New Jersey’s LGBTQ curriculum aims to create an inclusive school culture

When Alexandria Eustice studied Truman Capote’s novel “In Cold Blood”, her English teacher didn’t just tell the class that it was written by an openly gay author.

Instead, the teacher asked the students to analyze how Capote’s sexuality shaped his writing and point of view.

“She mentioned [his sexuality] and connected it to the class,” said Eustice, who is a first grader at Cedar Grove High School. book and he’s gay and it affects the book. I hadn’t seen that in any other class.”

This change is due to a law, now a year old, that requires educators in New Jersey to include LGBTQ classes and focus on people with disabilities in the curriculum.

This did not go unnoticed by Eustice, a leader of her school’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance. More lessons include LGBTQ people this year, and some teachers are changing the way they talk about gender and sexuality, Eustice said. .

The effort began with a dozen schools participating in ready-to-use lessons created by the LGBTQ Inclusive Curriculum Pilot Program, a collaboration with Garden State Equality and Make It Better for Youth.

New Jersey is the first state in the nation to require LGBTQ-inclusive education in all subjects. California and Colorado passed similar laws that required inclusive tuition only in history and social studies classes.

Embedding the inclusive curriculum is “a mindset shift,” said Emily Susko, associate director of academics at Bergen Arts and Science Charter High School.

Leaders of the LGBTQ Inclusive Curriculum Pilot Program found that many teachers who participated in the pilot program lacked a basic understanding of LGBTQ topics, according to survey data they compiled after the pilot program ended in June 2020.

Leaders at Cedar Grove High School GSA have seen this lack of knowledge in their school, in a conservative city, and believe it has led to homophobia and transphobia in the community.

“I feel like the main reason people are openly homophobic is because they aren’t really taught this stuff and they don’t really understand it,” Sofia LaForgia said. , head of Cedar Grove High School GSA. “By setting up a course where it is compulsory to learn [LGBTQ topics] …they learn a lot more about it.”

Some parents and community members have opposed the LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum because of this mind-shifting idea mentioned by Susko.

Lindsey Daly teaches middle school social studies at Unity Charter School in Morristown and participated in a pilot program to teach an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.  Daly shows a project a former student did on gender stereotypes on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

Lindsey Daly, a middle school teacher at Unity Charter School in Morristown, heard concerns that the program had “an agenda”. A Facebook group called Team Protect Your Children-NJ formed to protest the program before the law was passed. The page’s description expresses concern that the program teaches “ways of life” that conflict with certain religious values.

But Daly said the program is only meant to include.

“It’s to give kids even more information,” Daly said. “They can form their own opinion; it always promotes critical thinking. We give them the whole story, when they usually get only a small part of it.”

Students and teachers learn

Teachers have the opportunity to learn with students, said Stephen Innocenzi, a theater arts teacher at Bergen Arts and Science Charter High School in Hackensack.

“It’s an ongoing thing, and I’ve worked and bonded with people who are very different from me,” Innocenzi said. “If you really want to impart any understanding of human beings and nature, you have to build a culture around that.”

The cultures around people “tell us what we can or cannot be,” said Kate Okeson, co-founder of Make It Better for Youth and lessons and resources lead for the LGBTQ Curriculum Pilot Program.

Survey data from the pilot program revealed that 92% of teachers who participated felt confident that they could create “an inclusive and affirming classroom environment for LGBTQ students.” However, a quarter of administrators surveyed do not think staff members hold each other accountable “for promoting the safety and well-being of LGBTQ students”.

Daly notices when students see themselves reflected in his social studies classes.

“You can just say [students] feel more confident and more accepted,” Daly said. “They’re more excited to learn, and I think that’s definitely the best part of this program.

Although it’s called a curriculum, Okeson and his team have created lessons and tools intended to be incorporated into existing curricula. It’s “additional” and meant to be developed, said Lori Burns, pilot program manager and lead researcher.

The curriculum materials give teachers tools to seamlessly include LGBTQ topics in typical lessons, such as using same-sex parents in a math problem.

It’s a “simple practice of looking at the lessons you’re teaching,” Burns said, and asking “whose voice has been heard and whose voice hasn’t?”

Lindsey Daly teaches middle school social studies at Unity Charter School in Morristown and participated in a pilot program to teach an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.  Daly poses for a photo in his classroom on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

Building an inclusive school culture can look like increasing diverse representation in the books available in school libraries or making room in budget funds for student groups on gender and sexuality. Additionally, the use of team-created lessons “sets the tone” that schools are “intentionally inclusive,” Okeson said.

“We model visibility every day in the classroom,” she said. “We try to show [educators] teaching methods that work to ensure their students feel part of the conversation.”

‘Hey, there were other people around’

Eustice and his fellow GSA leaders learned more about LGBTQ history beyond the Stonewall Riots of 1969, often seen as the starting point of the LGBTQ rights movement. .

“Not that [textbooks students currently use] don’t give good information, but the information comes from the people who historically have always held the power,” Daly said. “This program just says, ‘Hey, there were other people around, there’s other stories that should be told and now we’re going to pay more attention to telling them.'”

Lindsey Daly teaches middle school social studies at Unity Charter School in Morristown and participated in a pilot program to teach an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.  A sticker on Daly's classroom door promotes equality for all students.  Aired Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

In the near future, program officials hope to conduct another study after a full year of schools consistently using LGBTQ-inclusive lessons.

Burns already knows a key data point: “We all know the world is very diverse and that needs to be reflected in what we teach our students,” Burns said. “All research proves that when students discover people who are different from themselves, it benefits them when they become adults.”

Students in the Cedar Grove School District have won the support of the school board, whose members recently agreed to fly rainbow flags in all five school buildings. With this change and the program, it’s “pushing the climate to be better and our city’s attitude to be different,” said Shayna Merilan, another Cedar Grove High School GSA leader.

“It prepares future generations for a better experience,” Merilan said. “This is what needs to be done to make children feel more comfortable, welcomed and safe in the city, in the neighborhood and especially in high school.”

Contact Sammy Gibbons at (920) 737-6895 or sgibbons@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @sammykgibbons or Facebook at www.facebook.com/ReporterSammyGibbons/.

Carol C. Reed