My thoughts on “trigger warnings” for academic course content

Today a friend posted a link to this New Republic article Trigger Happy.   Both the title (Trigger Happy) and the subtitle of the article (The Trigger Warning has spread from blogs to college classes.  Can it be stopped?) drew me in.

In my college classes I teach about social inequality in schools.   I teach about and shine a light on the deep dark violence inherent in social inequality.  I teach those taboo topics that we tell people to leave at home, in therapy, in the closet, behind closed doors etc.

In my curriculum the content is often the very topics that we as a culture silence in peoples experiences.  The sorts of  life experiences that my students have come to believe were personal and private, individual and shameful, even though we know statistically that the violence of gender inequality, racism, poverty etc. are pandemics in our society.

And I can tell you that when you shine a light on all that violence and silence in a classroom or elsewhere you are always in the company of survivors.  Always.  Do the math.  You or someone sitting beside you has had first hand experience with the dehumanizing violence of living on the down side of social inequality.

So when I saw this article seeming to suggest that Trigger Warnings ought to be dismissed wholesale, the gross oversimplification of the larger topic of triggering content in academic settings frustrated me.  I know through both research and personal experience that the content in many of the courses I teach can “trigger” very real p.t.s.d. trauma in students in my classes.

The first thought I had was in reading this then was, Does this author even know the rates of unchecked violence against women, children, people of color, marginalized men, people who are differently-able?  Can she estimate how many survivors of violent assault and relational abuse exist just in her work place?

And that is just a start on where this oversimplification went off the rails for me.  The false construction of an academic setting or really any learning space as necessarily void of personal experience or emotion seems to me to be explicitly sexist.  Presenting materials on interpersonal and intrapersonal violence as depersonalized knowledge buys into a silly binary of academic knowledge as objective and impersonal.

And the suggestion that academic settings are not always censoring what can be considered knowledge and what can be considered an “authentic curriculum” to cater to particular sensibilities and political ends (personal sensativities) also strikes me as woefully naive.

“Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration.” 

The fundamental assumptions here are flawed.  Public life is structure around an array of fragile sensitives already.  These are simply dominant sensitivities that are triggered by ideas like the notion that white supremacy is genocidal, the idea that wide-scale rapes exist because there are a lot of men raping women.  These ideas exist in literature, but they are often not brought to light in academic settings I would argue because of who and what they might “trigger.”   I would argue that what can and can’t be said and taught are deeply informed by what might trigger “white guilt” or a mocking round of claims of political correctness and discrediting of a scholars academic authority.  We are all well groomed around who we should not “trigger” to take on profound intellectual and emotional risks.

Yet having an authentic academic conversation about how content may be personally triggering “the most fragile personal sensitives” somehow undermines intellectual exploration.   Rather the 1 in 4 or perhaps 1 in 3 (fragile personal sensitivity) survivors should keep that personal and just think about the principles of intellectual exploration.

So no, in my opinion a simple “trigger warning” is not adequate to address the conversations necessary if we expect all of our students to bring their personal lives to new ideas and new ways of thinking about social and interpersonal inequality.  Teaching and learning are to me are the most intensely personal engagements we can ask of ourselves and our students.  Yes! we should be talking to them about how they EXPERIENCE our materials and our classes.  Yes! we should be thinking about how they bring their own lives and experiences to the materials.  Not as censors or as instructors with  “an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole…” but rather as academics interested in the expansion of ideas in the lives of people.

I believe in our teaching we should be thinking about and developing a pedagogy which takes into account the diverse array of experiences, including the “triggering” experiences, of every student as a fundamental element of the learning and growing that can take place in our classrooms.

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Should Single-Sex Schools be banned for the Gender Divide?

Guest Post:
For years and years we have seen a gender divide in classrooms and outside of classrooms both indirect and direct. A solution to that was thought to create single sex education, meaning having all girl schools and all boys’ schools, separating gender stereotypes and creating a safe and comfortable environment for both sexes. However, in some cases single sex education heightened the gap between boys and girls creating an enhancement of stereotypes.

In an academic classroom setting boys were still often being taught in a more regimented and structural way while girls were taught in a more nurturing and passive way. This segregation of teaching methods only expanded the gap between the genders. If anything it pushed girls to act in a certain stereotypical feminine way and boys act in a stereotypical masculine way. There is little wiggle room for individuality.

In a three-year California study conducted from 1998 to 2000, 12 schools from northern California through to southern California where observed and interviewed. Over 300 parents, teachers, and students ranging from middle school to high school were interviewed about single sex education. Research found that, “Gender stereotyping, harassment, and other problems common in co-education do not necessarily disappear in single-sex schools”. Elizabeth Zwerling, WeNews Correspondent, discusses the findings behind this particular study, creating a lean away from single-sex education.

