March 29, 2017

Inside Out

Workshop helps educators address gender and sexual diversity in the classroom via Language Arts
Catherine Burwell
Catherine Burwell

In the last few years, there have been an increasing number of literary and media texts created for young people that address sexual and gender diversity.

These picture books, novels, comics, films and games represent a broader understanding of diverse audiences, and reflect on the lives and rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) students, families and communities.

They can also begin important conversations among youth and between young people and adults. 

At the same time, these new ideas can pose a challenge to educators: teaching and talking about gender and sexual diversity in classrooms isn’t always easy.  “As educators, we need to ask ourselves some challenging questions,” says Catherine Burwell, an assistant professor in the Werklund School of Education.  

“How can we teach these texts well? What is it we hope to accomplish by bringing books and media that address sexual and gender diversity into the classroom?

And even more fundamentally, how do we think that creative works can help us achieve the important goal of more socially just schools and societies?”

Working with Kevin McBean, an Edmonton teacher and member of the English Language Arts Council, a specialist group within the Alberta Teachers’ Association, Burwell organized a one day workshop earlier this month to tackle these questions. 

Inside Out: Sexual and Gender Diversity in the English Language Arts Classroom,” was geared to teachers currently in the K-12 system, as well as teacher candidates and community educators.  More than 75 participants from across the province attended.

Burwell says the workshop provided an important opportunity to meet with other educators committed to teaching about sexual and gender diversity.  

“Everyone had the opportunity to take part in discussions about what it is that the language arts can do to help create more socially just schools,” explains Burwell.  “We also spent some time discussing how we can counter homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism and teach in ways that welcome others and widen perspectives on human experiences, relationships and sexualities.”

The conference began with a keynote presentation from writer and artist Vivek Shraya, acclaimed author of the children’s book The Boy & The Bindi. It also included a panel featuring UCalgary professors Aubrey Hanson, Tonya Callaghan (Werklund School) and Derritt Mason (Faculty of Arts).

In the afternoon, participants were introduced to work already being done in Alberta classrooms through hands-on workshops run by educators from across the province.

“The conference was a tremendous success,” says Burwell. “The wonderful opening talk from Vivek Shraya raised many questions about how we can use the expressive potential of the language arts to better serve queer youth and to address sexual and gender diversity with all students. These questions lead us to rich discussions throughout the day.”

“Many participants told us the event was ground-breaking and inspiring, and that they will take these new understandings into their classrooms. We hope this is part of a longer conversation about how the language arts might better reflect the diverse experiences of Alberta’s students.”