by Read Karsell
If you haven’t had to come out, you likely don’t know how overwhelming and all-consuming it is. From early middle school when I began to realize I wasn’t interested in women, being gay was all I was thinking about. It's paranoia. Every second you talk, you worry you don’t sound straight enough.
I didn’t say gay throughout high school; yet, a day didn’t go by when it was not on my mind. Throughout my education, I had to insist I was straight whenever I was asked if I was gay (which began in forth grade when I didn’t even know what gay was). In high school:
I’d arrive home, struggling daily, because I had this secret I was keeping from my family. I knew they'd be accepting of me, but every day until my coming out was riddled with guilt because I felt I owed it to them. To combat this, I started setting goals:
What ended up forcing my hand was a combination of my mom asking me directly and my self-made rule that I wouldn’t come out to my dad by bringing a boy home--and I held myself to it.
And, one more thing: my experience is privileged.
My Story is a Success Story
I am privileged to have been born into a family that, for whatever reason, is accepting of me. Having met a lot of queer people after coming out, my story is a lesser known one--one of total acceptance. Most people don’t get that. Many have family they have yet to tell, and/or have family that doesn’t acknowledge them. The family of a person very close to me “accepts and loves them unconditionally, will never accept that part of them.”
So, to sit and write this, know my story is true, but I share it sitting unscathed in the rose garden while so many in my community are being pricked by thorns.
My Character Helps Students Sketch their Own Character
I am was not the first closeted kid in that high school and I won’t be the last. This is and will always be true about every school in every town across every state in the U.S. no matter the laws that are in place. Every day I get to be the teacher I never had: the openly gay teacher
When I told my students I am gay at the start of the school year, I promise you, not one student was fazed. Each class had multiple faces light up, each class had one or two students who gasped with happiness, and one class had two students who exhaled a “YESSSSSSSS” and then turned to high fived each other.
In the immediate days following, those students talked to me more, they brought their significant others to class and hugged or kissed goodbye at my door, and they all showed a relaxedness in the space we had created. It confirmed to me that there are students who are looking for queer educators and it makes a difference to have them.
Help Students Draft Authentic Stories
No matter who you are as an educator, there are ways to support LGBTQIA+ students.
Support Character Interaction
Start by going to GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) meetings.
This was a hurdle for me because I had actively avoided my own high school’s GSA (out of fear of being seen there and being outed), so doing so as an adult in the school I teach was still strangely difficult for me. I found it’s because I still have to come out to myself in different daily moments. The cause of that: internalized homophobia mashed with toxic masculinity. A horrendous cocktail that has a hold over the gay community and could be a doctoral thesis in and of itself.
My first GSA meeting was magical. It is a group of students in many different stages of their journey--some already aware of their sexuality and/or gender, some still trying to figure it out, and some trying to have a place where they can live as their true self for an hour a week.
This group of students--so special and unique--are the students you see in the halls every day, the students you have in the front seat of your class, and the students who just need an adult to say, I see you. I hear you. I am here for you.
Having attended regularly, I have been able to make connections with students who now stop by my room to check in with me. I can share my lived experiences with them, and they teach me about their lives and what they are discovering as they go along--so impressive and so empowering.
A GSA meeting from just a few weeks ago brings me to my next “here’s what you can do” point. A speaker came at one point and talked about a “Day of Silence'' as a day that the GSA could host at school. They explained it could be one of two things: (1) a day of silence for participating students to not talk as an act of solidarity with LGBTQIA+ people who live in silence everyday about who they are, or (2) a day to celebrate not being silent anymore and getting the word out through conversation and advocacy.
It was when the presenter referenced “people living in silence everyday about who they are and out of fear for their safety” that the student sitting next to me, a student I have in class, mumbled, “Relatable. That’s me everyday. Living in silence.”
Hearing that from my student, I was shocked; yet, not all. Living in silence wasn’t a new concept to my personal life, but it hurt that the student I teach everyday felt the need to be silent.
Add Some Dialogue
This student is in one of your classes too. You’ve walked by them in the hall many times, you teach their best friend currently, you’ve smiled at them as you chat with another teacher in their room. They are there: silent.