Gender roles were more prevalent in single- sex education and schools contrary to many beliefs. “Students received mixed messages about gender. While both were told women could be anything they want, girls were made aware of restrictions on their behavior reinforced through expectations about clothing and appearance. Boys were led to assume that men are primarily wage earner, that they should be strong and take care of their wives who were emotionally weak”. This strong statement signifies the ongoing assumptions of what girls and boys should be and most importantly is expressed mainly in schools. Shocking claims from this study hint at a downfall in single sex schooling that was not anticipated.

Many may think this type of education decreases stereotypes however it is the separation of boys and girls in the first place that increases these characteristics.  For example, in the show Glee, Kirk leaves the co-educational High school to then enter into an all boys’ school because of the harassment and constant disapproval and name calling from the anti gay bullies. Soon after joining the all boys’ prep school, he still was ridiculed by his peers at the other school calling him ‘fag’ and ‘preppy’ which was the exact reason he wanted to get away from that school to begin with. At that time in the show very few people there were accepted as homosexual. This is an example showing students in school now that single sex education should solve all harassment issues but in some cases that does not work through the constant abuse Kirk still deals with even at an all boys’ school.

Although evidence has proved that single sex schools and education create a larger gender gap, other evidence has proved the opposite.  Myra and David Sadker, authors of the book, Failing at Fairness, visited several private single-sex schools interviewing students and teachers, observing classes in action, and then reporting all of their findings captured in an all-boys and all-girls school. Before the study, Sadker questioned the importance of single sex education and if these schools would be around another decade. Contrary to their belief, David states, “for girls especially, they offered an academic refuge, a place to free voices too often silenced in coeducational schools” (253). Their evidence showed that girls were finding it rewarding based on self-esteem, academics, and stepping away from stereotypical feminine norms. Research even concluded that women’s colleges attain more degrees in nontraditional fields such as economic, life science, physical science, and mathematics than women who attended coed colleges.  This data is quite different than the findings above opposing it yet let’s readers create their own opinion and interpretation.

Regarding boys in single sex education showing fewer evidence of success, there were still advocates that argued that boys benefited from all boys schools. Sadker says, “Free of gender role expectations and less concerned with impressing girls, boys were more willing to enroll in nontraditional courses such as language and the arts without fear of ridicule. Many male alums recall that sexual stereotypes seem to fade into the background in these boys’ schools” (254). For many this is hard to believe being that when a group of boys gets together they tend to abuse other boys of lower self-esteem and power. However, in this case, these common stereotypes are dropped.

From these pros and cons the big question still stands, are single-sex schools and classrooms better than coeducation?  Looking back to when coeducational school first became part of the picture was in the last 1900s after Title IX came into play; a law prohibiting many forms of sex discrimination in public schools. This forever changed the fate of single- sex schools.

Girls started enrolling in more challenging courses that were often only sought out by males which led to the market forces eliminating single- sex schools. Because with girls and boys enrolled in the same class, single sex classrooms and education seemed outdated. Private Ivy League Universities started to open their doors to women such as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia ending three centuries of discrimination. If this was the end of sexism and the gender gap in school then why now are public schools striving to create single sex classes or schools?

Picture (Harvard then single sex)
Picture (Harvard now co-ed)

Starting in 1996, the number of public single sex schools jumped from 5 to 30. What is the cause of this? This is where gender segregation comes back into the picture fueled by political and social trends. Ultimately leading back to Sadker’s argument and evidence proving that single-sex education has come back in full force helping decrease sex discrimination. So where do we stand now?

The answer to this question eventually ends with us as future educators and parents and the ways in which we can do about the gender gap between boys and girls. Andre Boyd, a South Carolina middle school teacher explains, “ As educators, our efforts should not be driven by how we can separate students to minimize distractions but by how we can bring all students together to maximize learning. In my experiences, students tend to learn better when teachers learn to teach better-regardless of the gender of the students”.  In addition, Kristin Maschka, a best-selling author and a consultant in organization development and change leadership, says, “For every problem for which “single-sex” is given as an answer, there is an alternative. For example, “in a co-ed class boys are called on more often” can be addressed by teaching teachers how to use random selection strategies to call on students”

To sum it up, it is up to each individual student and parent to determine which schooling is best for their own personal benefit. Maschka also says, “Sometimes the reasons given to support single-sex environment sound more like ways to simplify things for teachers and to avoid addressing the reality of social interactions and existing gender stereotypes in adolescent children”. There are pros and cons to both ways of educating a student or group of students therefore the students and parents and even teachers should answer questions about the quality and equality of schools before choosing the best fit for themselves. Sadker suggests:

-Does the school honor each student’s learning style and experiences, or does it assume that all members of a group learn and behave in the same way?

-Observe classes. Whether single-sex or coed, are some student’s dominating and other silent? Are there different teaching and learning styles? Does the classroom feel like a safe space for all students?

-Look at the bulletin boards, the hallways, and classrooms. Are both genders represented and honored in a wide array of roles and accomplishments? Is there stereotyping?

-Ask current students what their thoughts on their school system are and if they have found it a comfortable and fun environment to learn in.

