By Sarah Bonner, Ed.D
This is the first “Teacher Appreciation Week” I’ll miss in twenty years of teaching.
When I was given the keys to my first classroom, I knew teaching was what I was meant to do. I worked to cultivate relationships among my students and their families, and I designed lessons that were “cute” and “fun.” For the better part of ten years, I thought my junior high Language Arts classroom was an apolitical space meant to block out the world so my students and I could just enjoy reading fictional stories and writing poetry throughout the school year.
We still need good fiction and poetry writing, but eventually I realized what a disservice I was doing to my students. Teaching in a rural town in central Illinois, I observed so many of our students receive amazing scholarships to nationally-recognized universities. Too many returned to their hometown after the first year, lacking experience with interacting with the world outside of their small space.
So, I co-created an inquiry framework (Seglem and Bonner, 2022) that uses young adult literature as a vehicle to engage adolescents in contemporary social issues by asking questions, conducting research, and constructing authentic writing experiences based on students’ interests. This learning space challenges students to experience different perspectives, develop curiosity, explore their own identities, and deeply think about their values and beliefs. Through careful planning and acknowledging the conservative roots embedded in the community, I was able to successfully integrate this framework for close to ten years.
Until, one day, it changed.
I had designed an activity inspired by the National Council Teachers of English (NCTE) Build Your Stack initiative–I called it “book tasting.” The activity was made up of close to 100 different books. As many students showed interest in LGBTQ+ rights, I used national book reading lists like the ALA Rainbow Reading Awardee list to pick a variety of books for this activity–including the nonfiction book This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson.
Our class book exploration happened on a Monday. By Wednesday, I received an email from a parent who attached pictures taken from Dawson’s book, demanding I explain my professional decision-making. The parents had already sent the pictures and their own explanations to a local, extremely conservative, radio news station. Before I could even respond, media attention overwhelmed any chance at explanation or conversation. By Friday, I was notified a police report had been filed against me for “child endangerment.” I knew I had to leave my classroom because I would never be able to teach the same again.
The police refused to pursue the ridiculous and baseless complaint, but the school board approved my settlement release, and I was no longer a teacher. Many parents, students, former students, and community members came to speak on my behalf, but it was too late. When I cleaned out my classroom and turned off the lights for the last time, I felt sad for the students I was leaving behind, and those who reached out to say my room was one of the only places they felt safe to be themselves. I haven’t stopped thinking about them. How do they feel now?
Every student deserves learning experiences that prepare them for a bigger world, and a teacher willing to take risks and encourage everyone to think differently.
So here’s my new lesson plan for changemaking teachers, families and school boards. All of us want what’s best for students, and can move forward together on the following:
- Build stronger. Building a community of bravery and trust can begin by listening. Activities like listening circles and restorative practices can broaden perspectives and promote the understanding of each other. Had these parents afforded me the opportunity to share my thoughts and simply listen, this story could have ended differently.
- Support ALL students. I’m a true believer in the power books have for students. Having Dawson’s book in my classroom is a choice I would make over and over again because it supports ALL of my students. LGBTQ+ students need to see their lives and experiences reflected in books around them, and their straight peers need to see differences to expand their viewpoints. All of our students need reassurance that they are still supported and protected as time moves on.
- Encourage curiosity. Ted Lasso – quoting Walt Whitman – said it best: “‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ […] All them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them were curious. You know, they thought they had everything all figured out. So they judged everything, and they judged everyone.”” Using inquiry to teach over the years has inspired me to become more curious.Curiosity is a form of love I choose to use moving forward.
What happened to me is unfortunately happening around the country to other educators, librarians, even medical providers. The tidal wave of book bans and curriculum challenges are a new kind of lesson that we all can, and must, learn from.
My role as a teacher, advocate, ally, collaborator, activist is not finished. As you read my story, I invite you to think about how you play a role in the lives of LGBTQ+ youth and creating a world they deserve to live and thrive in.
One more thought: take time to thank a teacher today. They’ll appreciate that you did.
-Sarah Bonner is a veteran language arts teacher. She received her Doctorate of Education at Illinois State University, and is a co-author of the book “Igniting Social Action in the ELA Classroom: Inquiry as Disruption,” a guide for developing a classroom culture that welcomes curiosity and use student-driven inquiry for a lasting impact on learning.