Teacher Agency and Access to LGBTQ Young Adult Literature

Article excerpt

In the spring of 2004, I solicited undergraduate students in the English education program I coordinate at The College of New Jersey to participate in an independent study on LGBTQ young adult literature. For several years I had wanted to teach a course on this topic. As a former high school teacher, I was all too familiar with the day-to-day verbal and physical violence described by the LGBTQ students who responded to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's 2003 National School Climate Survey, close to 84% of whom reported experiencing verbal harassment at school and more than 90% of whom indicated that they regularly hear antigay sentiments expressed in their schools hallways, bathrooms, locker-rooms, and classrooms. (1) In my current role as a teacher educator, I am particularly concerned about teachers' contributions to this violence, especially as I learn more about my pre-service teachers' hesitancy to advocate openly for their LGBTQ students and colleagues.

In my reading and writing methods classes, as my students and I examine the ways in which schools often replicate racial, class, and gender inequities, we discuss and practice approaches that are democratic, student-centered, and contextually relevant. Unfortunately, and despite their preparation and expressed commitment to safe class rooms, when my students encounter evidence of heterosexism and homophobia in school, many remain uncertain about whether they should intervene. Astonishingly 83% of LBGTQ students report that their teachers consistently do not. (2) Aware that teacher advocacy and intervention can make a significant difference in the school experiences of LGBTQ adolescents, I felt a need to examine these issues in an English education course that would engage literary and educational theory, and would provide an integrated model of English teaching methods with discussions about the power and purposes of literature.

I was drawn to a study of young adult literature for two reasons. First, I was curious about the power of stories to elicit empathy. I wondered if these stories could provide my students with an opportunity to experience (albeit vicariously) what their future LGBTQ middle and high school students might be going through--their feelings, their struggles and successes, and the experiences through which they were and were not marginalized. As typically "good students" themselves--students who attend a selective, public liberal arts college and who believe in secondary schools because they were served well by them--my pre-service teachers often have difficulty putting themselves in the place of students whose experiences have not been nearly as successful: students who struggle academically or socially, or who resist school because they find it oppressive, injurious, and/or unsafe. These stories, I hoped, would help make the imaginary real.

The second reason was curricular. Not only did I want my students to become aware of their LGBTQ students' experiences; I also wanted them to be able to share, recommend, and read these texts in their classrooms. The more familiar they were with them, I believed, the more likely they would be to use them in classes And the more they did that, the more opportunities they would have to combat heterosexism and homophobia and stem the tide of violence currently perpetrated on LGBTQ students in schools. At the time, I anticipated that a personal and pedagogical engagement with the literature would produce these kinds of political results.

As I began to advertise the class, several students immediately expressed interest. Five ultimately decided to participate, all heterosexual women, but varied in age, racial background, and life experiences--a remarkably diverse group considering the overwhelming youth and racial homogeneity of the pre-service teachers enrolled in the rest of my classes. (3) Once I had assembled a willing group of participants, I began, in earnest, to construct the course. …