Academic journal article English Journal

Challenging Heteronormativity: Raising LGBTQ Awareness in a High School English Language Arts Classroom

Academic journal article English Journal

Challenging Heteronormativity: Raising LGBTQ Awareness in a High School English Language Arts Classroom

Article excerpt

Postsecondary education regularly includes LGBTQ literature and issues in its curriculum; many universities now strive to make their campuses safe environments for LGBTQ persons and to initiate conversations about the sexual identity spectrum with all students. While we have a long way to go to achieve full acceptance, when compared to high schools, universities are far more proactive and tolerant. Mollie V. Blackburn and J. F. Buckley show how few high schools address sexual identity in their curricula, citing lack of resources, initiative, or fear as barriers to initiating these conversations. What this means for students across the nation- regardless of sexual orientation-is that they absorb heteronormative values, and for LGBTQ students, that they seldom see themselves or their struggles reflected within their high school curricula. In turn, these students learn it is best to stay silent, that "it gets better"1 after they graduate.

We believe teachers have a civic duty to help their students become critically aware and informed citizens. Creating active citizens means fostering critical thinking skills relevant to the political issues of our students' time. We agree, as bell hooks argues in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, that all pedagogy is politically shaped and that "a lack of meaningful access to truth" fosters complacency, leaving inequality and social injustice unchallenged (29). If we are to remedy the problems discrimination has and continues to cause, we must initiate conversations about these problems with students earlier, before they inherit them and are asked to act on them as adults.2

In 2007, the National Council of Teachers of English published a resolution urging teachers to strengthen their knowledge of LGBTQ issues, citing a survey that found that "64% of the LGBT students surveyed report feeling unsafe in their schools" (NCTE). This cannot be allowed to continue, but we recognize that the demands on language arts teachers often prevent them from creating new pedagogy and that they must also negotiate their schools' political hierarchies to do so. Caroline T. Clark and Mollie V. Blackburn note in "Reading LGBT-Themed Literature with Young People: What's Possible?" that while many articles discuss the value of texts with LGBTQ characters, there is little documentation on how these texts are actually taught (26). To address the silencing of LGBTQ students directly, in our high school classrooms, we propose the following unit plan using children's picture books frequently banned for their LGBTQ themes. In addition, we offer guidance and suggest best practices for discussing the inclusion of LGBTQ issues and themes with principals, parents, and with the students themselves.

Because teaching LGBTQ themed texts can be controversial, we recommend several proactive steps before the first implementation of this unit. As Emily Meixner notes, educators quickly learn that if they want to "combat heterosexism and homophobia in their individual classrooms . . . they would need institutional support" (16). First, teachers need to consult with their principals. They should email parents an outline of the lesson, a justification for its inclusion, and list the state and national standards the lesson fulfills. It is also wise to invite the principal to observe class and to read the selected texts beforehand. In turn, the principal should confer with the superintendent and possibly consult the district's lawyer to anticipate any problems that may arise. Such measures might be considered extreme, but they ensure this unit's viability and success. Most importantly, there should be an alternate activity for students who do not feel comfortable participating.

This last element-allowing students to "optout" of the lesson plan-is controversial. Clark and Blackburn assert that allowing students the option not to participate allows them to "maintain a homophobic position" (27). …

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