Oakland schools make LGBTQ representation a priority in history curriculums
on April 4, 2016
Throughout her 11 years of schooling, Oakland High School sophomore Nina Pascual has learned about “a lot of wars and old guys,” she says. But historical figures’ personal lives and sexuality were not a part of the lessons. “More lessons should be about something that affects us today,” says Pascual, who is the student liaison of her school’s GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) Club, a group representing students of all sexual identities.
But who is portrayed in California history curriculum is changing as individual teachers work to teach lessons that are more inclusive of all people. California’s FAIR Act is an attempt to diversify history curriculum—specifically, to represent in history lessons people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and people with disabilities. The FAIR Education Act, or SB 48, went into effect on January 1, 2012. The law requires elementary, middle and high schools to represent these groups in history curriculum in a way that is “fair, accurate, inclusive and respectful”—or FAIR.
The law is an amendment to California’s Education Code 51204.5, which previously mandated that social sciences instruction include the contributions of both men and women, as well as people from a diverse range of ethnic groups, “to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.” Legislators realized, though, that two groups were excluded from this code—“lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, and persons with disabilities”—and the FAIR Act was enacted to address that exclusion.
Right now, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) officials are just starting to plan how they will carry out the law district-wide. While many California educators agree that the law is important, they say were not given the resources nor instructions on how to implement it.
“I think part of the barrier is that a lot of districts and teachers aren’t aware of the law,” says Olivia Higgins, a consultant for OUSD and other school districts, and the founder of Queerly Elementary, which provides services and resources to help schools be more inclusive of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.
Though the state legislature passed the FAIR Act at the end of 2011, they left it up to school districts to implement it and meet the requirements on their own. That posed some problems, Higgins says. “They gave us no resources or new textbooks, money, or training, and they said each individual district has to come up with their own plan to make sure they’re in compliance with the law,” says Higgins.
“We’d like to see social studies in general that better reflects our students,” says Elizabeth Humphries, a teacher and history teaching specialist for high schools in the OUSD. She, along with Jeannie Kohl, a history teaching specialist for Oakland middle schools, have begun planning out how the FAIR Act will be carried out in the district.
“I think even the state recognized that they passed the law before there were resources or time available, pretty much in the middle of Common Core implementation, is when the law came out,” says Humphries, referring to the standards implemented nationwide in 2009 that focus on making sure students are prepared for college and careers.
She says that the state is now trying to push the law through districts across California. “It took a back burner for a couple of years, but now the energy is really there. It’s exciting to see the support coming through,” she said.
Humphries says that seeing yourself in history matters. A few decades ago, say Humphries and Kohl, history lessons in Kindergarten through 12th grade focused on a very narrow set of people: mainly white, heterosexual men. “If we’re saying that is our history, there’s not a whole lot for women, for students of color, students with LGBT identities, students with disabilities,” says Humphries. “There’s nothing for them to latch on to. One of our goals as a department is that our kids are empowered as civic actors. And if you don’t see yourself acting in history, it’s really hard to imagine yourself acting in the present or in the future.”
Matt Colley, a ninth grade history teacher at Oakland Technical High School, agrees. “I think not being represented in the curriculum is a major factor in disengaging students,” he says, “feeling like students are being pushed out of the classroom or pushed out of the school.”
And representation matters when it comes to the way that students treat each other. In a Preventing School Harassment (PSH) survey conducted by California Safe Schools between 2003 and 2005, at schools where students reported that there was a LGBT curriculum, students also experienced less bullying based on their sexual orientation. At schools where less than 50 percent of students reported that their classes have an LGBT curriculum, 24 percent also reported experiencing bullying. But at schools where more than 50 percent of students reported that their classes have an LGBT curriculum, only 11 percent reported experiencing bullying.
The other part of the FAIR Act deals with the representation of people with disabilities in curriculum. When State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) first introduced the FAIR Act, it just focused on LGBTQ representation. Brandon Tartaglia, a legislative advocate at Disability Rights California (DRC), who says he knew Leno to be “friendly to the disability community,” asked if the bill could be expanded to include individuals with disabilities. Leno said yes.
