As the hot days of August try to tempt us into laziness, another influence pulls at many of us parents — the increasingly loud voice in the back of our heads that says school will soon be starting for our children. Can we fit in one more trip to the beach or to visit family? What’s on the school supply list?
For LGBT parents, back-to-school time can also bring worries about whether our children will have their family structure and identities supported. Will the school and classroom climate be safe and welcoming? Will they find a community of supportive peers? Will the curriculum reflect families like theirs? It can all be a bit overwhelming. For those seeking advice and assistance, I’ve updated my annual annotated list of LGBT back-to-school resources at mombian.com.
I want to focus here, however, on my favorite new educational resource of the year, for it offers a wonderful model of what is possible in LGBT-inclusive education. “Reading the Rainbow: LGBTQ-Inclusive Literacy Instruction in the Elementary Classroom” (Teachers College Press and GLSEN), by Caitlin L. Ryan and Jill M. Hermann-Wilmarth is a slim (160-page) volume to help elementary school English language arts (ELA) teachers introduce or deepen classroom discussions around LGBT identity and gender.
It’s full of practical tips and ideas backed by curricular standards and classroom experience. But even if you’re not a teacher (or teach another subject), it may provide much food for thought. Its brilliance lies in the way it offers tools for teachers who may have varying degrees of experience or comfort in addressing LGBT topics and in showing how classrooms could become more inclusive even in schools resistant to such topics.
Ryan and Herman-Wilmarth each have years of experience teaching in elementary classrooms, although they now hold positions in higher education. They draw not only from their own experiences, but also from those of three other teachers whose classrooms they have studied (and in some instances, co-taught in) for several years. Ryan and Herman-Wilmarth are white lesbians as is one of the teachers; the others are allies. I wish this panel had been more diversity —teachers of color and transgender teachers would have added important perspectives — but they nevertheless provide a starting point as well as allies’ ways of looking at the intersections of gender, race and other identities.
By including LGBT people and ideas in classrooms, the authors explain, teachers provide students with “new windows and mirrors of the world around them.” The authors offer many examples of how their panel of teachers helped students use inclusive texts to better understand their own lives or the lives and situations of others. Along the way, students practiced language arts skills, such as learning multiple meanings of words, using more nuanced vocabulary and crafting arguments.
At the same time, the authors caution that a single LGBT-inclusive book cannot show the full range of LGBT lives and indeed, the number of such books for elementary-age readers is still limited, particularly in showing LGBT people who are not white, suburban or partnered. For this reason, and because some teachers may still find it challenging to overcome (unwarranted) parental and administrative concerns about LGBT-inclusive books, Ryan and Herman-Wilmarth also explore how to “queer,” i.e., “mess up and complicate,” traditional categories related to bodies, gender, sexual orientation and love, even when not explicitly reading or talking about LGBT people.
Classrooms can explore ideas of gender expectations, for example, even in books without LGBT characters. The authors acknowledge that this approach can, if mishandled, lead to the ongoing silencing of LGBT identities, but as a supplemental approach, it may begin to shift students’ understanding, especially in places where discussion of clearly LGBT characters may not yet be possible.
I chose to highlight this book because we deserve something positive to start the school year. I don’t want to minimize the challenges we may face, individually and collectively, but I hope we take heart, knowing that such resources exist.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian, a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.