Courtney Farrell uses her experience as a literacy specialist and ally to help us understand how our very youngest colleagues should be centered in dialogue about trans rights in education and issues of gender and educational justice. Democratic schools should be places where all students see varieties of experience and can imagine multiplicities of perspective. In this episode, we learn how to grow our awareness about gender-expansive and transgender children and youth, and reimagine how classroom practices can build true democracy. We’ll discuss how inclusion for marginalized groups benefits everyone, and highlight examples of work that makes classrooms equitable and caring for all children.
Stephanie: You’re listening to In Times Like These, a production of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. Courtney Farrell is an educator, literacy specialist, activist and mom. She works to learn and walk alongside children, teachers and families who are working to make more inclusive spaces for LGBTQIA children and youth.
Stephanie: Think about a classroom for third graders, for kindergartners, the stories and coloring pages, the bulletin boards and the language we use to describe people, to describe the children, too often we use language and practices that erase the identities of children, and that’s an act of violence.
Stephanie: In this episode, Courtney helps me understand how classrooms can be places of great affirmation and transformation, and how our teaching practices can be affirming for all identities.
Courtney: My name is Courtney Farrell, and I am the founding director of The Journey Project. And the foundation of it really I’ve been thinking a lot about this as it’s been evolving over these last two years. And what has really struck me and stood out as a foundational piece of the sort of entity that is ever evolving, is this idea of hearing one another, and I want to explain what that means. When I think about hearing one another, I think about the distinction between listening to someone and truly hearing them. And so for me, I would define listening as just sort of the act of like I’m here, I’m sort of in the same space, I’m hearing words come to me and I am sort of like centering myself.
Courtney: The distinction is for me in hearing as I’m actually centering you … I’m actually engaging with what it is you’re saying. I’m fully present in the moment if you’re kind of physically with me or not to really hear you authentically to be able to kind of engage back and forth with dialogue around and kind of read you as a human being, and it makes me think a little bit about when people say, “But you’re not listening to me! I just want to be heard. I just feel like I want to be heard.” so a lot of what I have been doing both as a mother and as an educator, is creating spaces where people I walk alongside or mentors that I apprenticed myself to, or teachers that I study with, or mothers that I meet with or administrators who I sit with, all of the people that are in my life and the children that I learn the most from each and every day, I am in a phase of hearing stories and life perspective and ideas of people.
Courtney: So the way The Journey Project really began was as a parent, I’m a mom of two young boys, that fierce trio of the three of us and my oldest, when he was three or four was the kind of kid that was really beautiful at pushing back on sort of these notions of like what it would be like to be a kid at that time. The kind of things he was supposed to like, the kinds of things he was supposed to do, and as he got older, I really created space in our family to hear one another and to be there along one another’s journey and around the age of kindergarten, first grade, he really started to express a knowing of self that he was in fact a boy and as our family created space for him to explore and to think through who he was, who he knew himself to be, and that authenticity itself, he was able to come to us and say I am a transgender person, I am a trans boy.
Courtney: And our family explored this with him in all the ways that we knew how to at the time, which was his younger brother saying, “Okay, you’re my brother.” and then I as his parent really being able to hold space for what does that mean, let me inform myself more about that, let me try to bring in all of the ways that I know of learning for me as a teacher, a classroom teacher and educator, with reading things, talking to people, going online, finding books, listening to my child a lot, to be able to build up my knowledge base of what this meant.
Courtney: And in so doing, I realized that there was really not a lot of access to information for our youngest children within the trans community. I’m talking about our three year olds, our five year olds, our seven year olds, our under middle … Well, and in a of crowd of children and parents just like me seeking information and seeking what we could do in all the ways to support our children in our homes, in our communities, in our places of worship, on our sports teams, in our inner schools, our public schools.
Courtney: And so it really became … The Journey Project really became this kind of website for me to just put information I was finding so that as parents and family members and friends, asking like “What do you know? How can we support you?” Or in other families who had children who are coming to realization of self. I said, “Well, I’m trying to put this all together so that we have this space to kind of refer to. I’m talking to this person, I’m at our LGBTQ center, I’ve met a trans adult at our church and they’re kind of giving me information.” Trying to kind of crowdsource this all together and put it in one place, and then as a teacher, a true believer in the power of literacy and critical literacy as a pathway toward inclusion, I turned to books.
Courtney: My son and I turned to books that reflected sort of his journey and who he saw himself to be and kind of that you live a thousand lives if you read all the beautiful books out there and you live sort of one life if you neglect to kind of engage in reading texts. So the idea of reading books, opening up that kind of mirror for my son to see himself in, and then for me as his parent to accomplish in this journey of life with him, to kind of see a window into the world that I myself had not experienced as a child or as a cisgender person, meaning that my gender that identify with right now is aligned to the sex that I was assigned at birth and then he as a trans person meaning the sex he was assigned at birth is not the gender he identifies with right now as a young adolescent boy.