Consider writing a note.
I wrote that student a note the next morning. And it simply said,
Student, I heard what you said yesterday during GSA and I want you to know that I see you. I hear you. And when you do talk, know that I am listening and you are heard. When you’re ready and if you need, you can always talk to me or I can help you connect with someone you feel comfortable talking with.
Super simple. No pressure. But assuring. Then, at the end of class, in a tone and confidence that I never saw coming, the student came to me and assured me that if they ever needed, they would talk to me. Then I walked out just as casually as I had dropped the folded note on their desk at the start of class.
You can do that too! You don’t have to be queer or attend GSA, but you do have to listen. You have to pay attention to your students, and you’ll be able to find what to say. You also have to say gay--because gay ain’t going away.
Word Choice Matters
I want to touch on the other side of “Don’t say Gay”--straight isn’t going away either, and neither is being cisgender. The idea of “Don’t say Gay” enrages me because wedding rings won’t leave the ring fingers of all the people in man/woman relationships. The family photos won’t be taken off desks. The stories of my husband/wife, kids, and I went to the water park last weekend won’t go away. The straight and cisgender world will continue.
Meanwhile “Don’t say Gay,” as it is solely meant to, will eliminate a school community where students who aren’t checking the straight and cisgender, 1950’s expectations can be seen and heard.
Please, do say gay. Please, say they/them. Please, say Tanner even though the student roster says their name is Emma. Please, talk about what a healthy relationship looks like and how to get through the rough patches. Please, talk about sex instead of pretending abstenance works. Please, do say gay.
"Don't Say Gay" is a Fictional Tale
The “Don’t say Gay” bill is, at its core, impossible.
Even though it was hard to get the word out of my mouth, it was in my head every second of every day, from my bus rides home to conversations during math class. And, it’s on repeat in the minds of students today too.
Let’s acknowledge these silenced students, and the students who have made their voice heard too:
And, if none of this sits well with you, start with reading a book or watching a movie/tv show about the LGBTQIA+ experience: acquaint yourself with what your students are going through currently. If you’re feeling ready to take bigger steps forward, hang up a pride sign on your door and put an “I accept and support all” paragraph in your syllabi, write that student a note when you hear they need it, go attend a GSA meeting or start your own club.
And, of course, make sure to use the word gay.
by Phil Olson
Each fall, former students, seniors who are a week or a month into their last year of high school, show up at my door. They try for some small talk, while their eyes communicate that they know I know about the Ask that’s coming. It’s awkward and sweet, and I say yes, telling them it will be my pleasure. And it is.
In recent years, college recommendations are increasingly accomplished via one platform, the Common App, a non-profit organization that represents 900 institutions of higher education.
The application’s commonness allows students to complete one application for undergraduate college admission, instead of completing separate applications for each school. The platform also manages teacher recommendations, which consists primarily of letters of recommendation and a series of comparative ratings.
As far as an unpaid, part-time jobs go, completing college application recommendations is a good one. Let me explain.
First, I enjoy writing recommendation letters because I must pause to reflect on my experiences with students who are about to be done with high school. I think about the work we did together (in fact, I like to revisit and quote their essays!), the things I learned about their personal stories, and I marvel at the truly remarkable process of maturation that unfolds in dramatic, double-time fashion during high school.
Because I teach the spectrum of grade levels, I get to know my students first as kids and later as young adults. I like how the recommendation process caps our time together, and I find it meaningful to have played a positive role, sometimes small and sometimes substantial, in helping students prepare for and take next steps. I also get earnest thank you notes whose words do their intended job of making me feel useful and appreciated, and sometimes students show up to tell me when they’ve been accepted to schools and to talk through plans--often including the fact that they need additional recommendation letters for this scholarship and that. I get to help with those too.
A second, meaningful feature of the recommendation dynamic has made me a better educator, an improvement fueled by the ratings chart below. Give it a close read before we move on.
I have mixed feelings about rating recommendees in relation to student peers, but I continue to appreciate almost all of the categories, as they capture attributes that really matter—for success in high school, college, and life. The thing is that, years back, I realized I was rating students with regard to categories they were not aware of. Sure, these are things that matter to educators, but I can confirm they are not obvious to students who have absorbed messages about the defining nature of GPAs and standardized test scores. To be more blunt, students are confused about what matters, as evidenced by how surprised mine are when I share the chart with them.