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Objectified

Guest Post: by C. Stave

“If a woman is objectified, she is made less than human. Once she is less than human, violence toward her becomes more acceptable.”-Kate McGuinness

According to Kate McGuinness, women can be objectified in five different ways: “(1) interchangeability; (2) reduction to appearance; (3) being an instrument for someone else’s purpose; (4) inertness or passivity; & (5) capacity to being violated or lacking bodily integrity.” The media uses all of these techniques to steal the identity or worth of women, and reduce them to the levels of femininity that are effective in the purpose of said media.

Television shows and movies often box women into a role or purpose that is useful to the males in the show, or in some way useful to the viewer. Music videos and song lyrics can also be extremely objectifying of women, especially as sexual objects. The focus here will be objectification through advertising.

Advertising is a form of mass communication and is used to “encourage, persuade, or manipulate an audience” (Wikipedia). Women are too often a tool of this manipulation process. This dates at least as far back as the 1800s.

This advertisement from the 1890s wants to encourage its audience to “drink Coca Cola,” as the sign explicitly requests. While a pretty women has very little to do with the carbonated beverage, she is shown daintily enjoying a cup. She is the tool being used to encourage this behavior in the advertisement’s audience.

Many interpretations can be made about this dated advertisement. While it would be difficult to argue that there is anything offensive about this image, it is undoubtedly strange that it would be so simple to choose nothing but a pretty girl to show off this product.

Now days, it can be difficult to find an advertisement involving a woman that is not offensive in some way. Whether the advertisement is for men, women, or both, if a women is used to manipulate the audience, she is more often than not, objectified. Sometimes her body is replacing an object or an object is replacing her; other times she is merely reduced to the worth of her appearance; in others she may be an instrument being used by someone else (often a man); she may be a lifeless specimen of passivity; or it could be that she is being taken advantage of or is missing physical respect for herself or from others.

In the first example, this woman’s body (minus her face and head) is covered in mud, as a car or truck might be, with the words “wash me” written on her stomach. This relates her to a dirty vehicle that needs cleaning. Since her head is cut out of the picture, she has no identity, and it is difficult to interpret her emotions. She is merely a sexy, dirty truck in the shape of a female body.

In the second example of interchangeability, the woman’s body literally takes the place of a beer bottle. The bottle’s labels then become her clothing, with her stomach exposed. The curves of the bottle are the curves of her body. Her entire body is then being held in the hand of a man. Again, there is no identity here, only a feminized beer bottle.

In the third example, the woman has her face. She is sleeping next to a man, and both are naked. This infers that they had some sort of sexual encounter the previous night. The only thing that objectifies this woman is the sticky-note on her forehead with “Jade” written on it. Under most interpretations, this is to help the man next to her remember her name when they awaken. If she had more value to him than a sex object, he would have no trouble recalling her name.
Reduction to Appearance:

In the first example of reducing a female to her appearance, a girl’s perfectly sculpted midsection is shown. She is supposedly on the beach of Australia, but has no identifying features; she’s just a pretty girl’s torso. The caption of this image is the worst part. While this woman is labeled as beautiful, she needed the help of a low carb “body beautiful bar” to be skinny and sculpted. This is not to mention her flawlessly toned skin. The caption should say “keep Australia’s women in the box of what is considered beautiful.”

The second example shows a women standing in her bra, with large, round breasts. She is definitely within the socially constructed box of beauty; everything about her is without flaw. She would be reduced to nothing but her appearance even if it wasn’t for the caption, but those words take it to the next level. Her lack of the gender-role talent of cooking is of no matter, because who would care about that with such great breasts in their face?

The last example here deals with the “enhancement” of the female body. Not only is the skinny, small-breasted version of this girl looking downward, while her enhanced self is proudly facing up, but each version of the same girl is labeled with an old and new version of a Nikon camera. This could overlap into interchangeability, but the focus here is the enhancement of her breasts in the “new” version of body.

Being an Instrument for Someone Else’s Purpose:

This first advertisement shows nothing but the women’s lower face, with an emphasis on her mouth. The sides of her perfect lips have been injured. By what? A man’s “XXL” penis. Her mouth must heal after being used and harmed as a tool for male sexual pleasure.

            In the second image, it is difficult to determine what is being sold. It is a shoe advertisement, but what are really being bought is women. There are four beautiful women standing flirtatiously in a vending machine, waiting to be chosen by the man standing outside. After being purchased, the girl will surely be more excited about his shoes than getting out of a “chilled” box.

Even when an ad is advertising a positive movement, the woman can be objectified. Here, Pamela Anderson is advocating for PETA with her body. Her body parts are sectioned off and labeled as if she was being related to a cow or other animal that human often consume.

Inertness or Passivity:

This first image of passivity could be offensive in many ways. There is one woman, and four men. The girl is being held down by one of the strong men, and she is looking away from his face while he stares down at her. The other men are standing at the side, patiently waiting their turn, perhaps? Or maybe they’re just watching.

