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California schools adopt inclusive textbooks that highlight LGBT figures in history

EXPANDED CURRICULUM—California’s new LGBT curriculum now allows students to learn about the historical impact of LGBT contributors such as Walt Whitman, Willa Cather and Harvey Milk. ( wynnter).
EXPANDED CURRICULUM—California’s new LGBT curriculum now allows students to learn about the historical impact of LGBT contributors such as Walt Whitman, Willa Cather and Harvey Milk. ( wynnter).

California students in fall 2018 will be the first in the U.S. to use textbooks that highlight the historical contributions made by people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

The new curricular materials come after the state’s passage of the FAIR Education Act in 2011, which requires that history instruction cover LGBT people as well as those with disabilities.

“This requirement supports those students by enabling them to see themselves in the story of our state and country,” says Kenneth McDonald, education programs consultant at the California Department of Education.

Last November, the state board of education approved instructional materials for K8 that align with California’s History/Social-Science Curriculum Framework, passed in 2016. Districts can select the program that best meets their needs, McDonald says.

Representation benefits

Nationally, only 22 percent of LGBT students attend schools where the curriculum includes lessons about LGBT people or history portrayed in a positive light, according to a 2015 study from GLSEN, a national education organization focused on creating safe schools for students in this community.

However, students in schools with an LGBT-inclusive curriculum are less likely to hear homophobic remarks, and less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation, the study found.

“The bottom line is that LGBT students are just like every other student in that classroom—they need to see themselves reflected in the reality of what they’re being taught,” says Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN.

“The inclusion of LGBT people and a depiction of the LGBT movement in an accurate and positive way provides all students with an enriched and accurate understanding of U.S. history, and provides a toehold of connection for some of the most marginalized youths in our schools today.”

Implementing the curriculum

The student editions of all California materials submitted by publishers were made available online for the public to view and to provide input on during the process. “Providing this sort of concrete guidance is essential to ensure that all publishers are held to the same standard,” McDonald says.

Questions arose between content creators and LGBT advocates regarding historical figures who may have had same-sex relationships, but did not openly identify as gay.

However, “it would be dishonest to try to understand Walt Whitman or Willa Cather without understanding the fact of their romantic lives as something that shaped their art, their activism and their impact on the world,” Byard says.

“Whether or not you call someone lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, erasing their personal reality is dishonest in terms of understanding who they were or the impact of their life’s work.”

These discussions can be useful lessons about the construction of sexual identity, and how that influences someone’s work, Byard says. For example, teachers might not refer to Walt Whitman as a gay man, but they can discuss how his work expresses an attraction to men.

District leaders should assure teachers that they will not face any administrative backlash for addressing LGBT figures and movements in the classroom, says GLSEN education manager Becca Mui. It’s best to front-load communications about inclusive curricula to parents as well, she adds.

She suggested that administrators can share research on the benefits of this curricula to all students, and what is being taught, why, and when. This can be done during back to school night, or in newsletters or other communications.

“Making clear that the schools in your district intend to teach a full, robust, challenging, inclusive curriculum that will help build a better learning community is a wonderful message for a district leader to carry at any time,” Byard says.