Working with queer English learners requires close attention to their emotions and feelings, prior to or in conjunction with the teaching of language and literacy. Queer pedagogy does more than “good” instructional strategies and practices in terms of fitting the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ+), or queer, people in the curriculum—it asks the teachers to think about how to explore the process of reading and thinking by disrupting the binary ways of doing and thinking. Queerness is always on the move, in the making, in partiality, and in contestation; therefore, working with queer English learners requires more than a fixed, stable, or totalized approach. In addition, queer pedagogy embraces all identities in teaching, thinking, and doing to co-construct a more accepting, inclusive, and equitable space. Queer pedagogy does not limit understanding to just one particular population who identifies as “queer”; rather, it invites all identities to work together in conducting, thinking, and writing, in the form of relationality, unfixity, unruliness, and disruptiveness of “straightness,” of heteronormativity, in and beyond the classroom spaces. In this article, I invite the readers to think with me about how we can do and think differently in queering English language classrooms.
Acknowledging Students’ Identities
First and foremost, a safe and welcoming classroom space is essentially important. Teachers can start with learning how to pronounce students’ names with critical love (Dunlap et al., 2021; Trinh, 2022). In addition, English teachers can introduce the concept of gender-neutral (or inclusive) pronouns (i.e., they/them/their or no pronouns) at the beginning of each semester to disrupt binary assumptions about gender and sexuality (i.e., there is only male or female or Mr. or Mrs./Ms. in schools). Teachers might want to “refer to names and pronouns that one feels most comfortable identifying with or being used when spoken or referred to. Names and pronouns can change over time and based on context and should be honored” (Miller, 2018, p. 38). However, it is important to note that this activity is a voluntary action for the students. In other words, teachers should not disclose a student’s identity unless there is consent from the student, for coming out is a navigational process for queer students. In addition, if the teachers misgender students in public or in conversation, we acknowledge our mistakes, correct ourselves, and continue the conversation. Teachers might want to have their gender pronouns in their email signatures as well and use that as a teachable moment to explain what gender pronouns are and why they are important. By acknowledging students’ identities and showing our acceptance of all identities in the classroom, we are beginning to create a welcoming space for students to engage in a critical discussion.
Adding the Discourse of Difference
Once a welcoming and accepting space is established, teachers start to bring critical texts to ignite a conversation with students. In the context of disrupting heteronormative ways of teaching and thinking, I would suggest adding the discourse of difference in the curriculum. The discourse of difference invites multiple perspectives to express how the difference makes us think differently and connects differences respectfully. The discourse of difference could be co-created by inviting both the teacher and students to pay closer attention to materials in and beyond the classroom spaces. For example, the materials could be in the form of bodies, feelings, or emotions, or in the form of discussing the characters in a textbook. Let’s start to think about feelings and emotions first and foremost in the discourse of difference. Teachers can make a small, yet powerful, experience by checking with students, “How are you feeling today? What made you excited last week? What are you looking forward to doing this week?” Teachers can also allow students to respond to each other to build a community of support at the beginning of the class. Further, teachers can use some of the reading resources from Welcoming Schools, PLAG, and Social Justice Books, among others, to think about teaching reading, writing, and speaking skills. The resources I have shared here have a variety of queer-related topics that could open different interpretations of thinking and understanding about binary perspectives in different families, schools, societies, and cultures. While using these resources to teach (and of course depending on the students’ reading levels and interests), teachers can think of critical storytelling (Pentón Herrera and Trinh, 2021) as a way to invite students to discuss and write their own stories in order to connect with, reflect on, and think with the characters in the materials as well as students’ positionalities. In addition, students could use these resources to create their own podcast where they co-learn how to be better allies in school. While listening to students’ critical storytelling, teachers are encouraged to pay attention to students’ emotions and feelings and take these moments to teach critical thinking and actions for social change.
Dropping the Knowledge
As students are settled in a safe and welcoming space and as they trust their teachers and peers through critical, empathetic, and thought-provoking discussions, teachers are encouraged to work toward dropping our knowledge. The idea of dropping the knowledge suggests we (teachers, staff, administrators, so on and so forth) reposition ourselves (i.e., power, hierarchy, and authority in the classroom) to listen to students attentively and critically. This idea suggests we move away from the power/authoritative position; instead, the sharing and co-constitution of knowledge are centered and prioritized. In order to concretize this idea in the real classroom, I would suggest teachers do community-based projects with students. Projects that GLSEN and the Trevor Project are modeling, such as Solidary Week, No-Name Calling Week, and Day of Silence, could be modified to create a welcoming and critical space for students and staff to get involved. In addition, teachers can think about local resources and LGBTQ+ organizations in their regions to think about cross/multicultural collaborations. Teachers can use these moments for a field trip and have students write daily/weekly reflections (in English and/or their home languages) and share them out loud later in a final project. These ideas could be the very first start to creating an agency for/with/by both queer and nonqueer students and to allowing teachers to drop the knowledge and learn with students collectively.
In essence, I suggest the three queer considerations above so that students and teachers can begin to think together about different ways of queering English language classrooms. The ideas are not exhaustive, but they could serve as the first steps to invite multiple ideas and possibilities and projects to disrupt the binary of teaching and thinking in our English language classroom spaces.
Dunlap, S. S., Carmouche, M., Thornton, N. (2021). “‘Who You Be?’: Welcoming in the language of critical love.” Language Magazine. www.languagemagazine.com/2021/05/17/who-you-be-welcoming-in-the-language-of-critical-love
Miller, S. J. (2018). Embedding the Complexities of Gender Identity through a Pedagogy of Refusal: Learning the Body as Literacy alongside Our Students. TeachingWorks, University of Michigan School of Education. www.teachingworks.org/images/files/TeachingWorks_Miller.pdf
Pentón Herrera, L. J., and Trinh, E. T. (eds.). (2021). Critical Storytelling: Multilingual Immigrants in the United States. Brill/Sense. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004446182
Trinh, E. (2022). Building a community of critical love in English language teaching: Moving global conversations forward. http://www.ellsa.asia/ellsa-pd-day.html
Ethan Trinh (they/them) is teaching and pursuing a PhD at GSU with a minor in women’s studies. Ethan’s work focuses on the intersectionality of gender, race, and language that embraces queerness as a healing teaching and research practice. Ethan’s books are Critical Storytelling: Multilingual Immigrants in the United States, with Luis Javier Pentón Herrera (Brill/Sense, 2021) and Teacher Well-Being in English Language Teaching: An Ecological Approach, with Luis Javier Pentón Herrera and Gilda Martínez-Alba (Routledge, in press). Ethan’s scholarship can be found at www.researchgate.net/profile/Ethan-Trinh-3. Originally from Vietnam, Ethan enjoys creative writing and Vietnamese iced coffee in their free time.