Beginning a GSA at your school

For many school boards across Ontario, students can participate in extra curricular activities again during the 2021-2022 school year. For those of you thinking about starting a QSA or GSA in your school this fall (yeah!), here are few tools and pieces of information to get you started!

What is a QSA and GSA?

A GSA is a student-run group, supported by staff, that unites 2SLGBTQ+ and allied youth. It gives students a safer space to talk, learn and educate others about gender identity and sexual orientation.

Although the Education Act refers to GSAs as Gay-Straight Alliances, many schools are moving away from the title Gay-Straight Alliance to a more inclusive Gender-Sexuality Alliance or Queer-Straight Alliance.

Am I allowed to start a GSA or QSA at my school?

Yes, Yes and Yes!! In 2012, Bill 13 was passed that was an addendum to the Education Act that focused on Safe Schools. Included in that Bill was a section that protects a student’s right to have a GSA at their school. I’ve included it here to aid in conversations that might be happening at your school:

303.1  

(1)  Every board shall support pupils who want to establish and lead activities and organizations that promote a safe and inclusive learning environment, the acceptance of and respect for others and the creation of a positive school climate, including:

(d)  activities or organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.

(2)  For greater certainty, neither the board nor the principal shall refuse to allow a pupil to use the name gay-straight alliance or a similar name for an organization described in clause (1) (d).

How do I get started?

If you are not sure how to get started, that is not a problem at all! There are so many resources to support you in supporting your students. ETFO has a very extensive list of 2SLGBTQ+ videos, pamphlets, websites etc. There is also an amazing website created by a Peel District School Board committee called “Make Peel Proud” that supports educators in bringing queer identities into their classroom throughout the year and will help to get your GSA or QSA started.

What should we do in a GSA?

Ideally, it is student led and organized. At many schools it is just a safer place to hang out, chill and chat. Some schools have a group that is very active in their social justice work. It can be whatever the students and you decide it should be. Our GSA has evolved greatly over the years and every year is quite unique.

Last year, during our online GSA, the students who joined were quiet at the beginning. We were online and there was very little talking or interacting for our first session. I decided to plan a few sessions to give us some foundational info to get started and break the ice. The students took over after that.

The activities that we did in the first four or five sessions:

  • Introduced the concept of a GSA. We looked at the term 2SLGBTQ+ and figured out what students knew about each of the identities listed. We did a Menti.com word cloud which enlarged the words that the students knew really well. This told me a lot about what level of understanding and knowledge many of the students brought to the group.
  • Looked at the Peel District School Board’s student census with a particular focus on the question “What percentage of students identify as 2SLGBTQ+?” It showed us that there are many students in grade 7 and 8 that identify as 2SLGBTQ+ even though their classmates might not be talking about it.
  • Shared YouTube videos of our favourite Queer musicians.
  • Shared our thoughts about our school and how safe it is for students who identify as 2SLGBTQ+.

Why is it important?

Our students who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ are some of our most vulnerable students. They may not have a space in their school or family life that is supportive. Therefore, a GSA or QSA can play a very important role in establishing a safer space for students.

What if nobody comes?

That is okay. Give it time. By clearly identifying yourself as the coordinator of your school’s GSA, you have told students that you are a safe and supportive person that they can approach when they are ready.

3 things

It’s  the start of week 3 in most public schools, and it feels like we are in for some long months ahead. I have 3 things to share to start the year:
1. Hybrid teaching sucks
2. Your students have something to tell you
3. Did I mention that hybrid still sucks?

1. Despite the social, emotional, and physical toll of teaching and learning during a pandemic, I can’t shake the optimism I have when spending time with my students. Bar none, they are the only source of inspiration strong enough to power me past some medieval level system decisions made by our current government and local school boards.

The hybrid learning option is a stunted and thoughtless response to the educational needs of students and their families. It is an institutional cop out that is replete with a debilitating amount of sadism to demean the well-being of educators charged with making magic with little more than cheap tech, a perfunctory kudo, and a “Your wellness matters” memo. Countless educators have shared how this method of education does little to serve student or teacher yet it was still chosen as the “viable option”. #hybridhurtskids #hybridharmseducators

2. Have you checked in with students to see how they’re doing yet? I know it has been a hella couple of weeks already, but have you asked this year’s class how they feel, how they like to learn or what challenges they are facing being back in the classroom? If you did, were there any surprises? If you didn’t, no worries, it’s never too late.

My experiences with dedicating class time to conversations, Google forms, or free writing tasks to asking these questions are very insightful. Students have voices. They are honest and opinionated. Best of all, students will speak their truths as long as they have a safe, judgement free place to do so.

I have found this beginning of the year check-in to be a powerful way to build relationships of caring and understanding from the start. This comes by establishing the conditions from which they are safe to do so. That usually happens by listening first, holding back the urge to solve or fix or give unsolicited advice or admonishment. Trust me. It’s worth it in order to build trust with learners from the earliest days. This year, more than ever before, students whether in class, EVS or in syncronous hybrid pergatory need to know their teachers are there listening to them, seeing them, and willing to support them.

Here are a few things shared over the past couple of weeks

“I am stressed about getting good marks by my family.”

“I feel anxious when we do math and I get called on.”