Since teachers are evaluating students on the criteria above, it makes sense for us to establish them as "studenting" targets in our classrooms—targets that need to be discussed early and often.
A couple of criticisms:
Okay, “academic achievement” is challengingly broad and inclusive, and rating “intellectual promise” is a toughie, but I like to ponder the promise I see in my students. The student who writes poetry or plays chess beautifully? That’s promising. The student who is passionate about saving the planet, dismantling patriarchy, or understanding physics . . . promising!
The five criteria, with some overlap, that I find most meaningful:
Like many area teachers I am in the midst of ultra-busy weeks as I bring first semester classes to a close, while simultaneously preparing to transition to the second half of the year. This time in the academic calendar is always fraught, with extra helpings of grading (and some grade-grubbing) and planning, as well as a never-quiet Outlook inbox. This year, though, it’s fraught² (An exponent because many of us must wrap and restart in distance-learning mode. **Deep breath, focusing on a long exhale with healing self-talk: Phew... Everything will be okay.**)
As my students and I start second semester, we’ll wait on talk about percentages or papers; instead we’ll use the ratings chart to discuss authentic, effective studenting, which is even more important in distance-learning mode. Then they’ll reflect, in writing, on how they rate themselves for semester 1 before specifying targets for where they want to grow in semester 2.
They will write recommendations for themselves.
by Stefanie Whitney
I hear myself using the phrase “messy middle” quite frequently of late. This meander seeks to make sense of what the term “messy middle” even means.
In my mind’s eye, I imagine the messy middle as a place where one is suspended in an ocean between two shores–both shores well beyond reach. Solid ground no longer underfoot, it’s incumbent upon me to make decisions that will, once again, lead me to a steady, grounded place.
Some moments I have experienced this uncomfortable feeling in the classroom and community have been when I have turned over the reins of control and held my breath in wonder about what my fellow humans will do with them. What will they do with the foundation I have built? What will my role look like now? Will they need me? What if a mess is made of the beautiful ground I crafted? What holds? What falls apart? And what was my role in both outcomes?
We cannot possibly know how all of this (envision widespread hands, palms up, gesturing at our world) is going to turn out, which is a bone chilling reality for anyone who appreciates a semblance of control. A reality that seems all the more staggering as each month passes in this extended twilight zone in which we all exist. (Though, I’d argue that messy middles occur whether we are in the middle of a global pandemic or not.)
From here, my mind wanders to William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” particularly this stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
I am always admittedly stalled by Yeats' use of the word “loosed” twice, placed so closely together. In a little search for an improvement that I’m certain Yeats would appreciate, I arrived at Merriam Webster’s definition of loosed:
Loosed: (1) to cause a projectile to be driven forward with force (2) to find emotional release for (3) to set free as from slavery or confinement
Misters Merriam and Webster are speaking my language. For the purposes of this essay, please focus on the latter two definitions. Because of them, I will leave Yeats’ word choices alone. Also, if I may continue being so bold, it seems clear to me that Yeats was stuck in the messy middle of something, and he leaned on language to help make sense of it. The messy middle. Here we are. The middle of the school year, in the middle of a global pandemic, in the middle of hope for progress.
Observing myself and others during this sustained time of discomfort, I am starting to believe that the messy middle really indicates that moment when logic and structure disappear and emotions begin to creep into the fray. Of course, it makes sense to feel like things are starting to fall apart. That the center is not holding.
I find myself considering: Who built the center? And why is it their axis we seek to latch onto?
In fact, what if this discomfort isn't indicative of a “falling apart” at all?
What if we are active participants in the collision of our outdated systems and our ever-evolving value systems? And what if the result of this “turning and turning” is the suggestion that logic and structure do not hold without an awareness and grounding in values and emotions? Maybe the feeling of a messy middle simply indicates we are now entering a phase that cannot hold upon the foundation and structures of the past, without an approach that requires us to tread water while we look around, feel things more deeply, and root ourselves in updated, albeit still developing, value systems.
