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The Promise of Anonymity: An Investigation of the Practices of ELA Teachers Facilitating Discourse About LGBTQ Topics

by Sarah Schneider Kavanagh - 2016

Background/Context: As states and districts have begun adopting texts inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people, debates about how LGBTQ issues should be represented in the curricular canon have emerged. While existing research investigates curricular questions that are arising as a result of LGBTQ curricular inclusion, scholarship has been slow to address the instructional questions presented by the introduction of inclusive curricula.

Purpose: This study explored how seven secondary English Language Arts teachers facilitated student engagement with LGBTQ-related topics. Analysis of data on teachers’ instructional practice and related decision-making sought to (a) determine what instructional dilemmas arose for teachers as they taught LGBTQ-inclusive content and (b) analyze the instructional decisions that teachers made to address these dilemmas.

Participants: Participants in this study were seven secondary English Language Arts teachers who (a) held strong reputations in their professional communities for supporting LGBTQ students and (b) had strong intentions to support LGBTQ students through LGBTQ curricular inclusion, reducing student prejudice, and advocating for and with LGBTQ students.

Research Design: This comparative case study was embedded in a larger qualitative study that investigated the instructional practice of LGBTQ-supportive teachers. This article reports on findings from an analysis of all data from this project that pertained to how teachers engaged students when teaching LGBTQ content. Data was collected over a six-month period and includes 22 teacher interviews, 28 observations of classroom instruction, 70 teacher log entries, and 25 teacher questionnaires.

Findings/Results: Analysis showed that participants felt a tension between a desire to make LGBTQ identity visible and a desire to offer LGBTQ students privacy. Participants employed two different approaches to navigating the visibility–privacy tension. Some created parallel engagement strategies for students, some public and some private, while others simultaneously allowed for privacy and visibility through the use of anonymity.

Conclusions/Recommendations: As conceptions of diversity expand to include sexual diversity, this study has implications for teacher preparation and professional development aimed at supporting teachers to attend to the unique needs of LGBTQ students within instructional practice.

As lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people have become more accepted in the United States (Pew Research Center, 2013), educators have begun calling for the integration of LGBTQ-related content into the K–12 curriculum (Blackburn, Clark, Kenney, & Smith, 2010; Koschoreck & Tooms, 2009; Lipkin, 2004). This push for the inclusion of LGBTQ content has been particularly strong in English language arts (ELA). In 2009, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) issued a resolution to strengthen teacher knowledge of LGBTQ issues, calling for the production of instructional materials that address LGBTQ topics. In the resolution, the Council argues that LGBTQ curricular inclusion is integral to “fair and democratic schooling in a diverse society” (NCTE, 2009). By using the language of democratic schooling, the Council situates the issue of LGBTQ curricular inclusion within a long history of scholarship on democratic education and education for citizenship in a diverse society (Banks, 2008; Hess & Avery, 2008; Parker, 2003).

I begin this paper with NCTE’s resolution because it is representative of a trend much broader than the field of English education; scholars across fields frequently use democracy to warrant calls for LGBTQ curricular inclusion. Some argue that LGBTQ curricular inclusion will act as a democratizing force by offering a more authentic representation of the public (Thornton, 2003). Others contend that by deliberating on LGBTQ issues, teachers can engage students in authentic political controversies, thereby better preparing them for civic participation (Hess, 2009). Still other scholars maintain that LGBTQ curricular inclusion will expose biases that cause social divisions, thereby unifying the American public (Blackburn et al., 2010). While scholars approach the question from different angles, most rest their arguments on the bedrock of democratic education.

As more and more scholars present claims that LGBTQ curricular inclusion will act as a democratizing force in education, we should remind ourselves of lessons learned from earlier efforts to integrate content related to historically marginalized groups (Banks, 2004). Feminist and anti-racist scholars such as Boler (2004), Jones (2004), and Mansbridge (1991) have argued that when curricular content about identity and oppression is offered up for students in discussion, the result is often the further marginalization of students from historically oppressed groups. How can we expect a gay student who chooses to stay closeted to protect his own safety at school to share his experiences, beliefs, and opinions in a classroom discussion about LGBTQ rights or relationships?

Herein is a troubling paradox for democratic education. Because a functioning democracy depends on citizens’ engagement with a diversity of perspectives, we cannot continue to maintain the curricular invisibility of LGBTQ people if we want to promote democratic goals in education. However, in the short term curricular inclusion may be a stronger force for marginalization than democratization because it can bring to the fore what Parker (2006) has called “relations of subjugation and acquiescence” (p. 15), the interpersonal ways of relating that are the byproducts of historical oppression (in the case of LGBTQ people, these relations are often characterized by the silence and invisibility of the closet). As Houston (2004) discussed, not all teachers are prepared to support students in navigating the complex relational patterns born out of histories of oppression that emerge when discussions center on identities that have been historically marginalized. Because teachers are not prepared for the demands of facilitating discussions that highlight the discursive legacies of historical oppression, the democratizing power of engaging in traditionally marginalized content often remains unrealized.

Among intergroup dialogue scholars such as Maxwell, Nagda, Thompson, and Gurin (2011) and Zuniga, Nagda, Chesler, and Cytron-Walker (2007), there is agreement that the relations of subjugation and acquiescence, like the silence of closeted queer students, can be mediated when teachers adopt facilitation strategies that take into account the way that the legacies of historical oppression manifest within classroom discussion. The importance of facilitation to the productivity of intergroup dialogue suggests that LGBTQ curricular integration may fail to act as a democratizing force if not paired with work on teacher practice. By learning about how teachers deal with the relational legacies of oppression when engaging students in learning about LGBTQ content, we might intensify the extent to which LGBTQ curricular inclusion moves us toward democratic goals. Consequently, my research has been guided by this question:

How do teachers with strong intentions to support LGBTQ students facilitate engagement with LGBTQ issues in secondary ELA classrooms?

In my investigation of this question, I situate my work within scholarly debates about democratic education and its implications for curricular reform and teacher practice. In my analysis, I pay close attention to “the closet,” which I define as the state of secrecy or concealment that many LGBTQ people maintain around their gender or sexual identity. I examine how the closet is a vehicle for LGBTQ oppression that poses particular challenges for the free exchange of ideas about difference in a classroom setting.


Because LGBTQ content integration is frequently warranted with claims that it will promote democratic education, I frame my investigation of how teachers engage students in making sense of LGBTQ content within scholarly debates about education for democracy. I first provide a definition of democratic education and then discuss two popular approaches to promoting democratic ideals in classroom instruction: content integration (a curricular approach) and discussion (a pedagogical approach). I then explain why, when adopted simultaneously, these two approaches pose challenges for the free discussion of ideas about difference. To offer some historical reasons for this pedagogical challenge, I provide a brief history of LGBTQ struggles for full citizenship in the American legal system. I use this history to illustrate how a classroom discussion about LGBTQ topics is a culturally and historically situated event. I suggest that the same challenges to democratic participation that have plagued LGBTQ people in the legal system may be at play for students in their efforts to democratically participate in the classroom.


Parker (2003, 2006) described democratic education as an approach to schooling aimed at helping all students become citizens who are able to fully participate and act as agents of change in civic society. Educators pursue this goal within a context plagued by pervasive inequities. These historic inequities shape, often unconsciously, our conceptions of self and other (Ellsworth, 1997; Wilson, 2002) and negatively influence the daily lives of some people, while privileging others (Artiles, Harry, "Reschly & Chinn, 2002; Meiners, 2007). Teachers interested in creating classrooms that approach a democratic ideal are challenged by the problems that these prejudices and privileges pose. Entrenched privileges and prejudices make it very difficult to listen to and hear others’ lived realities and collectively commit to one another’s well-being (Jones, 2004). Education for democracy has implications both for what content is taught and for how teachers help students to make sense of content.

