This week on Beyond the Letters, Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts speak with M. Colleen Cruz about living openly and authentically, and the result of including queer topics and texts in daily curriculum, classroom libraries, and discussions. Colleen was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project where she is Director of Innovation. Read her full bio below!
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Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Maggie: Hi, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Maggie Beattie Roberts.
Kate: And I'm Kate Roberts.
Maggie: I was curious, Kate Roberts. Why are we doing this podcast?
Kate: Well, the reason I was thinking of for this session is so that we are not alone. I know that in my journey I've needed community, and I know that there are educators out there who maybe want to do more to be an ally to LGBTQ+ kids and teachers and families, and I think sometimes it's easy to feel alone. So one of the reasons why we want to do this series is to create a kind of mini-community here on the internets.
Maggie: I love that. Speaking of mini-community on the internet-
Kate: And we have the right guest here.
Maggie: We do. It's my pleasure to introduce Colleen Cruz. She is the author of many professional books for teachers, including a young adult novel. She began her career as a classroom teacher in Brooklyn, and has spent the last many years as a lead staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, where she currently holds the position of the director of innovation. We are delighted to welcome Colleen to the podcast.
Colleen: So excited to be here.
Kate: I feel like it's only fair to mention that not only does Colleen hold all those titles, but she is also one of our dearest friends and soul sisters. So Colleen, I feel like we know a lot of your story, but we were wondering if you could share a bit of it here with the people listening.
Colleen: Sure. I grew up in kind of a conservative part of Southern California, but I did come out when I was in college, and I was out in grad school. When I started teaching, one of the things that was interesting, and I don't think I could have imagined this as a kid growing up, is that my principal who hired me, was gay and out, and had been sort of foremost in bringing LGBT curriculum into New York City schools. And then I had, on my hallway, across the hall, the person who was assigned to me as a mentor was also gay, so I felt very much surrounded by people who were out and proud.
Looking back now, I had no idea just how lucky I was. I mean, I knew where I came from and how that was unusual, but where I was in the world, that having these people around me ... It was interesting, because I was teaching elementary school, so it was a different kind of out. And it was the '90s when I started teaching, and I wasn't in a serious relationship, so there were certain limits, just with the age of the kids and things like that. But it was an interesting thing to grow up as a teacher. At the same time I was also sort of like finding my footing as a person and being more and more out in the world.
Kate: So in a way, for you, there wasn't like a start date, right? Like, the moment that you started teaching, you also were a gay educator?
Colleen: Yeah, very much so. It's funny, because I definitely had like a coming-out period in my life, but it had already happened before I became a teacher. And because everybody in the building who was gay was out, it didn't feel ... It would've been odd for me to be not out.
Kate: So if you were to break that down ... because it is a pretty, I think, relatively unique experience, right? I know I didn't have that experience. I know Maggie didn't...
Maggie: I did not have that experience.
Kate: I haven't heard that story a lot.
Kate: If you were to name the things that made it possible for you to ... Not possible. You're saying you were sort of surrounded in it, like air, in a way, right? But if you could distill it down to things that made that happen or made that environment feel so comfortable.
Colleen: Well part of it, oddly, was economics. At the time where I taught ... I wanted to teach in the same neighborhood I could afford to live, and living in New York City, it's kind of limiting. So the neighborhood that I interviewed in and the principal who interview me, that particular neighborhood was a neighborhood I knew I could afford to live in and wanted to live in, and it actually is considered one of the gay meccas, still one of the gay meccas of the world. I remember when I met the principal, I was pretty impressed by, you know ... It's hard to imagine, but at the time, it was 1996, it was not that usual for a male principal to be out. But I was drawn to that, and I was drawn to being able to afford to live in the neighborhood.
And you know, in general, I have a lot of isms about me. You know, I'm Mexican-American, I'm disabled, and I'm gay. I just didn't want to be on the vanguard when it came to my identity anymore. I wanted to be just part of the crowd in some ways. So I sought it out, and decided I was sort of ready to just be in a place where it was a little bit more comfortable. Not that it was all smooth sailing. Certainly there was bumps in the road, but I definitely chose that position in part because it felt comfortable to be fully who I was.
