PART II: TEACHING JUSTICE
by Naomi Rachel Ullian
Most of the teachers agreed that experiencing life as a queer person influenced their curricular and extracurricular choices to include issues of justice and oppression in the classroom.
In Emily's kindergarten classroom, none of the boy's ever want to get stuck with the pink-color when they place a game called "Donut Shop."
"I'll say, 'All colors are for all people, girls can like pink and boys can like pink. I'll get into this deeply entrenched boy-girl thing, and I'll think, Why am I doing this? Why am I only presenting these options?"
At other times, Emily is careful to not reinforce a gender binary. "I don't say boys and girls, like 'Boys and girls, it's time to line up.'" I call all my students 'friends.' 'Friends, it’s time to line up.'"
But Emily notes that it's tricky to talk about being queer in the kindergarten classroom, because it can feel difficult to talk about body parts or sex. She says, "When it comes to being out, I notice that my definition is 'boys can love boys and girls can love girls,' with no fluidity in between. How do you explain to kindergarteners the difference between how we love our classmates and how adults love each other? What does it mean that I love a woman? It's tricky, explaining the difference."
"At this point in my career," says Emily, "I spend a lot of time talking about how we're all different, and that makes the world a beautiful place. I try not to say, 'Take this home to your mom and dad,' because for some of them it’s maybe a mom and a mom, or a grandma, or for some kids, Mom is the person who's in jail right now."
Many queer and allied teachers find themselves walking this fine line, helping young people to define their worlds and understand boundaries and parameters while still leaving their perceptions open for variability and wide interpretation.
As the founder of the Just Schools Project, this is the kind of pedagogy that Mel considers a lot. She works with middle and high schools to develop restorative justice programs, which assist students and teachers to come up with different ways to respond to harmful behaviors in the classroom, an issue particularly pertinent for queer students who struggle with bullying.
Laura offers that the school she teaches at in Massachusetts has strict anti-bullying laws which came into effect three years ago, because three students committed suicide in the same year in the state of Massachusetts due to bullying. “We have to report, call home, all these things within 24 hours, and we have a weekly meeting where even gray-area things have to be discussed in that meeting and then the dean investigates. It's a really big deal."
Other teachers add that adult interventions often don't get to the root of the problem, because kids suffering from bullying often don't report the abuse to adults, the bullies themselves are smart enough not to say something within a teacher's earshot, such as in a crowded hallway or on social media, and that the kids often take these dynamics home with them.
"I've seen administrators try to redefine this situations," add Emily, "In order to make it look like it's not bullying, because it’s such an arduous task to deal with it.
Both Ellen and Laura say that they also struggle with subtle strains of racism in their classrooms. She says that her students are mostly white and somewhat sheltered. "If they start talking about 'the ghetto,' usually it’s racist. It’s hard to help them understand the implications of what they're saying."
Laura says that her rural school has a yearly collaboration with an urban Massachusetts public school around stream water quality, and the collaboration itself is effect in breaking down assumptions.
"I've heard my students say that stuff about the other school, how they're so 'ghetto' or 'gangster,'" says Laura. "I ask them what they think they're collaborators are like, and then I ask them what they think their collaborators think of them, and it does slowly start to break down their stereotypes. A lot of what they are learning isn't about stream-water quality, it’s about difference and judgments. It's very rich."
In an effort to address prejudices in the classroom and beyond, Julie collaborated with Mel on an anti-racist curriculum for Julie's 6th grade class around the Civil War.
"You have to assume that there are going to be parents who aren't going to see things from your perspective," says Julie. "Kids are going home to a lot of situations that are homophobic and racist, so this might be the only place they are getting access to these ideas. If they have a relationships with you and they like you, that might have an impact on their thinking."
Restorative justice practices in schools are based on students understanding and validating one another's needs and feelings in order to reconcile a conflict, and Julie used these ideas in her teaching around race. "We all talked about what we were scared about, about sounding racist or that our words would be misconstrued or we would say something we didn’t mean."
Julie and her students journeyed together through the material to support each other through the discomfort of talking about race.
"One of them would say something and I'd be like, "That just doesn’t feel quite right, something about that feels a little racist to me,' and that kid didn't feel like, 'Oh you're calling me racist and I'm totally humiliated.' It felt like we'd been doing this work together, we were trying to reach this definition together. We're talking about really hard stuff, life on slave ships, which we have no experience of, and they're eleven years old."
Another tactic the teachers used to help students confront ideas around race, class, and other issues of inequality was to use language that contextualizes and normalizes students' varying experiences.
Julie notes that when students choose topics for independent projects, they often choose issues that are affecting their everyday existence, including domestic violence, prison rights, and drug abuse. Julie makes sure to face their struggles sympathetically but unfazed. "I get so much information through those projects," says Julie. "It feels really important to be there, to let them know that I'm not shocked, that they're not scaring me."
"Talking about how families are all different includes a conversation about incarceration and families who are affected by it," Emily says of her kindergarten classroom. "If a kid's mom is in jail, she'll always be his mom, so I don't want him to always have to think of her as 'the bad guy.'"
So Emily implements a kindergarten version of restorative justice practices in her classroom. "Some of our kids with the most dangerous behaviors are often kids whose families are incarcerated, so I want them to live that experience of us all being included in this community. We understand that we all make mistakes in different ways, that it has an impact on other people, so we have to be accountable, take time out, apologize, and then be able to come back and be welcome."
Sometimes the moments that have the potential to be the heaviest become the most liberating. Mel says she is particularly interested in breaking down the ideas of 'good guys' and 'bad guys' as a method of moving toward restorative justice.
Several years ago she was teaching restorative justice to a group of first graders, a daunting task with 6 year olds. When the students told Mel that they thought of Martin Luther King, Jr, as a 'good guy,' Mel asked them if they thought he went to jail.
"They all said, 'Noooo!'" Mel says, "And then one kid spoke up,, 'Wait, yeah, he did.' And I said, 'Yeah, do you know why?' And the kid said, 'Because he said that it wasn't fair that black people couldn't do stuff!' and I said, 'That's right.'"
For queer teachers who understand justice broadly and through the lens of personal experience, creating space for youth and peers to make connections like this benefits not only marginalized students but also staff and students who haven't already developed empathy or knowing around issues outside of their immediate families.
"It was totally an Aha! moment that I wasn't expecting," says Mel, "This idea coming to them that you could be a good person and go to jail. Whoa! Kids could think, "My mom's a good person, and she goes to jail."
And those moments, most teachers agree, can be life-saving.