Courtney: And so I kind of through all these books, picture books, chapter books, anything we could get our hands on we put that up on the website, and then just as the person who processes their life through thinking and through words, both the written word and the spoken, I started to blog and write and invite other friends and other family members who were traveling alongside trans children of my own children and children who had experiences to write, and so the blog became a space of writing, documenting stories and our thinking and our lives.
Courtney: And so that’s kind of how all of that started, The Journey Project network. It’s sort of a foundation now and it’s ever expanding into all sorts of new realms as the months go on and I hear and I’m able to learn more and feel more and kind of create sort of a new knowing for my family and I.
Stephanie: This is so student centered and so child centered and I know as a former classroom teacher, people who go into teaching because they love and value young people, we want to listen and focus and hear and incorporate children’s perspectives into our practice, but I rarely encounter someone who actually acts on that day after day, after day. It’s hard, we’re impatient, we like being experts. We like talking, we like hearing ourselves and so tell me about the work. I understand that you’re consulting with schools or teachers or pre-service teachers. How are you helping educators rethink their practice, their teaching practice?
Courtney: Yeah, beautiful. Wow. And I think the way to answer that is it’s really expansive. There’s a lot of different places that I think about when I think about kind of re-examining what we hold true to or what we hold to be sort of like this is the way things are and expanding that out to make sure that our world view and the way that we create sort of what the world looks like in our own view as adults especially and then as educators or in the lives of young children that that’s more inclusive and expansive. So some of our work has become both working away classroom teachers who are in the classroom day after day, the coaches, administrators at schools, who are looking for pathways toward inclusivity and really transforming their school culture.
Courtney: Thinking about everything from classroom culture and kind of ways we are together, routines and rituals and what we have going on in a classroom, to shifts in curriculum, shifts in books, shifts in literacy, to be more inclusive of all students. I’m thinking even of like the procedures we have in our schools, the language we use, the policy is sort of these shifts overall and so we found working with teachers who know their students the best, know the communities that they serve the best, have some of the most brilliant, expansive thinking methodology, open hearts, expansive minds, know all of what is best to do.
Courtney: So putting teachers, leaders in a room together to collaborate and think through how are we going to weave in for our children, for our first graders our third graders, our fifth graders, even our middle schoolers, conversations around identity. What does it mean to have multiple identities? What are the identities that we all hold? What identities we see in our classrooms, our school communities, our larger community and then how do we artfully weave an exploration of inclusive texts and picture books and digital literacy to be able to explore and to be able to use as windows into worlds that we may not be walking ourselves, that we are growing our understanding and our awareness of and then how do we find beautiful literature and texts that reflect that, that mirrors who we are so that we see ourselves in a world view created in schools and knowing the structural pattern of our school and in our society it’s really structured and this is binary.
Courtney: It’s sort of like gender socialized notions of there are boys and there are girls, there are men and there are women, and so being able to make these sort of implicitly invisible socialized practices that we have in our culture at large visible as teachers, visible as adults so that we can start to really see the structures that are built up around us in terms of gender and then sort of step away from those, divest from those to be able to disrupt and dismantle them in little ways to be able to rebuild in more inclusive ways that include all of our children and their identities and who we see in the world.
Stephanie: Right, and you and I-
Courtney: A lot of the work is also-
Stephanie: Yeah, and I just want to give our listeners a concrete example. So one of the things that’s very common in elementary school is to divide children by gender. To say, “Okay, boys over here and girls over here.”
Stephanie: “Okay, boys get a drink of water first, girls line up by the wall.” or the bulletin board borders will have like girls with triangle dresses, and boys in blue, and that’s very common in decorating schools and bulletin boards, and art classes in the way that we, you know, make sure every group has two boys and two girls. Boys go to PE now, girls-
Stephanie: That’s just very sort of shorthand for the way we categorize kids.
Courtney: Right, and that’s the invisible process of socialization, it’s procedures we have in our classrooms, in our homes, in our purchasing practices. The language we use, it evokes a certain ideology, a certain worldview that we’re often not even aware of that implicitness. It reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite poets, Adrienne Rich. She says, “When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see or hear you, when someone with the authority, say a teacher describes the world and you’re not in it, there’s a moment of psychic dis-equilibrium as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. It takes some strength of soul and not just individual strength, but collectively to understand this void, this non-being into which you’re threatening and demanding to be seen and heard.”
