When Pamela Strong — a lesbian kindergarten teacher in Ontario — overheard one student call another gay, she decided (with encouragement from the administration) to start going from class to class to explain to students what “gay” really means. The results have been incredible.
Strong says that it’s very important to develop a “positive classroom culture” in which people can share their personal stories. When she first told a class about her same-sex spouse and their kids, the kids “just all went kind of silent.” None of the kids had ever heard of that before.
She then read them King and King, a 2003 children’s book in which two princes fall in love and marry (a book also alluded to in a now-infamous Prop 8 ads). She uses visuals to help students understand concepts and the meaning of words like discrimination and stereotypes. She also points to positive portrayals of same-sex couples in children’s books, news articles, and even TV commercials like the recent Campbell’s soup ad, which she uses to show children that same-sex couples are no different than straight couples.
“I started to realize that conversations can be very difficult,” she says. “And they can have the most power when they are the most difficult. But difficult conversations are a part of what we do as teachers, right?”
“When these conversations are properly supported by teachers within the safety of the classroom, they provide a rich environment for our students as they unpack these complex social issues and they reflect on their own preconceptions, rights, of gender, sexuality, love, all these different things,” she said.
Strong has a picture of her and her wife hanging up in the classroom, and says that the class is very used to the subject now. Even so, last year a new fifth-grade boy, upon finding out about Strong’s lesbian identity, put his hands over his mouth and said “Oh my God, I think I’m going to puke.”
Other students immediately got upset with the boy, who had just offended their teacher. Strong responded by saying, “I think that what you might not be aware of is that I am gay, and I am married to a woman, and my family has two moms.” She then had the rest of the students go to the board and write down everything that she had taught them about LGBTQ people.
Teaching students about LGBTQ issues is getting easier, thanks to an increasing amount of children’s books and literature to draw from. There’s even a great new book by Jerome Pohlen, Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights with 21 Activities, which covers numerous topics from the ancient Greeks to the modern-day AIDS epidemic. It also highlights LGBT names that children might already be familiar with, like Where The Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak.
Unfortunately, many American schools aren’t as welcoming to different perspectives as Strong’s Canadian school district. Earlier this year Omar Currie, a third-grade teacher in North Carolina, read King and King to his class after witnessing one student get bullied for “acting feminine.” Parents complained, and it spiraled into a national news story — both Currie and an assistant principal resigned from their jobs.
(featured image: King and King by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland)
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