Friday, May 29, 2009

HIV/AIDS and Sixth Graders.

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.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Open Letter to Oprah

Dear Oprah,

First, thank you so much for your recent show that featured the mothers of 11-year old suicide victims Carl Hoover-Walker and Jaheem Herrera . You are wonderful for launching this conversation about the devastating consequences of bullying and what we can do about it.

That said, I was really disappointed that, despite both boys having found anti-gay bullying so gut-wrenching, your professional guests addressed bullying without ever talking about the URGENT importance of addressing homophobia and prejudice through EDUCATION. The best bullying programs and the best psychologists working one-on-one with bullied kids won’t put an end to anti-gay bullying. Until we’re willing to have teachers talk about gay people respectfully, kids will use homophobia as the weapon that our silence puts in their hands.

What else do I wish you would do?
1. Check out
2. Have someone on the show to talk about the work of the Safe Schools Coalition.
3. Invite Kim Westheimer to talk about the Human Rights Campaign's wonderful Welcoming Schools project.
4. Have Debra Chasnoff of Groundspark talk about their amazing film-based curricula.
5. Invite Stephanie Brill of Gender Spectrum to talk about her unbelievable work with schools.
6. Invite the folks from the Committee for Children, Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League to talk specifically about how their bullying programs address bias-based bullying, and anti-LGBT bullying in particular.
7. Ask principals and curriculum directors to put aside preparing children for high stakes testing just one week every year and focus for that week on prejudice reduction
~ a day about religious diversity and, at older grades, prejudice against the religious (of various faiths) and prejudice against the unchurched;
~ a day about immigration, refugees and, at older grades, about xenophobia and its costs all over the world;
~ a day about race and the history of racism and about white privilege and what it means to be an ally (actually that would be part of each of the 5 days);
~ a day about sexual diversity -- about families with lesbian, gay, bi and trans parents/guardians, about the contributions of LGBT people and, at older grades about homophobia and transphobia and the history of anti-LGBT brutality; and
~ a day about women who've changed the world and, in later grades about misogyny and violence against women and what some men and women are doing to change that.

If schools devoted just one week early in the year, every single year starting in elementary school, it could change climates dramatically. In combination with good anti-bullying programs, it could save the lives of the Carls and Jaheems, and the Gwen Araujos and Matthew Shepards too.

It is time schools worked to reduce the PREJUDICES that underly the most horrific bullying and not just the bullying (the symptom). Please take the lead on this, Oprah. Nobody has a voice like you do.

Beth Reis
Public Health Educator and Co-Chair of the Safe Schools Coalition
10501 Meridian Avenue N
Seattle, WA 98133

P.S. I hope your staffers watch the blogosphere, Oprah, because I couldn't find a place on your web site to say more than 180 characters and I couldn't figure out how to do this in that much space.