Democracy and Curriculum: Content Integration and the Politics of Representation

Scholarship on content integration examines questions about what content should be included in the curriculum, how and where that content should be integrated, and who should be the audience for content on marginalized social groups (Banks, 2004). Since the 1960s and 1970s, multicultural educators have used the language of democratic education to support their arguments for the integration of content that includes the histories, experiences, and knowledge of diverse groups. Proponents of content integration such as Banks (2004), Gay (2004b), and Sleeter (2005) maintain that a pluralistic curriculum representing the diversity of the public and its varied ways of knowing is an essential component of education in a democracy. Scholars arguing for LGBTQ content integration have called on the same logic to warrant their claims. Thornton (2003), for example, discussed how the integration of LGBTQ content into the curricular canon will increase the power of the curriculum to represent a multi-voiced public and offer students practice in listening to a diversity of perspectives.

Democracy and Pedagogy: The Promises and Pitfalls of Discussion

While scholarship on content integration offers many ways to think about how and why to infuse the principles of democratic education into the curriculum, it does little to help us understand how to translate those principles into classroom practice. To understand democratic education in practice, I turn to scholarship on pedagogy. Most of the literature on pedagogy and democracy focuses on classroom discussion as an instructional method (Boler, 2004; Bridges, 1979; Parker, 2006). Parker (2006) described how classroom discussion prepares students for the work of democracy by offering them practice in publicly listening to and speaking with others who hold a diversity of perspectives. The facilitation work that is required to engage students in productive dialogue about difference, however, is no simple task. The legacies of historical oppression that arise in diverse classrooms when issues of identity and power are put on the table for discussion pose many challenges for teachers who hope to use discussion as a tool for promoting democratic dialogue (Boler, 2004).

The difficulties of facilitating discussions about difference have prompted some progressive critics of discussion, such as Jones (2004), to view “inequality not as something to be reduced by dialogue, but as a barrier to genuinely productive conversation” (p. 59). Boler (2004), Jones (2004), and Houston (2004) all examined how histories of oppression render some speech and some speakers silent. This silence occurs either because of the consequences that follow particular speech or, as Butler (1997) discussed, because some speech and some speakers are deemed illegitimate by the public. Jones (2004) called the silence of already marginalized voices that signals the presence of relations of oppression in the classroom “disturbing silence” (p. 60). Disturbing silence presents a challenge for teachers who hope to use discussion as an instructional method aimed at democratic education. How can teachers engage students in practicing the work of civic dialogue about identity and equity when the legacies of historical oppression enter the classroom in the form of disturbing silence?

Democracy and LGBTQ persons

Understanding why “disturbing silence” emerges in discussions about LGBTQ content requires an understanding of the history of LGBTQ oppression in the U.S. Because of the particular way that LGBTQ oppression has operated in both the legal and social spheres, LGBTQ individuals, families, and communities have long been challenged by a perennial tension between the need for visibility and the need for privacy. Classroom discussions of LGBTQ topics are situated within this social and legal history. Understanding the historical tension between privacy and visibility informs my examination of how teachers engage students in LGBTQ content. This history illuminates the broader social reasons why open dialogue about LGBTQ issues is both necessary and difficult.

A brief history of LGBTQ citizenship. Political activists have fought for LGBTQ people to be granted a full legal right to privacy since the 1960s. The first legal articulation of a constitutional right to privacy for any American is in the Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) Supreme Court decision, which overturned a statute prohibiting the use of contraceptives on the grounds that the statute violated a “right to marital privacy.” The verdict of Griswold stated that the “intimacies of the marriage bed were beyond control of the law.” By articulating a right to privacy that existed only within marriage, the constitutional right to privacy, in its first articulation, implicitly excluded gays and lesbians from accessing the private sphere. This exclusion was formalized in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), which explicitly denied gays and lesbians a right to privacy. It was not until 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, that the 1986 decision was reversed and a right to privacy was extended to gays and lesbians. This legal admittance to the private sphere, which did not take place until the 21st century, was a major victory in the struggle for LGBTQ rights because it decriminalized homosexual relationships, thus allowing LGBTQ family life to be free from undue government intervention. However, because of its history of contestation, gays’ and lesbians’ right to the private sphere often carried with it a requirement of discretion about sexual orientation (Brown, 2004).

While LGBTQ people can now legally enjoy a right to privacy, often that right is paired with an obligation to keep identities, feelings, and families a secret. This obligation is seen in its most stark relief in policies such as the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which was in effect from 1994–2011. Admittance to the private sphere for LGBTQ people is, in many cases, paired with limited access to the public sphere, as illustrated by the regularity of statements such as, "Why can't they just keep it to themselves?" or "I don't care what they do, as long as they don't bother me about it” (Tierney, 1992, p. 44). Near the end of the 20th century, this discretion requirement, known popularly as being “in the closet,” prompted LGBTQ communities to begin enacting a new politics of visibility. Organizations such as Queer Nation and ACT UP tried to bring LGBTQ identities and families into the public sphere, stating that “visibility is critical if a safe public existence is to be forged for American gays, for whom the contemporary nation has no positive political value” (Berlant & Freeman, 1992, p. 158). However, as activists began enacting a politics of visibility they were often attacked. In order to navigate the competing needs for privacy and visibility, LGBTQ activists developed methods of blending visibility and privacy by engaging in highly visible political action anonymously. Anonymous political actions included publishing manifestos, hanging banners, spray-painting public spaces, and wearing masks at public protests (Brown, 2004).


Understanding the tension between visibility and privacy in LGBTQ civil rights struggles is helpful for understanding how this same tension arises for LGBTQ people participating in civic deliberation in the classroom. The right of LGBTQ persons to be visible in public is contested, as is the right to privacy. When the topic of LGBTQ existence emerges, LGBTQ students may become caught in the liminal space between visibility and privacy without feeling secure in their right to be out or their right to keep their sexual identity private (Berlant & Freeman, 1992). At the classroom level, the tension between visibility and privacy often gives rise to the “disturbing silence” that Jones (2004) described (p. 60). Most students risk violence and hostility if they make their LGBTQ identity visible at school (Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, & Bartkiewicz, 2013); therefore, facilitating discourse about LGBTQ topics is not a simple choice for LGBTQ-supportive teachers. Teacher education and professional development may be good avenues for supporting teachers in navigating this dilemma. Currently, however, teacher education programs do not adequately prepare teachers to skillfully navigate this type of dilemma (Murray, 2015). It is unsurprising that teacher educators are not preparing novices to engage productively in the dilemmas that arise when teaching LGBTQ content, because currently there is almost no research to guide teacher preparation in this area. Responding to this gap in the literature and to the needs of teachers who are attempting to integrate LGBTQ content with little support, my research focuses on this question: How do teachers who hold strong intentions to support their LGBTQ students facilitate engagement with LGBTQ topics in secondary ELA classrooms? In the text that follows, I describe the research methods I used to investigate this question and then discuss my findings and their implications for practice and future research.


This inquiry into how teachers facilitated student engagement with LGBTQ issues is a study that is embedded within a larger comparative case study of the pedagogical practices of teachers who hold strong intentions to be supportive of LGBTQ students. The primary goal of the larger study was to learn what these teachers do within their classroom instruction to support LGBTQ students. Because there is a paucity of research on LGBTQ-supportive teaching practice, a comparative case design (Yin, 2003) gave me the tools I needed to expand the field’s knowledge base through the development of tentative hypotheses that might help to guide future research (Merriam, 2009).

