Empathy Is Not Political: NCTE Presentation on Creating Inclusive Classrooms

This past weekend, I had the absolute privilege to join other brilliant educators to talk at NCTE about creating more inclusive classrooms, with a focus on creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students and families. It feels like this message is needed in this world and so I want to share my portion of the presentation.

I will be forever grateful to Courtney Farrell for bringing together Lauren Brown, Justin Dolci, Julia Pledl, Jamaica Ross, Tiana Silvas and myself for this powerful presentation. I am so honored to be in this work alongside of you all.

Here is what I had to say…

Slide 1

If you were to ask me when I came out, I could tell you I was 25 and in the bathroom of a Las Vegas casino when I came out to my best friend. Or, I could tell you that it was a year later, when I was 26 and crying over my salad in a restaurant when I came out to my mom.  Or, I could tell you that it was three years after that, when I was 29 and had gotten engaged and finally decided to come out to my first group of students. Or, I could tell you that it was three months ago, at the age of 37, when I once again came out on the first day of school to this year’s group of students. And all of that would be true. Because coming out, doesn’t really ever stop. And when you are a teacher, every new group of students, every new school year brings a new need to come out all over again.

And so, on the first day of school I come out. Every year. Every year, towards the end of our first day together, I share my “All About Me” bag with my students and I pull out a picture of my family.

Slide 2

This year I used this one. And I introduce my family. My wife, my daughter. I share who I am. Who we are. I do it on day one so that my students can see me, all of me, from the beginning. I do it so that I can control the information and not live in fear of the first time a student asks me a question about my life outside of school. I do it so that when I am sharing stories from my life that might make good moments to write about, I do not have to wonder if I should edit out the gay from my life. And I also do it in order to begin to build a safe space where my students know that all of who we are is welcome here.  

Slide 3

And from that day I, I can become one of two things. I can either become the teacher who will talk about the lives of people within the LGBTQ community in my classroom because I am the gay teacher. Or, I can become the teacher who talks about the lives of people within the LGBTQ community in my classroom because I am a teacher and that is simply what we do here. I do not decide which one I will be.I will do this work no matter what.  I do not decide how others will see me. That, is up to the other, straight, teachers around me. Either I will be alone in this work or I will have co-conspirators. And that is what I am here today asking you all to be.

Because none of this is really about me. It is about the students we are teaching and the spaces which we are creating in which they are supposed to live and learn. And right now, for too many of our students, our classrooms are not safe spaces. According to research from GLSEN: • 59.5% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 44.6% because of their gender expression, and 35.0% because of their gender. Almost all of LGBTQ students (98.5%) heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) at school; 70.0% heard these remarks often or frequently, and 91.8% reported that they felt distressed because of this language. Only 19.8% of LGBTQ students were taught positive representations about LGBTQ people, history, or events in their schools; 18.4% had been taught negative content about LGBTQ topics.

Slide 4

And we have the power to change that. We have the power not only to bring into our classrooms books that center the lives of LGBTQ people, but we also have the power to bring our students into the work of confronting the biases we carry of the LGBTQ community, of understanding oppression and our role in breaking down the systems that perpetuate that oppression. We can create safe spaces for all students to be themselves and we can bring our students into the work alongside of us and raise humans who will go out into the world as fellow co-conspirators.  

And I know that there are the things that stop us. That give us pause before digging into this work. I know these things, because I feel them too. I know the fear of reading a book with a family with two moms and then the next day walking into the classroom and seeing the red light on your phone blinking and knowing that someone has called to complain or question. I know those fears and I know that you have them too and I am telling you to lean into them and more forward. I know the heat that you might take. But, I need you to take the heat because our students are being consumed by the flames. And our collective willingness to take the heat can protect some of our most vulnerable students from being completely consumed by the fire.