Maggie: I was wondering if you could look back at your younger self in that position and your ability to teach under the influence of everything that you are. I know I didn't have that experience. I remember teaching in the shadows a little bit, or withholding. I didn't know if you had any insight about that.
Colleen: I definitely know that it felt oddly freeing and uncomfortable. Like, there were times it felt nerve wracking because I'm a pessimist by nature, and I always sort of thought, "Oh, when's the time going to come when this is going to be a problem?" But at the same time, it was hard to completely bend to that tendency when there were several different people around me who were really mentors and examples. And I knew enough from my own past and experiences and things that I had grappled with in my younger years that bad and hard things could happen to people.
So I definitely brought an empathy to teaching, and I think sometimes ... One of the things that's kind of interesting about me is, in many different ways, I pass. Like, I pass as straight, I pass as white, I pass as able-bodied. So I'm constantly coming out. It's just constantly having to talk about who I am, in part, just so people don't say stupid things to me. So I feel like when I was in the classroom I found myself doing that as well. More so I think with the grown-ups than the kids, in part because of the age I taught. There wasn't a whole lot of talking about romance. It would have been kind of odd, actually.
Kate: "Kids, I went on this great date last night."
Colleen: But I didn't hide who I was. Like, you know, kids saw me ... Later on when I was involved in a serious relationship with the person who later became my wife, I didn't hide who I was, and parents knew who I was. I think it was an interesting thing to see parents coming out to me, or ... You know, because there were ... I don't think I ever had a two-dad family as a classroom teacher, but I definitely had two moms. Then later on, there were kids who later on grew up and came out, and just the way they respond to me is different. One day I would like to ask some of them, "What was it like to have a person that was out when you were a kid?" Particularly the ones who ended up being LGBT in some fashion when they got older.
Maggie: I just think it's stunning, the dichotomy between being so out and visible and accepted, right, while at the same time passing, and having to come out in tandem with that. I'm just holding that, because it feels like a delicate dance, right, to be around everybody who can kind of like see you for who you are, and at the same time have to live your coming out story over and over again, with a variety of different shades of your identity.
Kate: Well that makes me think also, if we shift to ... I know that now, Colleen, you are in many schools, right, around the country, and you have been for years. I'm assuming that most of those schools don't have that kind of ... I mean, what strikes me about your story is just the strength in numbers. Do you know what I mean? You just had people who were out in your school who led the way for you, or created this sort of environment where you could find your voice inside of that. So if you were to, in your experience, give schools that don't have that strength in numbers, right? Just in terms of just population, they don't have the out principal, they don't have the out teacher across the hall. What do you see that teachers can do to help create a more open environment for students, teachers, families?
Colleen: I think it depends on the role in your identity to start. This is going to seem like a strange sort of a non sequitur, but go with me for a minute.
Kate: I'm full of non sequiturs, probably.
Colleen: But I was once working on a YA novel that involved a ghost, and my writing teacher at the time said I was making it too big of a deal that she was a ghost, and that I instead had to make it like the way psychic Sylvia Browne acts, like it's no big deal, and that when you act like that, people just accept it more. I sort of feel like, for people who feel like they can be out ... And I'm definitely not the person who will tell you everyone has to be out, because I know there's different situations. But if you feel like you can be out and you want to be out, I feel like that's sort of the way I've lived my life, like psychic Sylvia Brown. Like I don't explain myself. I just happen to be gay, and I mention it all the time, and there's no big show about it. I just talk about my family, I talk about my life, and I don't make excuses and there isn't shame attached to it, and there's no big coming out moment.
That may be in part because I'm so in practice, and I do it constantly. But I feel like my attitude about it, my sort of nonchalance and everyday-ness, as if it's not a big deal, which, I don't really think it actually is, makes it easier for people. I think sometimes when I'm in what could be perceived as hostile environments, or possibly hostile environments, my comfort with it and my normalcy and nonchalance about it, I think helps make it easier for the people around me to be accepting. It also sort of disarms people who might feel fear or anger. So that's one thing. I feel sometimes that making something a really big deal sometimes makes people feel like they need to have a really big reaction.