Safir and Dugan, in Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation, address this type of uncertainty:
The idea of throwing yourself into a change process with no known outcome and just a line of inquiry may feel uncomfortable and revolutionary all at once--a blast of fresh air on the stale econometric framework, which assumes we can data-fy and plan our way into new results. By contrast, emergence calls on us to slow down, listen deeply to those at the margins, bring folks to the table to reimagine the landscape with us, and move in partnership to build a new reality. It is a liberatory change model, freeing us from the fantasy of control while pushing us to maximize our influence in service of equity and antiracism.”
“...fantasy of control….” – “...the centre cannot hold….”
If we are finding that our old norms, our old systems are not working right now, then perhaps we need to investigate what those systems are built upon. If our souls are unsettled and we feel the bottom dropping out, then maybe our old systems are crashing head-on into our developing values; we are trying to hold our old systems up against an evolving human experience. It’s uncomfortable because that system felt safe and I knew my role, but I see more clearly all those not meant for that old system. They do not belong in it. So we don’t belong here, either. Change is crucial, and hard.
A bit about belonging
Brene Brown’s latest work, Atlas of the Heart, aims to help us identify and name experiences and emotions in order to gain power of “understanding, meaning, and choice.” While delving into the experience of belonging, Brown interviewed 8th graders about what it feels like to belong in a place. In their words:
Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you.
Brown juxtaposes the definition of “belonging” against the definition of “fitting in,” which they describe as:
Being somewhere where you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.
Brown further explains,
Because we can feel belonging only if we have the courage to share our most authentic selves with people, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our self-acceptance.
Which begs the questions:
Heart is sea,
(1) Belonging to myself–getting square with my values (for me, compassion and curiosity).
For an exercise on isolating your core values, check out Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead value activity.
(2) A sense of belonging within my communities.
It’s not lost on me that I have the privilege to seek out agency in most of my experiences. Do our students have this same privilege? All of our students, I mean? Social and emotional learning is an educational hot button right now, and rightfully so. The more language I have as an adult to work through my discomfort, my emotions, and get clear on my values, the more agency I have when working for equilibrium. As an educator, how can I build systems in my spaces that allow all of us to get grounded in our values, to belong in this community?
The Students’ Take
Inevitably, the responses of all 43 students, grades 8-12, revealed themes surrounding relationships, trust, and belonging. Feedback is an action, often a system at play. As an English teacher with limited time, logic centered my feedback, even if emotions (pride, frustration, excitement, passion) bolstered my feedback process. Students also acknowledged the existence of emotions at the heart of their feedback experience. All of the students spoke of how feedback, their teacher, or the classroom environment, made them feel.
Rarely did students talk about grades as the sole reason feedback is helpful, but all students discussed the need to have a relationship with the teacher or person giving feedback and a need to feel a sense of identity and belonging in the class. Some even spoke of the need for passion–from the teacher regarding their quest for students to learn and within the student for the subject area or topic. In short, students want to feel like they belong, like they are seen, and that their voices matter.
I’m struck by how students spoke of values and emotions, yet as adults we often find ourselves rumbling about external systems.
Of course, in this sustained discomfort, we are apt to fight harder to reach one shore or the other; some form of solid ground. But what are we hoping to accomplish with all the splashing, thrashing, and death grips on past systems that don’t serve everyone? What if we normalize the kind of discomfort that bends toward progress, inclusion, and shared humanity?
Maybe the next best step is to calmly look inside at what is causing the turbulence, ground ourselves in our values, and then confidently and slowly start moving in a direction that aligns our value systems with the external systems that demand our attention? In that slow motion, one shore starts to loom larger. We can belong to our messy selves, and we can move with those folk who want us among them exactly as we are.
Stefanie Whitney, EdD, works with the Curriculum and Instruction team in Rochester Public Schools (RPS). She's also been an English teacher, an AVID instructor, and both a high school and a middle school instructional coach in RPS.
Every once in a while, a kid finds a perfect peach of a topic and writes about it in a way that unties me. I want to share with you the story of “nonnie” so you see what I mean.*
That structure with time, to start and end with death, to bring nonnie to life in the middle.
