Friday, June 18, 2010

Queer Kids in Public Schools

I recently listened to an NPR Talk of the Nation segment on what life is like for openly gay kids in public schools. It’s worth a listen (there’s a transcript at that link, as well). It’s a good discussion of the harassment and discrimination that LGBT kids face and what teachers and administrators can do to combat it (unfortunately it’s pretty focused on the L and the G, with a much lighter focus on the B and especially the T). In particular, the speakers make a good case for why it’s important to make public schools a safe space for all students.

One thing that they touch on right at the end, but don’t go into in depth is the problem of heterosexism (leave me alone, spellchecker, it is a word) in the classroom itself. Clamping down on harassment and bullying is generally the first priority of schools, and with good reason, I think. If school isn’t safe, nobody’s learning anything. However, as those of you who’ve followed my blog for awhile may have gathered, I’m all about the big changes. As long as queer people and their experiences are erased in our curriculums, queer kids will continue to be seen as deficient. Changing this can be tough, because in a lot of places, maybe the majority of places, any teacher wishing to address queer issues in any way will have to tread very lightly indeed. Unfortunately, just acknowledging that people who aren’t straight and cis gender exist and deserve the same respect at straight and cis people can be controversial. But it’s also incredibly important.

Obviously, individual teachers have to consider how best to do this, given their subject, the ages of their students, and all of the other variables that teachers have to take into account when teaching anything. But I do think that the experiences and contributions of queer people can be integrated into most curricula. When it comes to theatre classes, incorporating works by and about queer people is the first step. It’s also important to crack down on anti-LGBT language in the class. Kids tend to be more relaxed in drama class, and as a result use language that would be avoided in front of other teachers. This puts theatre teachers in an excellent position to talk about anti-LGBT language and why it’s problematic. Equally important is calling kids out when they use gay stereotypes to get a laugh during exercises (which kids do with alarming frequency). Here again, talking about why that’s problematic is crucial.

I also think that, with older students who are past the basic acting level, exercises in “playing the other” are really useful in talking about all kinds of biases and prejudices. Challenging kids to play someone who seems completely different from them is an excellent way to encourage them to consider the lives and experiences of others, and to generate conversations about the biases that they brought into the role. It’s also a good way to help them grow as actors, and I think it’s important to have a valid pedagogical reason for doing anti-bias work in the classroom. It gives you a leg to stand on if people complain.

So that’s my two cents. I’d be really interested to hear what other people are doing to lessen the heterosexism in their curricula, and what people who aren’t educators think teachers should do in that vein. I know that GLSEN has some good resources for educators on their website--are there any other resources that people recommend?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Roots of Empathy

As promised, a post on the Roots of Empathy program, albeit a short one, because I’m still sort of hashing out my thoughts on it. Roots of Empathy is a program that encourages the development of empathy in children by coaching students in observing the development and emotions of an infant. I have to say I’m fascinated by this idea, because I believe that encouraging and developing empathy in young people is crucial to stopping bullying. In my own work, when I’ve been thinking about ways to develop empathy in students, I’ve mostly been thinking about developing empathy specifically for their fellow students, the people they interact with daily, which would then, hopefully, decrease bullying and increase bystander intervention. Although both my own work and Roots of Empathy work with all the students, rather than focusing on just the bully or the victim, the Roots of Empathy approach is different in that it seems to be more to develop empathy for a specific person (the infant they’re observing) who isn’t a part of their daily lives, and then see if that empathy translates into their daily interactions. It seems to me like a reasonable approach--babies are cute and helpless, which are qualities that make them easy to care about and develop empathy for. So the big question is, does that empathy translate into the school setting? The research that I was able to find seems to suggest that it does, at least to a degree, and I’ll definitely be interested to see continuing research, particularly long term studies of kids who went through the program. But, I still maintain my long-held stance that until we, as a society, stop viewing certain people as inherently less-than, some kids will continue to have the desire and the means to bully other kids.