Several months ago, I spoke to a group of students at Metro Montessori Middle School in Portland, Oregon, about my life as a gender-fluid person, an immigrant and a person of color. At first, the youth were shy. After all, it was 8 a.m. and my coffee hadn’t kicked in yet, so I was kind of in the same boat.
But it didn’t take long for us to break the ice and have an amazing conversation.
Many of the youth had never heard the term gender fluid, but that didn’t stop them from asking questions and being engaged. We talked about everything from the umbrella term queer to my own gender expression journey.
They asked, “What was it like being gay in Jamaica?” “When did you know you were gender fluid?” “What is the difference between transgender and gender fluid?” And “How did your friends and family respond to you coming out as gender fluid?”
At the end of the session, the students left me with a new sense of purpose and a hope that their generation will have greater understanding for people like me.
The next day, their teacher forwarded me an email from a parent that I will never forget. The email reads:
H. throws backpack into back of car and hops into front seat.
Me: Hi Love, good day? Today was OWL, yes?
H.: Yes, Mom.
Me: How were this week’s guests?
Me: I thought there were going to be three transgender guests, each talking about their experience.
H.: Nope, only one.
Me: Who was it?
Me: Tell me about Giovanni.
H.: He’s from Jamaica but has been living here for a while.
Me: And he’s trans?
H.: No Mom. Giovanni is gender fluid.
Me: OK, how is that different than trans? You might have to explain that to me
H.: (turns up the radio)
Me: (turns down the radio) Seriously, help me here.
H.: Gender fluid means you don’t identify or feel like any one specific gender.
Me: Whereas trans…
H.: You feel a specific gender but your body may not be that.
Me: Got it. Thanks. I’ll stop for now.
H.: (sarcastic) Thank you, Mom.
(Quiet driving moment)
Me: So…can a gender-fluid person be gay, straight or are they also sexually fluid?
H.: (exasperated) MOM!!!! (turns up radio)
Me: (turns down radio) I want to understand.
H.: They are queer.
Me: Isn’t queer, gay?
H.: No. It’s different.
H.: MOM!!! You’re so annoying.
Me: I prefer curious.
(We arrive at practice, H. gets out of car as quick as he can)
Me: (shouting through window) Thanks, H.. I’m glad you can help me here.
H.: (sarcastic, walking away) That’s great Mom. Goodbye.
(Later that night, after dinner…)
H.: (hands me his phone open to Instagram and @iamgiovanni who had posted a photo and a few words about his visit to MMM) This is Giovanni, check it out, he posted his visit today…
Me: Cool. Seems like a nice guy.
H. showing me @iamgiovanni was a big deal. It meant that Giovanni connected with him enough that H. sought him out on Instagram. And by sharing it with me, I knew our 7-minute car ride conversation mattered.
I never expected this outcome. Who would know that H. would later become the teacher, educating his parent using his own succinct explanation of gender identity and sexual orientation—not something he got from slideshows or pamphlets, but just from an open and honest dialogue?
In the LGBT advocacy realm, there's a common theme “to change
hearts and minds.” Too often, we forget some of the most important hearts and
minds we’re shaping belong to youth. There’s a lot they can teach us, and
there’s a lot we can teach them.
Resources for Educators
Metro Montessori Middle School fosters a community where students can understand, embrace and celebrate their differences. This space creates the opportunity for students to learn and to take those lessons into the world. For educators wanting to follow Metro’s lead, here are three resources.
A school play for K-5 students, Why Frogs and Snakes Never Play Together, tells a story of friendship. Two groups of young frogs and snakes cross paths and become friends. After sharing the good news with their parents, they were forbidden to ever play together again.
OWL (Our Whole Lives), the resource used by Metro, is a lifespan sexuality education curriculum anchored in respect for differences in gender expression, sexual orientation and culture.
A project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, Welcoming Schools offers a trans-inclusive set of tools, lessons and resources made to create more welcoming elementary schools.
McKenzie is the founder of Queer Intersections Force and serves as a youth ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
The Atlantic: “Black alumni of the class, many years after graduating, uniformly credited the social-justice course for provoking a process of self-exploration that altered their sense of justice and influenced their self-identity.”
Chicago magazine: “I’m a black girl from the South Side. I was raised by a single mom because my parents are divorced. I understand what it’s like to be low-income, to be a girl, to be black, for three different things to be weighing on me. There’s lots of levels of oppression.”