Her metaphor is one we all know. There's a defining moment in our lives when we learn about death. nonnie represents the literal of this coming-of-age, but also her struggle up the hill represents how my student felt when she lost nonnie.
One would have to be a callous car crash of a person if they didn’t feel their heart explode when they learned about nonnie’s fate and the effect she'd had on my student, and the day I read this, the time of year I read this, that this had been the 80th out of 95 essays I’d read—nonnie’s story was literally the saddest thing I’d ever heard in my whole sad life and I would spend the rest of my days mourning nonnie and my student’s loss.
After I read about nonnie, I had a flashback to an experience I’d had on my grandparents’ dairy farm and a cow named Flopsy, who’d been born with a messed-up leg. The end of that story is predictable: while eating hamburgers one evening, my father brought it up.
That wasn’t the impetus of my response, however.
Since the assignment was not one short scene, but three, when I conferenced with my student this week, I reviewed more rough drafts. One was about a horse named Iago (and I’m sorry, but find a more perfect name for a horse). An excerpt:
He broke through the fence the first day we had him […] Iago became my favorite horse. First I was brushing him, that soon turned into riding him, performing tricks like standing on him, spending hours in the barnyard making different ¨5 star meals¨ out of oats, potatoes, and grass (sushi was the favorite).
The third scene was about a chicken.
the chicken I refuse to name
While we’re all nonnies this year, struggling up the hill (and praying we don’t meet her fate) maybe we can also be my student. It’s been a year of loss, so let’s talk about it. Maybe find the metaphors. Learn from our students.
And the next time you have a glass of milk, please pour one out for nonnie.
* The student has given me permission to share.
Jean Prokott is an English teacher in the Rochester Public Schools. She is also the author of the book The Second Longest Day of the Year which won the Howling Bird Press Book Prize, author of the chapbook The Birthday Effect, a recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Award, and has both poetry and nonfiction published in numerous journals. Learn more about Prokott online or connect via email.
Since reading is such an essential skill, it’s not surprising that the questions I receive most in my role as Teaching and Learning Director for Dover-Eyota schools revolve around reading.
- How can I help my child read more?
- Do you have books suggestions for my reluctant reader?
- My grandkid seems to be reading below grade-level: how do I get him up to speed?
- My niece once loved reading, but now never picks up a book—is there a holiday gift I could get her to help her reengage?
Simply put, there is a lot of passion out there for helping our youth become strong readers.
Plus, ‘tis the season of holiday sales, gift giving, vacation days, and new year’s resolutions…
Combine these truths, and this becomes a perfect time for finding and sharing books, for having extra time to enjoy literature, and for setting new reading goals.
Here are three sets of ideas:
Model It --
According to Scholastic (2019), a powerful predictor of kids’ reading frequency is having a parent [or other adult] who personally reads aloud to/with the child 5-7 days a week. Commonly, this is something we do with younger children, but recent studies have shown that even middle-school-aged youth love to be read to.
Read around your child.
Show the children in your life that you, too, are a reader. “Children who see adults reading and enjoying it,” according to Pearson Education (2021), “are much more likely to want to read themselves.” Maria Russo and Pamela Paul, authors of How to Raise a Reader, note that “when I’m sitting there on my couch, reading a book, and my kids are doing their own thing, I like to think, I’m parenting right now—they can see me reading this book”—conversely, if “right after dinner, the first thing you do is scroll through your phone, open up your laptop, or watch TV, kids are likely to take note.”
Audiobooks support literacy skills in ways that physical books sometimes can’t. The web resource Reading Rockets (2003) shares that audiobooks model strong interpretive reading, make difficult vocabulary words or dialects more accessible, and enhance listening skills among other things.
Tip: there are a lot of ways to access free audiobooks. Visit the website LibriVox or try the app Libby (you just need a public library card!).
Remove Barriers --
Pearson Education (2021) shares a few tips: at home, have books on accessible shelves and coffee tables; when traveling, toss a few books in the car or suitcase; and when headed to an appointment, have a book at the ready should there be time spent in the waiting room. Personally, I’m currently reading 4 books: an audiobook, a bedside-table book, a living-room book, and one waiting-in-line book (which I actually access electronically on my phone).