The findings presented in this article emerged from a focused analysis of a subset of the data from the larger study. There was a good deal of data in the larger data set that was excluded from this analysis, including data relating to teachers’ informal interactions with students and teachers’ advocacy efforts for students in their schools. The findings presented in this article emerged from an analysis of only that data relating to teachers’ in-class facilitation of student engagement with LGBTQ content. All other data were excluded.


The findings of this embedded study emerged from analysis of data from seven different participants. All seven participants were interviewed, and four were followed in greater depth through observations and daily logging during the first semester of the 2013–2014 academic year. To select a purposeful sample of information-rich cases (Miles & Huberman, 1994), I selected participants based on the strength of their intention to support LGBTQ students through (a) integrating LGBTQ content, (b) engaging in prejudice-reduction activities, and (c) advocating with and for LGBTQ students. While the larger study includes analyses of how teachers engaged in practice relating to all three of these criteria, the analysis reported in this paper is focused only on teachers’ practice related to their integration of LGBTQ content. Because I was interested in allowing for content-specific LGBTQ-supportive practices to emerge across cases during analysis, I focused on only one content area (ELA) and one grade-band (secondary).

I used a multi-stage process to select participants. After collecting reputational recommendations for LGBTQ-supportive teachers, I administered a questionnaire to the thirty recommended teachers to determine their self-reported intentions to integrate LGBTQ content, reduce prejudice, and advocate for LGBTQ students (see Appendix A). Twenty-five of the 30 teachers responded. I analyzed questionnaire responses to determine which of the respondents (a) could articulate an approach to responding to students’ prejudiced remarks, (b) had robust approaches to integrating LGBTQ content into their curriculum, and (c) had engaged in some advocacy for or with students relating to issues of sexual orientation. Seven of the 25 respondents met my criteria for selection. With these seven teachers, I conducted follow-up interviews. The interviews focused on participants’ pedagogical practices related to LGBTQ issues. Three of the seven selected teachers were excluded from the final stage of data collection (observation and daily logging) for logistical reasons (e.g., teacher moving out of state or LGBTQ curricular inclusion not occurring during the data-collection semester). I followed the remaining four teachers for a semester of teaching and collected observational data on their classroom practice, along with daily self-reports on their practice when it related to LGBTQ issues or students.

Selection of Focal Teachers

While the findings reported in this article emerged from an analysis of all seven participants’ practice, in order to allow for descriptive depth of teachers’ classroom practice, I have chosen in this article to describe the practice of only two participants. The focal teachers whose practice is described in this article are both men, one gay-identified and the other straight-identified, and both teach at the same school, Sinclair High (a pseudonym). Sinclair is a large, comprehensive, suburban high school in a wealthy suburb of a major city in the Pacific Northwest. Sinclair High serves a student body that is 43% Asian American, 41% White, 8% multi-ethnic, 5% Hispanic, and 2% African American. Thirteen percent of the student body receives free or reduced-price lunch. Thirty percent speak a first language other than English. The two Sinclair teachers were selected as focal teachers for this article because they were atypical in the data relating to their experience with LGBTQ content integration. During the year of data collection, the Sinclair teachers had just begun teaching different grades, one 11th grade and one 12th grade. However, for the previous four years they had worked together as members of the same grade-level team. This team was made up of four 12th-grade ELA teachers who had collaborated for four years to develop and implement a 12th-grade identity unit that included a selection of texts on LGBTQ identity. The other two teachers in this team of four were not participants in the study. They were excluded because one was not recommended to me as an LGBTQ-supportive teacher and the other had just left the school to teach elsewhere.

The two teachers from Sinclair were atypical in the larger data for two primary reasons. First, they were atypical because of the extent of their experience integrating LGBTQ content. Most participants struggled to include any curricular materials that touched on LGBTQ identity. Sinclair teachers, however, had repeatedly taught units of instruction that engaged students in investigating questions related to LGBTQ people and families. Second, while most participants engaged in the work of LGBTQ support alone, these two teachers collaborated to integrate LGBTQ content. The depth of the Sinclair teachers’ experience, as well as their collaboration, made their practice in supporting students to make sense of LGBTQ content rich for analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994). While both teachers were a part of the first two phases of data collection, only one was followed for the entire seven months of data collection. I chose not to follow Michael during the final phase of data collection because collection was taking place during a semester when he was not integrating any LGBTQ content. While there are affordances to using a pair of teachers in a common context to illustrate my findings, it is important to note that for one of these focal teachers, my data are limited to only the first two phases of data analysis.


I drew on a variety of data sources: observational field notes of classroom instruction, interview data of teachers discussing their pedagogical decision-making, and daily logs through which focal teachers reflected on their everyday classroom practice as it related to LGBTQ support (see Appendix B for a sample daily log). I conducted 22 interviews with teachers. Teachers were initially interviewed about their practice prior to the start of the school year. I then interviewed them once a month for one semester of their teaching thereafter (with some teachers, I conducted further interviews focused on particular classroom incidents). Once the school year began, teachers completed logs on days when they faced instructional decisions relating to LGBTQ issues. In total, I collected 70 log entries from teachers. In these logs, teachers reflected on any of their daily activities that they perceived to be LGBTQ-supportive. In addition to interviews and daily logs, I observed 28 periods of classroom instruction and made observational field notes about their teaching. After a preliminary baseline observation during the first two weeks of school, I used teachers’ daily logs to determine when they would be teaching lessons that included LGBTQ issues or issues when questions or comments about LGBTQ people might likely emerge (lessons that were focused specifically on identity, sexuality, love, or discrimination). Lastly, I reviewed pertinent classroom materials and artifacts connected to case teachers’ LGBTQ content-integration efforts.


My analysis of the data was focused by the question: When integrating LGBTQ content, how do teachers with strong intentions to support LGBTQ students facilitate student engagement? Guided by this question, I first selected only the data that included teachers’ pedagogical decision-making and practice relating to teacher-initiated references to LGBTQ topics during class time. Interested in how teachers facilitated student engagement with LGBTQ issues, I further whittled the data down to only those teacher-initiated references to LGBTQ topics for which teachers elicited contributions from students. This excluded all references to LGBTQ people or issues that (a) were initiated by students or (b) occurred in passing during lecture or text and were not followed up. Teachers varied widely in the extent to which they were able to integrate LGBTQ content into their curriculum, and so these planned references to LGBTQ issues or people varied greatly in depth. At the highest levels of LGBTQ content integration, a teacher-initiated reference to an LGBTQ topic was a unit about identity that relied on multiple LGBTQ-themed texts. The lowest level of LGBTQ content integration was a two-minute discussion of a poem as potentially having homosexual undertones.

Focused only on teacher-initiated references to LGBTQ topics and guided by my question about how teachers facilitate student engagement with LGBTQ content, I first coded the data by engagement strategy. Spurred by findings from earlier analyses of the larger data set, I employed the following codes on my first pass through the data: student-to-student talk, individual writing, whole-class discussion, and student-to-student writing. These codes offered me a low-inference way to categorize my data into activity structures in which I anticipated students would be asked to privately make sense of content (individual writing) and activity structures in which I anticipated students would be asked to publicly make sense of content (discussion and other student-to-student work). After this first coding pass of the data, I was interested in understanding whether there were trends in the content of what students were being asked to share through these different engagement strategies. To learn more about the relationship between the engagement strategy that teachers employed and the content under study, for my second pass through the data I coded the types of questions that teachers asked students. This approach to the data allowed me to differentiate among moments when teachers were asking students (a) questions about themselves, (b) questions about the content, or (c) questions that required them to draw on both the content and their own experiences. Examples of these codes include personal, text-based, and text-to-self. After coding the data using these two approaches, I was able to cross-reference engagement strategies with the type of information that teachers were requesting from students. Finally, using what I learned from the first coding passes, I made a third coding pass through the data. In this third pass, I used codes that came from my theoretical framework. These codes included privacy, visibility, and finally anonymity, a third code that arose from noticing trends in the data that were double-coded with both privacy and visibility. By analyzing the relationships among all three sets of codes, I was able to compare the ways that teachers navigated the tensions between privacy and visibility as they engaged students in making sense of LGBTQ content.


