Sarah Arnold was in a bind.
On the surface, the students in her 11th-grade English courses seemed to have their act together. Like so many people their age, Arnold's students saw open homophobia as uncool.
On the other hand, when Arnold listened to her students talking before the bell, she often heard an anti-gay undertone that disturbed her. Students might utter the phrase "that's so gay," or crack jokes about anything that defied gender stereotypes. And Arnold had to wonder why so few gay people in Elkhorn, Wis. were out of the closet.
"Some people would say we don't have a wide demographic variety here," Arnold said of the 94-percent-white Elkhorn Area High School. "It's more accurate to say that we have demographics that aren't acknowledged."
Arnold took on the problem directly in "Exposing Hidden Homophobia," a 37-day unit in which her students examined electronic media, short fiction and finally a novel of their choice to find the covert and overt ways our culture sends demoralizing messages to gay people.
She got them started slowly. Their first assignment: spend a class period writing an essay about one thing that makes you different from other people. Students would return to that essay again and again throughout the unit, as they conducted an in-depth exploration of depictions of the GLBTQ community in the mass media.
Students watched the film Trevor (about the struggle of a gay teen in the Bible Belt in the 1970s), viewed a PBS special about the anti-gay murder of Billy Jack Gaither, did Internet research on the nature of homophobia and, ultimately, selected and read a book from a short list of young adult works about gay issues (including Rainbow Boys, Getting It, A Tale of Two Summers and The Laramie Project, among others).
Her students resisted at first. Many didn't want to be seen carrying gay-themed books around school, fearful of how they'd be perceived by others. Some parents also balked: many people in Elkhorn attend churches that interpret the Bible as condemning homosexuality. In addition, administrators fretted about devoting more than a month of instruction to a single theme.
Still, Arnold had done her homework. When parents or administrators questioned the plan, she was able to show how it supported higher-order thinking skills. She had each student assemble and present, in a professional manner, a portfolio on their research. Students had to define sociological and literary terms used in the unit, analyze examples of gay themes in the media, do qualitative research to examine the changing culture within their schools and in the world outside, and write a letter explaining what they learned from the unit. Ultimately, the unit met almost every one of Wisconsin's state standards for writing.
Arnold made the unit optional, but despite initial discomfort on the part of some parents and students, all of Arnold's students chose to complete the portfolio.
The climate in Elkhorn didn't change overnight, but membership in the school's newly-formed Gay-Straight Alliance grew, and students' portfolios showed small but significant shifts in attitude. One student, who self-identified as "against gays and lesbians" at the beginning of the unit, later wrote: "Gay people cannot help how they feel and that is OK, I understand, I am just not for it. Most importantly, when people use that phrase 'That is so gay,' it hurts everyone, not just gays."
You don't need 37 days of class time to broach the topic of hidden homophobia, Arnold notes. Short nonfiction works such as "A Rose for Charlie" take only a few class periods to explore and are easier to work into a schedule.
By keeping an eye out for current events related to gay issues, teachers may find opportunities to start a discourse. Arnold recalls how she sparked a lively discussion by simply providing her students with a copy of a newspaper story about a hate group that protests at the funerals of gay people and soldiers killed in the Iraq war.
"All you have to do is bring it up, and the kids launch into a conversation," Arnold said. "They say, 'can you believe people would say these things?' And that's a chance to talk about what we ourselves are saying, and the effect our words have."
Teachers and administrators who have seen Arnold's work have been inspired to incorporate it into their own curriculum. Colleen Rafter, principal of Raritan High School in Hazlet, N.J., said that after seeing Arnold's approach, she encouraged her English department to adopt a similar curriculum.
"We really want to make a change in how people think and act," Rafter said. "I will try to be more brave on these issues myself."