Colleen: When I just sort of mention my wife when I'm doing a presentation, I feel like it makes it easier for people to just respond in kind.
Kate: That makes me think, I could imagine some teachers ... Let's say they're straight. I don't know why I said that like a bad thing. It's not a bad thing at all. It's a good thing. But that if I want to be an ally, I don't need to have a huge unit on, like, LGBTQ rights, right? I don't have to do like a big announcement or a big lesson, but maybe I could spend more time just mentioning gay people with that kind of nonchalance, nonchalant-ness, right? That I could just talk about it as if it's not a big deal, and model that it's not a big deal.
Colleen: Right. Like not a big old gay shelf on... I mean, I love June and Pride Month and all of that, but I also think that there's something about just having books on the shelf, stories you tell. Even if you're straight, that you mention your friends and your family members who are gay as naturally as people who are not. I think that the normalcy of it makes a huge difference. And I think the interactions, for straight folks who want to support their colleagues and their students, I think asking about people in kids' lives and asking about their moms, or asking about ... Like, if you're sure that they're out, you know, not using euphemisms, and letting it just be part of the natural conversation.
Like, one of my colleagues, when we would be in situations that were sort of read as hostile, they would ask about our husband and she would answer, and then she would ask about my spouse. It was just a way that she did it that made it so that they had to turn their eyes and look at me and treat me with the same response, and there was no nastiness about it. It was just that everyday nature.
Kate: I mean, it's kind of awesome, because in a way ... I know that some teachers I work with who want to do more but feel afraid, they feel afraid because of parent push-back or that kind of like upheaval that can happen if people get offended by a read-aloud or something like that, right? We've talked a lot in this series about figuring out where you are and what you can do and what action you can take. It is really hard to get up in arms about someone mentioning a gay person in passing... or on air, right? Like, what letter are you going to write to the school district about that? So it's really interesting to think of that as a form of true activism and allyship, right? To be able to just simply, nonchalantly mention the gay people in your life or in the world without it being a big deal.
Colleen: I think it's doable, and it's also very hard to object to. I actually feel that same way about literature and other kinds of curriculum moves, that it's when we're like, it's a very special episode of read-aloud, or you know, we're going to watch this music video, and it's like all of a sudden it becomes objectionable. But if it just happens ... I don't know, I see this myself when I'm watching TV and there's a commercial and there happens to be a gay couple just slipped in. It doesn't jump out to me as much as the commercial where the entire commercial has a gay couple at the center of it and that's their big, rebellious act.
Maggie: Yeah. Well, I think about the side of you that is the disruptor, the agitator, the fearless advocate for so many different kinds of kids. And again, there goes that nuance and that dichotomy with your story, because you do it in these very subtle, constant, clear ways, which I feel like is a mentor text for me, if you will, of studying the language of how you normalize all different kinds of families in a conversation without having a big coming out episode.
Colleen: Yeah. I mean, I think that anything, I feel like it's that ... I guess it's back to that whole idea of differentiation versus universal access, isn't it? Like, here's a very special shelf for your gay books, and here's the very special shelf for your people with disabilities, and like, instead of just, here's funny books, and here's books with characters that will make you cry, or whatever. I mean, I do believe in identity. I'm not suggesting that we're getting rid of identity. But I feel like the inclusiveness thing, and always asking ourselves who's included and who's not, and how can we make it just a ... I mean, it is a regular part of our lives.
Again with my tangents, but I do think it's very similar to what sex educators tell you about sex, is like, when you make it such a giant deal, kids get shame, you know? Like, when you talk about certain parts about growing up and changing bodies and all of that, shame gets attached. But when you just ... if a kid asks a question and you answer it matter-of-factly, they read your response and they take their cues for what's appropriate socially from you. I feel like people who are not gay take their cues from us, and if we're acting ashamed or afraid, I do wonder if that's part of the response. I'm not suggesting that I'm blaming anybody, but I do think that sometimes it helps if we're calm and matter-of-fact. I think it's disarming.
Kate: Well, I think it's all something that everyone can practice, right? Most people listening to this podcast are wanting to do something different, right? Are wanting to become more of an ally, or see if there's other things they can do. And practicing a sense, whether you're queer or straight, or however you identify, practicing a sort of ... I love that word, nonchalance. Is that even the right word?
