Just two years ago, there were only a handful of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Now there are 24 GSAs, one in every middle and high school, except for two sites. Most recently, Community Schools and Student Services held their second—and hopefully annual—GSA Day. On this day, GSA groups from across the district at the middle- and high-school levels came together to forge community and greater connection. Over half of the school sites were in attendance with a total of 130 students, up from 80 last year.
Organizers Ilsa Bertolini, who heads up the district’s HIV-prevention program, and Olivia Higgins, a consultant with Queerly Elementary, launched the day with a special visit from Cheer San Francisco. Then students and their teacher-advisors attended workshops created and facilitated by students, like “Gender 101.” They had the opportunity to make celebratory posters to take back to their school sites or to write letters to their school leaders about changes they wanted to enact in service of greater support of LGBT youth. Additionally, each school site had the opportunity to share in science-fair style what they had been working on within their individual school-site GSA group. The highlight of the day, however, was the impromptu dance party the students created during lunch.
The dance party underscores what was so powerful about GSA Day. Identifying as an LGBT youth can feel isolating. Being part of a GSA on campus can help alleviate that feeling, but coming together as part of a larger community was something that many participants had never experienced. Collectively, students cited feeling “accepted,” “safe” and “comfortable.” Teachers who chaperoned the event and serve as LGBT liaisons back at their respective campuses had positive reflections, too. One high school teacher said, “The GSA Day was a wonderful place for my students to interact with LGBT and ally students outside of their usual communities. … It helped show students they are part of a larger supportive community in Oakland.” For one particular student, the impact of that larger community was summed up when they wrote that the day was “the best day of my life.”
With help from a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, OUSD hopes to find more ways to support its LGBT youth and their allies. Community Schools and Student Services personnel are positioned to provide resources in advance of need, rather than only responding in crisis, a big shift in recent years. For example, during the 2014-15 school year, the district provided stipends for LGBT liaisons at all middle and high school sites for the first time. Previously, site-based GSAs were mostly independent and voluntary endeavors, instead of safe spaces that all schools could provide. Having an adult ally to help create these safe spaces is essential.
According to one of the liaisons, “I witnessed firsthand how crucial a supportive community is for positive gender and sexual identity development.” Liaisons themselves are now getting support in the community, too, as Community Schools and Student Services is offering the cohort of adult LGBT liaisons quarterly meetings, online resources and more help as needed.
This work is imperative, even without the kind of grant OUSD has secured. Bertolini emphasized that supporting LGBT youth needs to move forward even if a school district doesn’t think it has the money. Different departments have overlapping interests and funding sources, and LGBT issues are deeply connected to health education and restorative justice, among others. Bertolini advises “leveraging” funding from existing sources and building cross-departmental alliances. “It’s really just about finding in your district who is a stakeholder for supporting LGBT youth in schools,” she suggests.
Putting on a GSA Day requires “lots of time, energy, money, and it’s worth it,” Higgins adds. “Of all of the things we do to support our GSAs, this is the number one thing that we do. Even if only five students show up, it’s absolutely worth it. … We are giving them a sense of community that is beyond just their school site. That’s a huge opportunity and gift.”
Editor’s note: For more information on establishing a GSA at your school, check out “10 Tips for Starting a GSA.”
Thomas is a former English teacher turned instructional coach in Oakland, California.
According to the Teaching Tolerance report The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools, nearly 40 percent of the 2,000 teachers who responded to TT’s election survey are hesitant to teach about the election. Some educators cite concerns about the students who fear being ostracized or even deported if certain candidates win. Other teachers don’t know how to handle the fact that students are repeating the hate-filled language they hear from candidates’ speeches and social media posts. Still other teachers, like me, feel they must discuss this election with students.
Here are a two of the strategies I have used to teach students the skills to decode what is being said. Focusing on these skills has helped my students come to realizations all their own. Kids who were enjoying the excitement that comes with blaming and bullying have pumped the brakes and thought a little more carefully.
Talk with students about “they” and “them.”
The use of “they” is a favorite campaign tactic. Candidates are making statements about what “they” do, how “they” are hurting our country. Sometimes “they” are Muslims. Sometimes “they” are women. Sometimes “they” are a particular minority or ethnicity. Sometimes “they” are the poor; sometimes “they” are the rich.
One quick exercise is to have students scan through the Twitter feeds of various candidates and count the number of times third-person pronouns are used. Have them search for those words in speeches and debates as well. Which groups are being replaced and generalized most frequently in their statements?
Talk about the use of stereotypes and what happens when you categorize an entire group of people with such a broad brush. Ask students to do a little research and find examples of individuals who are from that larger group but do not embody the characteristic being attributed to all of “them.”
You need not do a lot of editorializing, as these patterns begin to speak for themselves.
Conduct formal debates in class.
Assign teams of two or more to opposing sides of the topics most frequently discussed in the campaign. Using a formal debate structure with constructive speeches, cross-examination and rebuttals makes students go through the process of researching the topic, formulating opinions and engaging in civil discourse.
My seniors just finished doing this, and the results were outstanding. Students claiming immigrants were bad for our economy had to provide statistics to support that claim, which they found tricky. The opposition arguing for the economic benefit these workers bring to our country also needed support. They found a great deal.
One of the greatest benefits came from the direct nature of cross-examination. Showing students a couple of clips from presidential debates—clips of candidates rolling their eyes as an opponent spoke or displaying body language that was aggressive or disrespectful—can provide a master class in how not to behave when the goal is an exchange of ideas.
We often stopped the questioning to discuss how to better phrase a question or response. We talked about the need to root responses in fact rather than opinion. We talked about the need to call out the opposition on empty and inflammatory rhetoric rather than simply throwing back your own.