“I do not like presenting in front of others.”

“I am bad at; math, art, french, english, science” etc.

“I don’t have any friends who understand the way I feel.”

“My parents are fighting at home and it bothers me and my sister.”

“Someone close to me or my family died, and I am sad.”

“My pronouns are he/him, she/her, they/them,”

Hearing and reading such honesty from students can evoke strong emotions. Their words speak truth into the role we all have in the lives of not only the academic learner, but the whole child. In short, relationship, mental health, trust, and wellbeing need to happen first before any lessons are shared.

Thankfully, these beginning of year conversations and questionnaires also yield a lot of optimism and hope from students too. They are thrilled to be back with their peers, in their school, and with their teachers. Student voice is often the only fuel I need to fuel my emotional fire to teach somedays. We all need something to get us through tough times when the system is designed counter-intuitively to the needs of the community it is tasked to serve.

3. As you read through the 2nd thing, I hope you did not forget that #hybridhurtskids and #harmseducators. As I start my 3rd week with a mic on my head, a mask over my face, and webcam on, I fear for the disconnect that is happening with my OGs(online guys). Now instead of devoting both ears to 26 students in class, I have one ear for 24 and the other for 2 hybrid learners. As age continues to take away my ability to hear, this concerns me. It’s exhausting and many times I am only able to hear a fraction of what I could when not divided and encumbered by tech.

First, how is this fair to any one child when I can only devote half of my auditory function to a room filled with students? How can students be expected to hear me clearly when I articulate a particular pronunciation to practice in reading or vocabulary when I can barely hear myself with a headset on? And then there are the visual content issues?

Not everyone has a document camera to share texts or show how to share thinking spontaneously or good lighting for hybrid kids to see what is being shared on the board. How are students expected to see what I am sharing when the camera does not focus or adjust? Anything projected to the whole class becomes washed in the worst possible lighting fluorescent bulbs can provide.

Then there is the whole OT and prep teacher transition piece. Connecting is not easy, especially when the tech does not always come with the proper cords from class to class. I now have an HDMI, USB-C, and VGA adapter, but know many educators do not. There are significant gaps starting to happen already and coupled with the emotionally taxing work that is happening, something is going to give. Does this seem familiar?

And yet, this is what is going to happen next…

I am going to teach like I am on a reality show tomorrow. I am going to give the performance of the day. I am going to go home defeated, drained, and desperate to believe that the next time back in class will go without a hitch. I will continue to listen to my students first, honour their voices and fight against the derogation of education by people who have not been in a classroom in decades.

 

 

 

“Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” M. Rukeyser

April is National Poetry Month.

During this challenging year, poetry has supported critical and courageous conversations, offered some comfort and hope, while honouring pain and anger. Here are some examples of what this work has looked like and sounded like in our Grade 2 classroom:

Igniting the Spark: Amanda Gorman
The whole world was inspired by the poetry and brilliance of Amanda Gorman in January 2021. Her poem, “The Hill We Climb” filled us with light during this time of “never-ending shade”. Her story about overcoming a speech impairment reminded us all to believe in ourselves and find our voice. I shared her poem and her TEDTalk with my students, and she was the spark for our inquiry about the power and possibilities of poetry.

Power Poems for Small Humans:
I have reached for poems during difficult times when I could not find the words to express my feelings. Jillian Christmas is a Vancouver-based slam-poet, who is an organizer and activist in the arts community. I have shared her poem, “On Honouring Anger” in response to racial violence and injustice that continues to impact students, staff and families, and requires educators to take action.

This poem, and other powerful voices can be found in an anthology called “Power Poems for Small Humans”, published by Flamingo Rampant. Flamingo Rampant is a micro-press that publishes children’s books that center and celebrate stories of kids taking action, disability pride, 2SLGBTQ+ voices, racial justice and more. Please check out their website and bring their books into your classroom library!

Yesterday, I Had The Blues:
When we were learning remotely, I used the Poll feature on ZOOM to check-in with students. One day, the question was: “How are you feeling today? Choose a colour to describe how you are feeling.” Students were invited to analyse the data, and share why they chose the colour. Then, we talked about different ways that people experience colour. We listened to the story, “Yesterday, I Had the Blues” by Jeron Ashford Frame, and made text-to-self connections.

Next, we read selected poems from “Hailstones and Halibut Bones” by Mary O’Neill. I love this book, but it is important to preview the poems, because there is one poem that uses outdated language, and needs to be unpacked or revised. Each poem begins with the same question, (e.g. What is Orange?) and uses the five senses to describe colour in poetic ways. I created a graphic organizer, and students were invited to write their own Colour Poems.

Pink!
On the International Day of Pink, we had a discussion about how some people think that pink is a “girl’s colour.” We talked about where these ideas come from, and how these gender rules might make people feel excluded. We created a poster using post-it notes to capture our ideas, in the style of a JAMBoard. Then, we wrote our own “What is Pink?” poems and displayed them in the hallway. 


Quick as a Cricket:
After reading, “Quick as a Cricket” by Audrey Wood, students wrote poems using the template, “I’m as ____________as a ___________.” This was a fun and accessible way to learn about the poetic device of similes. A simile compares two different things using “like” or “as” in an interesting or unexpected way.