The next image is of a man, awkwardly wearing a suit on the beach, standing over a plastic-like woman. She is secured under and between his legs, while he proposes the idea that they have a drink. She does not appear to have a choice in the matter. She is lying down, nearly naked; vulnerable in comparison to the fully dressed, upright man.

           The final example of passivity and inertness is a confusing advertisement. It might be selling shoes, but it consists of a naked woman and a single shoe. The caption states that the viewer should “keep her where she belongs.” It is unsure if “her” refers to the shoe or the woman, but she best not get out of her place.

Capacity to Being Violated or Lacking Bodily Integrity:

The final category of objectification begins to show where objectification can lead. The first image is an advertisement for vodka, but it is also advertising the idea that some girls do not go down smoothly. This is left to the viewer to interpret, but most would agree that it infers that the female in the image is not as willing to sleep with the man as she should be. Belvedere, though, she will do whatever the man wants.

Once again, this last advertisement has the good intentions of starting a positive movement. This anti-smoking ad is relating smoking to oral pleasure and sex slavery. The woman’s eyes are at belt level, looking up fearfully. The cigarette seems to be emerging from the man’s pants. The caption (not included in the image) is “fumer c’est etre l’esclave du tabac” or “smoking is to be the slave of tobacco.” This woman is not only the slave to tobacco, but to a man who is pushing her head downward with his hand. The ad suggests that this act of slavery is negative, but it is still an image of a female being violated by a man, and this sexual act has nothing to do with smoking.

Some advertisements are more blatant than others, especially outside of the United States. However, all of these advertisements are advertising more than just the product or movement. These images surround us on a daily basis. The slowly and subconsciously brainwash us to believe these ads place women where they should be; into the box to which they must adhere.

This box involves decreasing women to be of no more worth than an object, an object that must be beautiful, flawless, skinny, curvy, and lifeless. An object that is available to others to use to their liking, especially sexually. An object that best remain passive, or be violated regardless. An object that has no personality, no values, no passions or dreams.

The objectification of women is profitable and entertaining. As many say, “sex sells,” but so does violence, power, and dominance. These advertising methods manipulate an audience to buy the product or follow the movement. But do they? Is anyone really going to quit smoking because a girl is subjected to the notion of sexual slavery? Is anyone going to become a vegetarian because Pamela Anderson is related to a cow? Do people buy these products merely because these women’s identities are stolen and replaced with inert sexuality? Perhaps.

On the other hand, the box of femininity is being sold. Young girls and boys are growing up in this society with these images brainwashing them to feel inadequate if they do not fit into these boxes of passivity or dominance. Not only women are affected by these advertisements, and this is merely a slice of media. A slice among a whole system of manipulation and brainwashing.

 

 

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Poet Carlos Andres Gomez performing “Gifted”


“Gifted” (For Maya)

Carlos Andrés Gómez

My little sister likes to read Harry Potter books. Will spend

an entire afternoon doing nothing but something

she’s not supposed to be able to do.

Don’t be fooled, though, by the fluttering pages in her palms,

she’s channeling Da Vinci:

inverting words like a fresh bruise turned tangerine orange.

She picks the ripe hurt from a swaying branch in a chapter,

and we both hear Albert Einstein’s words echo up from the floor,

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales.

If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.

My little sister, Maya, likes to read fairytales, has always loved

fantasy,

it’s where we built her playground. She is Leonardo

minus the mirror. It took years for people to read

what everyone thought was Da Vinci’s own invented

language when all he did was just write

backwards.

And just like Einstein and Leonardo, Maya has a gift,

some don’t think so and call her dyslexic.

She has a genius to her. Coded like the paragraphs her potent mind

distills. But like the clumsy coinings of Columbus and other amnesiac,

pompous explorers who stumbled into their backyards and claimed

they discovered India or Penicillin or what’s wrong with someone

they shame a label onto her

like dyslexia

like stupid

like suffering from a deficit of attention.

But while kids repeat monotone words from a teacher who might as well

be a cartoon parrot or a doll’s audio recorded voice or a Hooked on

Phonics tape acting as a babysitter,

while kids stuff their mouths with dull letters and muted sounds, Maya is

in a daydream.

They try to beat her down with a four-letter acronym baton but she’s too

busy directing the orchestra with her magic wand, a symphony of

mixed chlorophyll-tinged pastels, constellation-framed with songs

of a summer breeze-drenched field.

Maya’s dancing in that open clearing in the woods, scrawling

out recipes with Mozart in sweaty rooms of overcrowded notes.

She calls it a curse. I tell her it is a gift.

There is nothing wrong with you, Maya.

She asks me who with dyslexia has ever really done anything besides

this Leonardo Da Vinci or Albert Einstein

and I answer,

Well, I guess no one else really;

besides…Pablo

Picasso,

Ann Bancroft,

John Lennon,

Auguste Rodin,

Ansel Adams,

F. Scott Fitzgerald,

George Washington,

W.B. Yeats,

Agatha Christie,

Muhammad Ali.

