In the first post of our Stenhouse Summer Series, fourth-grade teacher, Nathan Lyon, writes about how preparing to build classroom communities that are safe and affirming of LGBTQ+ students is critical work we must all engage in as we begin planning for the new school year.
All kids deserve to feel safe in their classrooms. That goes without saying. But all kids also deserve to feel affirmed and celebrated. They should all walk into our classrooms knowing explicitly that they belong there.
Unfortunately, classrooms haven’t always been spaces where LGBTQ+ kids feel like they belong. And new laws being passed all over the United States are making it harder and harder for educators to create safe spaces for queer kids. In certain states, educators are told they can’t even say the word gay at school. But what has me truly worried is the legislative attacks on transgender kids.
Now, more than ever, educators need to make clear and active steps to let LGBTQ+ kids of all ages know that who they are is important. They need to know that they belong in our classrooms and are celebrated in our classrooms.
As a classroom teacher who has been working to create inclusive spaces for years, I’ve learned that the first weeks of a school year are essential if we want kids to know all identities are welcomed and celebrated. I am going to suggest a two-pronged approach to creating spaces that affirm queer kids. As educators, we need to be both explicit and implicit about our support on the first day of school and every day after.
Anyone who walks into our classrooms or observes us teaching a lesson should immediately know it’s a safe space for LGBTQ+ kids. Our environment and instructional practices should intentionally support queer kids.
Show Your Pride
Before the first day of school arrives, add visuals to your classroom or learning space that show queer kids they belong.
- Put up a Pride flag! Keep in mind that there are many identities that make up the LGBTQ+ community. I’d recommend the Progressive Pride flag created by non-binary artist Daniel Quasar. You might also keep in mind the identities of the students in your classroom. If you have a student who is non-binary, you might get their permission to display a non-binary flag.
- GLSEN offers free downloads of their Safe Space poster and stickers. Print and display!
- Seek out queer artists who create t-shirts, stickers, and more. One of my favorites is MegAmikoArt.
- Go beyond the four walls of your classroom. Create a bulletin board in the hallways of your building to celebrate Pride Month in June or LGBTQ+ History Month in October.
Books, Books, Books
Books are such an important part of any educational space. The publishing industry has had a long history of prioritizing books that feature straight and cisgender characters and stories. Be intentional about filling your space with books that feature LGBTQ+ stories!
- Check out this extensive list of gender-inclusive books from Gender Inclusive Classrooms.
- Embed these books in your classroom or school library. They should be easily accessible to all students.
- When reading aloud to your students, take time to highlight books that center queer people and stories. Tell your students why it’s important to read LGBTQ+ books.
Teach a Lesson or Two (or More!)
Many teachers build time into their day to explicitly teach SEL lessons about a myriad of topics. Go out of your way to teach lessons that center on the LGBTQ+ community.
- Teach about bias or stereotypes and focus on gender. Help students see beyond the gender binary and understand that any person of any gender can dress and behave in ways that make them feel like themselves. I use a lesson called “Seeing Our Own Bias” from Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change to help students identify gender bias in print ads.
- Pronouns come up in my fourth-grade classroom almost every year. For example, one year a class was trying to name our class pet rock (yes, a rock!) and couldn’t agree on the gender and pronouns of the rock. When moments like that happen, I make sure to carve out time to have a discussion about gender and pronouns. Specifically, I make sure to spend time talking about gender identities and pronouns that exist outside of the male/female binary. Two of my favorite books about gender and pronouns are What Are Your Words? by Katherine Locke and It Feels Good to be Yourself by Theresa Thorn.
- Teach kids about Pride month! Use books and videos to explicitly teach kids about LGBTQ+ history and the need to celebrate the queer community.
Starting on the first day of school, it’s also important to support LGBTQ+ kids in small, subtle ways. Support doesn’t always have to be big and bold.
Watch Your Words
The language we use with students can either reinforce the gender binary or expand kids’ thinking past just boys or girls.
- When grouping students or lining up students, be careful to use language that includes all genders. Using language that only includes two genders doesn’t leave space for students who may not fit into those categories. If I need to divide my class in half, I might use the alphabet or student numbers.
- Also, use language that includes all types of families. Avoid saying things like “Have your mom or dad sign this permission slip,” and use “parents or caregivers” instead.
Add Some Queerness to Your Curriculum
I am intentional about the texts and resources I use across all the curriculum I teach. I make sure that not only do my resources represent the LGBTQ+ community but also Black and brown, disabled, immigrant, and Muslim communities too. And that’s just getting started!
- Elementary teachers have a plethora of reading skills to teach. For some of those skills, choose texts that highlight queer people. For example, when teaching students to identify theme, I might use Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders. I love teaching kids how to read graphic novels, and my go-to book to use is The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sells, which tells the story of a neighborhood of kids who explore their identities using their imaginations and a whole lot of cardboard.
- When writing math word problems include families with two moms or kids who use they/them pronouns.
This is clearly not an exhaustive list of ways to support LGBTQ+ kids, but I hope it’s a solid start. Just remember, whether we know it or not, there are queer students in every school and in every classroom. We need to let them know they belong in our educational spaces. And we need to do that starting on the very first day of school.
About the Author
Nathan Lyon is a fourth-grade teacher outside of Chicago, Illinois. He is passionate about advocating for the queer community within our education system. When not teaching, he can be found biking in Chicago, writing children’s books, and watching Real Housewives with his partner and cat. He can be found on Instagram at @mr_lyon_4th.