Safe Classrooms with the Tyler Clementi Foundation

Safe Classrooms

Safe Classrooms explores how educators can use social-emotional learning to create more accepting classrooms where young people feel empowered to interrupt bullying. Each issue includes ideas and resources for educators, parents, students, and their allies.  

Our newest issue “How to Support Children Experiencing Loneliness” explores the question: In this time of increased social isolation, how can we better understand loneliness in order to support young people’s need for connectedness and belonging?

As always, share your feedback with us by emailing outreach@tylerclementi.org.

November 2020

The Path Forward on LGBTQ+ Inclusion

New Jersey recently passed a mandate for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content in textbooks and social studies curricula in schools throughout the state. Since then, Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, and Maryland have added similar laws. Utah, Arizona, and Alabama recently lifted restrictions on LGBTQ+ issues being taught in schools, however, seven states still have restrictions in place. The remaining 35 states have no specific inclusion laws, which means that many students still do not have access to LGBTQ+ history in their classrooms. 

All children deserve to learn from inclusive representations of history in the classroom. Refusing to include LGBTQ+ content in the classroom may signal to young people that these important stories do not matter, and for LGBTQ+ students: that they themselves do not belong. At the Tyler Clementi Foundation, we believe that schools have a responsibility to help all students feel safe, included and accepted. Stories of individuals overcoming discrimination and fighting for equality teach children that America is great because of its diversity, not in spite of it. In New Jersey, a parent of a transgender child argued that the recent legislation is essential for LGBTQ+ children, “This bill is so important for our young people…they need to see examples of themselves in the history being taught and in classes they are going to each day. We know representation matters.” 

There is evidence that inclusive curricula improves the school experience for all students. Research suggests that when LGBTQ+ content is included in a school, bullying decreases and the campus climate improves for all students, LGBTQ+ students feel increased levels of safety and school engagement. Inclusion efforts can also increases social awareness, which is the ability to empathize with others from diverse backgrounds. According to a survey conducted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, some of the most in-demand job skills can be linked to social awareness. As more states adopt LGBTQ+ curriculum, administrators and educators will need to commit themselves to the work of creating fully inclusive schools.

What is LGBTQ+ Curriculum? 

The One Archives Foundation offers a series of free, standards-based lesson plans on LGBTQ history. These plans are appropriate for high school students and some upper-middle school classrooms depending on student maturity level. Teachers of younger students can adapt these lessons or seek out inclusive books about LGBTQ, transgender, non-binary or gender expansive children. Below are a few lessons from the One Archives website:

  • Students can explore the AIDS crisis timeline of events leading up to the second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in order to consider how LGBT activists responded to government policies regarding AIDS, including their protests for affordable drug prices. They can reflect on how the battle against AIDS influenced the broader movement for LGBTQ+ rights and analyze artwork by Keith Haring and photographs from ACT UP/LA protests. They can watch a short documentary by Scott Calonico about the Reagan Administration’s lack of response to the epidemic. (Full lesson plan here)
  • Students can learn about California’s 2012 FAIR Education Act, which requires schools to include fair, accurate, inclusive representations of LGBTQ+ people in social studies classrooms. They can explore the language of the bill to determine what is meant by fairness, accuracy, inclusivity and representation in this context. Students can consider both sides of the debate including arguments from organizations that opposed this legislation and watch testimony from Senate Judiciary hearings as LGBTQ+ community members testified on the importance of the law. (Full lesson plan here)
  • Students can explore the life of Bayard Rustin, the gay man who was responsible for planning the March on Washington. Along with Dr. King, Rustin was one of the pioneers of peaceful protest within the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout his career as a Civil Rights Activist, Rustin was forced to keep his sexual orientation hidden from the public and was eventually forced to stop working for Dr. King due to accusations surrounding his sexual orientation. Students will have an opportunity to reflect on the difficult choices that Rustin was forced to make due to his sexuality. (Full lesson plan here)
  • Students can explore how The Ladder magazine offered lesbian women support in the 1950’s. They can discuss the fearful reality of living as a Lesbian in the 1950’s while learning from the lives of Lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian-centered organization in the United States. They can discuss why belonging to LGBT communities was important to LGBT individuals in this time period. (Full lesson plan here)

Teachers Can Affirm Children’s Identity & Support Inclusion

Curriculum inclusion is an important step, however, true inclusion and acceptance is just as important. Teachers, Administrators, and Parents should model acceptance and affirmation of children who identify as LGBTQ+, transgender, non-binary, or gender expansive. Doing so will set a clear tone of acceptance in your classroom, workplace or faith community. In general, LGBTQ+ inclusive spaces support and affirm all gender identities and sexual orientations.