Maya, your mind is a gift of greatness.

I’d rather see the page like you. Imagine all of the

possibilities at once, the paragraphs unhinged, each sentence

released by the first-hinted promise of a word, its promise

to make us free.

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Breaking Silence

LGBT youth, bullying, and the culture of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in schools
Guest post
by Adina Lepp

If Jordan[1] was a student in your classroom, what would you do to make her feel safe?

At 15, her parents kicked her out of their home.

“It’s not like I had tattoos of rainbows across my forehead, but I’ve always been a tomboy, so I didn’t have a choice to come out.”

Although Jordan is a lesbian, she didn’t actually come out to her parents. It may look like she was kicked out for being gay, but in actuality, she was kicked out for looking gay. She just dressed how she felt comfortable—usually in baggy t-shirts, cargo shorts and Vans—and  as a result of how she looked, she was disciplined for being a lesbian.

I wondered—would Jordan still live with her parents if she looked more like a girl?

After getting kicked out, she slept wherever she could. Some nights she slept on couches at party houses. Some nights she slept in a field not far from her  parents’ house. Some nights she spent  walking around town and didn’t sleep at all.

When she came to school, she was harassed.

“The bathroom situation was always awkward. Not knowing if there was a gender neutral bathroom, or where it was, so I’d just hold it. I got tired of girls asking me if I was in the right bathroom. Their jock boyfriends were often waiting for me outside of the bathroom.”

“There was this kid named Austin who I went to middle school with. He was popular and came from money. Every day he was a dick to me. He would follow me around the school every day and call me dyke, bitch, whatever he wanted to. I hated him but he never got in trouble.”

The harassment that she was experiencing “substantially interfered with [her] educational benefits, opportunities or performance” as defined by The Oregon Safer Schools Act. The two teachers that she spoke to about Austin encouraged her to file a grievance report, but they didn’t follow up with her. After her conversations with her teachers, she didn’t file a grievance report. She didn’t feel like her teachers took her seriously, so she stopped telling her teachers about the harassment.

I wonder—would her teachers have responded differently to her if her harassment had involved physical harm?

The Oregon Safe School Act defines bullying as anything which has the effect of “physically harming a student or damaging a student’s property or knowing placing a student in reasonable fear of physical harm, or creating a hostile educational environment.”

Notice that while “hostile educational environment” is listed, its at the bottom of the list. What Jordan was experiencing is clearly identified as bullying. Yet I think that as a result of the way that the bill is written, and perhaps because of how teachers talk about bullying, physical violence is seen as a much bigger safety concern than emotional violence.

“By the end of freshman year, I was addicted to cocaine, binge drinking and pill popping. It all felt wrong. I was sick of not being a good enough girl and having people pick on me for it. I had a 0.0 GPA and was ready to drop out.”

Jordan wasn’t bullied for holding hands with another girl in the hallways. She wasn’t bullied for coming out as a lesbian to the school. She was bullied for looking gay.

I thought back to my own schooling. When I was in middle school, I wrestled on the primarily male team. I didn’t dress like a boy, but I wrestled. As a result of my participation in a predominately male sport, I was called ‘dyke’ in the hallways. I didn’t identify as gay yet. I didn’t pin rainbows to my backpack straps. I didn’t have any real awareness about my sexuality, and yet walking down the hallway in my wrestling warm-ups, other people saw me as gay.

Most women who wrestle on male-dominated sports aren’t gay. Most people aren’t gay. And yet, a female participating in a sport which is coded masculine looked gay to other people. When I was called ‘dyke’ in the hallways, I wasn’t actually accused of being gay. I was being disciplined for acting differently than was I was expected to act as a girl.

The threat of being perceived as gay kept other girls in my high school out of the wrestling room. Just like the threat of being seen as gay prevented boys from wearing dresses or makeup. But it isn’t just homophobia that keeps students dressing and acting in ways that are in line with cultural expectations of how one should act as a girl or a boy—it is also the social system which assigns masculine traits and activities to ‘boy’ and feminine traits and activities to ‘girl’ in a system of assumed heterosexuality. In order to successfully pass as a girl, you need to look straight. In other words, feminine. 

Jordan’s experience getting kicked out of her house for looking like a boy, and my experience getting harassed for wrestling aligns with the data from a national survey of over 3,400 students aged 13-18 on bullying and harassment. Two-thirds (65%) of teens report that they have been verbally or physically harassed or assaulted during the past year because of their perceived or actual appearance, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, race/ethnicity, disability or religion.

The most common reason for harassment is not any one particular identity, but because of “perceived or actual appearance.” The reason most commonly cited for being harassed frequently is a student’s appearance. Four in ten (39%) teens report that students are frequently harassed for the way they look or their body size. The next most common reason for frequent harassment is sexual orientation. One-third (33%) of teens report that students are frequently harassed because they are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Notice again that students are just as likely to be harassed if they are perceived to be LGBT as if they actually are LGBT. The message for LGBT youth is: school is safer for you aren’t perceived as LGBT by other students.

