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Education Trends, Equity Resources, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   May 4, 2022

What is age-appropriate LGBTQ+ education?

By Sara Singer

High School Special Education

What is age-appropriate LGBTQ+ education?

By Sara Singer

LGBTQ+ education can help develop a safe and affirming learning environment for all students.

On February 24, 2022, Florida’s House of Representatives passed HB 1557. It prohibits instruction about sexuality or gender from grades K-3, and any instruction on LGBTQ issues “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”

The bill does not provide any further guidance on what is and is not developmentally appropriate for 4th-12th graders, leaving it up to districts and schools to interpret, and leaving open the possibility for parents to sue for any instruction that they feel doesn’t adhere to the law.

Many organizations committed to the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQ students have outlined that students need to feel safe at school and see themselves reflected in the curriculum in order to develop a positive self-perception.

So for many teachers, especially of younger grades, the question remains — what does it look like to teach about the LGBTQ community in an age-appropriate way? And how do we find the time within already packed curriculum maps to devote to these lessons?

Below, I’m sharing two ways to think about incorporating LGBTQ education into the classroom: by age and by subject area.

Big ideas to incorporate in your teaching

Grades K – 3

For those who wonder why we should be incorporating LGBTQ education in early elementary school, there is often an underlying belief that teaching about the LGBTQ community means talking about sex or letting children “choose” their gender.

Teaching kids at these ages about people who are LGBTQ is really about accepting others who are different, acknowledging the diversity of family structures, and treating others with kindness.

 

Between kindergarten and grade 3, children should learn:

  • There is no one “right” way to be a boy or a girl.

Teachers have to deal with this every day. When one child wants to exclude a classmate from a game of soccer because “sports are for boys,” we have an opportunity to name and model for them that girls can like to play sports too.

There are lots of wonderful children’s books about being different or not doing traditional “boy” or “girl” things. I recommend Julián is a Mermaid and Red: A Crayon’s Story 

  • Families come in all shapes and sizes.

When talking about families or reading books with the class, feature a diverse range of families. Just as many teachers are already including books with single-parent families, adoptive families, and blended families, children of LGBTQ parents should have a chance to see families that look like theirs acknowledged and represented. Best Best Colors is a wonderful book for this.

Grades 4 – 5 

At this age, students in your school are learning about the contributions of other groups — women, people of color, people with disabilities. This is an indication it’s time to start teaching about the contributions of the LGBTQ community. Students at this age should know:

  • No one should be treated unfairly because they are different. 

Teaching kids to treat others kindly, not to bully, and to celebrate people who are different is not a new lesson for classrooms. With the increased emphasis on SEL in many places, there are lots of great opportunities to talk about accepting others who are different. Fourth and fifth grade is also a good time to talk about how people are sometimes treated unfairly in the world because of who they are. A good book recommendation is My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer

  • LGBTQ people existed in the past and made many positive contributions to the world.

Just like students of different backgrounds deserve to see positive representations of their experiences or culture in the curriculum, kids who may be starting to become aware of their own LGBTQ identities or with LGBTQ family members should also see how people like them have made an impact on the world. Try the book Leaders Like Us: Bayard Rustin

  • There is more than one way to become a parent.

Depending on when your school introduces anatomy and biology, you may not need to go into detail about the science behind it. (If you are introducing concepts like puberty, menstruation, conception, and pregnancy, you should include ways people become pregnant besides sex, such as insemination and IVF).

Otherwise, fourth and fifth graders should know about adoption, foster families, single-parent families, and blended families. This can be incorporated organically in literature units or through family tree projects. A good read-aloud is And That’s Why She’s My Mama.

How to incorporate LGBTQ+ inclusivity in subject-area curriculum

In addition to addressing LGBTQ issues in age-appropriate ways through SEL and literature, LGBTQ education can be incorporated into almost every content area.

Florida Governor DeSantis voiced his support for HB 1557 by expressing concern that LGBTQ education isn’t a good use of schools’ time. Instead, he said, “schools need to be teaching kids to read, to write. They need to teach them science, history. We need more civics.”

So below, I share ways that LGBTQ education can be incorporated into literacy, science, history, and civics.

English Language Arts

Incorporating LGBTQ education through reading and writing is as simple as providing a diversity of books and characters in read-alouds and classroom libraries, and being open to answering student questions honestly and with humility.

When students ask questions that you don’t know how to answer or make you feel uncomfortable, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know” or “I’ll try to find out and get back to you.”

Other school professionals like social workers and counselors may be able to provide additional information and support for you and your students.

There are also many guides from organizations such as Teaching Tolerance, GLSEN, and the Human Rights Campaign. Here are some resources and book lists for finding books for all ages with LGBTQ themes:

History and Social Studies

LGBTQ people have had an impact on American history and world history, and like other marginalized groups, their identities, whether private of public, contributed to their outlook and impact.

For example, when teaching about the Civil Rights movement, consider also highlighting how it helped spark other equal rights movements, including LGBTQ rights and disability rights. Activists such as Bayard Rustin fought for civil rights for African Americans, and applied similar strategies to advance the rights of other marginalized groups.

Below are a wealth of other resources for learning and teaching about LGBTQ history:

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)

Many schools are already actively working to rectify inequalities in STEM, particularly the gender gap. There are lots of amazing school programs like Girls Who Code that are ensuring that girls see themselves represented in STEM fields and that they can imagine a future for themselves in the sciences. We also know how important it is for non-White students to see examples of scientists, mathematicians, and inventors who look like them.

Highlighting the achievements of LGBTQ individuals in the sciences can be just as simple. For example, an early elementary school lesson on codes and codebreaking could include a station about the Navajo Code Talkers and Alan Turing. Turing is often considered one of the fathers of computer science and invented one of the first computers. He helped the Allies to win World War II by deciphering encoded messages from the Germans. For younger students, it may appropriate to mention that he was gay. For older students, you may include a paragraph about how he experienced discrimination for being gay in 1952, and that after he died the government later apologized and honored him for his contributions.

Other notable LGBTQ scientists include lesbian Sally Ride, who is already often celebrated in elementary schools as the first American astronaut in space. Alan Hart, a transgender doctor, pioneered the use of X-rays beyond broken bones to help identify other conditions such as tuberculosis.

Here are some resources to help:

  • This article from Science News for Students, “Proud to be Different in STEM,” describes the various types of discrimination that some face when entering science fields (based on race, gender, and sexual orientation), how they overcame those obstacles, and what they research and how it helps people.
  • The 500 Queer Scientists project is an amazing resource for stories of contemporary queer scientists. They even have a searchable database that allows you to sort through over 60 scientific fields and filter by location, if you’re looking for someone who might be able to come visit your classroom for a career day or science demonstration.
  • Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America’s Pioneering Woman in Space (book recommendation)

Using inquiry to help kids develop critical consciousness

Sara Singer

High School Special Education

Sara is a high school special education teacher on Chicago’s South Side. She loves to co-teach and support students with disabilities in the general education classroom. She is passionate about equity and creating rigorous, student-centered curricula. A Boston native and...
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