Build a Curriculum That Includes Everyone: Ensuring That Schools Are More Accepting of LGBT Students and Issues Requires More Than Passing Mentions of Diversity in Sex Education Classes

By McGarry, Robert | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Build a Curriculum That Includes Everyone: Ensuring That Schools Are More Accepting of LGBT Students and Issues Requires More Than Passing Mentions of Diversity in Sex Education Classes


McGarry, Robert, Phi Delta Kappan


In order to accommodate the education needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, American schools must do more than merely add LGBT information to the curriculum in sex education class. If we believe that adolescence is the time when young people try to make sense of who they are (Erikson, 1968), and if we believe that providing positive role models for students during this period of self-discovery is an important action that schools can take to support their students, then we also must believe that lesson plans throughout the curriculum should include positive representations of LGBT people.

In his description of curriculum development in U.S. schools, Michael Sadowski (2008) suggests that the final curriculum often "reflects choices about which ... identities are to be represented and which are not" (p. 127). Beyond supporting the identity development of LGBT adolescents, LGBT-inclusive curriculum has other equally important benefits. Findings from a recent study by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) suggest that attending a school with an LGBT-inclusive curriculum is related to both a less-hostile school experience for LGBT students and increased feelings of connectedness to the school community. The results of the lack of connection seem obvious. When students don't feel connected to their school, they're more likely to miss classes and even full days of school. Not only does this affect their learning, but it also denies them the identity development benefits that result from the activities and inperson interactions that occur in schools.

Despite the benefits, most LGBT students don't have access to LGBT-inclusive curriculum. Eight states--Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah--have laws that explicitly prohibit the development and implementation of such curriculum. Considering both legally and socially imposed limitations, it's not surprising that most of the more than 8,000 students in grades 6-12 surveyed in GLSEN's 2011 study reported never having been taught anything positive about LGBT people, history, or events. Fewer than 20% of LGBT students were exposed to positive representations of LGBT people in their classes, with history/social studies classes being the most likely context for LGBT-inclusive teaching and learning. Health classes were the third most likely place for students to learn about LGBT people--a slightly less likelier place than English classes. Finally, when asked about textbooks and materials, less than a fifth said textbooks or other assigned class readings included LGBT-related information (Kosciw et al., 2012).

While many forms of bias can be found in school curriculum, the most basic form is the complete or relative exclusion of individuals who represent certain groups, including LGBT people. Many school districts have policies or a set of expectations that require analyzing curriculum to identify and eliminate bias. Often, this takes the form of a checklist that asks developers to review their work. Common criteria call for curriculum plans to depict men and women of various races and ethnic groups as role models worthy of being emulated and require that curricula conform to nonsexist language guidelines. But fewer of the criteria ever call for depicting people of various sexual orientations, gender identity or gender expression, or assure that the language used is not heterosexist in nature.

Mirrors and windows

Emily Style (1996) introduced the idea of thinking about curriculum as a way to provide students with both windows to see the world and mirrors to see themselves. Curriculum can (and does for many students) provide a mirror when it reflects individuals and their experiences. At the same time, curriculum can provide a window when it introduces and provides opportunities to understand the experiences and perspectives of those who are different from the student. …

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