Long lines in the lunchroom. Climbing the gymnasium rope. Nagging parents. The quadratic formula.
Anxieties like these are the stuff of high school.
For LGBTQ teens, though, they take a backseat to the issues of sexual orientation.
Changing clothes not in a locker room but in a nurse’s office on the other side of the building, a welcome accommodation that also comes with isolation. Never knowing whom to trust with their feelings. Bullying not just from classmates but also from fathers who threaten disownment and siblings who heartlessly mock them and their friends.
Such overwhelming concerns can impede learning; require understanding and sensitivity from teachers, most of whom probably can’t relate. Students from diverse ethnic and racial populations, also confronted by generations of oppression, equally yearn for that kind of support. Again, it’s often in vain.
But K-12 teachers and other educators from DeKalb and Elgin who attended June’s inaugural Social Justice Summer Camp at the NIU College of Education will return to their classrooms and schools this fall with eyes wide open to students from diverse and historically marginalized backgrounds.
That progress starts with the recognition that educational disparities exist although they likely are invisible to those not impacted.
Campers talk after a LGBTQ panel discussion.
Joseph Flynn, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and one of the camp’s organizers, said the participants had “a wonderful time, intellectually and socially.”
“People left on a high note, invigorated to get back to their schools and districts and to get to work. Some were talking about addressing the climate within their schools. Some were looking at specific policies as well as the practices and curriculum in general,” Flynn said.
“Overall, the comments we had from campers were largely positive,” he added. “That doesn’t mean that some folks didn’t struggle with some of the issues, and we anticipated that. Learning about issues of oppression in all forms can be challenging because it’s speaking against the status quo.”
NIU’s camp, organized by Flynn and colleagues James Cohen and Mike Manderino, the three-day camp featured keynote speakers, panel discussions, film screenings, experiential activities, reflective conversations and the development of social justice action plans for schools.
Themes of the days included “Building from the Beginning: Understanding Multicultural and Social Justice Education Historically and Currently,” “Pieces of a Whole: Recognizing the Relationships among Systems, the Collective and the Individual” and “Now What? Considerations on the Practice of Social Justice Education.”
History lessons of how various forms of oppression emerged, along with the thought-provoking content of the films, spawned many side discussions.
“The film series was especially powerful,” Flynn said. “We would finish a film, and an hour of conversation would go by – and we still weren’t done talking.”
During a June 13 panel discussion featuring three DeKalb High School students who are LGBTQ, however, the language was plain and the message clear.
“We’re just trying to make it through, like the rest of you,” one teenager said to the audience. “School should not be a place you fear or dislike.”
Members of the audience, meanwhile, were able to walk in someone else’s shoes.
The three students spoke of bullying in the hallways, observing that teachers often “won’t step in until it gets physical and someone gets hurt.” They talked of academic lessons illustrated only with “white, hetero families” and history curriculum that ignores the contributions of LGBTQ individuals. They discussed sexual education that covers sex and abstinence but not asexuality.
They expressed hurt over hearing the attendance called with their birth names and of being addressed by the wrong pronouns – situations that are not only uncomfortable but also potentially dangerous if the teachers inadvertently “out” students.
Yet they also smiled camaraderie available through school, especially when groups such DeKalb High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance are active. Meeting other LBGTQ students means “I’m not broken,” one said. “There is nothing wrong or strange about this, and I don’t have to be ashamed. This is something other people have experienced. I’m not alone.”
James Cohen (left) was one of the camp’s organizers.
Educators in the room stood and applauded.
“I’m in awe of your courage,” one told the panel. “Thank you for being who you are.”
The teens also provided advice for the teachers who might have LGBTQ students – or parents – in their classrooms.
- “Normalize your curriculum.”
- “Give students someone to talk to. Let your students know you are available and open to them. If a student comes to you and tells you about their parents not accepting them, be there for them.”
- “Respect every one for who they are – or who they want to be.”
Andria Mitchell, principal of DeKalb’s Tyler Elementary School, came to the Social Justice Summer Camp to reinforce the work of District 428’s diversity planning.
“This has been an amazing experience,” Mitchell said.
“It has been liberating and emotionally draining. It’s been an eye-opener with big moments of aha. I even had to catch myself a couple times, and say, ‘Oh! I have that bias,’ or, ‘I’ve never thought of it that way.’ ”
Mitchell believes teachers must respect diversity with the same level of importance they assign to knowledge and content.
“When you’re able to have this social justice lens, along with the latest knowledge, you reach your students in a different way,” she said, “and you reach all of your students.”
Jackie Jagielski, a sixth-grade gifted program teacher at Glenbrook Elementary School in U-46, wants to ensure that all children are provided with “opportunities to use their voices” and safe spaces.
Campers came from the DeKalb and Elgin school districts.
NIU’s camp offered “concrete ways” to do just that, she said.
“I’ve always had an interest in social justice issues, particularly now in the political climate we find ourselves in. It’s harder for people to find common ground,” Jagielski said. “We need to celebrate and humanize all of our students, regardless of their backgrounds and in all the ways that they can be diverse.”
Roy Kim, a social worker in District 428, appreciated the camp’s “wealth of historical context” and “hearing the experiences of the other attendees.”
“Social justice is half of my job description,” he said. “Nothing could be more relevant for me in doing my job effectively.”
Ana Arroyo is principal of Elgin’s Parkwood Elementary School, a Title I school where 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Most are Hispanic.
She attended NIU’s camp to help her teachers advance their “understanding of where our children are coming from,” something already in progress. Parkwood, nominated for PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) “Gold” recognition, is one of the Top 5 safest schools in U-46.
“I’m planning to deliver professional development to my staff on teaching to our population. It’s about listening to students, and giving students a platform to speak, share and engage in their learning,” Arroyo said. “If we can impact change at such an early level, that’s going to continue through middle school and high school.”