We’ve been hearing a lot of discourse this past year about curriculum bans, or, what children should and shouldn’t be learning about in school. We’ve even had a few of our own proposed bans here in Ohio, both locally and statewide with House Bill 616 which prevents discussion of race, gender diversity, sexuality, and other “divisive” topics in the classroom.
While none of these bans have actually passed – yet – districts around the state are behaving as if they have, becoming more and more cautious about what they say, what teachers are allowed to teach, and what students are allowed to access.
In the Education & Outreach department at Kaleidoscope Youth Center, we work to educate the public on best practices for supporting LGBTQIA+ youth. We have seen over and over again that one of the most important steps that can help students feel like they belong in the classroom is to see themselves represented in curriculum.
This is not a new concept — in the education field it has long been understood that students should see themselves and a wide variety of the diverse people around them in their curriculum, from people with disabilities to students from different cultures and backgrounds, people of different races and ethnicities to members of various faith communities. This idea should not stop with LGBTQIA+ people. Queer and transgender students need to see themselves in the world around them, and that includes representation in their school’s curriculum.
Over the past few months the pushback against this idea of representation has led to an increase in messaging around whether a concept has to be “in the standards” in order to be taught in the classroom.
So let’s look at “the standards.”
Some Books, Some Lessons
Below you’ll find some ways educators can incorporate diversity of gender and sexuality into classroom conversations AND adhere to Ohio’s Learning Standards, killing two birds with one proverbial stone.
Reading books feels the easiest, so let’s start there.
Heather Has Two Mommies (Reading Level: PreK-2) is a well-known book about a child named Heather who is excited to start school, then learns that many of her classmates have dads, but she has two moms. The children all learn together that families come in different forms, and that the most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.
English Language Arts: Reading Standard for Standard Literature, Kindergarten 7 states: “With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear (e.g., what moment in a story an illustration depicts).” Using Heather Has Two Mommies as our example, we can walk through the illustrations with our kindergarteners to find Heather doing various activities around the house with Mama Jane and Mama Kate, attending school for the first time, playing with other children, and drawing pictures of various families. We might even see the pride in the faces of the students showing off their pictures of their families, and the excitement shown by the parents when they pick up their children.
Calvin (Reading Level: PreK-2)is a new book published in 2021 about a transgender boy who comes out to his family and enjoys support and affirmation during summer break, but is nervous to go back to school.
English Language Arts: Reading Standard for Standard Literature, First Grade 3 states: “Describe characters, settings, and major events in a story, using key details.” Using Calvin as our example, students should be able to describe the character Calvin, his parents and grandparents, and parts of his summer vacation like going to a comic convention and a waterpark. They should also be able to describe Calvin’s return to school, how other people react to him, and how he introduces himself to his class at the end of the story.
Sparkle Boy (Reading Level: K-2) focuses on a boy named Casey who wants to be just like his sister, Jessie, down to the shimmery skirt, glittery nails, and sparkly bracelets. Jessie tells Casey those things are just for girls, but then starts to change her mind later on in the story.
English Language Arts: Reading Standard for Standard Literature, Third Grade 3 states: “Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.” Students who read Sparkle Boy should be able to talk about Casey and Jessie’s interactions, and how Jessie’s feelings contribute to the way she treats Casey. They also may be able to describe the way that Casey feels when Jessie tells him he can’t wear the same things as her. Many students have siblings, and will be able to draw connections between their own sibling relationships and the conflict between Jessie and Casey.
Outside of Literature
Branching out into different subjects, we can look at Social Studies, where Ohio’s Learning Standards provide a theme for each grade. The theme of first grade is “Families Now and Long Ago, Near and Far” and its description includes, “The first-grade year builds on the concepts developed in kindergarten by focusing on the individual as a member of a family.”
Who’s to say what that family looks like? Are we only teaching about a nuclear family with two parents and 2.5 children? As someone in one of my trainings mentioned recently, that stinks for the half a kid! Are first graders allowed to be members of families that have two mothers, like Heather, or allowed to be raised by an adult who’s not their parent? Are first graders allowed to recognize themselves as the family member of a transgender person?
