Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I want my students to grow up valuing community. I want them to identify as members of a community, and I want them to experience the power of community as a site for developing love, health and activism. Understanding ourselves as in community with each other can profoundly affect the way we function in our professional, personal and sexual lives. However, before I can use the concept of community as an educational tool, I want to understand how this value manifests in my own life.

These days, I think a lot about what it means to be growing up. The gendered aspects of growing up are the first to pop out at me, but that's another blog post. Lately, I've been hearing a lot of friends talking about wanting to achieve something they call independence. What is this independence of which you speak, and what makes it so cool? I seem to remember talk of such a thing back in high school, when I wanted to start buying my own clothes and driving myself around. But these days, I will only go clothes shopping with my mom, and if I can't get a ride with friends then I just take public transit.

I enjoy these acts of dependence. The concept of dependence has been pathologized -- if I wrote here that I feel dependent on a my mom, my friends, or my dating partner, many readers might judge that as unhealthy. But I do not desire independence. I am deeply connected to the people in my life, and they affect me emotionally, physically, professionally, and financially. I'm sensitive to the ebb and flow of these relationships, and I feel powerfully my potential to receive both pain and pleasure from my interactions with these people.

Wait... I started this argument with the concept of community, and now I'm at the concept of dependence. Let's get back to community.

Just as I do not experience myself as an individual striving for independence, so too do I recognize that healthy relationships involve more than two people. All of my relationships have developed, healthy or not, in the context of a community. And just as I grow from embracing my dependence on my relationships, I believe that my relationships can grow from our mutual embracing of our dependence on community. For relationships to be healthy, the community that supports them must seek health as well . . .

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Homophobic Bullying As a Sign and Symptom

Judith Warner just posted a blog about the topic I brought up two weeks ago -- kids calling each other gay. The article and many of the online comments provided me with insight into multiple perspectives on this issue: addressing it either as a sign of homophobia, a symptom of patriarchy, or one of many acts of childhood bullying. In my opinion, we can understand the “that’s so gay” epidemic as a sign and symptom of all of these problems, and seek to eradicate it using a social transformation perspective.

Bullying is not and never has been separate from sexism. When children bully each other, they're reflecting society's prejudices -- they are re-creating the same systems of violence that torment the adult world. To get rid of this behavior among children we need to model healthy alternatives, teach preventive behaviors, and discuss issues as they arise.

All that my students know about bullying is that on the one hand, they shouldn't do it because they might get in trouble, even though if adults get involved they do not always effectively stop the bullying. My students also believe that “respect” and “being nice” are the opposite of bullying. Maybe respect is just not a strong enough concept to encompass the alternative and preventative behavior we all need to practice.

Calling a classmate gay is not simply disrespect -- it is participation in the violent, deeply rooted systems of sexism and heterosexism. We need to actively work to counter the systems that define our worth based on how effectively we fit into certain social categories and how fully we meet certain social expectations. We need to counter children's urge to use cruelty to “police” their own in each other's behavior. We need to teach our children processes of support and affirmation so that they don't need to fear who they are and who their friends are. We need to find out why they put each other down and replace that behavior with its opposite.

Gender and the pressures that come with it intervene in children's lives with pervasive and contradictory expectations. What would happen if children didn't need to worry about being the perfect boy or girl and instead worried about reaching a standard of humanity -- being loving, caring, and kind? And what if other roles children reach for, such as student, athlete and partner, were no longer differentiated by gender and instead everyone had the same encouragement and guidance as well as the same expectations for success and achievement within these roles?

What if children were taught to be their whole selves, and nothing but themselves, in order to achieve happiness and success? What if they were taught to help others do the same? How can we teach them to do so?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Remember the Teenagers. A response to the abstinence-or-comprehensive sex ed fight

I support comprehensive sex education -- programs that provide teenagers with information and options in the context of teaching emotional and social processes of self-care and empowerment. But today I'm not writing for the sole purpose of arguing my position. I read yesterday's Boston Globe editorial on this topic and the comments that other readers have posted. I have many responses and opinions of my own that I will, down the line, articulate. Today, I'm writing because I want to remember the teenagers.

Where are the voices of the teenagers? I didn't read their words, and no one seems to be advocating for them. The people commenting miss the fact that they are debating the education of real people -- people that feel, think and do, every day. Yesterday, while adults fought on the Internet, teenagers across the country said yes to sex, said no to sex, asked to wait, asked for more, showed off their virginity pledges, showed off their hickeys, had their first kiss, gave birth, broke hearts, pledged their love, watched foreplay on television, saw rape in a movie, lied about their age on the Internet, lied about their sexual history, told the truth about their sexual history, viewed cleavage while flipping through a magazine, took a birth control pill, used a condom correctly, used a condom incorrectly, hated sex, enjoyed sex...

Yes, reading those comments from fighting adults, I just really missed teenagers and the intensity of their daily realities. Teenagers are real people, with bodies, sexualities, lives, and multiple senses -- and they take in a lot more than they let on.

Most importantly, teenagers are a lot more diverse as a group and a lot more complex as individuals than these adults seem to give them credit for. We learned a while ago in education that we can't approach all 20 or so students in one room as if they have the same needs. Instead, we practice differentiated instruction, working as much as possible to help students achieve according to their own level, style and potential.

Not all teenagers will decide to abstain, nor will all teenagers decide to have sex. But one theme that I did find in many of the comments from both “sides” of the fight was the desire for teenagers to learn to respect themselves and others.

Teenagers will only have a chance to learn respect when the so-called adults in this situation model such behavior for them. We need to respect each other. More importantly, we need to respect the very teenagers for whom we claim to feel concern. In order to respect teenagers, we must recognize them as full human beings with their own thoughts and feelings and dreams. They can't vote, which immediately renders them less-than-relevant in any debate over policy. But this policy is about their lives, and this debate puts their right to their own humanity on the line. They are more-than-relevant, and we must treat them as such. We must respect, include, and listen to the teenagers themselves.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A More Specific Question

What are the best ways of responding to students who called something “so gay” in order to cast it apart as weird or wrong? The best response will entail having a conversation -- communicating with the students, engaging them, challenging them.

In order to plan a caring and effective response, I'll start by applying the very communication skills that I teach in health class. When preparing to have a serious conversation, first determine a good time and place. If I'm not in the middle of teaching a class, I can ask the student to step into the hallway with me and I can address the issue immediately. If I am in the middle of teaching a class, but do not have a class directly following, I can tell the student to speak with me after class. If neither of these options is available, or if the student spoke these words in the context of other disciplinary issues, then I will keep the student in my classroom after school.

That's when the hard part starts. What can I say to help them understand better why they said it, why they shouldn't say it again, and why homophobia hurts all of us? Those are my three objectives. What's my plan?
1. Guide them through taking responsibility for what they said.
2. Ask them why they said it and listen to where it was coming from.
3. Help them think of more effective and respectful ways of expressing their feelings.
4. Use this moment to teach them...

... insert 5-to-10 minute, developmentally appropriate lesson on homophobia here. Any suggestions? I have lots of ideas, but I have yet to determine the best strategy. Right now I'm trying out what I feel is most applicable to the given student in the given situation. But I would love more feedback on planning ahead for this too frequent of challenges, for I'm sorry to say it will come up again.