EdSource: “The framework stresses the importance of incorporating diverse historical perspectives of Hispanics, Native Americans and other ethnic groups.”
Education Week: “The number of K-12 students who received at least one out-of-school suspension dropped by nearly 20 percent since the 2011-12 school year, but disparities persist.”
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE): “... I believe it is my duty to ensure that the texts I bring to my classroom are as diverse as my student population.”
The New York Times: “‘When I talk to younger people, I tell them I’m the same as Anne Frank,’ said Jacques Grishaver, 74, another ‘hidden child,’ who was born in Amsterdam in 1942. ‘That’s always where I start, because I want to tell them that it wasn’t only Anne Frank. There were more.’"
The News Tribune: “Always, he says, it’s in the back of black people’s minds that ‘you can do everything right, and still end up dead.’ That’s why he was inspired to teach his students about what to do if they are stopped by an officer while driving.”
SFGate: “‘By seeing themselves reflected in lessons and materials, [LGBT] students’ experiences are validated and their sense of self-worth reinforced, creating the opportunity for students to be able to achieve academically.’"
ThinkProgress: “Decades of racial bias against black Americans and the legacy of slavery are evident in our classrooms.”
WNYC: “[New York City] plans to eliminate suspensions of children in kindergarten through second grade (suspensions of pre-kindergarten students were previously banned), and instead encourage schools to use more restorative practices, like counseling.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com , and put "What We're Reading This Week" in the subject line.
Editor’s note: This piece was written during the week of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s shooting deaths by police officers, as well as the deaths of five officers in Dallas, Texas. This is the second of two TT staff reflections on these events. Find the first here and teaching materials to discuss these events here.
Here I sit, at the end of my first week at Teaching Tolerance. I sit in the shadow of the Civil Rights Memorial and Dr. King’s first pastorate. I am steps away from the epicenter of the civil rights movement—and watching as my newsfeed explodes with violence.
For days, I have been awakened to grim news. On my way to work today, I sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with my son, fighting back tears for his beautiful life. His young, male, black life that I know is not safe. I would protect his life with my own, but this week is another startling reminder that, no matter what I do, there will be times when I cannot protect him.
I was pregnant with my son when Michael Brown was killed in Missouri. I remember weeping with my hands held to my growing stomach, knowing that my son would be born in this unfair and confusing world. As mothers-to-be often do, I imagined what my son would look like. And I knew that his skin tone could be any range of color because of his mix of cultures and races. But my pregnant daydreams were tinted with fear. I was terrified for what my gut already knew: I could teach him to be proud of his unique blend of cultures and heritages—and of his skin—and to be respectful to others and accepting of all. I could control this. But I could not control how the world would see him.
Now he is here, and as the months pass and he swims and plays in the sun, his skin gradually darkens. His beautiful curls grow tighter and his big, dark eyes stare up at me. He is too young to understand me, but I say to him every day, “Mama’s got you.” I’ve got his back, but weeks like this make me feel like the world will turn its back on him.
He is so similar to the hundreds of boys who have entered my classroom, their personalities, skills and gifts a second thought to a society that sees color first. I taught them respect, I taught them to value their minds, and I showered them with love. I taught them how to navigate this world as best I could, but I could not control how their skin would affect their lives.
As a mother and as an educator, I’m concerned. I’m scared. I know that I am running out of ideas of what to say to my son when he gets older. I am just as tongue-tied as I was when I stood in front of a classroom full of boys looking to me with pleading eyes for answers after Michael Brown’s death. As we watch the new normal unfold in the United States, what do we tell our sons, our daughters and our students?
For now, I sing during car rides with my son. I focus on what I can control: reading our favorite books every night or cheering together as he says a new word. While he sleeps, I take time to pull out the box of handwritten notes from my students that I cannot seem to part with. I scroll through old videos and pictures of my brilliant students learning, dancing and doing anything to make me laugh. These small moments with my son and memories of my students are what bring me joy to face another uncertain day.
Mascareñaz is a teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.
I have spent a lot of time looking at my two little boys over the last few days. My two little white boys. Blonde hair and fair skin working together like magical cloaks protecting them from one of the greatest evils our country faces.