Educators should begin the practice of asking students to introduce themselves along with their gender pronouns in order to be trans and non-binary inclusive. In a survey, 56% of Gen-Z said that they knew someone who uses gender neutral pronouns. Many individuals have a preferred pronoun to be used when referring to them in third person, including he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/their, ze/hir/hirs, and other gender neutral pronouns. New York University suggests that instructors give a questionnaire before the start of classes that includes an opportunity for students to indicate their preferred pronouns. Consider using a Gender Inclusivity Workbook like Creating Authentic Spaces, find a list of gender pronouns, or check out these videos about gender pronouns and why gender pronouns matter. Remind students that it’s okay to make mistakes but that they should apologize and correct themselves.

In order to affirm students and addressing bullying in the classroom: “Teachers can be tremendous allies both in their role as educators and also as affirming adults in the lives of children. For every slur that goes unchecked, an LGBTQ person may be emotionally injured…Using the name and pronouns of a transgender or gender expansive student is the easiest way to show support and inclusion as well as creating an environment of safety (Accredited Schools Online).” This work of inclusion is an important part of the social-emotional skill of social acceptance.

Raise Awareness for LGBTQ+ Representation

Teachers can also discuss and call attention to representation. This means talking to students about how LGBTQ+ individuals are portrayed in the media and in history, as well as instances of misrepresentation and unequal representation. The documentary Disclosure, explores how trans depictions in film and television have not reflected the reality of living as a trans person; the film Miss Representation discusses the lack of representation in the media of women in leadership roles.

Students deserve to see positive reflections of themselves when they turn on the television, read a magazine, or go online. As an educator, you can hold up a mirror by pointing out accurate representations of LGBTQ+ people in the media. You can introduce young people to the recently elected transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming leaders at the state level or discuss the Rainbow Wave that made the U.S. congress more diverse than ever before.

Find ways to lift up LGBTQ+ individuals, women, and people of color in leadership roles. Although the population of LGBTQ+ individuals has increased, representation continues to lag behind. More than half of Generation Z (age 13 to 20) chooses not to identify as strictly heterosexual. There has been an overall increase in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender identification, most of which can be attributed to Millennials. According to GLAAD, between 2008 and 2015, the number of American adults who know or work with a transgender person increased from 8% to 16%. Nick Adams of GLAAD writes, “… it’s crucial that the media increase and improve the coverage…and that transgender people have the opportunity to tell their own stories about our lives and the issues we face.”

Educators Committed to True Equality  

LGBTQ+ individuals are still fighting for true equality in their homes, schools, workplaces, faith communities. In order to teach LGBTQ+ history, we need to imagine a more just and equal future for our children. It takes courage to teach counter-narratives when many of us were raised with one story of American History.

Whether you are an educator or an ally, you should consider yourself part of the movement for inclusion and true equality. Teaching inclusive history is a way of standing in solidarity with all LGBTQ+ individuals. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire describes the mindset of one who is truly committed to the liberation of all people: “This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

October 2020

How to Support Children Experiencing Loneliness

I struggled academically and socially in high school and nobody (myself included) understood why. Teachers described me as creative, friendly, and intelligent, yet I struggled to complete assignments that should have been easy for me and rarely felt like I fit in socially. I attended good schools, had plenty of friends, and received good grades nearly all my life, so my failure to thrive was confusing. I just felt different. A mental health diagnosis could not describe the feeling that a therapist would eventually help me name: loneliness. Although I appeared to be fine, my internal world was a cycle of loneliness and stress. I can see now that I was experiencing social isolation and an unmet need for connectedness and belonging.

As our social lives are interrupted by pandemic, we need to acknowledge the loneliness and stress sometimes caused by social isolation among both adults and children. At the Tyler Clementi Foundation, embracing and accepting all individuals is at the heart of our work. And being an Upstander means reaching out and listening to individuals who need support, checking-in regularly, being open to their experiences, and encouraging them to seek mental health support when appropriate. In this time of increased social isolation, how can we better understand loneliness in order to support young people’s need for connectedness and belonging?

What is Loneliness? Who Experiences It? 

Loneliness is essentially an unmet need for connection that can cause discomfort and stress in the body and interfere with our daily lives; it is more common than one might guess and is experienced by children and adults alike. A 2018 study found that loneliness afflicted roughly 60 million (22%) American adults even before the current pandemic increased our rates of social isolation. A meta-analysis of several studies suggest that loneliness is associated with harmful effects on physical health (Vox).  Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explains that people who experience loneliness are often in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, which can lead to increased stress levels. 

Children and young adults who experience loneliness or social isolation may actually have plenty of friends, which means that their struggle is often hard to identify. As author Kate Kelly writes on understood.org, young people who learn and think differently are more likely to experience loneliness. These young people may struggle with traits like self-control, social skills, making conversation, or self-esteem. Kelly also writes that feeling loneliness is not the same as being alone or wanting solitude. Students who struggle with socializing do not necessarily experience loneliness or social isolation, however, it is an issue that often goes unnoticed or misunderstood.