Gratitude Poems:
After reading several poems from a collection called “ThankU: Poems of Gratitude”, we wrote our own “Dear Water,” poems. Students used the following sentence prompts to write a letter to our relative: “I love….I think….I will….I hope….You are….” On World Water Day, we read our letters to each other in the Rainbow Garden and talked about what we value, and how we might protect water. 



Splish! Splash! Splat!
One rainy day, we brainstormed different sounds that water makes. Then, we learned about Concrete poems, which are poems that take the shape of the subject that they are describing. Students chose a shape and wrote a poem about water. 



Respond and Rebuild:
We will continue to explore poetry, self-expression and identity by writing an “I am Me….” poem. This lesson plan is from www.welcomingschools.org and can also be found in ETFO’s newest resource, Respond and Rebuild CRRP Lesson Plans. I am looking forward to integrating movement and choral reading to this work.

What are your favourite poems or poets to explore in the classroom?



Gender Splendour!

This year, our school community will celebrate Gender Splendour from April 6-9, 2021.  It will be our 11th year implementing arts-based curriculum that explores gender identity and equity, 2SLGBTQ+ communities, inclusive families, and disrupts homophobia and transphobia. 

Over the years, the Kindergarten-Grade 6 students have participated in several inclusive and intersectional workshops, including: Love Makes a Family, “The F-Word” (feminism), Kiki Ballroom and the History of Voguing, Toys Will Be Toys, LGBTQ+ Rights Around the World, Pronouns and Possibilities, and more! 

When I was in elementary school, my mother came out as a lesbian.  This was in the 1980’s and she told us not to tell anyone because she was afraid of losing her job.  I learned about the painful impact of fear, silence, and homophobia outside of the home.  I also learned about the power and strength of community and love, as we marched in the streets at parades and protests.  My young life as an activist and an ally has developed into a strong, on-going commitment to social justice.  When I became an educator, I was determined to break the silence and celebrate the pride and resistance of 2SLGBTQ+ communities.

All You Need is LOVE….and an ALLY:

When Shannon Greene joined the staff, I found an ally and an accomplice.  We were both creative and committed to transforming our pedagogy.  Together, we brainstormed ideas about how we might support students, families, and staff to explore and express their intersectional identities.  We gathered resources, including picture books and media texts to support these critical conversations.  We reached out to families and community members, and generated guiding questions to investigate.  We wanted to empower students to stand up to injustice and take action.  And we wanted to have fun!!   

Boas and Bowties:

We celebrate Gender Splendour during the second week of April, which includes the International Day of Pink.  This year, COVID-19 has pushed our celebration a week earlier.  In addition to wearing pink, we encourage everyone to dress-up in different ways.  These Dress-Up Days are always optional.  They are meant to be playful and fun, and create brave spaces for community members to express themselves without fear.  In the past, we have worn: Rainbow Colours, Wings and Capes, Boas and Bowties, Clothing Inside-Out, Spots and Stripes, Glitter and Glam, and Pink! 

Free to Be:

Every social movement needs a soundtrack.  Throughout the years, we have discovered several songs that make us think, and make us dance.  “True Colours” by Cyndi Lauper, is an anthem that honours how it feels to be seen.  “Same Love” by Macklemore, explores issues of homophobia and same-sex marriage.  “Stereotype” by Samsaya, invites us to stand up to injustice.  Recently, we collaborated with Freedom School Toronto, and learned about how dance can be a form of resistance.  Everyone enjoyed learning about Kiki Ballroom, and the five elements of voguing, before strutting our stuff on the runway. 

As we prepare to smash gender stereotypes and critically examine gender binary roles in our society, I am feeling reflective, grateful, and proud.  I am also looking forward to practicing my “death drop!”

International Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day!

 

What does this mean to you?
What does this mean to your teaching practice?

 

Feminism is for everyone

“Eighty-one percent of the members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) are women and, in many ways, the history of women teachers reflects the struggles of all Canadian women” (ETFO voice, 2016 https://etfovoice.ca/feature/looking-back-womens-history-ontario-teacher-federations). 

The world needs women. Feminism can be practiced daily by elementary educators in Ontario. Not because we are a group largely composed of women, but because a society that values women is one that promotes equity, opportunity, and growth. Feminism is not exclusively for women. Feminism in the classroom generates a culture founded on inclusivity. This environment creates a safe space for critical thinkers, status-quo challengers and allows students to grow into adults who advocate for positive change. 

You cannot have feminism without intersectionality 

You cannot support women without supporting Black women. Women who belong to racialized groups. Women with disabilities and special needs. Women who are part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community. FNMI women. Women who are marginalized by society. Elderly women. Young women. 

We must support all women, teach about all women, listen to all women and respect all women. To not value the experiences of all women is to misrepresent the harsh reality women have lived and continue to face. Inaccurate or nonexistent representation of women places student learning and well-being at a disadvantage.

Women deserve equitable opportunities and to see themselves reflected in curriculum 

Women merit the encouragement to become involved in science, math, engineering, technology and sports. Our students have the right to equitable opportunities in all aspects of curriculum and school activities. In order to promote these experiences in the classroom, students must see themselves reflected in past and current literature, stories, videos, guest speakers and so on. Let us get rid of those history books that exclude or depreciate women’s accomplishments and rather promote the positive impacts women have made, and continue to make in the world. 

