When it comes to covering minority groups in curriculum, such as the LGBTQ+ community, there is no requirement for what actually should be talked about at ORHS. “I definitely think that the [ORHS] curriculum in particular has this idea where looking at it from the outside it might seem to be really inclusive, but when you’re actually experiencing it, that isn’t always the case,” said Natalie Lessard ‘22 (she/her), one of the many LGBTQ+ teens who are struggling to find representation for their community in ORHS classes.
For LGBTQ+ students, even before they may identify as such, finding representation in ORHS curriculum is not easy. Instead, teachers are left to decide how they want to cover LGBTQ+ topics in their class, if at all. While this allows some teachers to openly discuss minority communities such as LGBTQ+, it’s not required, so only some end up covering it. Although parental backlash is a factor in determining how LGBTQ+ people and topics should be represented in the classroom, there are both student and teacher voices that argue a change to school policy or educational policy at the state level is necessary.
According to Karen Van Dyke (she/her), a social studies teacher at ORHS, this issue isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. “As we see the world unfold right now, history teachers I think especially are starting to be like ‘oh my gosh, what have we missed? [Are we] making the world unsafe for a lot of people by teaching the curriculum we have had for decades?’” Van Dyke explained. “I think that leaving out minority groups, or not covering the positives, kind of taints how we view minority groups.”
According to the New Hampshire state outline for American history curriculum, history teachers must cover minority groups in America, but there are no specific guidelines for how to do so. This leaves it up to teachers to decide which historical minority figures should be discussed. Because the material taught differs from teacher to teacher in history and English classes, a student could go through all of high school with little to no discussion on major events and achievements for LGBTQ+ individuals.
Grace Webb ‘23 (she/her) is one of the students who runs the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at ORHS. In this safe space, she and other students can talk about issues or achievements in the LGBTQ+ community, share stories, and give advice to others. Having spent the majority of her academic career at Oyster River, Webb has been able to see how material differs from teacher to teacher, and believes that leaving it up to the teachers isn’t the best option. “By not mandating it, teachers can really just not even mention anything about the LGBTQ+ community,” said Webb. “By having the teacher decide, we as students are missing major parts of our education that we should have.”
For health teacher Rob Quaglieri (he/him), potential parental backlash is a strong factor that defines his curriculum. When considering adding potential material to his curriculum that includes LGBTQ+ topics, he said administration’s consent is heavily weighted on the reaction parents may have.
In the State of New Hampshire, the curriculum for general health curriculum states that: “curriculum is not required to include instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity,” according to Sex Education Collaborative, under state policy information. Like Van Dyke, it is entirely up to Quaglieri and administration to decide if they want to include the teaching of gender and sexual orientation. “I had something all set up that was ready to go with talking about gender and identity, but with the way the schedule was last year, all we had was one day,” said Quaglieri. (For more on the struggles with gender identity at ORHS, check out Mouth of the River’s “Transgender Youth,” by Madla Walsh.)
Quaglieri has to follow state guidelines, but feels that he now must work to provide equal sexual education for all students. “I have to go to administration first and get the okay, because I know it’s going to be one of those hot topics where somebody’s going to complain because I’m teaching this. I want them to know about it beforehand, because then it is a little easier to explain to parents,” explained Quaglieri. Quaglieri had hoped to incorporate some gender and sexuality education this year, but had to delay because of the limited time due to the pandemic.
While these changes take time, students like Webb, Lessard, and Juno Ball ‘23 (they/them) feel leaving out information about gender and sexuality in health lessons is actively hindering the opportunity for students to learn more about those identities, as well as themselves.
Webb argues that students are missing a part of sexual education that should be taught in health. “In health class, we really just talked about heterosexual sex education. I think we missed that same sex education that I would have liked to hear, as not everyone is straight in this world.” While Quaglieri’s health class covers the basics of reproduction, there are currently no lessons on homosexual sex education, as Webb mentioned.
Lessard also noted that there was no education on contraceptives for LGBTQ+ people. “A common misconception is that, ‘since you can’t get pregnant, it’s fine.’ I think that we were never taught that’s not true.”
“Curriculum is not required to include instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity”
Like Webb, Ball has felt like they missed a part of their education about sexuality and gender, having to learn information on their own that would have helped them discover more about themself. Ball recalled a memory from their middle school. “I did not know that bisexuality was a thing or that queer women were a thing. I thought it was just gay men, until like sixth grade,” Ball said. “I think if we just had a day in health class where it was like, ‘by the way, queer people exist,’ that probably would have not only helped me figure out my identity sooner, but made a lot of people feel more comfortable [on the topic],” Ball added.
As of now, there has been no change or addition to the information taught in the general health curriculum. Members from the Oyster River GSA used to come in as guest speakers to talk about gender as a spectrum, and sexual orientation, but because of the factors with the COVID-19 pandemic, that has not taken place yet this year.
