How to teach gay issues in 1st grade?
At Wonderland Avenue Elementary School in Laurel Canyon, there are lesson plans on diverse families -- including those with two mommies or daddies -- books on homosexual authors in the library and a principal who is openly gay.
But even at this school, teachers and administrators are flummoxed about how to carry out a new law requiring California public schools to teach all students -- from kindergartners to 12th-graders -- about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans in history classes.
“At this point, I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” Principal Don Wilson said.
Educators across the state don’t have much time to figure it out. In January, they’re expected to begin teaching about LGBT Americans under California’s landmark law, the first of its kind in the nation.
The law has sparked confusion about what, exactly, is supposed to be taught. Will fourth-graders learn that some of the Gold Rush miners were gay and helped build San Francisco? Will students be taught about the “two-spirited people” tradition among some Native Americans, as one gay historian mused?
“I’m not sure how we plug it into the curriculum at the grade school level, if at all,” said Paul Boneberg, executive director at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.
School districts will have little help in navigating this sensitive and controversial change, which has already prompted some parents to pull their children out of public schools.
The Legislature suspended all adoptions of instructional material through eighth grade until 2015 to save money. Any new textbook with LGBT content is not likely to land in schools until at least 2019 because that process usually takes a minimum of four years, according to a state Education Department spokeswoman.
The transition should be easier in L.A. Unified, which has been a pioneer in LGBT education.
The Los Angeles school board passed a resolution directing students and school staff to refrain from slurs about sexual orientation as far back as 1988. Then, in 2003, allegations of adult school staff members bullying LGBT students prompted the district to step up its educational efforts, according to Judy Chiasson, coordinator for human relations, diversity and equity.
In 2005, L.A. Unified debuted the nation’s first chapter in a high school health textbook on LGBT issues covering sexual orientation and gender identity, struggles over them and anti-LGBT bias. A section on misconceptions says sexual orientation is not a choice -- a statement many religious conservatives disagree with.
Those topics, educators say, are clearly inappropriate at the younger ages, raising tough questions about how to carry out the new law in elementary school.
So sensitive is the subject that a children’s picture book about a same-sex penguin pair is one of the most controversial books in America today. “And Tango Makes Three” -- based on a true story about two male penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo that bond, hatch a surrogate egg and raise a baby together -- has drawn the most complaints and requests for removal from library shelves nearly every year since its 2005 publication, according to the American Library Assn.
Chiasson said LGBT topics are controversial because people conflate them with sex -- and, for religious conservatives, sin. “People sexualize homosexuality and romanticize heterosexuality,” she said.
The Safe Schools Coalition, an educational support group for LGBT youth, says the only age-appropriate lessons in elementary school involve family diversity, gender stereotypes and anti-bullying.
Which is pretty much what happens at Wonderland.
On a recent morning, teacher Jane Raphael invited her two dozen kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders to sit in a circle and tell a story about their family. The students described a cross section of modern-day America: moms and dads and athletic siblings, crazy dogs, a cat named Lulu, a fish that died, divorced parents, a girl with two mommies.
There was no discussion about sex or gay lifestyles. The exercise simply underscored that families come in all sizes, shapes and configurations.
Wilson, the principal, said such lessons are about as far as the school would take any LGBT instruction.
“The issue is never going to move beyond the diversity of family,” he said. “If it were to move beyond that, we would address it as a breach of developmentally appropriate instruction.”
Middle and high schools are a different matter. Sex education begins in fifth grade, so more specific LGBT instruction is considered appropriate -- and necessary, experts say, as bullying steps up in these years.
That happened at Downtown Magnets High School, where a lesbian student was beaten up on a school bus in 2005. The school responded by launching an anti-bullying poster campaign, a Gay-Straight Alliance club, staff sessions about inclusiveness and a conscious effort by some teachers to integrate LGBT issues into instruction.
An art history teacher includes portraits of same-sex couples in her studies. An English teacher has discussed writer Langston Hughes, who is widely believed to have been gay. And in 11th-grade U.S. history, Daniel Jocz covers LGBT issues, especially during the unit on 20th century civil rights movements.
Using video clips of Kanye West, Tyra Banks and other celebrities, Jocz engages his students in lively discussions about language -- including the taunt “that’s gay.” His students study the LGBT resistance to police arrests in the Stonewall riots alongside Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit in the back of the bus. And the murder cases of Emmett Till, an African American teenager, and Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, are examined in the class segment on hate crimes.
“I’m a history teacher, and this is history,” Jocz said. “It’s part of the narrative. You can’t remove it.”
Students say such efforts have created a safe and nurturing environment.
David Columbus, a senior and president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club, said he remembers being pushed around and called names since he was 3 because he liked Barbie dolls. When he realized he was gay in eighth grade, he said, he wanted to die and wished he had cancer instead because that was more acceptable.
At school, however, Columbus said he has thrived under the support.
“This law’s going to educate kids about LGBT people, and once you get education, you’ll respect them, and nobody’s going to bully them anymore,” said Jennifer Vanegas, a straight member of the club.
But the new law, which added LGBT Americans, European Americans and the disabled to groups whose contributions to California and U.S. history should be studied, has sparked open rebellion from some teachers and families.
Sixty miles east of Wonderland, Calvary Chapel Corona -- an evangelical Christian church of 1,200 congregants in western Riverside County -- is an active opponent. At least seven families pulled their children from public schools in protest.
“This law teaches children that it’s OK to be gay, and that’s not my Christian values,” said Bryan Breuer, who withdrew his children from public schools. “I don’t understand trying to force this on my children.”
Grace R. Callaway, a public school teacher near Yuba City, said she will refuse to teach LGBT issues to her fifth- and sixth-graders because she believes homosexuality is a “destructive lifestyle.”
She has also taken issue with a short biography recently presented in her daughter’s high school history class that described John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, as the “highest-ranking openly gay federal employee in U.S. history.” She and some other religious conservatives want to remove their children from such lessons as they can do with sex education.
How administrators plan to handle “conscientious objectors” like Callaway is unclear.
For now, L.A. Unified, along with school districts in south Orange County, Elk Grove and elsewhere, has started meeting with staff members to figure out lesson plans.
“We’re looking for places of natural fit,” Chiasson said. “We’re not going to shoehorn in something gratuitous just to make a point.”