a week to put together a “pitch” and write their proposals. They then presented their proposals to the whole class. I chose what I thought were the “top 10” pitches and gave them to a panel of teachers and administrators in my building to evaluate. They narrowed it down to four that they thought were the exemplars in terms of executing the task.
I put these four exemplars and my unit presentation together as a panel proposal for the conference, submitted it not really imagining that we would actually get accepted.
But then we did!
And not only did we get accepted, the conference committee emailed me to say how excited they were the students would be attending.
We were going to Blacksburg.
Below are three take-aways from taking 13 teenagers to present at the 40th Annual Appalachian Studies Conference at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA on March 9-12:
1. Kids rise to the occasion.
My students prepped and prepared like professionals. I required them to meet with me bi-weekly to show me the progress of their project, and then we had a “dress rehearsal” the week before. They worked so hard. They understood the gravity of the opportunity they were being given, and their presentations were thoughtful, smart, and executed with more grace and poise than many presentations I’ve had to sit though given by adults. They blew everybody away.
We were also asked to sit in on a round-table discussion on youth and activism through art, and the authenticity and honesty of my students brought me and the rest of the room to tears. They were rock stars.
2. There is a wealth of educator resources at this conference!
Not only did I learn about several new pieces of Appalachian literature (read about Robert Gipe’s novel, Trampoline HERE), but my students and I learned about several incredible programs, organizations, and educational groups who care deeply about and are working on many of the same things we were discussing in our own presentation. And the authors and artists! My students were in the same room as Silas House, Jason Howard, Roger May, and Nikki Giovanni.
Roger May is not only a gifted artist, but he is also the director at Appalachian South Folklife and the Looking at Appalachia project, and a generous and kind human. Here he is taking time out of the opening of his own gallery show to answer my students’ questions about his photography.
And here is the incomparable Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni was brilliant, funny, honest, and by far one of the highlights for my students.
3. Young people want their voices to be heard.
My students had the opportunity to participate in discussions about activism, art, and literature. And because having high school students actively participate in this conference is a bit of an anomaly, they were encouraged to speak up and share their perspectives and opinions. What I noticed was a maturity and a sense of importance settle over my students that I had not previously seen. They reveled in having adults who were not their teachers or parents, care about what they thought. I realized that giving them this opportunity to simply be heard was one of the most important and powerful components of this activity’s success.
For more reflections on this wonderful weekend, you can check out my Twitter feed @jessica_salfia, and look for the #ASA2017.
WVCTE is wondering...
How do you incorporate ways for your students to share their voices or impact their communities in your classroom?