Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tiptoeing Towards Progress: Social Justice Teach-In Via Experimental High School

I believe that conversation and discussion are powerful mediums for teaching and/or learning from others. And my beliefs are often reinforced by my daily interactions with peers, professors, baristas, bus drivers, and friends, among many other people. I was recently reading an article online, provided by the New Haven Independent and authored by Melissa Bailey, and was very surprised when I read the title: Gay Rights ‘Social Justice Teach-In’ At Connecticut School Brings In Non-Textbook Education. The article examined a great case  exemplifying the power of discussion in the public school setting. 

High School in the Community for Law and Social Justice (HSC), the school featured in the article, is a teacher-run school that seeks to develop students into critical thinkers, effective communicators, lifelong learners and responsible citizens. HSC students engage in an authentic exploration of law, justice, and equity as these topics apply to their lives, communities, and the world at large.

In the effort to undergo a broad experimental transformation, the magnet school held an all-day social justice teach-in, which reinforced the recently adopted law and social justice themes of HSC.

LGBTQ issues fall under the branch of social justice causes and for this reason first-year HSC teacher, Tom James, hosted a workshop on queer issues. James noted that the session in his classroom proved to be revealing about the queer issues and also the real lives of the students in the room.

According to the article, James began his workshop by asking the kids to define some vocabulary: homophobia, coming out of the closet, and dyke. In the case of the latter, a student opened up and shouted, “That’s me...I dress like a boy, act like a boy, I just don’t have balls.” The author pointed out that this student’s announcement allowed for honest discussion of feelings and phobias in the classroom and the community-at-large.

James followed with a lesson designed to teach kids how to act as strong allies to LGBTQ people who are harassed or discriminated against. He played a homophobic character who often used the phrase “That’s so gay” to coax his students into positing why he should not use this offensive language. While his character insisted on using the word, the students were forced to stand up to him, with one student exclaiming, “The words you say have effects on other people.” Although very simple, this statement was (and is) quite powerful. Oftentimes, I notice that while people superficially understand that their words can harm others, they do not entirely grasp the reality of the consequences of their actions—especially in the case of others feelings. I would like to reinforce that sticks and stones may break my bones AND hate speech and discriminatory remarks will also break my spirit, heart, and psyche.

The article went on to discuss how James cross-examined a student who brought up the issue of changing in the locker room with a gay student. The student mentioned that he would change in the bathroom stall to avoid that boy “checking [him] out”. While some peers defended the gay student and mentioned that the reaction was a double standard, he was unconvinced and did not budge on his stance about feeling uncomfortable changing with the gay student there.

The author noted that things really got personal after this comment, as James confessed that he had been in the locker-room scenario before. In fact, he was the captain of his wrestling team in high school, when locker-room dynamics were a big concern. He made the decision to come out of the closet during his junior year. The student who had expressed his disconcerting experiences in the locker room sounded confused when he asked, “What do you mean ‘come out of the closet’?” For the students in the classroom, this was a big shock—finding out that their instructor was queer.

Although I have had instructors throughout my public school education that identified as queer, they could never come out to their students. Because the school districts’ were so narrow-minded and worried what parents would say. Because the students could be “harmed” by having this type of “indecent interpersonal exposure”. Because Texas is not as progressive as Connecticut and I grew up in a place where being queer and enjoying life could not be coupled together.

Following the first workshop, James initiated a role-play where he attacked someone by calling the person “gay”. The class at-hand needed no coaxing to defend the gay student during James’s intolerant rant. Three young men in the class would not allow James to get away with homophobic diatribes during his locker-room role-play. This signified to James, and myself, that times may have changed since he (and I) entered high school. If not, then at the least New Haven is a more LGBTQ-friendly climate than others. James shared his personal story of coming out as gay in high school with this class, and they were very receptive. A young woman in the class confessed to identifying as bisexual. “Its not that we’re different. We’re still human,” she said.

Peer-to-peer interaction and positive reinforcement can often be the source to fighting oppression in the school setting; regardless of whether this includes bullying, name calling, and verbal or physical harassment. Although I may have not had the worst experiences in middle school and high school, I am empathetic to all of my queer comrades who had to deal with horrible middle and high school experiences. I think that HSC is doing a great thing for their students and the community-at-large by dissecting social justice issues, namely LGBTQ topics, in a setting where many people suffer for their idiosyncratic identities. I would like to see this type of conversation happen in more school settings around the nation.

Gay Rights 'Social Justice Teach-In" At Connecticut School Brings in Non-Textbook Education

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