My analysis reveals important dimensions of teachers’ practice when facilitating student engagement with LGBTQ content. However, it is limited by the fact that the data revealed very few instances of LGBTQ content integration even among those teachers with the strongest intentions to integrate LGBTQ content. In this way, the study participants were representative of teachers in general, who rarely integrate LGBTQ content (Kosciw et al., 2013; Loutzenheiser, 2001). Despite the fact that very little LGBTQ content integration occurred among participants, my analysis reveals important resources for teachers’ practice related to LGBTQ content integration. Although teachers had only a few opportunities to make decisions about how to engage students in making sense of LGBTQ content, their decisions had an impact on students’ opportunities to learn in the classroom. The fine-grained decisions at the level of classroom instruction have great enough consequences to merit examination in themselves, even though, in the current historical moment, opportunities to make such decisions arise infrequently for teachers.


All seven of the teachers who participated in this study expressed a desire to integrate LGBTQ content into their curriculum. In practice, they were able to do so to differing degrees and in different ways. One teacher taught a unit on identity that included multiple LGBTQ-themed texts, while another mentioned the sexual identities of canonical authors in passing. Regardless of the depth at which teachers included LGBTQ issues in their curriculum, when they tried to engage students in making sense of LGBTQ content, they experienced a common tension—one that exemplifies the paradox inherent in trying to facilitate democratic discussion about oppressed identities (Jones, 2004). On the one hand, teachers were aiming for LGBTQ visibility by naming LGBTQ identity and making it open for discussion and therefore un-taboo. On the other hand, however, teachers also wanted to allow for LGBTQ privacy by maintaining an environment in which LGBTQ students did not feel pressure to reveal their own LGBTQ identity and risk the hostility that often accompanies that revelation. This tension between visibility and privacy had implications for how the teachers facilitated student engagement with LGBTQ content. In the text that follows, I use examples from the data to describe two different approaches that teachers took to navigate the visibility–privacy tension. The first approach was to create parallel engagement strategies for students, some public and some private. The second approach was to simultaneously allow for privacy and visibility through the use of anonymity. In describing these two approaches, I hope to reveal how LGBTQ-supportive teachers are managing pedagogical dilemmas relating to democratic education when integrating LGBTQ content.


Michael Smith teaches English Language Arts (ELA) at Sinclair High School, the wealthy suburban school described above (I use pseudonyms when referring to both the school and the teachers). Michael’s practice provides a rich example of engaging students in LGBTQ content in a way that addresses LGBTQ students’ competing needs for visibility and privacy. Michael, a straight man who was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist family, was in his fourth year teaching at the time of this study. His LGBTQ-integration work was not prompted by his personal passions, but instead was a product of collaboration among the four 12th-grade ELA teachers at his school. Of these four teachers, two identified as straight, one identified as gay, and the last identified as a lesbian. Over a period of several years, these four teachers developed a unit on identity for Sinclair High School’s senior ELA curriculum. Along with texts about the experiences of gay and lesbian people, this unit also included a poem written by a transgender teenager and a documentary about the experiences transgender teenagers. This unit was the only example in my data of any teacher integrating content relating to transgender issues. As Michael described it, each of the four senior ELA teachers brought their “personal crusades or agenda to the table and those sort of makeup religious tolerance, sexual and gender tolerance, and notions of class” (interview, June 5, 2013). These four teachers combined their personal passions to develop a unit of instruction on the role that social-group membership plays in personal identity.

Within a 12th-grade unit on personal identity, Michael had students participate in various activities that asked them to engage with lived experiences of LGBTQ people. These activities included reading texts about a variety of LGBTQ topics and writing in response to them, listening to poetry, watching documentaries, and participating in class discussions. When Michael led these activities, he found himself facing pedagogical decisions about how best to support his students in making meaning from those texts while at the same time maintaining a safe and supportive classroom environment that was productive for learning. To describe Michael’s approach to engaging students in constructing meaning from the LGBTQ-themed texts, I first examine how Michael promoted LGBTQ visibility by using modeling and public praise to encourage students to make personal connections to course texts through public discourse. Next, I describe how Michael used journaling and anonymous exit slips to give students opportunities to perform individual and private engagement with LGBTQ texts. I conclude this section by describing Michael’s method as a parallel approach to addressing LGBTQ students’ competing needs for visibility and privacy. I follow my analysis of Michael’s practice with a discussion of the practice of another teacher in Michael’s department who, instead of attending to visibility and privacy separately, took a simultaneous approach to the visibility–privacy tension.

Supporting Visibility Through Public Discourse

Michael stated that he placed a high value on class discussion and wanted his classroom to be one where students worked together by publicly sharing and expanding on one another’s ideas to extend the meaning of course texts beyond the page. He understood the work of making meaning from text as a collaborative process of connecting words on a page to lived experiences and saw discussion as a productive way to support students’ comprehension and interpretation of text. Michael’s strong belief in the power of public discourse to support students in constructing textual meaning extended to his pedagogical treatment of LGBTQ-themed texts. However, Michael was clear that facilitating discussions of LGBTQ-themed texts put additional demands on him as a discussion facilitator:

I try to sort of verbally recognize when the students have courage in sharing something, particularly around sexuality and gender. . . . When students will share something that’s really personal, I’ll say something like, “You know, thank you, Suzie Student, for sharing that. I know that it takes a lot of courage to share something like that and to be vulnerable, and I just want to remind everyone that the best conversations we have in class are when you all take risks and share a piece of yourself with someone, because you never know who else in the room might be feeling that way. So thank you for contributing to our discussion (interview, June 5, 2013).”

When discussing issues of sexuality and gender, Michael understood that when students publicly make text-to-self connections, they are making themselves vulnerable. He praised this risk-taking, believing that when students share their personal experiences related to sexuality and gender there is something to be gained for other students in the room who “might be feeling that way.” The work of encouraging students to feel comfortable sharing in text-based discussion is not specific to engaging around LGBTQ content. However, Michael acknowledged that “particularly around sexuality and gender,” being visible requires risk and takes “courage.”

While Michael stopped discussion to mark and praise students for sharing their personal connections to LGBTQ-themed texts, this was not his only pedagogical strategy for promoting public and collaborative engagement with LGBTQ content. Michael also modeled making personal connections to texts about LGBTQ topics.

Michael: I’ll disclose things about myself to kind of pave that way a little bit or sort of verbalize in class that, while I’m straight and I do this, I know that other people have this experience. So I sort of try to put it out there as something that can be discussed and is okay to be discussed in the classroom. So that might make other people feel like, “Well, if Mr. Smith is doing it, I can too.”

Interviewer: Can you walk me through a concrete example of a time when something like that happened?

Michael: Sure. . . . We read an article in class about laws in Mississippi—that you can legally evict someone or fire them for being gay—and so I tried to share, as a straight, married man, my feelings of wanting to provide for my wife and my child and the security that I feel in knowing that I’m part of the majority and that I don’t have to worry about being discriminated against, and then I shared my own feelings of empathy or, I guess, sympathy, about what it would be like to have to hide a part of myself for fear of not being able to provide for my family (interview, June 5, 2013).