Courtney: And the idea of being heard and to be seen, it makes me think a lot like you said if we only construct a world through our language, through things like you said that are on the walls, through our rituals and procedures of line up this way and that way, and it’s based on this binary notion of gender, then where are we creating space for more of an expansive view of gender? Where do our children who don’t adhere to a binary? Where do our children who are questioning and thinking you know what, I know my authentic self, but I just haven’t revealed that to those around us. I’m not sure if this is a safe enough space yet to do that with my peers, with my teachers, with the class culture or the school culture. Where do our gender nonconforming children see themselves if we say, line up by boys, and line up by girls and a child doesn’t adhere to that, right?
Courtney: So the way that we pass on ideology, that implicitness of there are two ways of being in our world and you have got to be in one of these two, is not an expansive way of thinking, and not an expansive way of centering the way we are with children. So this is a lot of the work we do, whether a teacher is in the field now, in classrooms for decades, or pre-service teachers about to emerge in our incredible profession of education and teaching.
Courtney: To really make visible all of these pieces of how pervasive it is in our personal life, in our professional life, this binary, to be able to see how it seeps into our language, how it like you said, it seeps into the things on the wall, the procedures and rituals in our classrooms and in our schools and in our curriculum who is reflected in our classroom libraries and our curriculum and who is not, what we choose to engage and talk about and what we remain silent upon.
Courtney: And so it’s a process of hearing, of thinking about it and then trying out different ways of making this a lot more visible and then jumping in and sitting with children in classrooms and hearing them. Hearing them engage in dialogue, hearing them through their written words, and reading that and reflecting upon to know what’s on their mind to be able to know what’s our next steps.
Courtney: So very student centered, very student driven, a lot of reflection and a lot of teacher collaboration, and whole school collaboration, because anytime you think about transformation, it isn’t just like one teacher in one grade level doing some amazingly like activist social justice work in their classroom, it’s an entire school shift from teachers, to staff, to administrators, to families and parents and caregivers and communities, to administrative policies to curriculum choices. It’s sort of like an all expansive way of shifting to be more inclusive of all of our children that inhabit our classrooms and our communities today.
Stephanie: Absolutely. And we talked about in previous conversations it’s important to do this work, not to wait as a fourth grade teacher until I have a trans student in my class, just as I would not wait until I have a Muslim student, or a Somali student, or a student of color, or a girl student. I mean, if I’m in a Roman Catholic school I might also want to have pictures of students from other traditions and other cultures because students benefit, all of us benefit from multiplicities of perspective.
Courtney: That’s absolutely right, and the ability to be able to see yourself reflected in a classroom culture, in a school community and in any place in the communities and the space that you occupy, I feel it’s an inherent right of the human being and when we render children invisible by not including all, by not opening up spaces where all children can see themselves, whether they are disclosed or not, whether they are known to us or not, because every child it’s every human’s right to be able to censure the things that we want others to know about us.
Courtney: When we choose to remain silent or we choose to render children invisible, I feel like that is an erasure of personhood, and a child going through school year, after year, after year, never seeing yourself reflected in the community and not saying like we have to like spotlight the child, that is not what I’m advocating for. It’s the idea of creating a space where a child sees themselves or sees their cousins, their siblings, their parents, your example of the trans community, we’re not doing this work because my son happens to be in your fourth grade classroom and he’s a trans boy. This work has to be done because he and his peers exist in all classrooms, in all schools in communities across this country and frankly across the world. We’re doing that so all children grow in expansive thinking, and empathetic and compassionate hearts.
Courtney: And so it makes me think of a question that my son occupied, not this year but previously, there is one of his peers, a great friend who is a family member, who’s 19 year old family member had transitioned, so where was this child to see his close family member that he cherished in the world view that his incredibly mindful teacher created, you know, in the classroom that they shared with children. It’s not about the child and the classroom, it’s about all of our children being able to have windows into worlds around us and seeing themselves and like how there are more commonalities between us than differences.
Courtney: I want to see all identities and all of us are made up of multiple identities, and I want to be able to know where do I align with you? Where do we have commonalities? Where can we speak to one another, and then where are the parts about you that are different than me that I have the opportunity now to learn abut, to think about, to grow from. So it’s not just about that my child is trans and is visible and in your particular school, so now you’ve got to take this up. It’s this proactive approach to creating more inclusive spaces for all of our children known and unknown to us, and all of the family members that they journey alongside and all of the community members. It’s about making a space so that we all belong and that we all have that sense of self. That’s the inclusion to me.
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Stephanie: Being human is a messy endeavor. We are made to be in relationship and yet our fear of diversity keeps us apart. My new book explores this paradox. Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us, is available now for pre-order on Amazon. It’s available spring 2018, and it’s for all of us ordinary readers seeking ways to learn how to engage with difference. Interfaith Grit is possible, and it can save us.