At the University of Oregon Teach Out second annual Leadership Summit, Debra Chasnoff, documentary filmmaker of It’s Elementary: Talking about Gay issues in Schools, among other films which address bullying and gender identity in schools, outlined how schools can be safer for everyone:

“The curriculum must have positive representatives of LGBT people. Only 25% of schools surveyed had an LGBT inclusive curriculum.”

GLSEN’s 2009 National Climate Survey revealed that when educators include positive representations of LGBT people, history, and events in their curricula, students experiences school as a less hostile place.

Joy Koenig, Interim Vice Principal at Monroe Middle School agreed that its important to teach an LGBT inclusive curriculum, and she also stressed the importance of micropositives, or verbal and nonverbal celebrations of the LGBT community. An example of a micropositive would be the University of Oregon Education Department lanyard. It is rainbow stripped and says “UO PRIDE” on it. Another example would be to hang a poster highlighting LGBT contributions to history or literature in your classroom, or a “safe space” sticker on your classroom door. 

“Kids know the code. And kids who are questioning will look for that code. It gives them reassurance that its okay to be themselves,” Koenig said.

Barb MacWilliams, a teacher in Eugene 4 J school district decorates her classroom with safe space posters. She has a small rainbow sticker on her staff ID card. She teaches at a school which is  a self-declared Discrimination Free Zone (DFZ). This means that that along with anti-bullying education, there is school-wide identity specific anti-bullying education. This year one of their topics of focus is racism. It also means that when a student says something derogatory, students are instructed to interrupt it and respond with “DFZ.” I completed my student teaching at this school and noticed that DFZ posters were prominent, and I heard students say DFZ to each other often, but 6th graders often treated DFZ as a game.

MacWilliams jokingly refers to herself as the DFZ police:

“I try to interrupt ‘that’s so gay’ every single time I hear it. Their automatic response is always ‘I didn’t mean it that way.’ So I ask them, ‘how many people do you think heard you say that? Do you know for sure that no one who heard you has gay sisters or brothers or parents?’ The biggest assumption that I come up against is that everyone is straight.”

That’s so gay is not just about gay people. MacWilliams noticed that ‘gay’ is used as a general put down, a synonym for dumb or stupid, but that it is also specifically targeted at boys that are acting “like a girl.” She also noticed that a student may call two boys who are standing close to each other ‘gay’, but that girls who hold hands are not often called gay.  MacWilliams said, “The gesture of girls holding hands is so overt that kids don’t make fun of it.” 

In the film It’s Still Elementary, shown at a UO Teach OUT workshop targeted at students in the teacher education program, Chasnoff said,

“When it is acceptable to use derogatory language in schools, how much are we letting homophobia operate as a tool to control all of us?”

In 2001, MacWilliams came out to one of her classes in a related lesson. As a result of her coming out, a group of parents lobbied TSPC to get her license revoked. In June of 2001 the same parents got a hold of the parent list of the incoming 6th grade class. The following September, 40 students dropped her class.

She hasn’t come out in the same public way since.

“My room is a safe space. Many students know that I’m gay. The kids don’t care, its the families that care. But families don’t care until its a gay person talking about gay people in the classroom.”

“The challenge is the prevailing belief that gay issues are adult issues and that they have no place in the classrooms,” Chasnoff said in her film It’s Still Elementary. 

To address the obstacles of faculty to come out in school, at the beginning of this year all of the administrators in Eugene 4J District stood up in a district-wide staff meeting and made a pledge to their LGBT faculty: “We support you. If you choose to be out in school will support you.”

As part of the Teach OUT conference, about 100 student leaders gathered with teachers and administrators at the Eugene School District’s Education Center to discuss ways to reduce harassment and bullying directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

This is the first time that the conference has branched out to the school district.

“Twenty years ago, when I started this work, you could not say gay and student in the same sentence. There’s a much higher level of awareness today but bullying and gender norms still get in the way of students succeeding,” Chasnoff said.

The anonymous student response cards following the event were overwhelmingly positive:

“I got perspective on things I never got perspective on before.”

“I liked it because it is not what we talk about in schools. Hopefully there will be a difference.”

Peter Tromba, principal at Monroe Middle School sees Gay Straight Alliances as key to making sure schools are safer spaces for all students. Tromba initiated the GSA at Monroe and has been the adviser or co-adviser to Monroe’s GSA for four years. Tromba stated, “Its absolutely clear from all the data that the presence of a GSA brings down incidents of bullying and harassment for all kids, particularly for kids who have a non-normative gender expression.” 

Tromba went on to say that when forming a GSA, it is important to have one gay faculty member and one straight faculty member heading the club.