The Negative Effects of Social Isolation On Learning and Health 

Social isolation can create patterns that have negative effects on both health and learning. Beyond Differences, an organization that works to end social isolation, issued a review of existing scientific literature entitled, “It Hurts More Than You Think.” They define social isolation as, “the absence or perceived absence of satisfying social relationships; [perceiving] a discrepancy between the desired and achieved patterns of social interaction.” In their research, Dabney Ingram and Rebecca London suggest that social isolation can cause numerous negative mental and physical health effects including depression, anxiety, higher blood pressure, increased risk of substance abuse, and obesity in young adulthood. The studies cited in their report also suggest that social isolation in school can lead to lower classroom engagement, decreased attendance rates, and worsened performance on measures of student achievement and high school exams.

Supporting Students Experiencing Social Isolation

In order to target and prevent loneliness, we must seek out ways to increase feelings of student connectedness and belonging, which is considered the inverse of social isolation. Social isolation prevention, Dabney and London suggest, is one critical step that schools can take in order to meet the needs of all students. A school-wide intervention approach targeting childhood loneliness, that doesn’t single out lonely children, but instead changes social practices has been shown to be effective. These interventions could include altering environmental factors or teaching students about the importance of helping those who feel isolated. Some of the authors’ recommendations inspired our ideas in the section below.

Ideas For Parents

  • Help your child cultivate identity and seek affinity among classmates and friends by encourage hobbies that may help children connect with others.
  • Talk to your children about culture, however you define it, by considering the role of nationality, race/ethnicity, religion; create safe spaces for them to discuss their culture among friends.
  • Help young people define their identity more acutely. For example, teach young people to notice that an academic interest like marine biology or theater is an opportunity to connect with a community of like-minded individuals.
  • Consider forming a learning pod during the pandemic, or seek other options for learning and socializing outside of the virtual classroom. Consider planning safe, socially distanced social activities that follow CDC guidelines.
  • Offer opportunities to connect through shared activities. Set safe boundaries for age-appropriate video game and social media use (e.g. avoid posting anonymously). Download our cybersafety guide here for more information on creating family guidelines.
  • Consider encouraging children to join online groups formed around a specific area of interest. Age-appropriate video Games can actually be a source of connection for some children, so consider giving them a chance.
  • Discuss your own need for belonging and connectedness and practice compassion for yourself and others.
  • Develop mindfulness routines that address stress in the body.
  • Be open to your child having mentors and developmentally appropriate friendships across gender identity, age group, and cultural identity.
  • Encourage children to reach out to friends whom they haven’t heard from in a while. As Dr. Vivek Murthy writes:  

“Another thing we can do is service. This is a time where so many people are struggling. So service in a time of Covid-19 doesn’t have to look like going to a soup kitchen or spending a month with Habitat for Humanity. It can look like calling a friend to see how they’re doing. It can be checking on a neighbor who might be older to make sure that they have groceries. It can be FaceTiming with your friends’ children to virtually babysit them for 10 or 15 minutes so their parents have time to sit and breathe.” 

– Dr. Vivek Murthy, Former Surgeon General and Author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World

Ideas For Educators

  • If possible, provide opportunities for students to continue participating in affinity groups, student groups or clubs that encourage students to share their experience with one another. Some virtual conference platforms include options for creating smaller conference rooms, which can facilitate student sharing
  • Set aside virtual class time for students to socialize. If your school is 100% virtual, make a plan for returning to in-person classes that provides opportunities for students to connect with one another socially.
  • Discuss the importance of social inclusion and helping others feel a sense of belonging.
  • Create student mentorship programs that allow young people to connect with others outside of their grade level or classroom.
  • Implement a school wide loneliness intervention plan for when your students return from virtual learning. Visit beyonddifferences.org to find out how their resources can help you create a culture of belonging.

Upstanders Act with Compassion & Empathy

Young people often take their social cues from adults, which is why we should all strive to act with compassion and empathy. Fostering connectedness and belonging requires us to practice compassion and empathy– qualities that we should all model for young people. Acting with compassion and empathy signals that you want others to feel connectedness and belonging. It’s not always easy, but in this time of social distancing and political division, it certainly feels necessary. On behalf of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, thank you for continuing to be an Upstander!

