The Power of Stories: What I Learned from My Students About Diverse Books

Teachers don't usually ask their students what they should teach. A middle school English teacher gained important insights when she spoke with her students about the kinds of books they want to read in class.

 

I remember my daughter’s eyes lighting up as we read I Am Jazz by Jazz Jennings for the first time. I’ll never forget the sound of her voice when she looked up and said, “Hey, she’s a girl just like me!” These glimpses of herself gave her the gift of understanding and left her feeling not-so-alone when she needed it most. Throughout the next weeks, as my daughter began using female pronouns and choosing her own clothing, Jazz became a familiar name in our house.

Trust me when I say, stories are powerful.

This power was the topic of conversation at a recent Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) meeting, a club I co-sponsor as a safe space for LGBTQ+ students and allies in our school. As students shared their experiences, I was reminded—as I often am—how insightful teenagers can be.

They talked about how Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give opened up conversations about race in ninth grade and reflected on reading the powerful memoir, Boy Erased, for a book club in tenth. Eventually, the conversation shifted toward questions about our choices as teachers and their honest feedback on LGBTQ+ representation in their coursework.

One thing became clear: we’re moving in the right direction, but this work is far from complete.

I knew more teachers needed to hear their thoughts. I’m lucky to work in a school that prioritizes student feedback and works to create spaces where students feel heard and valued. Our administration supported us in hosting a forum between English teachers and students about LGBTQ+ representation in our courses. Best of all, it would be facilitated by GSA student leaders.

When the day came, the room was filled with students eager to share their thoughts and a faculty ready to learn. We arranged chairs to form a large circle, and for the next hour, the students talked while we listened.

Several students expressed appreciation for having access to books about LGBTQ+ characters as a part of their coursework but also shared concern about the message sent when books with LGBTQ+ characters are almost always presented as choices but rarely as whole class texts. The students explained that this makes it feel as if these books are only meant for some students, not all.

They pointed out that when these books are offered as choices, interested students may not choose them in fear of judgment or speculation from peers about their own gender identity or sexual orientation. We can remove this barrier by including these texts as whole-class experiences. They spoke of powerful conversations about relationships spurred by a whole class read of Perks of Being a Wallflower in ninth grade. Had this novel been offered only as a choice, these conversations may not have taken place.

Students have a unique ability to reflect on our text selections as a whole; they’ve grown up experiencing them across years whereas teachers focus mainly on texts within their own curriculum. It became apparent that, in our well-intentioned attempt to share LGBTQ+ stories, we were sharing an abundance of stories showing characters in crisis while offering few uplifting stories where LGBTQ+ identities were normalized.

While the LGBTQ+ experience certainly contains struggle, it is problematic when students’ only exposure to these identities is filled with crisis and dysfunction. It would be naive and, frankly, irresponsible to leave these very real stories out of our collections; these books are important and these struggles do exist. However, limiting our selections to stories of crisis reduces the LGBTQ+ experience to a single story of struggle rather than sharing the diversity of LGBTQ+ experiences.

An insightful sixth grader recommended we introduce these topics and texts at younger grades. In our school, this means beginning in sixth grade while schools with younger students would ideally begin earlier. By introducing these identities earlier and discussing them with lighter, more uplifting novels, the topics become more normalized in our classrooms lessening the stigma surrounding LGBTQ+ topics.

A seventh grader reflected on how she became comfortable discussing LGBTQ+ identities alongside books like Gracefully Grayson and Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World. She went on to credit articles and mentor texts about LGBTQ+ people such as young activist Rebekah Bruesehoff and said it was helpful to have opportunities to write about these identities in our altered book project. Older students agreed, saying these experiences would have given their class a shared foundation in discussing these texts before grappling with the weight of more mature texts in later grades.

We left the meeting that day with much to consider and great work to be done. We hope to do similar work with other affinity groups in our school. Students left with a link to a document where they can recommend books they would like us to consider, and some students even offered to continue our conversation and collaborate by reviewing books for our department. Who better to review our metaphorical mirrors and windows than those looking through them?

Further Reading:

Article: Inclusion is Not Optional

Empathy Is Not Political: NCTE Presentation on Creating Inclusive Classrooms

2020 Rainbow Book List

Gracies List

GLSEN School Climate Survey

Welcoming Schools: Tips for Addressing Homophobic Remarks in the Classroom

Reading LGBTQ-Inclusive Childrens Books in Schools


Samantha Alul is a middle school English teacher from St. Louis, MO. In her classroom, students are encouraged to read and write about topics they are passionate about and gain experience discussing tough topics. When Samantha is not in the classroom, she can be found spending time with her husband, Ron, and their two beautiful daughters, Brody and Ainsley. A few of her favorite books are This Is How It Always Is,Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Ivy Aberdeen ’s Letter to the World.

 

 

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