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Stephanie: Oh, my goodness. So help me. I’m so inspired by this conversation and I want … It makes me want to go back to teaching, it’s inspiring.
Stephanie: And I want to tell you, you’ve probably seen this before. The classrooms that I was in were set up for my convenience. The desks were in rows, I was at the front, I had the most comfortable furniture. The students had to keep still. They were made to keep their bodies quiet, they were made to keep their voices quiet. When I was being complimented on my teaching, I heard people say, “Oh, Ms. Hughes, she has control of her classroom.” when I was being perhaps written up or a note in my file from my principal, she would say, “You don’t have control over those boys and girls.” which is like a really loaded statement when you think about it. You don’t have control over those young people.
Stephanie: And so I think many of our listeners went to school where the student was supposed to be quiet and docile and you were quiet and you sat still, and you did your work, that was being a good student. And so how can we make this shift as parents and educators, and school board members and community members into thinking about classrooms as student centered humane places of education?
Courtney: Yeah, that’s an incredible question and I think about that twofold. I think about that both as a parent and the spaces created in my own home with my two boys, the three of us, and then I think about that as a teacher in my teacher brain right, and the shared spaces that are created within kind of the classroom environment and however that looks across our country.
Courtney: So I think a lot about who holds the power in this space. Who holds the power in this space. So if I think about sort of a democratic space, whether it be in your home or in a classroom or however you find yourself engaging with young children or adolescents or youth on a daily or weekly basis, I think about that exchange of power and I think about if a classroom let’s say is designed for the teacher to stand in front, the desk are all in rows facing like a front board, right?
Courtney: There’s a sense that the teacher is the all-knowing person that has information to be disseminated upon and that students, the children in the classroom, their role is to sort of like listen like you said and not talk very much and just sort of like be receptors of information. That for me doesn’t feel like a democratic space in a classroom. To me and the teachers that I study alongside with and I collaborate with and that I’m honored to be able to be a guest in their classroom, and the kind of questions that I try to co-create with my students when I was in the classroom as a classroom teacher in public schools here in Los Angeles.
Courtney: They’re much more dialectic and they’re much more dynamic and ever moving and they’re much more of a shared power space. So to have a Democratic space, that means we share power. Now if we’re sharing power and that means kids are gaining more power, then someone is giving up power and usually that’s the adult in the room. There’s one of me and there’s 35 of you or 32 or 28 depending on your class size. That puts us as teachers in a position of kind of like giving away some of our power in the most mindful ways, both as teacher and as adult in the room, because that shows the respect that we have for the way that we process and create knowledge together.
Courtney: That it’s out of learning, that it’s out of talking about, that it’s out of processing, whether that’s through the written word, through a dialectic space of talking with one another. So classrooms that I see that are working toward really inclusive, mindful, expansive spaces, have tables that are not in rows. They’re set up in groups or pod’s or kind of flexible, so that children are facing one another and have spaces to talk. There’s spaces around the room where children gather together maybe on a rug or on a speaking space or stadium seating, where there’s an ability to exchange ideas in learning.
Courtney: There are spaces where teachers are kind of thinking through some of this work as learners themselves so I think a lot about kind of teacher stance. Teacher stance or adult stance, like who we are in the classroom or around children as being one of learner alongside children. Coming to the table and saying, “You know, I’ve got some ideas. I’ve got some thinking, I’ve got some learning. I’ve been doing some studying kids. Here’s some thinking I want to kind of present today and we’re going to co-construct, and I want to know what you’re thinking. I want to know what your ideas are.” I’m going to do that through listening in as you have an opportunity to change information and talk with those around you in your partnerships or tryouts or groups.
Courtney: That’s me saying, I don’t know everything because there’s so much to know in the world, there’s no possible way I could, but what I do is I seek to learn. I seek to know more, and I’m going to reveal my process as a learner, so that you can start to have a window into these are processes that we go through as humans to learn new things. And here’s the thing about being-
Stephanie: And I might be wrong, right?
Courtney: Yes. And here’s the-
Stephanie: And I might be wrong.
Courtney: Yeah, that’s right. And here’s the thing about being a learner is we often don’t know what we don’t know, and we often get things wrong and I don’t like the word wrong, but we don’t often get things right away. So what do we do in that circumstance? We enter it with a ton of humility. That ability to come in and say, “I don’t know what I don’t know, but I’m here alongside you to learn together. Or you know what? Last week when we were talking about this I went and I heard something or I talked to someone or I read something and I learned this new thing and when I said I got it wrong, I want to let you know what’s the new language I learned or the new information I learned.”