“People with disabilities are kind of an after-thought, generally,” says Tartaglia. “They think people with disabilities are a small minority. They often are kind of pushed aside. But in reality, people with disabilities are affecting everybody and in our life.”
“It is a civil rights movement as well, but people don’t think of it that way,” adds Patricia McConahay, the communications director at DRC.
Children with disabilities are often included in the general education classes now, says Tartaglia. “But they’re not represented in the curriculum,” says McConahay. For example, they point out, students aren’t taught about people like Justin Dart, a man who contracted polio as a teenager and later helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
One student at Oakland High School involved in the Gay-Straight Alliance club there said she feels that curriculum affects school culture and even society. She says that she thinks being taught in history classes about how people of color have been oppressed by white people has helped reduce racism. “I feel like if we added LGBT stuff to the educational curriculum, it would make the world more educated on stuff that’s LGBTQ-related, and it reduces hatred towards them,” she says.
She says she hopes that the changing curriculum will have an effect on not only her school, but the world as a whole. “I just hope that the world changes so there’s no discrimination against people for who they are,” she says.
A senior at Oakland Technical High School who asked to remain anonymous noted that although queer individuals have existed throughout history, they have never, to her knowledge, been labeled as gay or lesbian in history textbooks. “When we do not have required courses that talk about queer issues, it makes students like myself feel as though our identity and our history does not matter,” she wrote in an email to Oakland North.
In order to address the FAIR Act requirements, Humphries and Kohl are making sure that all groups included under Education Code 51204.5 also are represented. Ultimately, they say, the implementation is in the hands of teachers. While they say it is frustrating that teachers are still using outdated textbooks, teachers are adding their own curricula and materials, anyway. But, they say, teachers still need appropriate time and training to re-evaluate their lessons.
To truly implement the FAIR Act, Kohl and Humphries believe districts would need to shift popular thinking about curriculum, not just add in a few new people into history lessons. The way the law is currently written doesn’t necessarily require an overhaul in the way that history is taught, says Humphries. But they feel that this is vital to enacting long-term change.
“We don’t want this to be a token sprinkle into the curriculum,” says Humphries. Rather than changing individual lessons, they need to encourage teachers to ask different questions when framing history, says Humphries, like “who’s included and who’s excluded? Who’s been considered fit or unfit, who’s at the center of society, who’s been marginalized?”
“I think we have a long ways to go in terms of incorporating more specific questions into the curriculum,” says Colley, “not only looking at the impact and resistance to racism and sexism, but also adding homophobia, transphobia and things like that into the real coursework, like the readings and the discussions.” When he is teaching, he ends the year with a discussion on the social justice movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. But being inclusive goes further than that, he says.
“I’ve used quotes from Audre Lorde before,” says Colley of his teaching, “and then I’ll just mention, ‘Audre Lorde’s a rock star poet and essayist and writer, and she was an African-American, lesbian woman who wrote about her experience and points of view.’ Just to mention it, so that they start to see the complexity and dynamic nature of people’s identity.”
Teacher development, or giving teachers the time and training to re-organize their lessons to adhere to the FAIR Act’s requirements, is the next step. This summer, Humphries and Kohl will hold a week-long Summer Institute to train teachers and give them time to plan out a new curriculum. Some of this training may involve re-teaching history to history teachers.
“Most teachers, their own education did not include lessons on LGBTQ history,” says Higgins. “So they have to learn the history themselves.”
“We were educated in a different time, in a different setting,” Colley agrees. “And we to some degree have to un-learn some of the things that we may have been taught in our own schooling experience.” He adds that when talking about teaching about LGBTQ topics in class, “it tends to push the conversation of personal boundaries.” But he compares it to teaching about religion: while teachers have different religious beliefs, they still teach about the different religions and the values associated with them.
Ultimately the FAIR Act’s implementation is in the hands of OUSD teachers. Many of them, say Higgins, Kohl and Humphries, were already been working to make their own lessons more inclusive before the FAIR Act came around. “We’re lucky that so many history teachers in the district have a strong social justice bent,” says Humphries.
Oakland North agreed to quote several students anonymously because they have not made their sexual identities public.
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