Educator’s View: ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Rules Don’t Have to Silence Teachers
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Educators play a crucial role in shaping the perspectives of students when it comes to marginalized communities. However, teachers are increasingly facing obstacles in delivering inclusive education. As of January 2021, 37 states have proposed measures to restrict the teaching of race and discrimination in public schools, with 14 states enacting laws or rules to enforce these limitations. Across the United States, around twelve states are currently considering legislation that mirrors Florida’s controversial new law, dubbed by critics as "Don’t Say Gay."
Many teachers, including myself, believe that students must confront these issues in a secure and supportive environment in order to become successful and empathetic citizens. However, with bills that restrict the subjects teachers can discuss in the classroom, as well as the potential for legal action against school districts, it becomes challenging to determine the best course of action.
So, how can teachers effectively navigate these challenges without crossing boundaries? It begins with asking thought-provoking questions.
Similar to skilled trial lawyers who utilize careful questioning to construct a narrative, teachers can employ deliberate inquiries to prompt students to examine their own biases and perspectives. These questions can be posed in a conversational and non-confrontational manner, such as "Why do you hold that belief? What assumptions have you made to arrive at that conclusion?" This approach allows for extensive conversations among students and models how to engage in contentious dialogues in a constructive way.
Providing opportunities for students to explore topics that align with their own interests and identities enables the entire class to be exposed to diverse perspectives from their peers. In this personalized learning approach, teachers act as facilitators, supporting and encouraging rigorous and in-depth academic exploration, particularly in student-led projects. Teachers can guide students to research viewpoints that may differ from their own within the chosen topic.
To encourage this type of exploration and deeper understanding, teachers must offer students a choice of tools to express complex ideas. For instance, students who find it challenging to convey their perspectives solely through writing can use a visual format like the comics creator, Pixton. Alternatively, students who feel uncomfortable speaking in front of their peers can utilize video creation tools like Flipgrid to record their thoughts privately before sharing them with the class.
Teachers can also introduce stories that use animals as symbolic representations of complex human interactions. Books like "Animal Farm" and "Watership Down" provide narratives that address significant societal issues such as equality, justice, power, and corruption. Even children’s books like "Curious George," which tells a story about a character transported from Africa, can serve as a starting point for discussions about empathy, inclusion, and rights without explicitly referencing contentious or banned topics like the slave trade in early American history. By using anthropomorphized animals, groups of people who may be excluded from discussions can be represented.
Lastly, teachers can create a safe space for students to explore and express their own identities, thus exposing them to a variety of perspectives. One example is assigning a short writing task that asks students to explain why someone would want to be friends with them. This assignment prompts students to reflect on their positive qualities and self-identity, while also considering how their qualities may appeal to others and the potential tension between who they are and how they are perceived. These responses can be shared anonymously with the class. Activities that allow students to explore and articulate their identities first will encourage them to be more receptive to the diverse perspectives of their peers. When students feel respected and comfortable enough to share their authentic selves with the class, they are more likely to reciprocate that respect towards their peers.
Despite the existence of restrictive laws and potential repercussions, teachers should not shy away from addressing challenging subjects. The motivation behind choosing this profession extends beyond financial rewards; it lies in guiding the next generation to become thoughtful, curious, and well-informed individuals about the world at large. Teachers owe it to their students to find alternative ways to navigate these challenges and continue their important work.
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