Courtney: So children seeing you vulnerable as an adult in any space and especially as a teacher in a classroom, it doesn’t negate any of your power, it just shows the honesty that you have and the trust you have in the children around you and that actually gains a lot of trust and a lot of admiration for you because you trust the children enough to show that vulnerability and then they also now have created a space where they feel trusted enough to be vulnerable to share ideas, whether they … I’m not sure if I’m right or wrong, but I’m going to give an idea and there’s no rights or wrongs, right? We’re here to learn together.
Courtney: So that teacher stance of learner, being transparent with that process and that humility when we get it wrong sometimes and kids really being able to be in that space engaged in talking, you know, by research, the one who’s talking is the one who’s learning.
Courtney: So I a million times had taught a lesson and I was like yeah, I taught it, they get it, that was brilliant, but they didn’t learn it. Like I taught it, but did they learn it? They learned it when they had an ability to go out and try it out. To ebb and flow with it, to give it a go, for me to sit there and coach them, to give them constant feedback. It’s that in the doing, in the talking through, that’s the learning. So if the classrooms are full of conversation, productive, focused conversation around this work, whether it’s any kind of work, but especially this work of growing our minds, expansive in our hearts, deep around identity, around what it means to be humans to one another.
Courtney: To be compassionate, to lead with what we know to be right, to support those around us, rooms are full of talk, rooms are full of negotiation, rooms are full all sorts of communication, there’s so much communication that is non-verbal. There’s the nods, there’s the facial gestures, there’s the like I’m with you notes. Teachers have brilliant ways of using, you know, non-verbal cues and kids using non-verbal cues. And I hear you, you’ve been heard or I agree with you or I disagree with you, but here is where we’re going to go forward and create your knowledge together in respectful ways where we debate ideas and thinking, not people’s personhood, right?
Courtney: So classrooms that are very much a dialectic space, a dynamic space that’s ever moving in and conversations having a space, a center space, are a characteristic of a lot of the classrooms that I see from coast to coast, from teachers who are activists, that are social justice teachers who see their moral and ethical obligation to bring this work of inclusive classrooms to the students they serve on a daily and weekly basis.
Stephanie: And you’re describing … I mean, this is the human endeavor. This is what we as fully engaged humans who are seeking to flourish and seeking to help one another flourish, that’s what we do. We’re vulnerable, we take risks, we learn that we weren’t all the way right. We are open hearted, we’re curious, and why wouldn’t that happen in a classroom? Why wouldn’t that happen for a six year old or five year old or eight year old? Why do we wait until we’re in a higher ed space or until we’re in, you know, a yoga retreat or until we’re adults and we have power in social capital to get to experience this kind of engagement?
Courtney: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, and it’s one question that I think a lot about. That’s one question I think about when I talk to families and parents and like mothers I sit down with who are, you know, I want to share my story with you. You had a guest on Kendra Fredrickson-Laouini a couple of weeks ago and she said, “The shortest distance between two people is the story.” And I truly believe that.
Courtney: When I walk alongside parents and I listen and I truly hear what they’re saying and halfway through they burst into tears and I always look like, I’d be happy to … And they’re like, I just feel like I’m being heard. There’s someone else out there like my family and what more can I do? My children are young, we’re engaged in school, whether they’re preschool or elementary schoolers and then teachers who are like, this is reflective of my life where this touches my life in a personal way, someone in my family or my close friends are within the LGBTQIA community or even myself, or I just see this as my obligation as a human being to bring who I am as a person into my profession as a teacher, want to engage in this work.
Courtney: But they say here are all of these things I’m worried about, or concerned about, or scared about, and everything they center, whether it’s a parent or a teacher or administrator, or a coach, a librarian, a person engaged in this work, and my team and I were starting to see commonalities of what their worries are. Some of them are things to do with like I’m not sure what families are going to say and parents are going to say and caregivers like the outside community. How are they going to respond?
Courtney: So part of our work is creating inclusivity workshops with families and parents in the schools that we support, for you to come in and engage in this work, to look at the texts that their children are reading. To have notebooks to jot down ideas, to have partners that they think through text that they experience to see what this work is themselves, and I have to tell you, family members are like, “Well, when I was a kid.”
Courtney: Here’s my thinking; you can see them as learners as humans too and wanting this work happening because it really is a human endeavor. It’s building compassion and how we are with one another. It is building up what we can do for our children and our adults around us to be able to think in really compassionate ways and being open to expanding our minds and our thinking of our experiences. I think a lot about the worries that I hear from teachers or parents of like what is my administrator going to say or the policies that I have at my school, like how is that going to go?
Courtney: And definitely administrators thinking like how is this going to look. Administrators are the most cornerstone people in this process to say this is what we want to do as a school, it’s all hands on deck. As a school we believe in this. We believe this is our obligation to children and the families to do right by all and to make sure that this is an inclusive space that all children feel safe and welcome and see themselves in our school culture. So they setting the tone of centering time for teachers to come together to study and to think how do this.