Let’s continue to celebrate women today and every day

Cheers!

On Being a Queer Educator in Ontario Schools

If you read Part 1, you’ll know by now that my experience as a student sucked. By the time I went to teacher’s college, I had fully embraced my queerness. I had a reasonably good handle on my identity. As I took my first baby steps into the world of teaching, I had decided that I was going to do better for my students than any of my teachers did for me.

Oh, to have that same youthful optimism and fire.

After ten years, so much of it has been chipped away by constant reminders that the school system and almost everyone in it are still perpetuating the idea that there is a “default” and then there are aberrant identities that are outside of that norm.

Think about your experience as an educator and whether any of these moments have happened at your school:

  • Being asked to “balance” the distribution of boys and girls when creating class lists.
  • Playing “boys vs. girls” in Phys Ed.
  • Having a “boys team” and a “girls team” for intramurals.
  • Creating groups of desks to intentionally mix genders.
  • Having “boys” and “girls” washroom passes.
  • Splitting the class based on gender for health class.
  • Saying “boys and girls” to address your class.

Do those feel innocent to you? No big deal? Look, it’s okay if you have done these things and never thought twice about them. Most of us have. But we have to acknowledge that those types of small actions contribute to the sense that we have a specific set of expectations around what it means to be a “boy” or a “girl.” That we expect all students to even fit into that binary. We have to be better than this.

Students notice these things. Some of them are obvious, like the Phys Ed example, while others you may think are more “behind the scenes” like class lists, but students notice. And when students notice those things, they draw conclusions about what the Institution of Education thinks about who is attending their schools.

And then, there’s how educators approach students who don’t fit those expectations.

I can’t tell you how much it hurts every single time I hear these things:

They’re too young to know they’re trans.

They just want attention.

I think they’re lying.

The other kids won’t get it and will all want to use the all-gender washroom.

I have to inform their parents. 

Fine, but I’m not going to change how I teach.

I can’t talk about this in class because parents will get upset.

I don’t know enough about this to teach any of it.

I don’t have time to do anything that isn’t in the curriculum.

Why do we need a neutral washroom if we don’t have any trans or NB students?

You think you’re commiserating with a colleague. You think you’re just expressing your frustration and stress with a colleague. What you’re doing, when you’re saying these things to a queer colleague, is often retraumatizing them. You’re reminding them of their otherness. You’re showing them that you consider their existence extracurricular and optional.

You’re showing not only your students but your colleagues, too, that you do not think their existence is worth the time to learn about, integrate into your teaching, and normalize.

But wait! There’s more!

Remember back in Part 1, when I talked about fear? And how it kept coming up at the PD day a few weeks back when we were discussing how to use a 2SLGBTQ+ resource in the classroom?

I want to talk about that fear.

When you say you’re scared of parent backlash, what exactly is it about that idea that scares you? What do you think will happen?

Will a parent post about you on social media?

Will a parent complain about you to the board?

Will a parent remove their child from your class?

Or are you scared that a parent will make an assumption that you are queer?

Are you scared that a parent will decide that you are unfit to teach their child?

 

Most importantly, why is it that you think that your fear is more important than your responsibility to your students to support them, validate them, see them, and show them a world where they are not something other and are, instead, just… normal?

 

Do you realize that your 2SLGBTQ+ colleagues and students have lived with fear their entire life? That we hesitate before putting our family photos up in our classrooms, the way that some of you do without thinking twice, because we are worried about the reaction?

 

And we notice, Reader, when you turn equity lessons into events instead of building it into your everyday teaching. We notice when you inform (let’s call it what it is: warn) families before discussing equity in the classroom. We notice when you give families the chance to opt their child out of lessons on equity.

As a queer parent, when I get a letter home “informing me” about an upcoming lesson where the class will be talking about a “challenging topic,” it signals to me that the educator and the school behind this letter consider this topic to be controversial. That there will be different points of view and that those have to be “respected.”

But my life is not a point of view. I have an absolute, inalienable, unassailable RIGHT to exist. 2SLGBTQ+ people are not a matter of debate, we are not an opinion – our existence is objectively right and we have an obligation, as educators, to promote and defend that existence just as fervently as we do all others.

When you leave space for debate, when you “respect all points of view” in your classroom, you’re telling your queer students and colleagues that you think it’s okay that some people believe that their existence is wrong.

And we notice that.

We notice when you refer to teaching about 2SLGBTQ+ as a challenging topic. Why is it challenging? 

Does it make you uncomfortable? Examine that, because that’s some problematic nonsense right there. 

Do you feel like you don’t know enough? Then educate yourself, just like you probably look up half of the Science curriculum every time you change grades. Or maybe that’s just me.

Are you scared of having to defend your teaching? Your board and union have both taken public stances in defense of 2SLGBTQ+ rights and they’re protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, so settle down.

Do you think you’re going to face a lot of questions from students that you may not know how to answer? Isn’t that… pretty much a daily experience in teaching, no matter what subject? Embrace learning WITH your students.