Article References and Resources

Understood.Org -Loneliness Can Impact Kids Who Learn and Think Differently

Beyond Differences – Consequences of Social Isolation

Vox – America’s Loneliness Epidemic and Coronavirus Pandemic Together

New York Times – Learning Pods

CDC.Gov – Parent Checklist

Tyler Clementi Foundation’s Cybersafety Guide

Connecticut Children’s – Mindfulness Exercises for Kids

 

September 2020

Embracing Diversity in the Classroom

In my early days as a classroom teacher, I would often interrupt conflict between students with a simple refrain like, “You don’t have to like them but you’re going to need to tolerate them.” This no-nonsense message often resonated with my 5th and 6th graders, and it helped me maintain peace in the classroom. I said this because I wanted to create a safe, orderly classroom environment where all students could learn and achieve academic success, however, I’ve come to believe that we must aspire for more nuanced understandings that move beyond tolerance. In the words of our CEO Jane Clementi, “schools must not merely “tolerate” children who identify as LGBTQ+ but embrace them.” This need to embrace diversity extends to any difference including race/ethnicity, ability, nationality, or religion. Together, adults and teachers need to push young people toward a deeper understanding of differences.Safe Space

Safe classrooms are spaces in which children can understand their own truth and seek understandings of truth that may be different. By consciously embracing diversity, students can develop curiosity, self-awareness, listening skills, and respect.

This work takes time and commitment. It requires that both teachers and students travel outside their comfort zones, abandon stereotypes, and notice their own bias.

 

Learning Through Mirrors and Windows

mirrorsAdults have a responsibility to encourage children to see their own uniqueness and the diversity that surrounds them, ask questions with genuine curiosity and respect, and embrace what makes them and others unique. Young people need adults who can help them understand their truth while guiding them to understand the truth of others.

Educator Emily Style suggests that education should consist of children learning to look through both mirrors and windows.

A mirror allows children to see their own truth; a window provides them with a chance to see and understand someone else’s truth. Students can see through someone else’s window only if they are listening to their words with an open heart and a willingness to understand; they can find their own truth in a mirror only if they acknowledge how they are different from others. 

Shifting Away from a Normalized Perspective

As a teacher, I would sometimes hear students say, “That’s so gay!”  Why is this phrase still being used to express disbelief or disapproval? As teachers, we have a responsibility to ask, “What do you mean by that?” and to listen with an open mind. We should correct their use of slurs or hurtful language, but we should also guide them to understand why they may have used those words.

fishMany children develop a “normalized perspective” through learned behavior and exposure to external messaging. They are told to behave and speak based on a presumption of heterosexuality and a gender binary, therefore, using the word gay is their response to a behavior that does not fit into this perspective. In other words, “gay” is viewed as “not normal” and students may reflect that view into their world. What they perceive as “not normal” could also be any other kind of difference, including disability, religion, or political view that does not fit into their view of normal. This same scenario can be applied to any difference that challenges children’s preconceived notions and we should be careful not to “shut-down” these conversations.

Teachers should address the comment in the moment and then check-in individually with the student after. Let them know that you notice their willingness to learn about and understand diversity and that you are excited to learn more about their thoughts in the future. Remind them that saying “that’s so gay” can make others feel hurt, alienated either because it challenges their own identity or the identity of their loved ones. Finally, let them know that “difference” goes both ways. While they may see others as different from themselves, that person also perceives them as different. By helping them learn how they themselves might be seen as different, we encourage self-awareness and acceptance of others.

Guiding Children to Embrace Diversity

Seeking to understand our individual truth might be the easy part. The difficulty lies in seeking to understand and listen to and seek to understand the truth of others. Below are some ideas for guiding children to embrace diversity.

 

Model a sincere desire to understand diversity

Say: “This is a kind of diversity that I have less personal experience with (as a cis-gendered/heterosexual/female), so I plan to keep an open mind.” 

Notice when students express a curiosity to learn about diversity

Say: “I noticed that you asked, “What kind of guy would ever want to dress up as a woman?” It’s great that you are curious about transgender individuals. I’m wondering, do you know any?”

Create genuine opportunities for students to practice reconsidering their socialized beliefs by sharing examples in literature, history, or your own experiences

Say: “This experience may seem different to us but let’s try to imagine what it might be like. Can anyone share a related experience? Even though it may seem uncommon, this person sees our normative perspective as different.”

Exercise compassion by acknowledging that everyone is in a different place

Say: “In this classroom, we all have lived experiences that shape and inform our mirrors and windows. Let’s be open to learning new things from ourselves and others.

 

In closing, whether you are a classroom teacher, youth group leader, or parent, this work can be incredibly challenging. At the Tyler Clementi Foundation, we believe that the reward is worth it.

The good news is that we are not alone. Many, many great educators are already doing it. Below is a list of resources that can help you develop these skills in your classroom. 

Resources

Beyond Tolerance

Teaching Tolerance

National Seed Project Curriculum

Everyday Feminism: What is Heteronormativity?

https://www.weareteachers.com/mirrors-and-windows/ 

Article References

https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/curriculum-as-window-and-mirror

https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/what-is-heteronormativity/

For more information on implementing these ideas in your classroom, or to share your feedback, e-mail Ryan@tylerclementi.org.