Inclusive Education for a Diverse Society
The book, Navigating Gender and Sexuality in the Classroom: Narrative Insights from Students and Educators, by Heather Killelea McEntarfer is about a teacher’s experience while teaching a master’s-level teacher education course about gender and sexuality in K-12 education. Throughout her experience with the course, her students discussed the topic of gender and sexuality through their experiences in their classrooms and also their own personal thoughts and experiences. McEntarfer’s students all want the best for their own students, but also come across many conflicting ideas and feelings when the topic of gender and sexuality comes up in their classroom and in their personal lives as well. They find that through reflection and discussion about their thoughts and ideas, they learn more about themselves and come to see the importance of exploring the issue in their own classrooms. Future teachers can also use many of the ideas and tips addressed in the book to utilize in the classroom and create a more inclusive environment. Teachers can take principled stands in their classrooms and in their work while giving their students the freedom to raise their own questions and reach their own conclusions through creating a safe classroom environment, exploring the multiple viewpoints on a controversial topic and then reflecting on the discussion.
Throughout a teacher’s career, they will work with many students who all have their own thoughts and opinions about all kinds of topics and issues. For controversial topics, some teachers may try to avoid discussing the topic in general to prevent ill comments and students from feeling emotionally and mentally attacked. However, there is also a great importance for people who have differing thoughts and opinions to discuss such topics so that they can be aware of other existing viewpoints. In the chapter, “Perhaps I Am Not as Open-Minded as I Thought,” McEntarfer discusses the case study of one her students, named Jill, and an impactful experience for her that involved dialogue and positioning theory. Two key components of positioning theory present in this chapter were storylines and positions. Jill is described to be very committed to her lesbian and gay friends and family members and often positioned herself in opposition to religious people because of her relationships with her loved ones who identified as LGBTQ. One day, one of McEntarfer’s friends, named Laura, who identified as Christian, asked if she could come in to observe one of her gender and sexuality classes. In the class that Laura came to observe, McEntarfer chose to discuss an article about how a student was suspended for saying that he believes homosexuality is wrong.
How it works
As a supporter of LGBTQ people and a Christian, Jill and Laura had opposing viewpoints about gender and sexuality. In the beginning, Jill approached the dialogue with Laura with the storyline of it being a debate, thinking that religious people are ignorant and ill-informed, whereas Laura approached it with the storyline of a conversation with the main intention of listening. Despite their opposing viewpoints about gender and sexuality, both Jill and Laura agreed that the student’s punishment for stating his beliefs was harsh. Throughout the discourse with Laura, Jill’s storylines changed from debate to conversation and her position on religious people also changed after seeing that she can find some common ground with people who do not completely agree with her beliefs. Jill and Laura both agreed that the safety of their students is highly important and even though Laura is a religious person, Jill would not consider her to be someone who is ignorant and ill-informed. Jill wrote about her experience with Laura, saying how she liked that Laura made the point that she was there to listen and because of that she had an epiphanic moment “where two opposing worlds came together and I [Jill] saw that, even when it’s about a sensitive and personally-important topic, reasonable and informative conversation is possible” (109). Jill and Laura both did not have to radically change their beliefs to be able to have a conversation with each other and to respect each other. When controversial topics, such as gender and sexuality, arise in the classroom, it can be more impactful to create an environment in which students can feel like they are able to ask questions, express their thoughts, and listen to others thoughts instead of dismissing a student’s thoughts for the sake of avoiding controversy. By doing so, it helps to create opportunities to see the other viewpoints and beliefs that people have and that it is possible to have a civil conversation with someone who disagrees and continue to co-exist together.
Sometimes the educational settings that teachers are put in can make it difficult or seem daunting to have conversations about gender and sexuality because the beliefs that the school and community practice are not completely align with what a teacher wants to teach the students. An example of such a situation can be found in Chapter 8, “Conclusions,” of McEntarfer’s book. McEntarfer interviews a couple of her students four years after taking her course to learn more about their experience with addressing gender and sexuality in their classrooms. One of her students, Adrienne, is a 7th grade math teacher at a school located in a conservative area. There is a fine line that Adrienne has to be careful about because she is a new teacher in a predominantly conservative area while having to follow a tight curriculum. However, she does not allow that to get in the way of addressing her student’s narrow-mindedness and unjustly acts. Adrienne does not allow any of her students to use the word, “gay,” derogatively. Otherwise, they are not welcomed in her classroom. However, she uses dialogue with her students to help them understand that she does not allow the derogatory use of the word by discussing its meaning, correcting misconceptions, or talking with them privately in her free time. She does not want her students to feel like that they are being silenced and shut down. Through her rules and discussions, she hopes to help her students understand when it is inappropriate to use such terms (189). Even when a situation is not in a teacher’s favor, teachers can still take a stance while allowing students the freedom to explain their thinking and encouraging them to question what is considered normal through enforcing a friendly environment and promoting discussion.
As much as having students be aware and try understand about others viewpoints is important in creating a more inclusive surrounding, it is also important that students and teachers also get a chance to reflect on the discussion and their own thoughts and ideas. In Chapter 3, McEntarfer discusses a case study about her student, Mike, and how he gains new awareness about himself through reflection of a discussion he once had with a gay classmate. Shortly after learning that his classmate is gay, Mike responds with “It doesn’t bother me. What you do is your business” (46). Mike meant no ill-intentions when he said that, but after being questioned about his choice of words, he would revisit the exchange between him and his classmate several times throughout the semester. Mike comes to admit that he is not completely comfortable with seeing or hearing about gay sexual acts, but also sees how he his thinking and actions have changed since that time. McEntarfer says that “Teachers who want to lead conversations about sexuality in schools should first explore their own discomfort with homosexuality and the origins of that discomfort” (49). By doing so, it also helps to lead students through their own self-exploration and to connect with LGBTQ youth. Reflecting helps one to better understand oneself and also gives one the chance to think about how one’s words and actions may affect others. In classrooms where discussions about gender and sexuality or other controversial topics come up, it is important to promote reflection for students and teachers to better understand themselves and the people around them to build an inclusive classroom setting.
All in all, it is possible for teachers to take a position on topics like gender and sexuality in the classroom and also give students the chance to raise questions and come to their own understanding of the topic. Such can be done by developing a classroom space where students can feel safe about conveying their thoughts and asking questions, having dialogues about viewpoints and addressing misconceptions, and then encouraging reflection to better understand the conversation, their own thoughts, and the people around them. It can be difficult to raise discussions about topics like gender and sexuality because teachers do not want to see any of their students feeling uncomfortable or hurt. However, if done appropriately, it is extremely beneficial for inciting change in the community and making a more inclusive education.”