Maggie: Nonchalant-ness? Nonchalant-ism?
Nonchalant-ete. Practicing some of that, right, is something that we can all practice, and I think that's a huge takeaway. The other thing I just want to highlight is something that you sort of moved past, but I think is important, where you're talking about the shelf of gay books, right, or the shelf of books for kids with this thing or that thing. It's interesting to think that inclusion ... That isn't inclusion, right? Like, having a shelf separate from the rest of your books. I'm sort of realizing it right now. Like, by definition, that's not inclusive.
Colleen: No, it's separate.
Kate: Because it's separate, right? You have a rainbow flag on it. It's completely separate from the rest of the books. Instead, just including those books in collection, not only is that better for the kids in your class, but it actually also probably won't get as much attention, if that's something you're scared about.
Maggie: So, Colleen, this will not surprise you, but I have a top-five list of questions for you that we've been asking every guest here on the podcast.
Maggie: I'm very excited to hear your answers.
Kate: I don't think I know your answers, which is thrilling to me.
Maggie: Here's your first question. One thing that you never see me without is my ...
Kate: Oh. Good, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Do you have a current flavor?
Colleen: Right now, it is pamplemousse.
Kate: Oh, it's a classic.
Colleen: Yeah, yeah.
Kate: We've been really down with the grape recently. I'm not going to say the brand name, because we don't want to do that kind of product placement, but there is a grape flavor that is pretty to die for.
Colleen: I'm going to have to try that. Okay.
Kate: It made my way. I'm sending you a case.
Maggie: What is your favorite article of clothing?
Colleen: I really spent a lot of time thinking about this one, and you would think that I have an answer. I can go kind of generic and say... shoes.
Kate: Like all shoes, or ...
Colleen: Well, no. I don't actually ... I like like three pairs of shoes.
Kate: Okay, okay.
Colleen: I'm very ... is it a type of clothing, or...
Kate: Describe a pair of the shoes, so we have a vision so it's not just all shoes.
Colleen: A specific pair, like of clothing or a type of clothing?
Maggie: I think we should just go with shoes.
Kate: All right, let's go with shoes. We're going to go with shoes.
Colleen: I'm going to go with flats. How about that?
Kate: All right.
Colleen: I never, ever wear heels.
Colleen: Never. Never.
Maggie: What was your first concert?
Colleen: It would be Wham! UK with Chaka Khan and Katrina and the Waves.
Maggie: Good lord, that's incredible.
Kate: I did not know that.
Colleen: I know. It's pretty good.
Maggie: That's impressive.
Kate: That's really good.
Maggie: Your first queer icon?
Colleen: Did I have to know they were queer at the time?
Kate: You did not. You did not.
Colleen: I'm going to have to say Boy George.
Kate: There you go.
Maggie: Oh. Well done. Well done.
Colleen: Yeah, yeah. A lot of conversations about Boy George, so ...
Maggie: Absolutely. Fantastic. And do you have a current queer icon?
Colleen: Well, I mean, I would say that my ultimate queer icon is Leslie Feinberg.
Maggie: Okay. Well, yeah.
Colleen: No longer with us so, that makes it current, not necessarily, but-
Maggie: Ultimate, absolutely.
Kate: But icons are timeless, absolutely.
Colleen: Leslie is the ultimate queer icon.
Kate: Ultimate. Listeners, if you don't know who that is, you should Google her immediately.
Colleen, I want to thank you. You are of course our friend, but you are always our mentor, and in this conversation you gave me something else to think about. As always, I appreciate you.
Colleen: Yeah, I appreciate you two, too.
Maggie: Thank you, Colleen.
Colleen: Thank you.
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In addition to being the author of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, M. Colleen Cruz is the author of several other titles for teachers, including Independent Writing and A Quick Guide to Helping Struggling Writers, as well as the author of the young adult novel Border Crossing, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award Finalist. Colleen was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project where she is Director of Innovation. Colleen presently supports schools, teachers and their students nationally and internationally as a literacy consultant.