Nowhere do any of these standards define for us what a family is, because it’s not their place to do so. If educators did want to help their students understand what a family could be, they could use great children’s literature like The Family Book by Todd Parr, which gives us a variety of types of families, and fits this theme well.
First Grade Social Studies specifically teaches that “individuals have a responsibility to take action toward the achievement of common goals in homes, schools and communities and are accountable for those actions,” and that “collaboration requires group members to respect the rights and opinions of others.” In second grade, students learn that “respect for the rights of self and others includes making responsible choices and being accountable for personal actions,” and in third grade, that “communities may include diverse cultural groups.”
It’s so important for students to understand the diversity of the world around them, to learn that everyone doesn’t have the same family, or the same wardrobe, or the same ways of expressing themselves, and that there are choices they can make to ensure that all of their classmates feel welcome at school.
Ohio’s Social Emotional Learning Standards, introduced in 2019, guide children’s development in the areas of decision making, self awareness, and relationship building. Goals include “identify ways to respectfully advocate for basic personal needs,” which is so important for LGBTQIA+ youth, as they learn to advocate for themselves in and out of the classroom, to use the name and pronouns they’ve chosen, to express themselves in a variety of ways that help them feel authentic.
The Social Awareness competency includes elementary students learning about differences between people, middle school students considering stereotyping and prejudice, and high school students understanding bias and how it may affect relationships. With a whole set of standards devoted to being a respectful human, it’s hard to see how any existing content related to LGBTQIA+ families and children doesn’t fit standards.
Now, what’s REALLY interesting to me is the following excerpt from Ohio’s Learning Standards for English Language Arts:
“The standards define what all students should know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. …Furthermore, while the standards refer to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not — indeed, cannot, — enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. A well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document must therefore complement these standards. While the standards focus on what is most essential, they do not describe all that teachers can or should teach. Teachers and curriculum developers maintain a great deal of discretion in this area. This is why Ohio’s Learning Standards for English Language Arts do not include exhaustive lists of literary and rhetorical devices for the classroom. The aim of the standards is to articulate the fundamentals, not to set out a list or set of restrictions that limits instruction beyond what is specified herein.”
So, if the Ohio Learning Standards don’t tell educators exactly what content to use, educators must be free to use age appropriate content that can fulfill the goals of the Standards the way they’re written.
If you have ever attended one of KYC’s workshops, you already know that age appropriate education on LGBTQIA+ identities for children in elementary schools means teaching about love and respect for the diverse people in their community. This can include – but is not limited to – reading picture books about children with two moms or two dads and chapter books with nonbinary main characters; learning basic interpersonal skills such as calling someone the name they wish to be called or respecting differences in the way friends dress; and internalizing as much as possible that it’s okay for everyone to be exactly who they are.
Our responsibility, as educators, is to guide young people through their academic and personal development to become fully functioning people. Part of that mission includes introducing students to diversity of the world around them, teaching them to respect others, and making sure they have the support they need to continually grow.
It’s extremely difficult to achieve this goal without allowing students to see themselves and their families represented in the curriculum, and without introducing children to a variety of family structures and identities.
Fortunately for us, Ohio Learning Standards do not prevent teachers from using a wide variety of fantastically diverse, age-appropriate classroom materials to achieve those goals.
- Connect with Kaleidoscope Youth Center for community education and professional development, school advocacy, drop-in center programming for ages 12-20, or case management and housing support for ages 16-24.
- Check out the American Library Association’s annual Rainbow Book List for book recommendations for all ages, and use them in your home, classroom, or organization.
- Visit Social Justice Books, a Teaching For Change project, for more curated book lists on social justice and diversity related topics.
- Contact your representatives to ask them NOT to support HB616, and submit testimony to tell your story.
Amanda Erickson is the Director of Education & Outreach at Kaleidoscope Youth Center, focused on advocating for LGBTQIA+ youth across Ohio through education for youth-serving professionals including teachers, social workers, and more. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education from Bowling Green State University, and has taught in preschool, second, and third grade classrooms in Ohio and Brazil, as well as substitute taught K-12 in Michigan. Amanda spent two years post-college as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu, developing and facilitating teacher training through a remote provincial department of education office. She lives on an urban farm in northeast Columbus with her wife and three cats.