Michael described how the introduction of an LGBTQ-themed text is not enough to signal to students that LGBTQ issues are appropriate for classroom discussion. He modeled making personal connections to LGBTQ-themed texts because he believed that students need extra reassurance that LGBTQ issues are “something that can be discussed and is okay to be discussed in the classroom.” Michael used modeling as a way to invite students into public discourse about a topic that is usually deemed inappropriate for public discussion in school.

Michael hoped that his modeling would illustrate to students—who typically have not had school-based discussions about LGBTQ issues—what that discussion about LGBTQ topics might look like. While Michael hoped that by making personal connections to the text as straight man, he was opening the door for LGBTQ students to make their own personal connections to the text, this remains an open question. It may be that a teacher’s sexual and gender identity matter a great deal when it comes to the impact of this type of modeling within classroom discourse. Further research is needed to understand how LGBTQ students perceive heterosexual teachers’ text-to-self connections to texts about LGBTQ people, families, communities, or issues. When heterosexual teachers disclose their difference from and sympathies for LGBTQ people, do these disclosures influence the ways that LGBTQ students participate or their sense of classroom belonging? And if so, what is this influence? Does it break down existing boundaries or build them? Future studies that include student perceptions of teacher practice can help us answer these questions.

Supporting Privacy Through Private Reflection

Along with using several strategies to encourage risk-taking in public discourse, Michael also made a different set of pedagogical decisions to provide his students with opportunities for private and individual engagement with LGBTQ-themed class texts. Within his identity unit, students kept a “synthesis journal” in which Michael provided students with various prompts asking them to make personal and cross-text connections about the content under study. In the synthesis journal, Michael allowed students to use various mediums, including prose, visual art, and poetry, to respond to and interpret texts.

I tell them that anything they do for the synthesis journal, if they don’t want to have that shared with their class, they always have the option of saying, “It’s going to be private today,” and they get the anonymity. . . . I have a student who’s in the process of coming out right now, and she had incredible anxiety about the [journal assignments]. So then I was able to . . . tell her that she was able to be as private as she wanted about this, and so she ended up not really sharing anything with her peers, but in the project that she turned in, just did some incredibly detailed art pieces about her struggle right now to sort of grapple with her identity, reveal that to the people that are important to her in her life, ways that she’s felt unsafe or slighted by religious students and what she hears in the media. And so it was just this really powerful sort of coming together of the different things that she’s experiencing. So I think in that sense, I felt kind of happy that this class could sort of serve as a place for her to process what she’s experiencing (interview, June 5, 2013).

The way Michael engaged students in journaling was markedly different from the way he engaged students in discussion. When facilitating discussion, Michael encouraged public vulnerability as one way to support students as they made meaning of LGBTQ-themed texts. In contrast, when prompting students to journal, Michael assured them that their disclosures would never need to be shared with their peers. In the case of discussion, Michael explicitly invited visibility (“The best conversations we have in class are when you all take risks and share a piece of yourselves”); in the case of journaling, Michael was promising privacy (“If they don’t want to have that shared with their class, they always have the option of saying, ‘It’s going to be private today’”).

Along with creating opportunities for LGBTQ students to engage in private sense-making of LGBTQ content, Michael also employed privacy strategies to support participation by students who hold anti-LGBTQ views.

I also try to sort of prevent any anger explosions from peer to peer. I tell them, “At the end of class today you’re going to have an anonymous exit slip that you can tell me whatever you’re feeling about this. So if you feel upset, I want you to direct the anger towards me and not against your classmate who is just an innocent bystander in my curriculum.” And so they kind of laugh about that, but then some of them really do. I mean I’ve had students write me notes saying, “This is total bullshit. Stop cramming your agenda down our throats. You shouldn’t be telling me what to think” (interview, June 5, 2013).”

Along with using assurances of privacy to assuage anxiety among LGBTQ students, Michael also used assurances of privacy to prevent peer-to-peer “anger explosions.” Both reasons for guaranteeing privacy were aimed at creating opportunities for students to express their own ideas in a safe environment, whether those ideas were connected to a lived experience of being LGBTQ or to a negative perspective on LGBTQ people.

Ensuring that students had opportunities to express their ideas privately contrasted significantly with Michael’s strategy of praising students for making the kind of text-to-self connections that promote LGBTQ visibility. Within the same unit of instruction, Michael used both approaches as strategies for supporting students’ interactions with LGBTQ-themed content. To support public discourse about LGBT-themed content, Michael modeled personal disclosure and publicly praised students for public vulnerability. He bookended public discourse with private sense-making opportunities in order to ease LGBTQ students’ anxieties about what it would mean for them to come out as LGBTQ publicly. In addition, he allowed students a private avenue to express their frustrations with LGBT-themed content without taking that frustration out on their peers.

Michael was explicit about students’ right to privacy and their right to visibility in the public sphere of the classroom. This choice to be explicit makes good sense when it is understood within a social and legal history of contestation about LGBTQ people’s rights to the public and private sphere. The right of LGBTQ people to be visible in the public sphere has always been contested, as has the right to privacy (Berlant & Freeman, 1992). Understanding Michael’s classroom as a microcosm of the broader society within which it is situated, it becomes clear that the same tensions between visibility and privacy are at play. What explicit and implicit rights do LGBTQ students have in the classroom? Can they honestly share their experiences as LGBTQ without fear of hostility from their peers or their teacher? When asked to discuss LGBTQ issues, are they required to share their personal experiences, or can they stay in closet? When they disclose something to their teacher, will s/he keep their confidence? Michael navigated these tensions by creating two separate spaces in his classroom: one public sphere (discussion) where he explicitly invited LGBTQ visibility, and one private sphere (individual writing) where he explicitly promised LGBTQ students privacy.

I call Michael’s approach a parallel approach—one that attends to the demands of both visibility and privacy, but within different, parallel, instructional spheres. The parallel approach to promoting both visibility and privacy is one way to manage the dilemmas of promoting democratic education when teaching about an oppressed social group. Next, I will discuss a different approach to managing these dilemmas: attending to the demands of privacy and visibility simultaneously by using anonymity as a way to make students voices public, while at the same time allowing them to keep their identities private.


Jonathan Jones (a pseudonym) taught with Michael Smith in Sinclair High School’s ELA department. When the 12th-grade identity unit was first developed, Jonathan led the push for LGBTQ content integration. He had, several years previously, selected most of the LGBT-themed texts that Michael taught. At the time of this study, however, Jonathan was not teaching 12th-grade ELA. He was teaching 11th grade only, and while the district’s 12th-grade curriculum included a unit on identity that could easily be adapted to include LGBTQ issues, the district’s 11th-grade curriculum did not include any units that easily aligned with LGBTQ issues. Working with a curriculum that offered few opportunities for LGBTQ content integration, Jonathan relied on (a) his own identity as a gay man and (b) students’ lived experiences related to LGBTQ identity (their families, their prejudices, their interests) to integrate LGBTQ issues into his teaching. While Jonathan had previously integrated content relating to transgender issues, during the semester of data collection he integrated content relating to issues of only lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) identities and not transgender identities.

Michael and Jonathan took different approaches to LGBTQ content integration; however, both teachers navigated the privacy–visibility tensions that arose when they helped students to understand LGBTQ issues. Michael opted mostly for a parallel approach to managing this tension, sometimes engaging in public discourse and other times allowing for private reflection. In contrast, Jonathan frequently used a simultaneous approach to deal with the visibility–privacy tension: Through strategic uses of anonymity, he made student voices public while at the same time maintaining individuals’ privacy.