Students may be susceptible to some of the biased language they're hearing from presidential candidates, but teachers are in a position to show them a better path.
Knoll is a writer and English teacher at public school in New Jersey.
We’ve talked a lot about how easy it is to use Perspectives for a Diverse America, our K–12 anti-bias curriculum, to meet the diverse learning needs of your classroom. But we can show you better than we can tell you: Watch our new explainer video for a breakdown of why Perspectives should be part of your summer planning.
In just seven minutes, you can learn how to get the most out of our curriculum. Want more? Take a look at this page that is chock-full of other tips and tricks on how to customize Perspectives to your—and your students’—advantage.
Editor’s note: This blog is the final installment in a three-part series that looks at how mentoring can support beginning teachers in cultivating excellence with equity. Find the first part here and second part here.
My previous blog in this “Excellence With Equity” series addresses how new-educator mentors can help beginning teachers develop their strengths in culturally and linguistically responsive practices. This blog focuses on expanding early-career teachers’ critical lens toward advocacy for students and their professional agency in rerouting the school-to-prison pipeline.
Student engagement and student behavior are major topics of conversation with beginning teachers. Our discussions build on the work we have already done:
- identifying strengths and assets;
- understanding how our lived experiences shape our expectations and biases;
- and developing a culturally and linguistically responsive practice.
Once we establish this foundation, we can talk about adopting a social justice lens when issues of disengagement and behavior arise.
As part of our local university’s common reading program, people from all over the area—students, faculty, staff, community members and even members of our local police departments—are reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. We’re also discussing how our community can come together and work toward resolving social justice issues. Of particular concern are the disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration for African-American males (adults and youth) and what we can do to address this phenomenon in a systemic way.
To bring this conversation into our school district, staff in our central office are also reading Just Mercy and engaging in professional learning to take action around implications for our work with staff and students. Mentors, specifically, are working to support beginning teachers in understanding and interacting with students according to the expectations outlined in our district’s new Behavior Education Plan. We are also actively working with early-career educators to develop their restorative approaches to behavior issues.
I have worked with beginning teachers to help them understand students on a more personal—and holistic—level, helping them interpret certain behaviors as means by which students communicate their unmet needs. Together, each mentee and I plan conversations with the student in question or family members, other school support staff or community liaisons. These conversations help paint a bigger picture of the student and aid with designing a plan that works.
Through this process of positive behavior support, I have watched beginning teachers build amazing relationships with students and reengage them in their learning. The important step was for the new educator to have a private conversation with the student, conveying a non-judgmental observation of the behavior in question, asking the student to explain her perspective and then collaborating with the student to make a plan for how to best support her.
In other cases, I have worked with beginning teachers to incorporate restorative justice circles in their classrooms to address students’ needs to express themselves and solve their own problems in collaborative, non-judgmental ways. Other new educators have sought out extra resources and are practicing mindfulness strategies in the classroom with students.
The rationale for all these practices is to teach educators behaviors and self-management strategies that replace the types of knee-jerk reactions that push students out of school and into the prison pipeline. To help beginning teachers understand the pipeline and the implications of the shift from punitive to restorative approaches to behavior, I have found Teaching Tolerance’s “A Teacher’s Guide to Rerouting the Pipeline” to be very useful. In mentoring conversations, this guide has helped me focus a beginning teacher’s attention to one shift at a time—there are five shifts—in terms of how she interprets and addresses behavior issues in the classroom.
Guiding beginning teachers to make that shift from punitive to restorative behavior approaches is perhaps the most challenging part, mainly because behavior is such an emotionally charged issue. Mentoring facilitates the early-career educators’ thinking and provides a calm, rational space for them to objectively assess a situation, reframe their thinking and plan new routes for teaching and addressing student behavior.
By making this final key shift and intentionally drawing students into their learning, instead of removing them from class, beginning teachers are able to build critical pathways that reroute students away from cycles of punishment and toward promising, successful futures. By facilitating this shift for beginning teachers across the district, mentors are helping to cultivate excellence with equity that will have a lasting, positive impact for everyone.
Berg is a new-educator mentor in Madison, Wisconsin.
The end of the school year is swiftly approaching! Our webinars for May and June offer tips for summer self care and give you some planning ideas for next school year.
Tuesday, May 17, 4:30 p.m. CDT
Intersectionality has become a buzzword in education, but what does it mean and why is it important in schools? Our students have multiple identities; for many, the converging identities make them more vulnerable to discrimination and oppression. Understanding how identities like race, gender, class, sexual orientation and ability intersect can help educators better educate and support all students.
This webinar will help participants understand intersectionality and offer strategies for putting knowledge into practice. Our special guest will be Jennifer Coco, a senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose work centers on educational advocacy, particularly around halting the school-to-prison pipeline.
Tuesday, May 31, 4:30 p.m. CDT
Summer is almost here! It’s a perfect time to relax and recover from the school year—and to enrich your knowledge, pedagogy and practice.
This webinar highlights recovery techniques from two Teaching Tolerance feature stories: “I thought about quitting today …” and “Healing From Moral Injury.” Participants will gain relaxation strategies, planning tips for next year and ways to fill their “compassion tanks” over the break. Join us and give back to yourself! You deserve it.
Tuesday, June 7, 4:30 p.m. CDT
Religious freedom and religious exemptions are hot news topics these days—and they’re deeply tied to U.S. history and landmark Supreme Court cases. These cases and related legislation allow us to study the history of religious freedom from a legal perspective. That’s where this webinar comes in!
We’ll demonstrate classroom activities to engage students in understanding primary sources, recognizing patterns and trends across time, and evaluating how some religious freedom claims contribute to the backlash against the advancement of LGBT rights. Join us and special guest David Dinielli, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s LGBT Rights Project, for this important conversation.