I’m glad that it’s becoming more commonplace to talk about 2SLGBTQ+ experiences, identities, and perspectives in class, but if you feel like you need to or even can warn your students’ families before discussing equity in the classroom, quite frankly, you aren’t talking about equity often enough.

 

Finally, I want you to know all the good things I notice, too.

I notice when you introduce yourself with your pronouns.

I notice when you don’t say “moms and dads” to your students.

I notice when you teach with books showing queer experiences – both as the lesson itself and without making the character’s queerness be THE POINT, because hey, we’re also just regular people doing regular things and it doesn’t all have to be about being queer.

I notice when you tell your students about the gender neutral washroom on their First Day of School tour.

I notice when you don’t say “boys and girls” to get your students’ attention.

I notice when you embrace inclusive intramural teams.

I notice when I can’t find any of the 2SLGBTQ+ picture books because they’re all out in colleagues’ classrooms being used.

I notice when I walk by your students and overhear them talking about what they’re learning in class.

I notice when students feel safe to explore their identity in your classroom.

I notice when students feel safe to come out in your classroom.

I notice when you don’t whisper “gay” like it’s a bad word.

I notice when you don’t wait for me to be the one to say, “This long standing practice is problematic and rooted in homophobia. Can we change it?”

 

There’s a long road ahead of us. When educators are more scared of community backlash than they are of harming their students, we have to call that out.

Your inaction is causing harm.

Your fear is causing harm.

Your students deserve better than that.

On Being a Queer Student in Ontario Schools

Recently, there was a PD day in my board where the morning was dedicated to equity training. We started with a discussion about a book that has been provided for every school in the OCDSB titled George

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, here is a brief synopsis from Scholastic Canada

A bright, bold debut about a girl who was born a boy, but refuses to let that stand in the way of her dream.

More than anything else, George wants to play Charlotte in her fourth-grade class’s production of Charlotte’s Web. The problem is, her teacher won’t let her, because George is a boy. But George isn’t about to let that squash her dream. With the help of her best friend, George must learn to stand up for her wish — and brave a few bullies along the way.

Transcending all categories and genres, George is a pertinent and poignant middle-grade read for kids of all backgrounds.

As soon as this discussion was presented to us, I felt my heart rate increase. I debated turning my camera off (we were doing this PD remotely) so that my colleagues couldn’t see my reactions. We were given a few minutes to explore some questions about how we would approach this text in the classroom and share our thoughts on a collaborative whiteboard.

Reader, I didn’t make it past the first question: “What biases do we have that we may bring to the text?”

I didn’t make it past this question because I kept seeing the word FEAR come up on the screen in front of me. I started to sweat. My leg started shaking restlessly. I found it hard to sit still. I grit my teeth and started adding my thoughts next to theirs: 

Why do we have to “warn” families that we are going to use this resource?

This implies that there is something controversial about being queer.

As educators, we have to make students feel seen and validated.

I’m not going to go through a detailed account of how that “training” went for me. I still haven’t fully recovered. It was an incredibly difficult day to get through and I left feeling overwhelmed by how much work there is to do in education to do better for our students. I’m going to talk about that “FEAR” idea later, after I put some of this in the context of Who I Am.

What I am going to do here is challenge the idea that discussions about 2SLGBTQ+ people, perspectives, and experiences are a challenging or uncomfortable topic in the classroom. This is going to be a two-parter, so bear with me. Maybe even a three-parter. Who knows when I’ll get to the exact point I’m trying to make.


In this first part, I’m going to talk about my experience as a student in this province.

In my Twitter bio, I describe myself as “Queer AF.” My profile picture has the pan flag as a background. I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s in a small town close to Ottawa and went to Catholic school from JK to OAC (grade 13, that magical year that no longer exists).

I know many people can point to the exact moment when they realized they’re queer, but I can’t. In many ways, it feels like I’ve just… always known. Because I’ve always been queer. What I needed, as a child, was the opportunity to see myself reflected in lessons, stories, media, discussions in the classroom.

That is not what I got.


There is something wrong with me. 

I can’t tell you how many times that thought ran through my head as a child. As a teenager. As a student. I remember watching movies and shows, reading books, seeing families in the news, and trying to imagine myself as an adult. Sometimes, I could see myself in these families. Sometimes, I could see myself fulfilling the role that society was very clearly expecting me to take on.

Sometimes, though, I couldn’t. There would be moments where I’d imagine myself as a Wife to a Husband and it just felt… wrong. Like it didn’t fit.

I got older. People started developing crushes. We’d talk, as friends, about who we “liked.”

I never liked anyone. I never had crushes. That’s what I told myself, anyway, because everything we were taught was that girls would have crushes on boys, boys would have crushes on girls, and that was that. That’s how “biology” worked. 

It wasn’t until later that I realized that oh, I had crushes, they just… were all on girls.

I sat in class thinking about this often. Why was I broken? What was wrong with me? I would try to pick out boys that maybe, one day, I could convince myself I liked. Sometimes it worked, fleetingly, but most of the time, I felt indifferent.

I moved on to high school. I wrote a love letter (yes, it was immediately shared around the school, and yes, it was mortifying) to a boy. I was deeply set in my feeling that everyone can tell that I am very broken inside and I needed someone to think that no, I’m normal, see? I have crushes on boys! I’m just a regular girl! Just like everyone else!