That thought troubles me, but my unease does not make it any less of a reality. My sons have protections the black children of this country simply don’t have. All little kids are innocent, but my boys are statistically more likely to survive to adulthood. I don’t worry that, when my sons are teenagers, a neighborhood watchman will chase them down because they are wearing hoodies. I have never worried about my two boys getting shot. I don’t ever worry that driving with a taillight out is going to end in me getting shot.
Those realities are totally different for black men, boys, women and girls—and that is a problem that belongs to all of us. No one is free when others are oppressed. I want so desperately to frame recent events in a way that makes them less horrible than they really are. I want to say these shootings are anomalies. But there is way too long a list of dead black individuals to believe that fallacy for long.
So I am left to wonder what I can do as a father, a citizen, a white man and an educator. I was initially relieved, as news of these shootings unfolded, that it is summer and school is not in session. Why? Because I had no idea what I would say to my students. What lesson am I supposed to glean from the shooting of a man pulled over for a taillight while a 4-year-old little girl sits in the backseat? What lesson am I supposed to pull from a video in which a man, already on the ground with two officers on top of him, is shot? What lesson comes from the deaths of the police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge?
The lessons my students are likely drawing are pretty clear: We live in an unjust society. If you are black, you might get shot by a cop. Black and white people are on opposite sides of some terrible line, staring distrustfully at each other. Those are not lessons I want to teach or affirm, so how can I counter them?
TT’s Cecile Jones was right in saying in a recent blog, “These are tough conversations to have with our kids and students, but this conversation must happen. We cannot continue to sweep these issues under the rug. … Don’t stay silent even if it feels like the same thing again and again—until every citizen is truly protected and served.” I don’t know what to do other than to continually use my voice to speak about what is really happening. We need to have these conversations, especially with anyone who does not want to look at the realities before us.
We should engage students, as well as neighbors, friends and family, with compelling questions they care about:
● What is the proper role of police in a community?
● What happens when police are dressed and equipped like military forces?
● What political narratives encourage stereotyping and prejudice?
● How do we examine our own biases and root them out?
We must also equip ourselves with facts. For example, we know that more white people have been shot and killed by officers than black people have since January 2015, according to a Washington Post database. But that’s not a complete picture. When you consider the percentage of specific demographics in the U.S. population against the percentage of those killed by police officers, systemic bias becomes clear. The Washington Post writes, “White people make up roughly 62 percent of the U.S. population but only about 49 percent of those who are killed by police officers. African Americans, however, account for 24 percent of those fatally shot and killed by the police despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population. … [T]hat means black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.”
The magical cloaks my boys were born with may not be wholly impenetrable, but the relative safety they provide is undeniable, especially when compared to young black men and boys of this country who appear to wear targets instead. Unless we talk about—and act on—the reality that this problem is one disproportionately affecting black lives rather than all lives, we are fooling ourselves.
Being white affords my family and me a position of relative safety. That means we must be that much more vocal. Remaining silent makes us complicit in another chapter of American history that does not offer justice for all. While we must recognize how incidents of police brutality disproportionately harm black people, we must act in a way that recognizes these shootings affect all people. We must speak and act not as if this is their problem, but with the knowledge that it is our problem. We must keep pushing the narrative away from divisiveness and toward unity in order to confront an evil that touches us all.
We must raise our voices in protest until everyone has the same chance at life and liberty.
Editor’s note: Teaching Tolerance has a list of teaching materials to assist with the difficult conversations described in this blog post.
Knoll is a writer and English teacher at public school in New Jersey.
We’ve been looking forward to this day for months! We’re honored to introduce the five recipients of the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching: Cody Miller, Karen Schreiner, Frances Weaver, Christopher Widmaier and Leslie Wills-Taylor. Our staff, along with an external panel of anti-bias education experts, selected these visionary classroom teachers based on their dedication to diverse students and their demonstration of teaching practices that exemplify the TT mission: reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relationships and promoting equity in schools.
"These five teachers instill the respect and understanding that’s not only necessary for a student’s success in school but also for navigating life in our increasingly diverse country," said Maureen Costello, Teaching Tolerance director. "They have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to helping students appreciate our differences, which helps ensure a better future for all of us."
Earlier this spring, the awardees welcomed TT into their classrooms so we could capture their teaching in action. We hope you’ll take a few moments to get to know them better—and to be inspired!