Slide 5

So when you decide to build a more inclusive classroom and when parents approach you, and they will, make no mistake about it, when they ask you why you are bringing in the lives of those who they are trying to protect their children from. When they ask you why you are forcing their child to confront biases that they do not believe they have. When they ask you why you are pushing your agenda. When they ask you why you are bringing in stories that are not “appropriate” for their children. When they ask you why you are bringing politics in the classroom. You remember these words:

Slide 6

Our job is to teach our students the power of reading. And one of the greatest powers of reading is that it can teach us about the world that we live in and the people that we share this world with. Our job is to teach our students to build empathy through reading and EMPATHY IS NOT POLITICAL. Growing understandings of the lives of others through reading their stories and allowing them to disrupt our biases is not political. It is at the very core of the job that we have been given to do.  

So how do you start?

Here is one simple idea that I have used in my classroom.

SLide 7

You can start by helping your students to see the biases that live within them. Biases that adults are too often too unwilling to acknowledge.  The beauty of children is that they are much more willing to admit that the biased world they are living in has formed biases within them that need to be broken down.  They simply need our help in seeing those biases. One simple way to do this is to ask your students to draw a family. Ask them to do this without any context or explanation or mention of bias. Simply ask them to draw a family. Not their own family, but a family.

After students have drawn pictures of families, ask them to enter data into a simple Google form about who was in those families that they drew. And then look at the data together. And ask them what they notice. What do our drawings have in common? What are our drawings missing? What kinds of families are present in our drawings? What kinds of families are missing from our drawings? What does this tell us about the image we hold of a family? Where do you think that image comes from?

Slide 8

And then step back and listen to the brilliance of our children because they will see the bias here and they will want to correct it. Because our children bend towards justice. They want to do this work. So let them ask their questions and then give them time to answer those questions. Give them time and give them space and give them resources and give them guidance.

And when they start to wonder why we carry these messages and biases, then show them the books they are surrounded by. And model for them how we can look at books critically. How we can determine if a book reinforces a stereotype or pushes us beyond them.  And then how we can choose to select the books that push us beyond our biases. And how we can choose to suggest those books to others. 

This past year, my students and I analyzed books within our own classroom library. We sorted them into books that reinforced stereotypes and books that pushed us beyond stereotypes. And then we decided to create a resource to help other educators to find books that could push them and their students beyond their biases as well. We used Flipgrid to film short video clips recommending books that pushed us beyond our stereotypes. Here are two of the videos we created: 

Kids Talking About: A Family Is A Family Is A Family 

Kids Talking About: Worm Loves Worm 

Watching these kids engaged in this work, gives me so much hope. Not only does this work make our classroom a safer place for everyone to be, it gives me hope that these kids will now go out into this world and read differently and think differently and live differently in order to create safer spaces far beyond the walls of our classroom.  

5 thoughts on “Empathy Is Not Political: NCTE Presentation on Creating Inclusive Classrooms

  1. Jess – I love your blog because of your fierce and articulate passion for taking care of all of your students; your messages touch me deeply. I am a high school math teacher and wonder more than occasionally how I can implement some of the things you do in my 45 minutes each day. But of the many things to love in this post, your Google form recap of the drawings of families provides me with a million ideas for our Algebra 2 statistics unit in the spring. So for this, and everything else you write, thank you, thank you, thank you!

  2. Pingback: Elementary, My Dear, or Far From It | Pieces Worth Reading: The Thanksgiving Edition

  3. I am so glad I discovered your blog. You give me lots to think about. I am a third grade teacher who teaches in a fairly non-diverse school and I’m working on how I can best support my students in reading and talking about race. I love your premise that empathy is not political and our job is to raise critical thinkers as they read and write. Thank you for your message!
    Julie Johnson

  4. I would like to give you the opposite of heat. Coming out on day one had an awesome effect on my son: he didn’t think twice about it. He came home and told me about the read aloud and your family like it was any other teacher sharing about his/her family. Just day one of many days exploring acceptance, empathy and justice through literature. Keep up the inspiring work. 🙂

  5. This lesson looks really cool. Are you willing to share a more detailed lesson plan (the templates for the drawing and excel sheet you have pictured and a list of books you use)?

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