There was no GSA at Jordan’s school while she was there. The GSA is a place for students to gather, as well as a place for students to identify staff members who are allies. “There was no GSA at my school. There was no teacher I could turn to to talk about issues,” Jordan said.

When Jordan came to school, she was often hung over and sleep deprived, so she slept in class.

“My teachers had no hope for me. I don’t blame them, but I feel like they should have asked why or at least said, “you have a choice. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

If Jordan were my student, I’d like to say that I would hold her after class and talk to her honestly and without judgment about my concern for her. But I can’t say with 100% certainty that I would actually follow through with her, and that if I did that I wouldn’t speak with judgment or frustration in my voice. With class sizes so impossibly large, teaching has become an extreme sport. Every day my mind swirls with a million things to remember to say and do, worksheets to run off, grades to input, missing assignments to find, piles of papers to grade. It is more difficult to remember to follow-up with invisible students with so much else going on.

Class sizes are a real problem, but they are also an excuse, and like all excuses cover up ugly truths. I may not check in with Jordan not because I don’t have time, but because I may see how much she needs support, and I may not know how to be a good ally for her.

The teachers that Jordan spoke to about her bullies may have thought that directing her to write a grievance report was the right thing to do. They may have been trained to respond as they did.

I wonder—how can staff be better trained to respond to students like Jordan?

At the end of freshman year of high school, Jordan was ready to drop out. But a faculty member at her middle school who had become her mentor told her that she needed to make a change, and she transferred to an alternative school.

At the new school “they had an open door policy. I talked to my teachers about anything. I knew they were mandatory reporters, so I gave them a lot of hypothetical situations. I had an out teacher for the first time and it was okay. Having a staff member be my go to gay person made a big difference. As my support grew, I didn’t need alcohol or drugs anymore.”

Jordan graduated from high school this year. She plans to become a firefighter and is attending classes at the community college. She doesn’t spend her nights high on cocaine anymore, sleeping, if it all in a field not far form her parents’ house. She doesn’t sleep through her classes. She saw a drug and alcohol counselor and quit drugs. Now she lives in a homeless youth housing facility.

Jordan is doing better, but she didn’t have to go through everything she went through.

If the teachers that she had talked to about Austin had taken her complaints seriously, Jordan wouldn’t have felt so invisible.

I wonder—what would it take for teachers to take incidents of verbal harassment seriously?

In the DFZ school, students have more awareness of the term “that’s so gay,” but they still use the phrase, just maybe not around Barb MacWilliams and other teachers who frequently interrupt usage.

What would it take for schools to be truly safe spaces for everyone—students, parents, faculty and staff?

MacWilliams says that the obstacles to improving her school’s anti-bully curriculum are “time and money. Money to pay for the curriculum. Time to plan and deliver to students and time within the student day. In the age of OAKS testing, we lose track of anything not academic. Its all academic. The climate at the school affects academics. Our students would probably do better on assessments if the school were a safer space.”


[1]    Jordan is not the student’s real name.

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UO TeachOUT Leadership Summit

by Erica Ciszek

Last year, as a student in the Homophobia and the Classroom course, I had the opportunity to participate in the 2nd annual Teach OUT. This year, as a proponent and advocate of social justice work in education, I attended the 3rd annual Teach OUT, donning a new perspective and outlook on the significance of this event here at the University of Oregon and within the education studies department.

I will preface this post by mapping my own areas of research and position within the academy. As a doctoral student in the School of Journalism and Communication, I am particularly interested in critical/cultural approaches to strategic communication. As a queer feminist, I am particularly interested in the ways social justice pedagogy is carried out in higher education and even more excited when such work is happening in revision and reformation of the K-12 curriculum.

The focus of this year’s luncheon was LGBTQ families and was centered on themes of being invisible, ignored, and yet involved. Highlights of the Leadership Summit luncheon featured the following events:

Families and Schools- One story at a time- Rehearsals for Life- a theatre ensemble of graduate students using dialogue and applying experiential learning experiences around issues of diversity, equity and access. RfL feature interactive scenarios exploring what it means for individuals navigate the world in a time where cross-cultural interactions are increasing and expectations are changing.

During an interactive exercise, members of the troupe responded to audience suggestions and inputs. Here are some of the snip-bits of the improv:

“So I’m Chinese and I’m black, what clique do I go in…?”

“Teachers have such a huge impact…there was Mrs. Green.”

“I just wish my teacher would have said it’s ok to feel stuck in the middle”

“There is so much possibility in the room right now…”

“Sometimes it’s just safer to rest in my oppression.”

“That’s when I asked her, are you gay? I was devastated and horrified. No one could find out this horrible secret. I was never, ever talking to my parents ever again.”

“I felt like I was forced to choose between my beliefs…between my faith and friend…”

“I used to pray to god to make me normal, but now I thank god for making me special…”

This exercise was incredibly emotional and eye-opening. These were real people, real lives, real experiences and real emotions. This is not just about LGBTQ youth and bullying- this is about an entire system of people impacted by the people they love.