Henry Cody Miller
P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School
Henry Cody Miller, who goes by Cody, brings empathy and honesty into his classroom each day. As a ninth-grade English Language Arts teacher, he uses a windows-and-mirrors approach for his instruction, making sure all students in his class have mirrors of themselves in the books they read as well as windows into other people's stories. Miller also co-constructs the curriculum with his students, allowing them to suggest texts and books that interest them. "I believe the curriculum has to be a living, breathing entity, and I think it has to be made with teachers and students in mind," he says.
Miller is one of four educators working to increase opportunity by ending tracking for honors courses at his school. In addition to his teaching, which focuses largely on multicultural literature, he co-sponsors the "Decolonizing Club," a venue for students to discuss how colonialism has influenced their identities. He also leads school-wide professional development on creating inclusive spaces and curriculum for LGBTQ students. Miller is currently pursuing his doctorate in English education at the University of Florida.
Aspire Monarch Academy
Karen Schreiner is an anti-bias educator with a firm and vocal commitment to racial equality. In her role as a second-grade teacher in a majority Latinx school, she developed a literacy-based curriculum that strengthens students' social emotional skills, sharpens their sense of fairness and justice, and challenges them to engage in purposeful social activism and create change in their communities. "My students understand that equity doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing; it means everyone gets what they need," she says. A believer in the democratizing power of education, Schreiner includes multiple historical lenses and academic rigor to help her students explore diverse perspectives and to offer their own. She grounds her lessons in the Teaching Tolerance anti-bias anchor standards (Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action) to maximize her students’ awareness of justice and the power of their identities.
Schreiner’s classroom is truly a community. When students use racially biased language, she utilizes restorative justice circles to bring the community back together. Schreiner also prioritizes family engagement and brings families’ knowledge and assets into the classroom through units like the one she designed to help her students understand the Black Lives Matter movement.
Welsh Valley Middle School
For Frances Weaver and her students, the past is the present. An innovative social studies teacher, she creates transformative lesson plans based on current events that ask her students to connect modern moments to moments in history using inquiry and research. She applies this approach because she wants students to have the skills necessary to identify historical patterns and to advocate for justice throughout their lives. "I don’t want my students to feel like I know everything," she says. "I want us to have a shared dialogue where we figure it out, where we read multiple sources, where we piece together the different parts of history to make it a whole picture."
Weaver uses academic rigor and culturally proficient lesson planning to help deconstruct biases and to close achievement gaps—priorities she has focused on since she first launched her teaching career. At the center of all her work are respect, acceptance and the celebration of diversity. Weaver says, "Conversations at the dinner table are changing in Lower Merion because of my students."
World of Inquiry School #58
Rochester, New York
Chris Widmaier teaches senior-level science in the same Rochester school district he attended as a student. At World of Inquiry School #58, he uses science instruction to empower his students, emphasizing the links between math, science and social justice. His students learn not only how STEM fields have been used to perpetuate injustice, but also how science can be used to create a better world.
Widmaier holds multiple leadership roles at his school and is a founding member of the Rochester Regional Teacher Empowerment Network. Acting on his firm belief that "the purpose of education is to create communities based on peace, prosperity and inclusion," he uses responsive teaching and Expeditionary Learning to guide his students in accomplishing these goals and to "give them opportunities to push others to do the same." An advocate of outdoor learning, Widmaier has taken hundreds of students out of the classroom and into their communities and even to national parks as part of his instruction. He also founded and coaches a school swim team that has been recognized not only for athletic excellence but also for inclusion and sportspersonship.
Woodbrook Elementary School
Leslie Wills-Taylor is a passionate advocate who supports each student at an individual level. Family engagement is paramount in her classroom. "My families have an open invitation to come into the classroom and share what’s valuable to them," she says. "That allows students to see parents as experts on their own culture, and it allows students to really build those necessary skills of cultural empathy." She uses Teaching Tolerance lesson plans to build her students' vocabularies around social justice topics and to shape a classroom community based on respect.
In addition to her classroom duties, Wills-Taylor also serves her school as a Diversity Resource Teacher. She shares current research, organizes reading groups for her colleagues and supports her fellow teachers in piloting Culturally Responsive Teaching strategies designed to engage high-needs students. She also organizes family and community outreach events, which include a back-to-school neighborhood meet-and-greet, the Martin Luther King Walk-a-Mile for a Cause, school-wide multicultural festivals and classroom reading visits from minority community members. Wills-Taylor also does research-based professional development for her district.