In secondary schools in the United States, youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer (LGBTQ) encounter unwelcoming and unsafe, if not outright hostile, climates, experiences which lead to negative outcomes, both personal and academic. However, school-based supports such as supportive adults, GSA clubs, and LGBT-inclusive curricula have been associated with lower levels of victimization and higher levels of academic attainment. Yet, there is limited empirical research on LGBT-inclusive curriculum and its concomitant pedagogy, particularly studies that examine time periods beyond a single lesson or unit, feature more than a single text, explore a range of sexual and gender identities along with intersectionality, and take a situated approach on criticality.
In this study I strive to speak to these gaps. During the 2016-2017 academic year, I conducted a literacy ethnography at Harrison High School, an urban comprehensive public high school with a diverse student population in a Midwestern city. I drew on a range of theoretical perspectives that foregrounded sociocultural dynamics to understand literacy and activism as situated phenomena shaped by power relations. Utilizing an ethnographic logic-of-inquiry, I primarily constructed data through being a participant observer in the English language arts courses of one adult teacher Ms. Abby and the GSA (Genders and Sexualities Alliance) club she advised. Data included fieldnotes, audio and video recorded classroom lessons and GSA meetings, documents (such as curricular texts and youth writing), and interviews with youth, adult teachers, and adult administrators. Drawing from this broader ethnography, I focus on youth’s queer-focused activism in a sophomore humanities course that combined English language arts and social studies.
In the course, youth enacted queer-focused activism as they took up roles as pedagogues in queer-inclusive literacy events. While commonly in educational literacy scholarship adults are assumed exclusively to hold this role, in the sophomore humanities classroom youth did so too. Their activism was inherently pedagogical in that they focused on teaching people alternative literacy practices, including ways of reading, writing, knowing, interacting, and being. In their pedagogy, they blended literacy practices that were school-sanctioned and practices beyond, such as conflict. In doing so, they exhibited literacy dexterity and innovation. Moreover, they held people accountable for their use and learning of literacy practices. Throughout their activist pedagogy, youth navigated epistemic tensions and vulnerabilities, both of which related to their (in)visibility as particular identities.
This study provides insight into the complex relationship between the presence of LGBT-inclusive curricula and the school climate. It also suggests ways that adults who teach literacy might reshape their own pedagogical practices by approaching youth literacy knowledges and practices as resources for transforming cisheteronormative schools. Such practices include approaching knowledge as situated, dialogic, and humanizing; valuing conflict and heterogeneity as learning resources; and collaboratively holding people accountable for literacy learning based on the impact of their use of reading and writing.