Keynote Speaker Debra Chasnoff
Piggybacking this performance, Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and activist, Debra Chasnoff was the keynote speaker of the afternoon. Chasnoff’s films include Straightlaced—How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up (2009), It’s STILL Elementary (2007), One Wedding and a Revolution (2004), Let’s Get Real (2003), That’s a Family! (2000), It’s Elementary—Talking About Gay Issues in School (1996). She is president and senior producer at GroundSpark, a national social justice media, advocacy, and education organization.

Chasnoff’s talk briefly traced her experiences as a filmmaker, with particular emphasis on the emergence of her film It’s Elementary—Talking About Gay Issues in School  and her own personal experiences as a lesbian parent. She reflected on her experiences when her son Noah was in elementary school and addressed the schism in the LGBT community about queer people having children. She notes that families like hers were completely invisible at the time.

Reflecting on It’s Elementary, Chasnoff suggests that all students are held back by anti-gay stigma, and all adults have a responsibility to do something about this. She noted that broader mission we need to work toward a system that is supportive of all families that are “different” from some way. It is essential to address and incorporate the diversity of family structures and in doing so to ensure that every student and family is included and welcome.

Community Alliance of Lane County- LGBTQ Family Panel
Founded in 1966, the mission of CALC was to mobilize opposition to the Vietnam War. Nearly half a century later, the alliance continues to work for social justice locally, nationally and globally. The organization is grounded in three main tenets: addressing the root cause, challenge themselves and others, and working with and for social justice. CALC is dedicated to “educating and mobilizing for peace, human dignity and social, racial and economic justice.

Members of the panel reflected on and addressed some of the following issues:

-          Worrying about not saying the right thing, not being able to adequately represent queer families

-          Communicating with a 2 parent household- particularly in a divorced queer house- just because you tell one mother doesn’t mean the other mother is going to find out

-          Single lesbian mom – 5th grade son with ex-husband, 3-year-old donor, with lesbian partner

-          How you “show up” at school functions impacts, school climate

-          Straight kids whose families are LGBTQ get left out of these conversations- How do kids step up and address this in a way that don’t impact them negatively?

What was made clear from this panel was the need to expand the current conversations about LGBTQ issues to include the myriad families represented in our schools. A recent article on the Huffington Post addresses the “mainstreaming” of gay parenting. But it’s apparent that despite increasing visibility of LGBT people in the mainstream media, the education system needs to recognize family diversity as well.

The event closed with a series of “Jane Addams Excellence in Equity Education Awards.”  These awards were given to local schools and individuals who have been actively working to reduce homophobia and harassment through ongoing education.  Awards were given by the Department of Education Studies and the Community Alliance of Lane County to the following:

Eugene 4j Administrators
Awbrey Park Elementary,  Arts and Technology Academy,  Roosevelt Middle School, and Monroe Middle School administrators stood before the 4j employee community at the 2011-12 district back to school meeting and recited a powerful pledge to create a safer work place for LGBTQ employees of the Eugene School District.  These administrators modeled the leadership that is critical for creating a safe and healthy climate for LGBTQ teachers and staff.

McCornack Elementary School
The McCornack staff initiated and took part in a yearlong training on LGBT issues in elementary education.  They recognized their need and desire to build their awareness, knowledge, and skills about LGBTQ issues in their efforts to create a school culture that recognizes and celebrates all students and families. The McCornack staff has demonstrated the rich possibilities in creating and sustaining an equity based learning community.

Bethel School District
This district developed guidelines to create a tool to help administrators and staff have supportive conversations regarding gender nonconformity, as well as help the district plan for physical spaces in schools where students can feel safe. 

Roosevelt Middle School
Roosevelt Middle School students held a school wide assembly with the theme Start Teaching Others Peace.  Roosevelt teacher, administrator, and student activities demonstrate the collaborative relationships that foster positive school cultures.

Springfield School District V.O.I.C.E. Team
Springfield High School has created a student V.O.I.C.E. team which includes students from all four Springfield High schools.  The V.O.I.C.E. students at Springfield High have demonstrated incredible leadership in developing concrete strategies to improve school climate for all students.

Churchill High School G.S.A.
For the second year in a row the Churchill GSA has hosted a Pink Prom for LGBTQ students throughout the Eugene community. They have held fundraisers, created collaborations between schools, and highlighted the importance of this event for students, schools, and the larger community.

Teacher K. Kellison
Kellison is a former UO Education Studies student and current teacher. Her teaching exemplifies teaching toward equity and giving students the skills and tools to engage the world in learning about equity and gender justice.

Recipients were given the following framed quotation:

Nothing can be worse than the fear
that one had given up too soon
and left one unexpended effort
which might have saved the world.

Jane Addams (1860-1935) Anglo-American, Feminist, Lesbian, Pacifist,
Nobel Prize Winner

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UO TeachOUT – HomoQuotable Classroom Posters

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