Courtney: Center their time for purchasing books and making sure they have inclusive books and curriculum and the types of things they need to support the work bringing in LGBTQ centers that are in many of our communities that have incredible experts within communities that can come in and give knowledge and give ideas and possibilities and those sorts of things, that’s another piece. And then the idea of I’ve heard, you know, many adults that are teachers or parents or family members, then there’s the actual engagement in the work of sitting with young children that are five and seven and 10 and the sort of fear of like, “Well, what will they say? What if they ask questions? What if I don’t know how to answer them? What if I don’t know enough?”
Courtney: What if … All these what ifs within the actual work, which are all incredibly valid concerns and we think this is the space where when we create classrooms that the normative way of us being is that we all don’t know everything, that we’re open to new thinking. That we exchange ideas through dialogue, that we hear one another, that we relate always in a space of respect and compassion to those us around us, our peers around us, that when this work then becomes kind of folded into a classroom space that already is such, this is then another space they can explore in a safe way.
Courtney: So it is when we don’t know everything, if we as a teacher like you know what, we’re going to engage in some work and talk about characters or talk about some identities that I’m not as familiar with, because they don’t actually reflect who I am myself, so I’m going to be a learner with you so that when someone asked the question being able to say as an adult, like as a mother, or as the teacher, “I’m not quite sure either, I don’t really know, or you know what, something that I told you last week I just learned some new information and here’s what I’m going to give you. Someone actually revised my thinking and changed a little bit here of what I’m saying, but that’s okay because I’m growing too.”
Courtney: So when there’s that nervousness of like what are the kids going to say, or how is it going to go, having a space already set up that is open to that we don’t know at all, we don’t have all the answers, we’re perfectly fine saying that we don’t know what we don’t know, and that we’re going to find out information together, so when these tricky conversation come up and I think I only categorize them as tricky because sometimes we’re less used to talking about certain identities or certain topics than others, that at the kind of ideas that we see in the world brought into our classroom.
Courtney: A foreign space that’s quite expansive and inclusive already ,then kids are usually like, okay, she doesn’t know it either or my teacher doesn’t know it either. Cool we’re going to figure it out, right?
Stephanie: Right, right. Well, these are complex ideas and I’m going to learn about … It’s like when I taught Sunday school. Who in the world would I be if I believed that all children are made in the image of God, just as I am, what kind of posture would it be for me to pretend that I know all the answers about these mysterious, like capital M mysterious, concepts? I want to model a posture of openness and a posture of curiosity because I have a whole lifetime as well, they’re just a little bit younger than me, but we’re on the same journey.
Courtney: You’re absolutely right and then for me, you know, as a parent, as a mother, as a teacher, as a cisgendered woman, I walk alongside my child who’s within the trans community, right? I am not a member of the identity that he inhabits, so I have a really big obligation to make sure that I walk alongside and that I don’t speak for him or speak over him or speak for or over the trans community. That it’s not my role and that is not my right, so I’m really mindful as a parent or a teacher, or a teacher educator, or a coach or any of the myriad hats that I wear, to be really respectful and censure that I am every day growing, every day doing my best and then realizing when it’s not my best going through that humility of saying I am … Apology, I’m sorry from the bottom of my heart, here’s what I’m thinking.
Courtney: I do my best to have mentors who have adopted me and have people in my life that I apprentice myself to that have allowed me to come along the journey with them so that I can learn what I don’t know. That I can hear and hold space for experiences that I’ve never experienced so that when I speak to teachers who are cisgender individuals and I would never make assumptions of who, but I would think … And I’m not sure if there’s research out there as to sort of the population at large of our teaching force, but I would think much of it reflects sort of cisgender normative ways of thinking, that I myself am representing my knowledge the best I can, not being a member of the LGBTQ community or a trans person myself.
Courtney: So my mentors, I listen and hear as much as I can and collaborate as much as I can and know when to step aside and de-center who I am to center myself to create space for voices from within communities to shine and to be heard and to be the one front and center as much as possible. And since my son is young, he’s not of age yet, some spaces are not safe for him to be in public spaces, his name and person who I’ve ever known that is something I hold dear to and that I protect, but one day when he is of age to be able to speak for himself, which he does in all of the spaces that are safe, his words are going to be the ones that shines through. His perspectives, his story from his own mouth, from his own lips are going to be what you hear, and right now my obligation is to walk alongside and be able to kind of express thinking on behalf of both of us, only because of age, right.