On a district level, Todd Allen (he/him), the Assistant Superintendent for the ORCSD,, has seen a movement to include more education on diversity with minority groups. “I would be misleading you if I said that I think we’ve got this under control and that we’ve completed the task, because we’re far from a point where I could look you in the eye and say ‘I think we fully represent all groups appropriately,’” explained Allen.
To help combat this lack of representation, there have been multiple groups of teachers, students, and community members over the last year, who have come together to make Oyster River a more inclusive learning environment. “There’s a group of teachers who are working with an intern from UNH and New Hampshire Listens. This summer they tried to develop a concept called ‘cultural competencies,’ that really are about looking at the whole experience of kids and asking what are the cultural awarenesses that we want every child to have as they graduate from ORHS,” said Allen.
There has been a push over the last four years to cover the struggles and history behind minority groups in school, especially since the Black Lives Matter Protests and the death of George Floyd in May of 2020. This is something that Vivian Jablonski (she/her), a math teacher at ORHS, has been a huge part of over the last year. (For more information on how ORHS is dealing with racism, visit Mouth of the River’s article titled, “How ORHS is Addressing Racism This Year,” by Emily Hamilton.)
Jablonski began working with a group of students and teachers to discuss how to best incorporate the education and recognition of minority groups into ORHS, starting in the summer of 2020. “We have started a faculty discussion group, talking about a lot of issues surrounding inclusivity,” explained Jablonski. “I’ve been trying to foster communication between students and faculty and I know that that hasn’t necessarily always been the case. I’m trying to figure out what’s a good avenue for students to be able to give feedback to their teachers.”
Teachers like Jablonski and other community members have been meeting and working together to discuss ways to incorporate diversity and LGBTQ+ topics into Oyster River education, but still recognize there is more work to be done.
While Allen and Jablonski show they are working on the issue, as a student, Lessard claimed that isn’t always the case. “I think that the problem is that [administration] kind of tries to act like they are addressing it well. It would be better if they were like, ‘yes, we need to work on this,’ and then acted on it, rather than acting like they were doing a good job without actually providing.”
Lessard feels that by recognizing and addressing an issue, the school should show physical evidence that a change is being made. Lessard and other students are upset that the school hasn’t yet taken action to better include LGBTQ+ representation in classes.
It is important to note that, while Allen did say teachers across the district have been meeting to discuss introducing minority groups into the curriculum, the mandated curriculum hasn’t structurally changed in regards to LGBTQ+ topics. Students like Lessard are worried it could be years before LGBTQ+ topics are collectively brought up in the classroom.
When asking Allen about the effect parents have on the introduction of minority groups like the LGBTQ+ community into curriculum, he recognized it as a driving factor that will influence the way this change is made. “Schools are supposed to be a reflection of their communities. Local control of schools is very much in the forefront, which is one of the reasons why we focus on developing policies first, so that teachers feel backed up by it.”
On the topic of LGBTQ+ representation in the ORCSD community, one of the greatest achievements for the LGBTQ+ community was the implementation of the gender non-conforming policy in 2015. This allows for students to be protected while exploring their own gender identity.
With the gender non-conforming policy, Allen said that the whole point of that was to give the policy backbone, “so that teachers can say, ‘no, I’m teaching this and it’s the right thing to do.’ Our intention as a district is to create an environment free of violence and prejudice of all kinds so that everybody can be who they are, and be supported in who they want to be.”
For Allen, it can become difficult to have teachers cover certain material in a highly politically-polarized environment. “While that doesn’t sound like a controversial idea, when you get into some difficult conversations with community members who have a more extreme, conservative viewpoint of what should be talked about in school, it is a hard situation for a teacher to be in. So to have a policy that backs them so they know that they’re going to be supported is critical.”
As Allen stated, when implementing new pieces or topics in curriculum, administration and the school board have to consider that reaction won’t always be welcoming. One of the main reasons it’s been difficult to mandate the teaching of specific minority groups like the LGBTQ+ community on a state level is because there is fear of backlash from parents. For public schools, parents have a voice in what is being taught in the classroom. This voice can even go as far as to change what is being taught in class unless there is regulation backing these lessons. While Van Dyke has made the decision to include LGBTQ+ people and history while talking about minority groups in America, this isn’t the case for every teacher.
For Webb, learning about minorities in literature and history is something important to her, as she feels she missed this throughout most of her education. “A lot of what we read in English and different social studies classes are written by heterosexual white men. For centuries, that’s the group that dominated most aspects of society, at least in Europe and North America. The typical person who controlled the narrative was a straight white man, so now a lot of our history and what we consider classic literature are written by those types of people,” said Webb. “I think we lack the viewpoint from women and from people in the LGBTQ+ community who were underrepresented and really are not given the chance to show their opinions and achievements in society.”
