The death of Laurence King – killed by a junior high classmate in Oxnard in 2008 – highlights a big problem: If you're a teacher, how should you deal with homophobia in the classroom? One group is using theater to teach teachers how to counteract sexual bias in Southern California classrooms.
The teacher training program starts with a staged scene. Students walk into their high school English class talking about a kid who got beat up the day before.
Bruce boasts, “If Travis wanted gay rights, he got 'em. Rights, lefts, uppercuts, a kick to the face! Bam!” Ally says, “It's not funny, Bruce. He could have been killed!” The baiting escalates, and all the teacher, Mr. McGregor, can manage is “Uhhh, guys please, stop playing around.”
The program is put on by Encompass, a non-profit group that focuses on diversity issues in California schools, and I sat in on a preview session held for a group of school administrators, counselors, and teachers. The actors are students from the LA County High School for the arts.
According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, by the time they get to high school, ninety percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered students have experienced physical, verbal or sexual harassment at school. They’re more likely to skip school out of fear, don’t do as well academically as their straight peers, and are less likely to graduate.
It’s a tough situation for any teacher, but Skyler Jackson of Encompass says California teachers don’t have a choice after state lawmakers amended the education code in 2000 to “include sexual orientation and gender identity and those that are perceived to be different based on sexual orientation to be protected from bullying and harassment in schools. “
“They think in these trainings that we’re coming in to attack their views,”Jackson says, “particularly if their views are a bit more conservative than our organization. But he says there’s no “gay agenda.” Rather than taking sides, the training offers tools to help teachers recognize and address those issues in their class.
The teachers watching the scene where the classroom explodes were asked to come up with strategies for how the ineffectual Mr. McGregor could have acted differently at each of the crucial moments – starting with the talk about the fight. As people come up with solutions, Jackson writes them on the board: acknowledging the students’ concerns, not condoning hate speech, in one case using literature to address the kids’ issues.
Then, the scene is repeated, with the actors improvising based on the teachers’ suggestions. Things play out differently this time. The more aggressive students dial back their behavior. The name-calling and baiting stops. Mr. McGregor is in control – and the students are able to focus on their lesson. There’s no guarantee it’ll work like this in the real classroom, but Robert Sowell, who does diversity training for LA County Community Relations, says it was helpful and powerful to see the strategies acted out. “It made the teaching come home.”
Student actor Drew Cameron says, “hopefully teachers are watching this and thinking, here’s some students that are putting on a scene for us. Here are some students who are showing us how to be better teachers. “
… better teachers in a school where every student feels safe to focus on the job of learning.