Courtney: In the spaces where he is safe and the spaces where he can kind of run with it, he is the one that is like this big booming voice of power because I feel children are often not heard or spoken over or spoken for, or discounted, and his voice is powerful and he has so much to say and I believe that for his peers and for all children really, they had huge voices, but are we listening? Are we creating spaces where their voices can be amplified to hear from children and youth? That is much of my work is to be in spaces where children within community, within the trans community, within the LGBTQ community and within school spaces are being heard.
Courtney: Their voices are shining so that we can learn from them because they have some of the most flexible, creative, innovative perspectives, because their whole job as kids is to be curious and to learn and to think in a new … Because life is new to them, right? So we have as adults much to learn when we can kind of step back, re-center ourselves, quiet our voices and open our hearts and our minds and our ears much more to hear what the youth of our nation and our youngest ones have to say and their perspective, most of my work is learning from children and youth these days.
Stephanie: Oh, my goodness, it’s incredible and what you’re saying when you think about all of the fears. I can’t do it because of this reason, I can’t do it because of that reason. Oh my goodness, what if this happens, what if XYZ happened, when it comes down to the child in front of you, as a teacher, as a parent, and as a religious or ethical leader, or as a policy maker, as a politician, the child in front of you is asking for something. It’s a civil right. It’s a civic right. It’s a human right. How can I as a teacher say no, I’m going to deny your whole self because of my own fears or discomforts? We’ve-
Courtney: Yeah, I would-
Stephanie: Stopped doing that based on gender, right? Colleges are for the most part integrated. We’ve stopped or we’re trying to stop doing that based on race and ethnicity. We’ve stopped or we’re trying to do that based on religion and place of culture, and it seems to me that if we think about this as a human right, look at the child right in front of you, would we really ever be able to say no, you know what, you don’t fit into this educational system, you’re just going to have to wait. We wouldn’t do that.
Courtney: Yeah, absolutely. I agree with you. I agree with you that the idea of like being a part of your school culture, your classroom culture, your community is a right, and that when we deny-
Stephanie: As your full self.
Courtney: Yeah, and when we deny children their right and when we do not hold space for who they are authentically in the world that we create or in the classroom spaces we create or in our communities or in our homes, when we do not fully see who children are and love and honor and privilege them, when we render them silent, when we negate that they’re even a part of our curriculum or the books. When we are erasing their personhood right in front of us year to year, I would purport that that’s violence against children and that’s not okay. That’s not our human right as adults to create spaces where children are rendered invisible.
Courtney: It’s not our right to be in a space as adults, whether it … No matter what our role is in the lives of children, to create spaces where they are not included and privileged for all their authentic selves, that is not our right. So what can we do as humans, as adults? Wherever we find ourselves in relation with children, whether it’s as parents or caregivers, coaches, policymakers, administrators, teachers, community leaders, you said religious organizations, wherever we find ourselves with children, where can we create spaces that are more inclusive, and I think it starts with hearing children.
Courtney: It’s not all on our shoulders to say well, what can we do for you? How can we do it? What will be best? What if we just ask children how might it go for you? What would be the best scenario? What do you want to learn about? What stories do you want to read about? What processes in this classroom will work for you? What roles and dynamics in my family unit are going to work for us? What is it that’s going to be the conditions within which you find your best self shining forth, right?
Courtney: We don’t have to have all the answers, but we have to ask the right questions and then we need to be willing to step back and hear. And not only hear, but then actually do something about it. There’s nothing like saying, we’re hearing you, we’re jotting all these ideas down, we’re here and thinking, and then not seeing action upon it. So I think for many years the incredible activists and educators and advocates that I walk alongside who’ve been doing this work for many more years than I and decades alone that I pale in comparison to in my infancy in this work who have just been so incredibly like humbling in terms of me to even be able to walk alongside or be open to welcoming me into this community, I think a lot about. They have known the truth of you need to take action upon new learning.
Courtney: So if we ask the right questions, hear from children, hear from teachers who are some of the most brilliant people I have ever met, hear from families and parents who know their children the best and advocate for them on a daily basis and we have ideas of pathways forward, and then we neglect to actually take action upon it, then who are we? So if we want to be engaged in this work of transforming spaces that children occupy, whether it’s classrooms, schools, community spaces, or homes, we need to take action upon the new learning we have to create more inclusive spaces for children.
Courtney: So taking action in all the ways, whether it means rethinking our curriculum, whether it means rethinking the way we censure books and what we privilege in classrooms, whether it’s rethinking the language we use implicitly like, “Good morning boys and girls.” The language we use that implies that there’s only a binary in gender. It’s processes and the procedures and the policies within our school culture or our district, whether it’s kind of the things like you had mentioned in the beginning of what’s on our walls and who do we see on a daily basis. If it’s rethinking all of those things and then taking action upon it, that to me is steps toward action, toward more inclusive spaces with children.