Between students and teachers, a topic of conversation seems to be how educators can best incorporate LGBTQ+ individuals into curriculum, in social studies and English classes. Webb mentioned that she would like to see better representation and recognition of LGBTQ+ individuals in the literature examples used in classes. After talking to teachers, LGBTQ+ literature is something that can be regularly used in some classes, but the writers’ identities are left out of the lesson. This uses LGBTQ+ literature in curriculum, but does not recognize that it was written by an LGBTQ+ person. As a teacher, Van Dyke incorporates LGBTQ+ people into her lesson on minorities in history, but puts their work ahead of their identities.
Van Dyke is one of the educators that currently teaches about minority groups in history by providing their work and impact on the country. Van Dyke said, “The key is to make it aware that there are successful LGBTQ+ people in everyday life.” She uses this idea to introduce historic characters in history to her classes by putting their accomplishments before their identities.
“Let’s say we’re doing civil rights: you just slide those people in the list, and it’s kind of interesting because kids will gravitate without knowing anything about them,” explained Van Dyke. By putting the individual’s work before their personal identities, students are able to recognize their importance without being clouded by the fact that they were maybe part of the LGBTQ+ community. This allows for students to learn about minorities in history without their personal beliefs or prejudice getting in the way. Van Dyke has seen a much more welcoming reaction from her students when these topics are discussed in class.
While students may be more open minded and accepting in class, Nori Sandin ‘23 (she/her), who works with Webb to run the GSA, explained that this isn’t always the case at school. Sandin recognized that there are a lot of passive aggressive insults towards the LGBTQ+ community in the school environment, that maybe isn’t meant to spread as much hate as it does. Sandin argues that teaching all students about LGBTQ+ topics and the struggles that the community faces would help eliminate these passive aggressive insults.
“I think it starts with the students,” said Sandin. “I think that there’s a lack of supportive culture and more judgement and being really unconscious as to what’s said surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. Talking and breaking down stigmas [should take place]. I feel like things are said that are not thought through, and they are typically really offensive. I really just think it starts with kids at school.” Sandin believes that with the right education, the majority of this passive hate could be eliminated.
For Jablonski, a teacher who promotes the use of pronouns in her classroom, this same issue can be present. “I have had a couple reactions from students that were negative but they kind of indicated to me that that person might need a little more education about pronouns and why people use them. I wouldn’t say it’s like a negative reaction, but I think there’s some place where we can do a better job. If all teachers can be involved in a kind of unity with that, I think that would be really useful,” said Jablonski.
Jablonski believes pronouns are something small that can be extremely helpful for students, and that education around the topic of pronouns and normalizing the use of them in any setting is necessary. “The vast majority of responses I’ve got and have been positive. One student actually explicitly told me that ‘it made me so happy when you shared your pronouns with us when you introduced yourself at the beginning of the year.’ To be honest, just getting a positive from one person is enough,” said Jablonski. (For more information regarding pronoun usage at ORHS, visit Mouth of the River’s article, “Address Me As…” by Ari Antonelli.)
Within the GSA at Oyster River, pronoun usage is one of the many topics that takes place in these meetings when discussing LGBTQ+ issues. The group discusses lots of different issues that LGBTQ+ teens face. “We do a lot of focus on what’s going on in the news and how LGBTQ+ teens are being affected in everyday life,” Sandin explained. “[We also talk about] how we are kind of taking steps back. Even though the world is getting to a place where it’s recognizing the LGBTQ+ youth, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Allen explained that this work is much more structural, and has to do with the Oyster River learning experience as a whole, rather than just a class. “It’s a conversation about that takes place as kid goes K-12 through our system, asking, ‘how do we ensure that all the different groups are represented fairly?’” While the push to include more about minority groups and the issues they face is currently taking place, Allen can’t describe a specific push to solely include more representation for the LGBTQ+ community.
While this change is exciting to see for Sandin, Webb, and the GSA, it will take time until the district is ready to make actual changes. The actions taking place do not ensure actual topics on the LGBTQ+ community specifically, and may result in continuing to leave it up to teacher interpretation.
For students who cannot have these conversations about LGBTQ+ information due to a lack of representation in curriculum, there is an option beyond the classroom. “One option that they have is coming to the GSA meetings, which are totally anonymous. You can come to these online meetings with your camera off, and don’t even have to sign in using your name,” said Webb. “It’s totally up to you on how much you want to participate. I think that clubs like these where you don’t have to tell your parents about it, are a great way for kids who maybe aren’t out yet or don’t feel comfortable being in an environment with parents. They should feel totally free to come to our meetings and be a part of this safe community and space where we are very supportive of everyone and help uplift others.”
Although an actual change is not yet guaranteed, the efforts seem promising to Allen, as he hopes LGBTQ+ teachers and students will have more representation in ORHS curriculum in the near future. With parent reactions being the main factor preventing a change, it raises the question of where these intentions are actually coming from. Students and teachers in the community seem to agree that education on LGBTQ+ topics will not only help give representation to the LGBTQ+ community at Oyster River, but also eliminate the confusion or prejudice in other students about the issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. As Ball points out, “A lot of hate is just born out of ignorance.”
Artwork by Sofia Testa