Friday, September 30

This Queer Ohio preschool director/teacher is transforming spaces…and lives

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It’s a tricky time to be an out and proud LGBTQ+ educator in Ohio.

As Republican legislators seek to block LGBTQ and critical race education with HB 616Ohio’s “Don’t Say Gay/Race” bill — one preschool in Cleveland Heights has hired an openly queer director to start the new school year.

Taryn Kaplan (they/them) has been teaching in an education setting for over 10 years and working with children in general for over 14. They once were a teacher at Heights Cooperative Preschool, the school they now direct.

Their first order of business as director was hiring two new teachers to replace those who didn’t return for this school year, followed closely by transforming the school’s classroom spaces and making inclusive updates to enrollment forms.

Yes, Say Gay

Being a non-profit, private preschool means that HB 616 wouldn’t affect Kaplan’s ability to be out at school or teach from stories that touch on gender, race, or sexuality in ways that will be targeted by the anti-inclusivity legislation.

Unfortunately, this also means limited funding options, since eschewing government funding means reduced ability to offer scholarships for low-income students. “It’s a lose-lose situation. Either I can’t look into ways to expand in ways that would allow more kids to have this learning experience, or I do that and can’t represent myself, my family, and the children’s families.” It was a hard call to make, but Kaplan says they currently have “no intention to look for government funding.” 

“I don’t have time to fight the government in a huge, political way,” says Kaplan. “But I do have time for the families and kids I interact with on a personal level. When parents see the books I have, see me as the director, I think it encourages people to embrace and work for change.” 

Representation Matters

To set the tone of inclusion and representation that Mx. Kaplan—as their students call them—prioritizes, they started with the first interactions families have with the school and the enrollment process: the many forms families need to complete.

After some simple changes to the school’s enrollment forms, families can now let Heights Cooperative know about a student’s preferred name, pronouns, and guardianship that might not fall into the heteronormative mom and dad roles on standard forms.

After classroom glow-up!

“Kids might live with their grandparents, or another relative,” says Kaplan. “There are so many types of families.” 

As for the new team of staff, Kaplan says, “As a queer, Black person I wanted to make sure that my team and my school showed diversity. Representation is so important — it’s important for kids to see different jobs they can do. They can grow up and be a teacher, or director of a school.” 

The new teachers at Heights have already jumped in and started helping right away. Kaplan says, “It’s summertime, and they’re here redoing the classrooms, learning about our curriculum, [helping]with our rummage sale — they’ve been so incredibly passionate.”

Learning Spaces 

The classrooms at Heights are getting a glow up to center the school’s play-based learning approach. Kaplan has created designated spaces for certain types of play throughout their classroom, including spaces for cozy relaxing and quiet time, blocks, loose parts so students can design their own games and puzzles, a dramatic play area with a kitchen and table, an early literature area with letters to play with, and a sensory table. 

In addition, there are tables for group projects and lunch, and an area for creativity and art. The classrooms are colorful and engaging, with spaces separated by curtains and furniture in a way that clearly designates the spaces but doesn’t keep anyone closed off. 

After the classroom glow-up!

“You need to be able to see the whole room from any vantage point,” Kaplan points out, which makes the design process of the rooms a little more complicated since they’re for small children. 

Kaplan has also brought in a lot of natural elements, including plants and pets. Two guinea pigs, Sushi and Kiwi, will be joining Kaplan’s classroom in the fall along with the students.

Big on Books

Central to Kaplan’s approach is a robust library of age-appropriate stories for the circle time and early literature spaces in the classroom.

“I am so big on books,” says Kaplan. “One of the easiest ways to have representation in the classroom is books and printed materials, so I get everything.” Their most recent book addition is called “What is a Refugee?” by Elise Gravel.

Though Kaplan wants to showcase all kinds of representation, they don’t necessarily center LGBTQ+ plot lines in their book choices. 

After classroom glow-up!

Kaplan says, “It’s important to have books where the LGBTQ story isn’t the entire focus. Why can’t there just be a book where two dads pick their kid up, or you’re at a birthday party with two moms? It just needs to be normalized, kids need to see that as much as they see heterosexual examples.” 

No matter which books line the shelves, Kaplan’s focus is and remains wholly focused on creating a safe place for students to learn that they matter.

“Children leave my classroom learning that they are important, and that other people are important,” says Kaplan. 

That’s a lesson that starts with the next generation learning at Heights Cooperative. 🔥

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About Author

Caitlin Fisher is a queer, non-binary writer in Cleveland, author of The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation, and prone to random acts of pep talk. They are also the host of the podcast Run Like Hell Toward Happy, a show that helps overwhelmed creatives achieve their goals without burnout.

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