During our school-wide Projects Week last week, a coworker and I collaborated on a week-long examination of HIV/AIDS in the United States with a group of 32 sixth grade students who were assigned to us. About half of the students in the group were students whom I teach reading and writing on a daily basis – but the other half are students that I only recognize from brief interactions in the hallways.
The political insight and openness of the students in our group impressed and inspired me. By the second day, students were raising their hands and asking questions like “Wait, why aren’t people in U.S. prisons allowed to use condoms?” and “Why don’t we have needle exchanges in the U.S.?” My colleague and I gave them structured time to discuss these observations and questions as a class, and to think about what they, as youth and as students, could do to combat the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in communities of color in the United States.
Throughout the week, we discussed stigma and stereotypes, health care, access to testing and medication, and the astronomical rates of incarceration of young black and Latino men for drug-related charges. We also incorporated personal aspects of the issue – and my coworker and I even opened up with our students about our own personal connections to HIV/AIDS. A few students shared their experiences and how HIV/AIDS had affected their lives or families.
The project also - inevitably - sparked many conversations about sex and sexuality that don't tend to crop up in students’ everyday academic lives. Our focus during the week wasn't primarily sex education, but we attempted to address the sexual transmission of HIV/AIDS without perpetuating a sex-negative, “this is what happens if you have sex!” fear. We wanted to avoid the too-common, morbid, depressing “AIDS = DEATH” message that students often get from the popular media and educators. Our goals included creating a space that was sex-positive and that emphasized the fact that contracting HIV/AIDS, while a very serious threat that should be actively avoided and prevented, does not necessarily end a person's social or sexual life (especially if they have access to medications and resources). That was a challenging line to walk with sixth graders, but once again our students proved themselves capable of grappling with the complexity of the issue.
We were also able to engage in class discussions about why so many celebrities and organizations are giving money to fight AIDS in foreign nations while ignoring the fact that the virus is rampant in particular communities right here in the United States. One student raised his hand during this conversation and made the point “If the people who were getting AIDS here were white, the government would care more.” (I almost wanted to ask him to teach a seminar on the issue, after he made that point.)
During the week, sex and same-sexuality came up very often. Every time the topics of sex in prisons, or the Down-Low, or men who have sex with men arose, I caught myself tensing up as though bracing for a difficult conversation. But our students proved me wrong and proved themselves more than able to listen, talk, and engage with these issues in an intellectual, nuanced and sophisticated way. The entire week, we encouraged them to take a critical lens to the materials we were examining – which included an ABC News documentary on “AIDS in Black America” from 2007 – to see if students trusted the sources or not. Then, at the end of the week, our group shared our findings and thoughts with other groups of students from around the school who visited our classroom. Overall, it was a great success and made me feel hopeful.
Since Projects Week ended, I have overheard homophobic slurs and negative uses of the word “gay” more frequently. Perhaps it is the time of year, as students get more restless and my sixth graders prepare to become seventh graders. I'm not sure. But any time I have heard a misuse or abuse of "gay" or "homo," I have addressed it with the student in question and asked him or her to find a word that more accurately describes his or her feelings. In light of this increasingly visible homophobia, I have also made a concerted effort to incorporate queer authors into my curriculum, as I believe that can give students different perpsectives on LGBTQ matters.
As part of our current poetry unit, I devoted a week to the poems of Langston Hughes and to learning about Hughes body of work, his life, and the Harlem Renaissance. Many students quickly became very attached to Hughes’ poems, finding them inspiring and moving. At the very end of the week, I told my students that one fact about Hughes that didn’t come out in the biographical text we had read about him was his romantic involvement with men. My classes were shocked, but then able to reflect on how – if at all – that new piece of information changed their interpretation and understanding of his poems, and why it had been left out of biographies about Hughes. It was another great conversation.
In hindsight, I realize I (kind of) lured them into a sort of pro-gay trap. Just don’t tell any right-wingers I said that.