I think I had everyone else mostly convinced that I was straight, but I had trouble making and keeping friends all the same because the depth of that feeling of otherness was overwhelming. I struggled with mental health, self-harm, depression. 

I even tried to be a Good Catholic Girl in grade 11. I became very interested in liturgies. I tried very hard to make prayer work for me. When it came time for Reconciliation, I thought, This is it. This is where I can fix everything. 

I confessed to having feelings for other girls. But also, sometimes boys! I’m– I’m redeemable, right? This is my big chance! I’ll tell the truth, I’ll pray, I’ll do my penance, and then I’ll be “better.”

And at school, in a school-sanctioned (and required) event, with school staff, I was told that I would go to hell. It confirmed my fears that I was broken. Fundamentally wrong. A sinner. Don’t you want to have children? Don’t you want to go to Heaven? Don’t you want God’s love?

These questions, thrown at me like accusations by the school chaplain, are burned in my mind. The memories are like scars. I actually wrote them down. I kept the journal where I wrote that down for years, for some… awful, self-loathing reason. I don’t know why.

I was shaken by that. My mental health declined even further. I became convinced that my mental health was just another example of how irrevocably screwed up I was as a person. I mean, everyone else around me was “normal.” People were dating. In movies and shows, everyone was straight. If a character came out in the media, it was shocking. Because it wasn’t “normal.”

I withdrew into the online world even more than I had before. I threw myself into the online roleplaying community, playing make-believe as all manner of characters from different genres. I wrote stories – so, so many stories. I read fanfiction. I learned what “slash” and “shipping” meant.

Most importantly, online, I found the queer community. It was sneaky, at first – just little glimpses of other people who were like me, hidden in their writing and the characters they played. I started to wonder if I wasn’t so alone. In time, this world of beautiful, bright, loving, ABSOLUTELY NORMAL PEOPLE helped me see that it wasn’t me that was wrong, it was the world I was expected to live in that was.

And reader, that made me so angry. I had wasted so much time hating myself, trying to fix myself, trying to be someone I wasn’t. I had hurt myself, and in the process, I had hurt my family, too. I had pulled away from them because I didn’t want to cause them pain by being their broken kid.

Furious at my own ignorance to my identity, emboldened by my online friends, determined that none of this should be this way, I came out as bisexual at school in grade 12.

The reaction was swift, decimating, and brutal. People teased. People joked. In that same journal from before, I kept track of the things people said to me: I was doing this for attention. I was saying this because I was too ugly or weird to get a boyfriend. Besides, I couldn’t be bi if I’d never even kissed a girl to know if I really wanted to. What a weirdo. What a freak. Obviously I’m screwed up, since I also have all those scars on my arms. Hey, is that why I was trying to die? Because I knew how screwed up I was?

I hid. I got quiet. I did not talk about being bi after a few weeks of that misery. By OAC, I think most people had forgotten about my moment of “attention-seeking” and moved on to some other target. It wasn’t until I had moved away and started university that I let myself explore my identity and figure out some small piece of who I am.


So. You’ve read all of that, and you’re wondering what any of this has to do with education, maybe? Maybe you think that none of the responsibility for this fell on the school, because after all, it wasn’t my teachers saying that I was a freak. It wasn’t my teachers saying that I was broken or looking for attention.

The thing is, they also didn’t normalize 2SLGBTQ+ identities. They didn’t talk about them at all. And because they never brought them into the class, not only did I sit there feeling like I was fundamentally broken because I couldn’t relate to what I was seeing – my peers internalized the idea that cis-het is the norm and everything else outside of that is deviant.

In short, school created, presented, and perpetuated a perception that being cis-het is the default. If any other perspectives ever came up, they were immediately juxtaposed with the Straight Experience. If students tries to explore queer topics in their work, they were summarily shut down, implying that there was something about it that was wrong or inappropriate for school.

School let me down.

There was a chance for school to be the place where my peers were shown a wide range of experiences, perspectives, and identities to broaden their worldview.

Instead, they perpetuated one experience and held it up as the one you’re supposed to have.

And we’re still doing it, but that’s what Part 2 of this is going to be about.


If you read all of that, thanks. There’s a lot in here that I’ve never said out loud – not to my partner, not to my family, not to my friends.

But it was time.

See you in Part 2.

G.L.O.W.

GLOW (Gay, Lesbian or Whatever) is an extracurricular club for Grades 6-8 students to explore issues related to the 2SLGBTQ+ community and their allies. We have been meeting on-line every week since April 2020. Before COVID-19, we would meet during lunch at school. GLOW is a proud and positive space for students and educators to share their own stories, ask questions, make art, and take action. It is always the highlight of my week.

There is extensive data to hold schools accountable and support students who may identify as 2SLGTBQ+. Many of these students continue to be bullied or harassed by their peers, and pushed out of school. It is critical that educators respond to homophobic or transphobic comments and actions that are harmful, and to teach diverse stories of 2SLGBTQ+ communities with pride.  There are several resources provided at the end of this blog.

