Thursday, June 19, 2008

"It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve"

The countdown to the last day of school on June 26th feels excruciating right now. Last week, students went on field trips and made art as part of a school-wide Integrated Projects Week, and now it’s back to a week and a half in their regular classrooms. Their rampant "summer fever" and overheated classrooms with no air conditioning make a potentially explosive combination.

To end the year as smoothly as possible, I've decided to incorporate some random, fun writing exercises into everyday lessons. Yesterday I gave students the prompt: "If you could change any historical event, what would you change? Why, and how, would you change it? How would that have affected the course of history?" Most of my students responded enthusiastically to this prompt, writing pages and pages of creative and thoughtful reflections on significant moments in history. Chosen events included, among others: September 11th, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and the day laser pointers were banned from schools.

In my morning class yesterday, students’ share-out time was productive and pleasant, until we came to a student who did not answer the question provided by the prompt. He gave me a big smile and stated loudly "I wrote about gay marriage, and how it's like my mom has said, God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."

For some background, this student has become an increasingly negative presence in his class as the year has progressed. Though he is an excellent reader, his writing abilities lag behind, and he adamantly refuses to do most classwork and homework. Even more frustratingly, he often distracts other students who are not as strong in reading as he is by making fun of them or staring at them to try to make them uncomfortable (as several of the girls in the class have mentioned to me). At the same time, I would call him one of the most intellectually advanced students I teach. He critiques power dynamics in a remarkably sophisticated way for a twelve-year-old. When he respects his own intelligence, his impulses to challenge ideas and authority are - in my opinion - admirable.

In class yesterday, however, his "gay marriage" statement was neither nuanced nor well-thought-out. It was abundantly clear that he said it in order to get a rise out of me (because I have been on his case recently) and to impress the class by proclaiming his disdain for gay marriage in front of an openly queer teacher. Fortunately, the rest of the class did not indulge him but generally ignored his comment. I calmly asked him: "So, what is your answer to the question? What would you change?" Not expecting this, he fumbled for a response and ultimately conceded "I don't know."

In my afternoon class, one student shared writing that began “If I could change one thing, I would kill George W. Bush before he got elected.” He continued to state that “Bush is a gay, mean, horrible, awful, old man.” This particular student was trying to capitalize on shock value, but not with his use of the word "gay" - he provided graphic descriptions of how the president’s privates should be cut off. That’s where I stopped him, in the middle of his sharing, to remind everybody that gratuitous violence is neither acceptable nor intellectually useful in my classroom.

This student made some very legitimate points about George W. Bush, though he was problematically using vocabulary of violence and homophobia to get these points across. When students returned to their seats to read independently after the sharing out time, I called the student up to my desk to discuss what had happened and why I had asked him to stop. The one-on-one conversation worked wonders. I explained that I had been confused when he used the word “gay” as a synonym for “horrible” or “George W. Bush,” which does not correlate with my understanding of what it means to be “gay”. The student happily engaged with me in a context removed from peer pressures and being put on the spot, stating that he had not meant any personal insult to me. He ultimately recognized that he could have used the breadth of his vocabulary to build his case against George W. Bush without resorting to homophobia or excessive violence to convey his passion.

I think I’m inclined to be too hard on myself about yesterday’s flare-up of LGBT-related negativity in my classroom. Ultimately, though, I step back and use my responses to yesterday’s moments as a watermark indicating how much I've grown as an educator over the past two years. To give myself some credit, my reaction in both situations sent the important message that blatant homophobia or derogatory uses of the word "gay" will not go unchallenged or unaddressed in my classroom. At the same time, I was opening conversation and inviting opinions, rather than shutting intellectual doors. The simultaneity of those two actions is absolutely crucial in a public middle school.

I continue to aspire to be the kind of teacher who can successfully navigate such challenging moments on a consistent basis. I can never entirely control or predict what will occur in the space of my classroom – nor would I want to. Taking this fact into consideration, my reactions to students' thoughts and my encouragement of them to be self-reflective become an instrumental aspect of my queer and radical pedagogy.

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