From nonfiction to fiction, from poetry to graphic novels, from magazines to thick novels, from comic strips to junk-mail…anything with text is an opportunity to build vocabulary, to increase interest, and grow reading stamina. Additionally, each genre has its own unique trends when it comes to plot structures, character development, and literary techniques: reading widely exposes one to all the trends, making it easier to navigate future works of the same genre.
Look past levels.
Once a reader is able to decode basic words, according to the School Library Journal (2020), which is typically around first grade, students should be encouraged to “read a wide range of texts…they should read easy books to things that kick their butt. The variation of difficulty does matter.” Simpler texts can build fluency, enjoyment, and stamina; while a text outside of one’s comfort level can introduce a reader to new vocabulary and increase understanding of what skills they’ve yet to master.
Encourage Interests --
Reading teachers and authors Karen Szymusiak and Franki Sibberson (2007) share the tip that adults should “…talk about the books they [the students] are reading” by having conversations rooted in “open-ended questions they can use in discussing their reading.” They suggest questions that fit each of three layers:
- questions about the self -- How are you like the character of Rory?
- questions about the text -- You said it was set in Texas: how do you know? Can you show me where it says that in the book?
- questions about the world -- What you read reminds me of what we saw at the grocery store yesterday. How is the puppy in a vest that you just read about like the one we saw with the women getting milk?).
Reading a book series, going on author binges, rereading a favorite book—these sometimes get bad reps. Yet, they are integral to creating lifelong readers. Author Devon Corneal shared on Read Brightly (2021) that rereading helps learners develop strong word recognition, notice patterns, enhance fluency, strengthen comprehension, and foster confidence. Similarly, a reader who is hooked on a series deepens their connections with characters, increases comprehension, spends more time reading, and quickens the process of finding what book to read next, according to Edutopia (2016): likewise, reading multiple books by the same author can have similar impacts.
Make literacy a reward. Make going to the library, visiting the bookmobile, or browsing at a bookstore a regular and joyful event. Combine reading with what your learner enjoys. For me, that was lunch with my father at Wong’s in downtown Rochester after spending a summer morning with my mom at the library. For my third-grade niece and nephew, it’s being allowed time to read uninterrupted in their small, end-of-bunkbed nooks they created with their father last year—simple plywood nests filled with blankets, pillows, and a few favorite reads. Lifelong reading is fostered by the memories of contentment we nurture now.
My students have taught me an important lesson over the years that is a step beyond my vocabulary lessons. They taught me that words can be powerful. Words have power not only in the academic world, like my vocabulary lessons, but in the social and emotional world as well. Each word that is spoken has meaning. Even the most simple words, like “hello,” have meaning to both the speaker and the listener. The speaker has a meaning, but the listener may interpret it differently. Our words are powerful to our students, families, and colleagues.
Here is an example of where words matter.
As I was walking down the hall to visit a classroom, I noticed a student slithering like a snake down the hallway. I knew this student was not where he needed to be and that his teacher was looking for him.
My first thought was to say, you need to walk down the hall to your classroom.
Feeling like this was a demanding statement and one he may not respond well to, I decided to say instead, “You have great snake-like skills! Let’s think of another animal that walks on two legs that we can mimic as we head to your classroom.”
This is one example of how words can be powerful with adults too (not just our students).
“Ugh, Johnny is driving me crazy today! He just won’t stop tapping his pencil during math! I told him to knock it off and he wouldn’t!
What if you heard the teacher say this instead?
“Johnny likes to tap his pencil on his desk. I noticed it was bothering other students. So, I went up to him and said, ‘I bet you are going to be a fantastic drummer someday. Let’s practice drumming with your pencil at recess and I’ll give you a fidget toy to use until then’. He loved using the fidget and we finished the lesson without any more disruptions.”
The article “15 Ways to Bring More Positive Language into Your Classroom and School” from We Are Teachers provides a great infographic with examples of how to tweak phrases to be both affirming and positive.
The old phrase “think before you speak” is as true today as it was 20 years ago when I started my career in education. I hope you fall in love with positive and powerful words, too!