Jonathan’s practice included many opportunities for student anonymity when interacting with LGB content. In the next section, I describe a series of instances when Jonathan used anonymity as a way to manage the dilemmas of democratic education that emerge when teaching about an oppressed social group. I describe each event and then discuss how, in each case, Jonathan used anonymity to surface student ideas without revealing student identity. I discuss how his use of anonymity allowed him to use the experiences and opinions of students as resources for learning without making individual students vulnerable to hostility.

Using Anonymity when Fielding Students’ Questions after Coming Out

On the first day of school, Jonathan introduced himself and his course to students using a PowerPoint presentation. This episode of teaching did not surround a traditional text. I count it as a relevant example of curricular integration, however, because the teacher is consciously using himself as a text (Kenney, 2010; Talburt, 2000). Much as he would with a traditional text, Jonathan had clear goals for student learning and concrete strategies for student engagement to support students in reading him as a gay man. Among several other slides that detailed course requirements and other brief introductory information, Jonathan included a photograph of himself with his husband, Martin, their two children, and their dog. Following this introductory presentation, Jonathan handed students index cards. On the cards, he asked students to write their first name on one side and on the other side write one of their strengths, one thing they did over the summer, and one question they had either about the course or about Jonathan himself. Several times a week for the next three weeks, Jonathan began class by taking five minutes to read students’ questions aloud and respond to them. When he read students’ questions, he did not reveal their names. The following excerpt is from field notes taken during one of these five-minute Q & A sessions at the start of class. Jonathan held student cards in his hand and said:

These are the cards that you filled out for me at the beginning of the year. I wanted to take a moment to answer more of your questions. [Jonathan reads from an index card.] “Will we have practice writing essays?” [Jonathan looks up from the card.] What do you think, are we gonna have practice writing essays? [Students are nodding their heads. A handful of students say, “Yeah.”] Yeah, we will have practice. We will have plenty of practice for the process essays. We’ll take somewhere in the neighborhood of two weeks to write those. We’ll have our writing-group time. We will also be doing individual proofreading. [Jonathan reads from an index card.] “How long did you know you were gay or when did you first notice, and how did your friends and family take it?” [Jonathan looks up from the card.] Uh, let’s see, when did I first know? I can’t pinpoint an actual day when I knew. I think by the time that I was in middle school or definitely high school I had a pretty good idea, but I didn’t come out to my family and friends until after I graduated from college, and I was in my mid-20s when I did that. My friends were pretty cool with it on the whole. It was pretty much of a non-event. They were like, “OK, so what, doesn’t change anything.” Um, and my family was a little bit, they had a tough time of it. My parents had a tough time with it at first just because it was new information for them and I had dated girls in high school and college and they were confused by this new information, and they had seen my life and maybe their lives going in one direction and then there was a change, but on the whole they’ve been great and really supportive and they come to visit me and my husband and my kids all the time. So there’s that. [Jonathan reads from an index card.] Um, “Will I get points taken off my essay for printing it a day late?” [Jonathan looks up from card.] You’ll get points taken off your essay if you submit it to turn it in after the submission date. I don’t do a lot of printing and bringing to class. The submission to turn it in is what matters. [Jonathan reads through nine more questions about course requirements. He answers each in detail, and then he reads the final question.] “How many of these do you get that say ‘Are you gay?’” [Students laugh.] I’m serious, that’s really a question. Well, actually, I don’t get any, because I think that I make it really clear earlier in that class period on the first day of school that I am gay, so I don’t think there’s any confusion. [Students laugh.] I have that picture of my husband. So if that didn’t make it clear . . . [Students laugh.] So, yeah, I don’t get a lot that say “Are you gay?” but I do get some about coming out and my experiences growing up. OK, that is it for questions, so we’ve gone through all of them now. So now we’re going to turn our attention to The Crucible. Who knows where we left off (observation, October 10, 2013)?

Jonathan used his own life experiences as a text and used the process of building a relationship with his students as the vehicle for integrating LGB content (Kenney, 2010; Talburt, 2000). He made the decision to treat students’ questions about his LGB identity as appropriate, and he addressed them in the public space of the classroom. Jonathan’s use of index cards allowed him to elicit questions from students without requiring students to ask them publicly in front of their peers. When he posed students’ questions to the class, he did not identify the student who asked the question. This allowed students to escape the judgment of their peers while still giving them the opportunity to ask their questions. The use of the cards also provided Jonathan the opportunity to think and plan how to interact with students’ questions on a topic that can cause both him and his students anxiety.

I knew that I was doing these cards that day. I put them in a very specific order about how I was going to address them. . . . I had thought out what I was going to say to a certain extent. I mean, I didn’t have it written out or anything. I think I was a little bit nervous. . . . It’s really personal information. . . . And in terms of building community, I thought that it was great that I went back to every single one of their questions and that I shared some really personal information. . . . Maybe on that last question they were like, “How could [a student] really ask that? And will [the teacher] really answer it?” I think it’s good for them to see like, “Yeah, I’ll answer your questions if you ask me.” It proves that I don’t have anything to hide, and that’s important (interview, November 15, 2013).

Jonathan leveraged the freedom that students feel in anonymous spaces to build a community where discussion of LGB identity is acceptable. He also leveraged the time that the index card strategy bought him to gain control of his own nervousness, plan his responses, and make all decisions about how to sequence students’ questions intentional.

Using Anonymity to Build Awareness About Prejudiced Language

Jonathan also used different strategies that allowed students to anonymously make their ideas public. A student club at Jonathan’s school, the Gay/Straight Alliance, started a campaign to end the use of the phrase “That’s so gay,” which students often used to describe things that they found distasteful. As a part of this campaign, the Gay/Straight Alliance obtained permission from the school administration to use time during an all-school assembly to inform their peers about the campaign. Jonathan, who at the time was the club’s faculty advisor, worked with students to plan how they would introduce their peers to the idea that the phrase “That’s so gay” was derogatory. In their plan for the assembly, Jonathan and his students used an activity that utilized anonymity to navigate the privacy–visibility tension. They developed a plan that they hoped would reveal that the school community included many people who were negatively affected by use of the phrase, while simultaneously keeping the identities of those individuals private.

We had a survey in advance that students took, and then we redistributed [the surveys] once students came into the meeting so that—it was an anonymous survey, and you had a piece of paper, and then we asked people to stand at various points, so it was questions like, “I identify as gay or lesbian,” “I have a parent who identifies as that,” “I know somebody who’s been harassed because of their sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation.” You got a real sense, just in looking around the room as a community, of, “Hey, this is significant.” And it wasn’t like you were looking at the actual people, because they had somebody else’s survey, right? So it was anonymous, but you got to see numbers. . . . We felt that it would put people too much on the spot if we were asking them to stand up on their own. This was one step removed from that, and what we really wanted to show was: Hey, this is the impact on our community, numbers-wise (interview, June 20, 2013).

This activity was an attempt to make the LGB community and their allies visible without putting people “too much on the spot” by asking them to risk the hostility that often accompanies visibility. The activity made the existence of an LGB community visible while simultaneously maintaining the privacy of individuals.

Following this assembly, students extended the conversation by taking advantage of other anonymous spaces to interact around LGB issues in ways that Jonathan had not planned.

We put butcher paper up in the bathrooms so that students could write on the walls and not create permanent damage to the space. I remember hearing about conversations that were happening in the girls’ bathroom in particular, just the paper being filled with these back and forth conversations about the word [fag] and about language and about those [homophobic] terms. That always stuck out to me, that it was what we were addressing in the curriculum, right? It was our discussions, but it was happening beyond the classroom (interview, June 20, 2013).

