This post was written by NCTE member Ryan Schey.
I imagine that many educators have started this school year, like me, with a mix of emotions. After a year and a half of teaching mostly from home via Zoom, I’m excited to be back in a classroom. Even so, I have concerns as the delta variant spreads. Although the coronavirus pandemic continues to present challenges for all students and teachers, here I want to consider LGBTQIA+ youth specifically.
The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health echoes other media reporting, showing that for many LGBTQ youth, COVID-19 made their living situation more stressful, contributed to poor mental health, and made it difficult to access mental health services. The Trevor Project also points out that this was a year when politics took their toll on LGBTQ youths’ mental health, with many anti-LGBTQ laws targeting queer and especially trans youth. My point here isn’t to suggest that queer and trans youth are solely defined by struggle but rather to recognize that the challenges of the last 18 months have manifested in specific forms for LGBTQIA+ young people. Learning about these patterns is a useful way for ELA educators to move into the school year with intentionality and specificity.
I highlight intentionality and specificity because in my own work both characteristics have been vital. When I taught high school in central Ohio, I collaborated with a teacher inquiry group and interviewed several colleagues as part of a larger project. When I asked my colleagues how they supported LGBTQIA+ youth, many of them said something to the effect of “I don’t know that I specifically do.” Instead, they described how they generally tried to make their classroom welcoming for everyone. Although they expressed supportive sentiments, they didn’t approach their LGBTQIA+ students with intentionality, nor did they consider the specific needs of these youth.
While I don’t want to suggest that such general practices don’t have value, I do want to encourage ELA educators to do more by learning about the needs and desires of queer and trans students and then taking concrete actions to affirm and support in light of this knowledge.
This doesn’t mean that there’s a single recipe that every educator needs to follow. LGBTQIA+ advocacy in schools is more complex than following a predetermined set of actions. It’s relational and entails recursive cycles of listening, learning, acting, feedback, and change. With this caveat, I encourage ELA educators to consider the following to work toward affirming LGBTQIA+ youth during the COVID pandemic.
First, spend time reading and learning. The Trevor Project has recently released the results of their 2021 LGBTQ youth mental health survey, has a brief reviewing research on the association between the Covid-19 pandemic and suicide risk, including risk among LGBTQ youth, and offers suggestions for supporting Black LGBTQ youth specifically. GLSEN is a consistent source of excellent LGBTQ-focused educational resources, and they’ve created 2021 back-to-school guides for educators and students. With respect to ELA, English Journal recently published a special issue about affirming LGBTQ+ identities, and Hope in a Box has curated a selection of LGBTQ-inclusive literature, including a growing number of curriculum guides. None of these resources provides a single answer for you as you begin the school year. Yet, all of them provide important insights into the experiences of queer and trans youth and outline practices that you can draw from to become more queer- and trans-affirming in your teaching.
Next, invite input from your students and take this input seriously. Talk with them, but also provide opportunities for them to provide input in other ways, like writing. Don’t assume that reading about a national survey tells you all you need to know about the kids in your classroom. Go beyond the beginning of the year survey that gets filled out, filed, and forgotten. Make youth feedback and suggestions a regular part of your teaching practice that helps shape the trajectory of your classes in substantive, not trivial, ways. Revisit the tools that you typically use for these purposes in the classrooms. Reread them and look for normative assumptions about sexuality, gender, and romance. Revise these to be more inclusive and nuanced.
Finally, include representations of LGBTQIA+ people in your curriculum. Do so repeatedly throughout the year. Attend to racial and ethnic diversity in these representations, and avoid the repeated tropes of “coming out” and victimization. Show the fullness and joyfulness of LGBTQIA+ lives and communities. Lead discussions of these representations with compassion. Review NCTE’s “Guidelines for Affirming Gender Diversity through ELA Curriculum and Pedagogy” for more ideas.
As we begin a third school year affected by the coronavirus pandemic, all of us— students and teachers— are returning to school with mixed, even contradictory, emotions. In this uncertain context, LGBTQIA+ youth share some needs with other students, but they also are unique and different from others. By educating ourselves, taking seriously the perspectives of these youth, and teaching LGBTQIA+ representations, we can take meaningful actions toward making our schools more queer- and trans-affirming.
Ryan Schey is an assistant professor of English education at Auburn University. His research exBplores literacy and language practices and social change in schools, focusing on queer and trans youth and those who work in solidarity with them. He was recently recognized as the recipient of NCTE’s 2020 Promising Researcher Award, and his scholarship, individual and co-authored, can be found in NCTE journals such as English Education and Research in the Teaching of English. Prior to completing his doctorate, he taught high school English in Ohio and coadvised his school’s GSA club
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