Creating LGBTQIA+ Friendly Classrooms

Since I am an elementary school teacher and a children’s author, I am often asked how the adults in kids lives—parents, teachers, librarians, and others—can help kids begin to develop a since of social justice. Because I am a gay man, write nonfiction children’s books with LGBTQIA+ subject matter (among other things), and am an elementary teacher I am asked in particular how to make school a safe place for kids who may or may not yet realize their sexuality, might be dealing with gender identity, and/or whose parents are members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Let me share some thoughts.

NOT AS EASY AS A, B, C

Making classrooms and schools LGBTQIA+ welcoming is not easy, but I am going to give you some A, B, C’s that can make it possible.

A—Ally and Advocate
All students need allies and advocates—especially LGBTQIA+ students. These students may not have support at home; in their church, synagogue, or mosque; or in their larger community. They need adults who will stand beside them (allies) and stand up for them (advocates). Last year a friend at my school worked with a student who was coming out and dealing with gender issues. While his mother was supportive, his grandparents were vocal opponents to the identity he was coming to accept. The teacher befriended the student’s mom, shared age-appropriate books with the then third-grade student, and even loaned him a copy of my book PRIDE: THE STORY OF HARVEY MILK AND THE RAINBOW. The student and his mother came to the launch of the book so he could celebrate along with me and my local LGBQIA+ community. I now have lunch every Wednesday with that student and a friend of his choosing (usually someone new each week). He has a circle of classmates who stand beside him and love him, and he has teachers who accept him and celebrate him. In other words, he has allies and advocates. You can become an ally and advocate for students, too.

B—Book Expert
One of the best things an adult can do is to make books available to students. As Rudine Sims Bishop said and wrote years ago that students need books that are mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. They need books where they can see themselves (mirrors), books where they can see others and grow in acceptance and understanding of others (windows), and books that help them move from one place or position in life to another (sliding glass doors). Books with LGBTQIA+ themes and topics need to be in every public-school library and every classroom. I keep a list of some of my favorite LGBTQIA+ picture books on my web site. My friend (and middle grade author), Shannon Hitchcock, has created a list of LGBTQIA+ middle grade novels which I also feature on my website. Start growing your collection of books—they will be a gift to students.

C—Conversations, Coalitions, and Collaborations
With the release of my book Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag last year, I started to have conversations with administrators, librarians, supervisors, and other influencers in our school district. I wanted to make sure people were aware of the book, its importance, and that I was going to read the book to my students. I opened the door so others could start to process the importance of books with LGBTQIA+ characters and themes and so they could begin to think about how we can share those books with students. Of course, I wasn’t the only person who ever had this thought, and my conversations quickly turned to coalition building and collaborations with others. Eventually those conversations, coalitions, and collaborations led to sitting in a room with my principal, the man who is second-in-command in our district, the manager of our district’s office of diversity, and a representative from our teachers’ union. Honestly, there were some tense moments in that two-hour meeting, but we found some common ground—our concern for students. I did read the book to my fourth graders and the book is in many classrooms and librarians throughout our school district.

One of the hardest things educator and parents can do is to talk to each other openly and honestly, and then to find ways to work together, and to build a team that stands together. It’s true with any issue or concern, but it’s especially true when it comes to caring for LGBTQIA+ students and families.

EQUITY AND EQUALITY

One of the newer terms in education these days is equity. Simply stated, equity means that every student receives what he/she needs to be successful. One child might need a ramp, another child doesn’t. One child might need extra time for assignments and on tests, the person next to her may not. To many, equity is the new equality. Many have stopped referring to an equal opportunity, or equal education, and have stopped using the term equality all together. They say equality communicates a one-size-fits-all approach. I totally agree that one size does not fit all. But I am concerned that equity is a teacher-determined, adult-determined, or school-determined approach, when true equality rests within what individuals and groups of individuals say they need in order to have a fair and even playing field. Yes, we want each child to have equity—what he/she needs to succeed—but we also need equality. Those of us in marginalized or disenfranchised groups know that. We all must keep speaking up for equality and equity.

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About Rob Sanders
Rob is a teacher who writes and a writer who teaches. He lives in Brandon, FL where he teaches fourth grade and writes children’s books. His nonfiction books that deal with social justice and LGBTIA+ history include: PRIDE: THE STORY OF HARVEY MILK AND THE RAINBOW FLAG and PEACEFUL FIGHTS FOR EQUAL RIGHTS. His latest book, STONEWALL: A BUILDING. AN UPRISING. A REVOLUTION., releases in April 2019 and is the first picture book about the Stonewall Uprising. Visit Rob’s website at robsanderswrites.com and follow him on Facebook (RobSandersWrites) and Twitter (#robsanderswrite).