Stephanie: Oh, it’s so good. And you brought us full circle back to really being in a posture of listening. Not just I hear you, I hear you, I see you, I notice you, but listening. And this through line of asking and knowing that we can hear from our young colleagues in this endeavor and I know that the blog in The Journey Project website has a lot more resources, so I really … I most appreciate the invitation to learn alongside you and your colleagues, and I’m so grateful for that invitation.
Courtney: Thank you, and I think the reason I sent her that is because I’m only who I am because of the people I walk alongside. Who have enabled me to grow as an educator, as a teacher, as a mother, and as a human, and that has sort of taken me under their wings, whether that’s children, mentors of mine, or colleagues or folks that I look to who’ve been in this work for decades. Who have grown in my mind expansively, who have grown my heart in depth, and who have really created spaces where I can walk alongside and try to do justice to what they have set up for this work and in this world, and that I have kind of a space to be able to also use this alongside.
Courtney: And so it really is a journey. It is an evolution of self, no matter what we do in life, and so being open to growing and stretching and all the glory, and all the pain that that means, welcoming in more to share our stories, to know one another, to create spaces where children thrive and grow and are their compassionate selves that they’ve always been, and that they can continue to be. So thank you so much for enabling us to talk today.
Stephanie: Amen. To use my Christian language, right? Amen. Thank you, Courtney.
Courtney: Of course.
Stephanie: Thanks for listening to In Times Like These. Where we explore issues of politics and faith and learn from one another how to navigate difference for maximum flourishing. In Times Like These is a product of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. For more, Subscribe, share, and visit us at claremontlincoln.edu.
Ways to listen to this episode:
In this episode, we discuss:
- How young trans and queer students can be marginalized at school, and what educators and families to can do to support trans rights
- Why affirming all identities is a human rights issue, even in elementary school
- What parents and teachers need to know about LGBTQIA+ rights and resources
- How democratic classrooms can lead to more democractic civic spaces
- Resources for literacy, reading, being a good ally, and centering the child’s voice in public, religious and ethical, and educational spaces
Top 3 takeaways from this week’s episode:
1. “How are we going to weave in—for our youngest students—questions about identity?”
Many of our youngest students don’t have access to stories and examples of transgender characters or role models in elementary school. It’s important for all students to see and explore varieties of identity—in gender, religion, culture, and ethnicity. Teachers have a powerful opportunity to make classrooms places of safe and affirming exploration.'How are we going to weave in—for our youngest students—questions about identity?' Listen now: Click To Tweet
2. “It’s not our right as adults to create spaces where children are rendered invisible.”
To have democratic spaces, that means we share power. Classrooms where children are required to be quiet and where the teacher has all of the power are undemocratic and limit learning. We should want schools to be places where young people learn to fully participate in a diverse civic life.It's not our right as adults to create spaces where children are rendered invisible.' Listen now: Click To Tweet
3. “We want to create spaces where we debate ideas and feelings, not someone’s personhood.”
Talking about difference is something everyone can do, even small children. School is where young kids spend much of their daily lives, and can serve to either continue to teach in ways that diminish some identities and perpetuate harmful practices, or they can be places where young people learn to think critically. Why would we wait until young people reach high school or college to begin to practice inquiry, curiosity, and respect?'We want to create spaces where we debate ideas and feelings, not someone's personhood.' Listen now: Click To Tweet
Mentioned on the episode:
- LGBTTIQQ2SAA+ Definitions from Revel & Riot: http://www.revelandriot.com/resources/lgbtq-and-trans-definitions/
- GLAAD Media Reference Guide (terms): https://www.glaad.org/reference/lgbtq
- Adrienne Rich quote: “When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you…when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.” –from Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985
- More on the poetry and activism of Adrienne Rich: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/20/adrienne-richs-art-and-activism
- Professor Django Paris and his research and teaching models: https://education.uw.edu/news/new-faculty-profile-django-paris
- Resources for educators: http://thejourneyproject.us/for-educator-advocates/
- Resources for families: http://thejourneyproject.us/for-families/
- The Inclusive Classroom Library Project: http://thejourneyproject.us/published-resources/
- LGBT-Inclusive Curriculum by GLSEN: https://www.glsen.org/educate/resources/curriculum
- Policy resources from GLSEN: https://www.glsen.org/learn/policy/resources
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About the Podcast
In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. We talk to voices from the field, in law, activism, civil rights, and from places of struggle and places of deep learning. In Times Like These, we unpack the most troubling issues of politics and faith we face, together.
In Times Like These is hosted by Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes and is a CLU Live production by Claremont Lincoln University.
Claremont Lincoln University offers the following graduate degree programs: