September 2017
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QUEERING THE ESL CLASSROOM: A CASE STUDY
Timothy Krause, Portland Community College, Portland, Oregon, USA

While many ESL students and instructors identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer (LGBTQ), typical classroom materials often further a heteronormative paradigm and ignore the voices of queer and trans students (Nelson, 2009). Taking proactive steps to be more inclusive can be daunting for teachers. Materials remain scarce, administrative support can vary from institution to institution, and instructors may fear tokenizing sexual minorities or promoting a political agenda (Mitchell & Krause, 2016). One effective strategy is to identify specific points of integration within existing curricula where the narrow content of the classroom overlaps with the greater diversity of the country. Making these connections can help all students develop a deeper sense of intercultural sensitivity while providing needed support to queer and trans students.

Two Frames of Reference

Over the past year, I have worked closely with colleague Jennifer Sacklin to better understand best practices around inclusion, advocacy, and awareness of LGTBQ issues in postsecondary English as a second language (ESL) classrooms in the United States. As social justice proponents, we share two goals: to advocate for queer students and to help homophobic and transphobic students move one step closer to acceptance. The former is based on the recognition that all instructors have at one time or another queer students and colleagues, even if they are not aware of it. The latter is based on Bennett’s (2013) Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, a framework for discussing the spectrum of reactions to different cultures, which includes six stages: denial, defense, minimization, acceptance, adaptation, and integration.

Using Bennett’s (2013) model, Sacklin identified the following learning objectives, which I then trialed in my classroom (Sacklin & Krause, 2017):

  • Students currently in the stage of denial of differences will recognize the existence of differences. Here, the goal is visibility. An instructor, for example, might choose a text by a queer author, such as Tennessee Williams, or with a queer character or historical figure, such as Alan Turing.

  • Students in the stage of defense against difference will recognize everyone's common humanity. Here, the goal is equality. One activity that worked well for me is the Human Library, an event in which people are books” that can be borrowed for one-on-one conversations about topics that might never have otherwise been broached. This allows students to appreciate differences and uncover unexpected commonalities.

  • Students who minimize differences will develop self-awareness and reconcile diversity among human experiences with the truth of their own experience. This is about understanding. Partnering with campus resources can be a useful tactic here. Where I teach at Portland Community College, for example, students can attend performances of the Illumination Project, an interactive student theater that recognizes inequities and promotes social justice.

  • Students who accept cultural differences will refine their analysis of gender and sexuality as social constructs and begin to integrate the reality of social diversity into their own experience. Although we do not usually reach this level of discourse within an ESL setting, we hope that our previous efforts have prepared students to do so in the future.

My focus was the strategic integration of these principles into my curriculum. I realized that I needed to balance what I wanted to accomplish in terms of social justice with what I needed to achieve in terms of language development. To begin, I identified five spheres of influence:

  • Self: What can I myself do to be open and accessible?

  • Students: What are my students’ needs and how can they help me in this? How might the demographics of my students—and their level of communication skills—affect what I do?

  • Syllabus: How can I create an inviting, supportive classroom?

  • System: What are the opportunities and constraints within my institution? Are there campus resources or restrictions?

  • Stuff: How can my textbook and materials reflect diversity? Where are queer issues relevant?

A Case Study

With these ideas in mind, I launched a conscious effort to queer my classroom last winter when teaching an intermediate reading course for a Portland-area community college. My approach was to integrate queer social justice where it made sense for a richer examination—and a more accurate representation—of U.S. culture and society. My goal was to place queer content on equal footing with other things familiar to my students. In this way, I would normalize, rather than minimize, tokenize, or aggrandize, queer concerns.

I began with my usual start-of-term checklist:

  • By mentioning my husband and my experience with LGBTQ issues, I was open to my students and colleagues about being gay.

  • I included my institution’s antidiscrimination statement in my syllabus and took time to read it aloud in class; my syllabus included links to campus resources, such as advising and counseling offices.

  • I conducted a student survey in which students specify pronouns and names they wish to be called and volunteer information they wanted me to know about them.

  • I placed prodiversity posters in the classroom.

Like many ESL programs, I was given a list of approved textbooks. I chose Making Connections 2 from Cambridge University Press (McEntire & Williams, 2013). Each unit has four readings around a central theme, but nothing in the text even hints at queer content. After reviewing the text carefully, I chose the following points of integration.

Unit 1 was about news media, and the primary learning objective was vocabulary in context. Text about ethical reporting included a classroom survey with questions that asked, “Is it OK for a journalist to …” I added “Is it OK for a journalist to out a celebrity?” which sparked an immediate awareness of terminology. Each week, we also read news stories. During Unit 1, an article appeared about the Trump White House removing pages from its website, including an LGBTQ page as well as pages about civil rights, global warming, and Spanish-language pages. In both cases, queer identities were introduced on par with something else that my students could understand (language, civil rights, global warming). I wanted them to perceive queer rights as an equally important issue that affects a large number of people. Students displayed no negative reaction in either activity.

Unit 2 was all about education, and the learning objectives were identifying main ideas and supporting details. I considered discussing gender bias in educational opportunities around the world. However, once again my supplemental news lessons provided an appropriate connection with stories from the Women’s March, an international event that advocated multiple issues, including gender, LGBTQ, immigration, healthcare, environment, racial equality, freedom of religion, and workers' rights. As before, queer issues were presented on par with other issues. Because words like march and demonstration have multiple meanings, this story also provided a natural segue into our lesson on dictionary use. This time, student curiosity was piqued, specifically asking about the “Q” in LGBTQ as well as why the Women’s March was a global event.

Unit 3 discussed business and workplace issues, introducing vocabulary of numbers and reading graphs and charts. Here, I presented a level-appropriate summary of our state’s antidiscrimination laws and then compared them with college policies and federal protections, noting differences that included sexual orientation. The more we read, the more students began to ask about related vocabulary, not only LGBTQ, but now sex, gender, and sexual orientation alongside race, national origin, and religion. Regardless of their personal attitudes toward queer people, students were beginning to recognize parallel struggles.

Unit 4 concerned population change, and learning objectives were collocations and scanning. During this unit, I introduced an infographic about the changing American family, which included data on ethnicity as well as “nontraditional” families. This offered a review of the previous unit’s lesson on numbers and charts while practicing new skills. As before, this put the idea of same-sex households on par with relatable perspectives of multigenerational and multicultural households. In fact, whenever I introduced what I thought might be an isolated social justice lesson, I discovered links to things we were already studying, whether the theme of the current reading or its language learning objectives.

Unit 5 focused on more vocabulary study and taking notes. Its theme was design in everyday life. Here I had planned to introduce a lesson on stereotypes to play against the assumptions of gay designers. Unit 6 talked about the brain and behavior, a natural for addressing nature-versus-nurture and gender identity questions. The reality, however, was that because of snow days, no time remained to explore either of these two units.

Looking back

A basic marketing principle assumes seven exposures to make a message stick. Even with the snow days, I managed six integrations. Though these may seem like small moments, I believe their cumulative effect was to nudge students gently forward on the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.

Upon reflection, one concern I have was not having enough time to unpack why we were talking about these things. I question if this strategy left LGBTQ issues too incidental, minimizing their importance and relevance. Furthermore, because social justice is focused on problems such as discrimination, the work is typically serious, perhaps even frightening or intimidating. This counters a common assumption that a fun classroom lowers the affective filter and increases the opportunity for language learning.

Conclusion

The lesson from this exercise is that recognizing the queer identity in the ESOL classroom does not necessarily mean taking on a potentially uncomfortable queer-specific unit, nor does it require rewriting every individual lesson to incorporate a queer perspective. Rather, a more practical and relevant strategy is to identify opportunities to simply reflect the greater diversity of our country within the four walls of our classroom without minimization, tokenization, or aggrandizement. It is not about promoting queer culture, but rather not shying away from its inclusion. In so doing, we not only advocate for our queer and trans students, but we also foster a deeper sense of intercultural sensitivity among all our students.

References

Bennett, M. (2013). Basic concepts of intercultural communication: Paradigms, principles, & practices. Boston, MA: Intercultural Press.

McEntire, J., & Williams, J. (2013). Making connections 2: Skills and strategies for academic reading. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, J. D., & Krause, T. (2016). Steps toward respecting sexual diversity in the ESOL Classroom. ORTESOL Journal 33, 41–43.

Nelson, C. (2009). Sexual identities in English language education: Classroom conversations. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sacklin, J., & Krause, T. (2017, March). Queering the ESL classroom: Strategies for promoting social justice. Presentation at the meeting of TESOL International Association in Seattle, WA.


Timothy Krause is an ESOL instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. He received his MA-TESOL from Portland State University, where he was awarded the Nattinger Graduate Teaching Fellowship and served as TESOL methods teaching assistant. Tim holds undergraduate degrees in Spanish and theater, and his career has spanned arts administration, journalism, and civic engagement.

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The SRIS Survey identified the following strands:
  • Gender & ELT
  • Social Justice in Teacher Education
  • Peacebuilding & ELT
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How do you incorporate social justice into your classes with English learners or teachers in training? Share your practical ideas on creating lessons that center social issues and raise students’ awareness. Submissions due 1 November.