WHERE DO I BEGIN?
You don’t need permission to start a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance). In fact, if a student requests a GSA, many schools are required to provide one. The first thing I did was reach out to my Grade 7/8 teacher friend, Tia Chambers. I asked her to share the role with me because everyone needs an ally. It didn’t take long before other staff wanted to join GLOW. This year, we are sharing the role of co-host with Kindergarten teacher, Nikki Kovac.

We start every meeting with an introduction, which includes our pronouns, and we answer a question. This helps us to build relationships and honour who we are. If there is a new member, we will review our GLOW Agreements. These agreements were generated together in our first meeting and describe what we hope for and what we need in order to feel comfortable.

After making our agreements, we invited students to share music that they like and we created a playlist. Some of these songs are performed by 2SLGBTQ+ performers, and other songs just make us feel good. We asked everyone for ideas about what they wanted to discuss, and the type of activities they might want to do. It is important for educators to amplify student voice, listen and respond with respect. Inspired and informed by the students’ ideas and questions, we prepare activities and questions to guide our discussion every week.

WHAT HAPPENS AT GLOW?
Here is an example of what we discussed at our GLOW meetings in February. As Valentine’s Day was approaching, I wanted to challenge the heteronormative narrative about love and romantic relationships that are reinforced by the media, and create space for more possibilities. I thought that we might discuss these issues and create our own Valentine’s Day cards with inclusive messages.

Our check-in question was about love. I asked: “What or Who do you love?” Then, I used these guiding questions: “What are the messages about love and relationships that you notice on television or in movies?” “Who do they include or exclude?” “How do these messages reinforce a “norm” about relationships that is heterosexual?” “How might we make Valentine’s Day more inclusive?” We also talked about self-love and different ways we might care for ourselves.

I shared a few examples of Valentine’s Day cards that provide a counternarrative, and I invited everyone to design their own inclusive Valentines. We talked about word play, and how Valentines often include puns and rhyme. As we drew, we listened to songs on our playlist. The following week, one of the students shared a poem that they had written about love that was inspired by our discussion. It filled my heart with pride.

RESOURCES
ETFO has created many resources to support educators who want to create brave and inclusive spaces in our schools.

My teacher friend, Melissa Major, has written two excellent articles in VOICE magazine, which can spark meaningful discussions with your students:

How to Become a Super Rad Gender Warrior reminds us that all members of a school community have the right:

To be free from discrimination and harassment.
To have a safe and inclusive learning environment.
To use the bathroom or change room they feel is the most appropriate.
To dress in a way that feels right and safe for them.
To be spoken to with their chosen name and gender pronoun.
To be treated with dignity and respect and the recognition that all gender expressions and identities are a normal and healthy part of a spectrum.
To present their gender in different ways at different times

Gender Neutral Language: An Activity for Day of Pink or Any Day explains how educators can use inclusive language to disrupt the gender binary.

Last Spring, I attended an ETFO webinar called “How to start a GSA and support 2SLGBTQ+ during Remote Learning” presented by Toronto teacher, Jordan Applebaum. It was intersectional and inspiring. You can watch the webinar in four parts here:

Be Proactive to Support Trans and LGBTQIA2S POC – Part 1
Be Proactive to Support Trans and LGBTQIA2S POC – ​Part 2​
Be Proactive: How to Start a GSA During Remote Learning – Part 3​​
Be Proactive: How to Start A GSA During Remote Learning – ​Part 4

I have also joined a few Facebook groups to support this work. Recently, I discovered that the Durham District School Board has created Pink Shirt Day and Beyond, a slide deck which is filled with lesson plans to use in the classroom or at your next GLOW meeting.

Shine on!!

 

Hindsight is…

Please don’t make me finish the title until the last second has ticked off the clock. I may have developed a defensive outlook about this trip around the sun. While I know this Gregorian Calender measurement of time will soon be in the rearview mirror of our lives, it is still a battle avoiding the queasiness and wincing that come when I think about all we have been through in 2020. Can resolutions be far behind?

Dang! I just wrote 2020

My understanding, perhaps acceptance, of this year is coming into clearer focus. It has been an extraordinary year on so many levels, and thus a great opportunity for personal growth. It has also been an educational year because, dang, I learnt a lot. 

Dang! I just wrote ‘dang’ again. 

I also taught a lot, and despite it feeling like a roller coaster ride from hell along the way, it meant that there were many lessons for me as an educator in 2020 too. Which made me happy to find this quote below after thinking I made it up myself. 

“If you are not learning, then you are not teaching.” Vernon L Smith*

A wise and gentle reminder that there was always something new to learn about ourselves, the students we teach, and the world around us during periods of unexpected loss, labour strife, professional uncertainty, and a global crisis. Smith’s words echoing loudly as I type. Here’s my version of it à la René Descartes. 

I learn, therefore I am a teacher.