Unprompted, students began using the most private space—the bathroom stall—to share their ideas and respond to their peers. One interesting difference between the anonymous conversation of the bathroom stall and Jonathan’s intentional uses of anonymity is the role of facilitation. When Jonathan used index cards to solicit questions and when he redistributed anonymous surveys, he maintained his own role as facilitator, while the bathroom-stall conversation was not facilitated. Jonathan did not censor student comments when he facilitated anonymous engagement. However, he did retain a modicum of control over when and how students’ comments entered the space.

In designing structures for student discourse of LGB content, Jonathan liberally employed strategies that allowed for student anonymity. These strategies allowed students to ask questions and share ideas and experiences without having their own identity attached to their contributions. Jonathan’s use of anonymity contrasts with Michael’s approach to navigating the privacy–visibility tension through creating two parallel and separate spheres—one in which students were promised privacy, and one in which students were praised for publicly and visibly engaging with LGBTQ issues. By strategically using strategies that allowed for anonymity, Jonathan created moments in which classroom where privacy and visibility could co-exist simultaneously, allowing LGBTQ students to promote LGBTQ visibility at the same time that they kept their own identity private. Jonathan’s use of anonymity was an important tool for managing the dilemmas of democratic education that arise when having public discussions about oppressed social groups.


This study examines how secondary ELA teachers with intentions and reputations for LGBTQ support facilitated student engagement with LGBTQ content. I embarked on this analysis to investigate the pedagogical implications of using LGBTQ-inclusive curricula to pursue the goals of democratic education. While democratic education is frequently used as a warrant in arguments for LGBTQ curricular inclusion (Blackburn et al., 2010; Koschoreck & Tooms, 2009; Lipkin, 2004), we know very little about the role that pedagogical practice plays in understanding if and how LGBTQ-inclusive curricula are supportive of the goals of democratic education. After summarizing the study’s findings, I discuss the implications of these findings for both theory and practice, particularly as they relate to using LGBTQ-inclusive curricula to pursue the goals of democratic education.

This study revealed three major findings about the pedagogical practice of LGBTQ-supportive teachers when facilitating student engagement with LGBTQ content. First, when teaching LGBTQ content, participants felt a tension between promoting visibility of LGBTQ people and issues and maintaining LGBTQ students’ ability to keep their gender and sexual identities private in potentially hostile environments. Second, in their classroom practice, participants worked to promote both visibility of LGBTQ identity and privacy for LGBTQ individuals. Third, some participants were able to balance the twin needs of visibility and privacy by using anonymity, which allowed for public engagement with LGBTQ issues without the sacrifice of LGBTQ individuals’ privacy. All three of these findings have significant implications for understanding the relationship between democratic education and LGBTQ-inclusive curricula.


I turn first to the study’s theoretical implications. My investigation of the classroom practices of LGBTQ-supportive teachers reveals that teachers are using creative pedagogical strategies, such as anonymity, to promote democratic ideals without abandoning discourse when teaching LGBTQ content. This finding is significant to contemporary scholarly debates because it contributes to our understanding of a central question about classroom discussion: Is it possible to facilitate equitable classroom discourse that reflects democratic ideals when discussing issues of equity and identity? To date there are two sides of this debate. Scholars such as Boler (2004) and Jones (2004) argue that when discussing marginalized identities, discussion can be a repressive and marginalizing instructional method that reinforces the subjugation of marginalized groups. How can LGBTQ identity be freely and openly discussed when LGBTQ students feel they must stay closeted to ensure their own safety? In contrast, scholars such as Parker (2006) caution the field not to abandon discussion because, while imperfect, it may be our best existing pedagogical option for pursuing the goals of democratic education. Without discussion, will teachers be left only with teacher-centered pedagogical tools such as recitation, which do little to promote student learning (Cazden, 2001)?

Responding to this dilemma, Parker (2006) called for the Left to develop “dialogic alternatives” (p. 15) or engagement strategies that do not abandon discourse, but still attend to the “relations of acquiescence and subjugation” (p. 9) that emerge when discussing issues of identity. This article and the study upon which it is based are a response to Parker’s call. The study’s findings have important implications for scholarly debates about the discussion of marginalized identities. By understanding anonymity as a dialogic alternative for facilitating student engagement around LGBTQ issues, we not only offer a promising pedagogical tool for teachers teaching inclusive curricula, but we may also be opening the door to more creative thinking about pedagogical approaches to discourse about issues of identity and oppression. One of the primary reasons that anonymity is a useful pedagogical tool in facilitating discourse about issues relating to LGBTQ identity is that it centrally engages in one of the central paradoxes in the history of the civil rights struggle for LGBTQ people: the simultaneous need for both visibility and privacy. We may find that the histories of oppression of particular social groups offer insights into promising dialogic alternatives to “free and open” discussion when teaching content about marginalized identities. Can reflecting on the central tensions in the history of oppression of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, inform us about promising dialogic alternatives to free and open discussion about immigration policy? What can enduring conflicts in struggles for women’s rights tell us about possible dialogic alternatives to free and open discussion about gender? Are there central paradoxes in struggles for racial, ethnic, or religious equity that might inform the development of promising dialogic alternatives to free and open discussion about race, ethnicity, or religion? A major theoretical implication coming out of this study is that the histories of oppression of particular social groups may provide useful information for making pedagogical decisions about how to facilitate classroom discourse in ways that promote the ideals of democratic education.


Next, I turn to practical implications. Although states and districts are beginning to adopt, and in some cases mandate, LGBTQ-inclusive curricula (Tintocalis, 2011), there remains a paucity of knowledge about the teaching of LGBTQ content. As curricula begin to include LGBTQ people, families, and communities, more and more teachers will need to develop skill at facilitating classroom discourse around LGBTQ issues. By investigating the nuances of the instructional practice of LGBTQ-supportive teachers, this study offers valuable knowledge for teacher educators and professional developers who will be tasked with preparing teachers to use new curricular content in productive ways.

Participants in this study began teaching LGBTQ content of their own volition. In the future, some teachers, responding to curricular mandates imposed by their states or districts, will have no choice in the matter (Tintocalis, 2011). Many teachers will face decisions about how best to engage students with newly inclusive curricula. If teachers choose not to abandon discourse when they adopt inclusive curricula, they will likely be faced with the same challenges that arose for Michael and Jonathan: the privacy–visibility dilemma and the specter of “disturbing silence” (Jones, 2004). However, unlike the participants in this study, most teachers will have no experience teaching about LGBTQ content and as a result may struggle to adopt productive pedagogical strategies. Continuing to build knowledge about the practices teachers use when teaching LGBTQ issues will inform the work of teacher educators and professional developers who are now tasked with preparing teachers for the demands of an inclusive curriculum.

I began this article by quoting from the NCTE’s resolution to strengthen teacher knowledge of LGBTQ issues. While the NCTE and other professional organizations for educators have begun paying more and more attention to the problem of LGBTQ curricular invisibility, these organizations have not yet paired their calls for inclusive curricula with calls for inclusive pedagogy. If teachers implement inclusive curricula with pedagogical approaches that do not take into account the ways that LGBTQ students are typically marginalized in their school and classroom communities, new curricular resources will not realize their democratic goals. According to Parker (2003, 2006), the aim of democratic education is to help students become citizens who are able to fully participate and act as change agents in civic society. Using education as a vehicle for supporting LGBTQ students to become full citizens in American society will require educators to rethink not only what they are teaching, but also how they are teaching.