So here is what I learnt from hindsight/2020:

  1. Take time to grieve and offer comfort first when students/families are hurting. The lessons can wait. It hurts to lose a student to senseless violence. Our school felt this very deeply last January
  2. Sometimes governments do not have the best interests of the population in their actions. Standing up to malfeasance and legislated tyranny is the right and a responsibility of all educators. 
  3. Mental health matters more than marks. Students/educators who struggle will not miraculously get better after a call to a helpline or a conversation with a social worker/psychologist. It is a process that takes time and patience before progress. I learned that there is much more to learn in this area to better support students, colleagues, and myself. 
    Remember that no matter how many times people tell you to take care of yourself first, there have to be reasonable boundaries and supports to make that happen. An encouraging message from admin, a Board Director’s email blast, or the Minister of Ed is not going to suffice. Set your boundaries. Do what you can do within them. Take time to be still. The work can and will wait. 
  4. Equity in schools needs to go way beyond a single day in the classroom, Orange/Pink/Purple shirt days are great starting points, but most not become performative events, but rather actionable beginnings to build on everyday in classrooms. There are so many amazing inclusion and equity resources being shared via school boards and social media for educators committed to allyship and activism in areas of Truth and Reconciliation, anti-black racism, LGBTQ2+, and culturally responsive relevant pedagogy. I learned that words in a classroom mean very little if they are not accompanied by opportunities to critically engage learners to become agents of change. 
  5. I learned not all educators are ready to confront their privilege and unearned advantage. I also learned that acknowledging my own privilege comes with the responsibility to examine my pedagogy and practice. It is a chance to unlearn, learn, and then teach. 
  6. If you are going to move into emergency distance learning within a short period of time, take it slow and make sure you have an ergonomic work space for those extended hours of screen time ahead. I learned that not all students have the same amounts of available space or bandwidth required for virtual school. I also had to accept that some students checked out the moment learning became asynchronous. 
  7. Rethink, question, iterate, bend, blend, and break everything you have done in the past to teach. Say goodbye to “we’ve always done it this way thinking”. Reimagine your reading lists, your math instruction, your use of worksheets, your classroom management, and your assessment approaches. This will not be easy, but it will be worth it. Embrace the discomfort. Learn from it, and then teach forward knowing 2020 taught us all so much. 

Thank you for a wonderful year at the speed of education. Please feel free to add what 2020 taught you in the comments below. Cheers to you all, and to a safe trip around the sun in 2021. 

*  There is comfort in the knowledge that the quote above is attributed to a Nobel Prize winning thinker because before checking, I thought the words above were mined straight out of my mind. Needless to say, I am happy to share a common thought in esteemed company. Searching out the source of the quote also allowed me to discover some of Smith’s other vast body of work in economics.

 

Creating a Safe Space for 2SLGBTQ+ Students and Families

Growing up as a queer kid in a small town, my experience in school wasn’t always very welcoming. Everything felt like it was designed in a way that assumed that I – and everyone – was cis and straight, from the books we read to the forms we took home and the way everyone spoke in class. Because I didn’t fit into the world they were presenting me, it felt like there was something wrong with me.

When I became a teacher, I made a promise to myself that I would do everything I could to avoid doing the things that made me so uncomfortable as a student. I don’t want any of my students to feel like they or their families aren’t seen, valued, and most of all, completely normal. 

There are many simple ways that you can make your classroom more welcoming to queer students, families, and colleagues. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are some things I would like you to consider for your own practice:

Drop the words “Mother” and “Father” from your communication home. I still see educators doing things like sending home student information forms with a ‘Mother’ field and a ‘Father’ field. This only serves to ‘other’ students whose families don’t fit this image. While you’re at it, why not make sure you have more than two fields for parents/guardians?

Stop playing “boys versus girls” or using gender as a way to split up students in class. Not only does it reinforce archaic notions of some imaginary divide between genders, but it also puts some of your queer students in an awkward and difficult position. You should never be creating a situation where a student has to out themselves or mis-gender themselves just to participate.

Include 2SLGBTQ+ content in your class without always making being queer “the point” of the lesson. While it’s important to openly discuss queer issues and perspectives in your classroom, it’s also important to make sure that you are including queer content without feeling like you need to justify it in some way. Your students need to see themselves in your teaching, but they also need to believe that you see them as a normal part of the world that doesn’t always need to be pointed out, discussed, and defended.

Schitt’s Creek did that very well, if you are familiar with the show. The writers included queer storylines without making them about trauma. They presented the world how it should be, how it can be, and it was beautiful.

Don’t wait until you have a queer student (that you know about) to offer support to your students. My school has a few genderless washrooms and I make sure to point them out to my students in the first week of school so that they know they’re available. I have a “Positive Space” sign up in my classroom at all times. I keep my language inclusive, making sure that I’m not saying things like “your mom and dad” and instead say “your family”. I share information about Youthline the same way that I share info about Kids Help Phone.

Stop assuming kids are “too young” to talk about the 2SLGBTQ+ community. There is no such thing. Kids aren’t too young to learn about cis/het families, so what’s the difference?

Teach gender-neutral language. I teach FSL, and I introduce gender-neutral pronouns alongside “il” and “elle”. It takes no extra effort on my part – I’m already teaching pronouns in Language Arts. You know what’s really cool? When they have the language ahead of time, they often use it openly, without hesitation, and without prejudice.


There are so many other things you can do to create a more welcoming space for your queer students and families, but I’d be here all night if I tried to capture them all. Those are just a few suggestions of small but meaningful changes you can make to help your students feel safe and seen. I hope you give them some thought.