My choice to focus on teaching practice as a lens for more deeply understanding issues of equity and identity is, in and of itself, a significant scholarly contribution. Examinations of teaching practice often pay limited attention to issues of equity and identity (Bowman & Gottesman, 2013), while scholarship on equity and identity is often removed from practice (McDonald, 2010). By investigating how teachers support marginalized students within the nuances of their daily classroom instruction, I aim to bridge the gap between scholarship on teaching practice and social foundations scholarship on equity and identity. Along with other current research bridging the practice–foundations gap (Hammerness & Kennedy, 2015; Khasnabis, Goldin, & McMahon, 2015), this study contributes to scholarship on teaching practice as well as scholarship on equity and identity.

By approaching LGBTQ inclusion at the level of pedagogical practice instead of teacher belief, this study also has implications for teacher education at a structural level. Opportunities for teacher learning about non-content-specific issues relating to identity and equity characteristically take place in the social foundations courses of teacher education programs. Foundations courses are typically built to help teacher candidates develop underlying beliefs and attitudes about social groups and issues of equity and justice, not pedagogical skill in the enactment of instructional practice. The split between foundations and methods is an entrenched programmatic structure found across teacher education programs. It assumes that strong dispositions and beliefs about social justice will translate into effective instructional practice. My analysis describes a more complicated picture: that equity and justice occur within the enactment of instructional practice. Fine-grained questions about practice, such as which strategies to employ when eliciting student ideas, can deeply influence the extent to which a teacher is able to effectively support marginalized students.

A practice perspective on the work of supporting students based on their social identity raises questions about whether, by situating social foundations courses in the realm of beliefs and dispositions, we are bypassing a particularly fruitful site for teacher learning: instructional practice itself. If the support that teachers offer LGBTQ students occurs within their instructional practice, could we reimagine the pedagogy of social foundations courses in ways that use instructional practice as a primary site for novice-teacher learning? While the move toward practice-based teacher education has taken hold in the content areas (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009; Lampert et al., 2013; Windschitl, Thompson, Braaten, & Stroupe, 2012; Zeichner, 2012), it has yet to significantly influence teacher education at the level of social foundations. This study could have implications for the way that we think about preparing teachers to enact democratic education with social-justice aims. What might it look like to reimagine the foundations courses? Instead of seminar or lecture-style classes, would it be possible to imagine democracy-focused practicum courses? Might we support novice-teacher learning about democratic education through mediating the teachers’ preparation for, enactment of, and reflection on actual pedagogical practice with students that takes histories of oppression into account?

As the mainstream curriculum becomes more inclusive of LGBTQ people, families, and communities, teachers and teacher educators will need to grapple with the pedagogical challenges posed by the introduction of LGBTQ content. One particularly salient challenge is the “disturbing silence” (Jones, 2004) of LGBTQ students in discussions of LGBTQ issues. This study demonstrates that creative pedagogical strategies, such as anonymity, may support teachers in combating this disturbing silence. If the goal of democratic education is to prepare students to fully participate and act as change agents in civic society, anonymity may be a useful tool for changing the rules of public discourse in the classroom so that the stakes of participation are not higher for LGBTQ students than they are for heterosexual students. This may be a useful step in inviting all students into public discourse and civic participation. While anonymity is one useful strategy, and its use sheds light on how the history of LGBTQ oppression plays out in classroom discourse, further research is needed to help teacher educators and professional developers understand how best to prepare teachers to respond to a more inclusive curriculum in ways that are productive for student learning.


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Phase One Sampling Questionnaire

1. When I hear students using anti-gay language . . .

I usually don’t respond

I sometimes respond

I always respond

Students at my school rarely or never use anti-gay language

1a. If you have responded to students’ use of anti-gay language, think of one instance in which you responded and briefly describe what you did.


1b. If you do anything else to discourage students from using anti-gay language, please describe it in the box below.


2. Do you have students read texts or watch videos that include lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBTQ) people or characters?


I have in the past, but not in my current classes

There are one or two passing references to an LGBTQ person in a text or video

An LGBTQ person plays a major role in at least one class text or video

2a. In the box below, name and briefly describe any texts or videos you use in class that include LGBTQ people or characters.


3. In my class, we have discussions related to LGBTQ people or issues . . .





3a. I have had in-class discussions with students that touch on . . . (check all that apply)

Life events of particular lesbian, gay, or bisexual people (historical, contemporary, or fictional)

Same-sex love or attraction

LGBTQ families

Issues related to LGBTQ rights

Coming out as LGBTQ

Prejudice and/or discrimination against lesbian, gay, or bisexual people

The lives of transgender people

Prejudice and/or discrimination against transgender people

3b. If you have had one or more class discussions that touched on LGBTQ people or issues, briefly describe one of those discussions below.


4. In my role as a teacher, I have . . . (check all that apply)

had informal discussions with individual students or small groups of students about coming out, homophobia, or other LGBTQ issues.

informally discussed the needs of LGBTQ students or other LGBTQ issues with teachers at my school

advised a Gay/Straight Alliance or another student group dedicated to LGBTQ issues.

led a field trip to an LGBTQ-related event (conference, rally, arts event, etc.)

led a workshop for students about homophobia or other LGBTQ issues

led a workshop for teachers about homophobia or other LGBTQ issues

directed a play that touched on LGBTQ themes or had LGBTQ characters

openly challenged a school or district policy that I thought could be more LGBTQ-friendly

participated in planning or presenting an assembly that touched on LGBTQ issues

engaged in other activities aimed at supporting LGBTQ students. Please describe: ______________________________

4a. If you checked any of the activities above, please briefly describe one of the activities in the space below.



Sample LGBTQ-Supportive Teacher Daily Log

Your Name: Jonathan Jones

Check the box for any event that happened today:

ý I discussed an LGBTQ issue with students, parents, or colleagues

 I planned a lesson or school event that will touch on an LGBTQ issue

I responded to student work that brought up an LGBTQ issue

The way I said or did something was directly informed by my ideas about LGBTQ people

I advocated for the needs of an LGBTQ student, group of students, family, or colleague

I heard others talking about LGBTQ issues

I responded to prejudice against LGBTQ people

I did something that is not listed here that I think is related to the focus of the study

If you checked any boxes above, please write a narrative account of the event:

Last Thursday was open house night for parents. As part of my presentation to families, I showed a picture of my family, and text that included the line "I live in XX with my husband and two children." I make a point of mentioning the photo so that I'm sure parents take note, even if they neglected to read the text.

On Friday, I had a conversation with a lesbian colleague who is thinking about coming out to students and families. I described my perspective (I'm not going to be closeted) and my approach to communicating information to students (info slides and photos on the first day of class) and parents (above). This colleague is thinking of coming out to students on National Coming Out day.

Are there any upcoming lessons/school events that I might want to observe? If so, list all dates and time that would be good for me to observe.

Examples include: (1) A day when a text or discussion will include LGBTQ issues, (2) A day when a text or discussion might prompt students to bring up LGBTQ issues (i.e. topics like prejudice, gender, sexuality, current events, dating, identity, etc.), (4) A school event will touch on LGBTQ issues, (5) Anything related to bullying, prejudice, or respect

I'm thinking of addressing the LGBT-themed questions for me this Wednesday 9:20–10:50. Let me know if that is not a good day to observe and I can move it.

Anything else?


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 12, 2016, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21645, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 3:04:17 AM

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About the Author
  • Sarah Kavanagh
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    SARAH SCHNEIDER KAVANAGH is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her scholarship is centrally concerned with the relationship between teaching as a professional practice and teaching as a social justice mission. With an eye to issues of equity and justice, she studies teacher practice and practice-based designs for teacher education and professional development. Her most recent article, “Core practices and pedagogies of teacher education: A call for a common language and collective activity,” co-authored with Morva McDonald and Elham Kazemi, was published in the Journal of Teacher Education.
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