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Beyond the Letters S2 Season Finale: Finding Value in the Subtleties with Jennifer Serravallo

BTL-s2e5-Jennifer Serravallo

Beyond the Letters is a podcast featuring LGBTQ+ educators, their stories, strategies and practical advice for creating safe and inclusive educational spaces for queer youth and educators, alike. Hosted by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts, each week features a new guest as they talk all things LGBTQ+ and education.

Kate and Maggie are joined by Jennifer Serravallo in today's episode as they talk about building out your library, finding moments for queer representation, and how to make the case for building representation into your curriculum.

Make sure to subscribe to Beyond the Letters wherever you listen to podcasts!


Below is a transcript of this episode. 

Kate: Welcome to Beyond the Letters. I am Kate Roberts.

Maggie: And I am Maggie Beattie Roberts.

Kate: And we are joined today by the fantastic, wonderful Jen Serravallo. Jen is a consultant, guest teacher, and author of incredibly helpful and popular books for teachers. And in this capacity, Jen has worked in schools all across the country to help educators and districts strive towards more effective and transformative literacy practices. And when we were thinking about season two, we wanted to try to talk to Jen because we know that Jen brings to the table of kind of bird's eye view on the way that so many different districts, schools, states, cities, sort of tackle issues of inclusivity, particularly around LGBTQ plus kids. So we are so happy to have Jen here. Hi, Jen.

Jen: Hello. It's so great to talk with you. I'm a big fan of the show, and I'm so glad that you're doing it.

Kate: Us too!

Maggie: I don't really know where to start. I think in addition to just your wide, bird's eye view of all the districts, the other thing that I think we all think about when we think about you and the work that you offer us as teachers, is just your uncanny ability to take your knowledge and offer it up in ways that are practical and powerful and easy to implement.

So to think that having that angle on this topic gives me nerve goosebumps. I have goosebumps all over right now, and I want to dive right into that, but part of me wants to just know a little bit about your story. I don't know, was there like a critical moment that... I'd like to start just by giving you an opportunity to share if there was a critical moment or a part of your history that may have sparked a drive to be more of an advocate for the queer community. I don't know. What comes to your mind?

Jen: It's funny because I think I'm not great at this. So it's funny to me that I do think of myself as someone who's able to break down complex concepts around literacy instruction to make them very practical. And I know that when you invited me, I was like, I don't know if I have anything to offer, but we'll have the conversation, and we'll see how it goes. And I think the reason I feel that way is that I was very much... I would consider myself an advocate in college, where it was sort of easy to be an advocate at Vassar. There's a lot of queer people, and it's sort of easy to join in established groups and kind of do what they were doing.

And then I left college and became a teacher right away. I had my own class in various schools in New York City. And I really was very in the closet with my students. It was, I think, a somewhat conservative... Both schools had kind of conservative parent bodies. I think I was afraid. I had a very inconsistent leadership. Some years that my school would go through three different principals, so I felt like I would have the backing from a principal. I didn't have tenure. Right. I'm a new teacher. I just want this job. So I just sort of... All I remember doing to address it is when some kid used the word gay as a slur, had a class meeting about it. That would be extent of... I don't even think you can call that advocacy. That's barely a bandaid. That's a bandaid on a gashing wound.

I was a complete failure as a classroom teacher around this regard. And then as you know, I get a job with the Reading & Writing Project, and we're out in the world at all these different schools, really doing work around literacy. And it was very focused on how to do a strategy group and what a good conference looks like and how to do a fairytale unit in the fourth grade. And like that was really the focus, and it did not really creep into my work as a consultant then, either.

And I have two kids. And a couple of years ago, my oldest daughter, so she was probably... or maybe it was more than a couple of years ago. Maybe three years ago, second grader at the time, came home one day and said, "Mom, you're not going to believe it. I found a book in our school library where the family is just like us." And I said, "Really? I've got to see this book." And it was Patricia Polacco's In Our Mother's House. Now the family is nothing like us.

Maggie: I know that book.

Jen: Right? It's a mixed race couple. All the kids, I think, are adopted. That is not our story. But she saw two mothers, and this was the first time she'd even seen representation like that in a book. Here I am a literacy person. In my own house, you can see my bookshelves. I've got millions of books in my house. How did I not make books available to my own children, where they had that representation? And I saw what power it had for her to see herself in that book. And she made us read it over and over and over again to her.

And so that moment really changed how the books in my own house look. I really went and sought out more books that represent our family. And I also, with that story in mind, began to speak up to schools about representation. And it's funny because I had... Or maybe not funny, but something. I had been doing this work around race. I had been talking to schools about, you've got to have folks that represent, where your kids can see themselves, and Rudine Sims Bishop work. And I've been doing that. But when it came to LGBTQ stuff, I hadn't. And perhaps it's just partly my own... I think we all have a little internalized homophobia or just fear or this feeling of that's not what I'm here for. They didn't hire me to talk about that. I feel guilty bringing in my own agenda, when there's other things. The kids need to learn how to read. And that is why I'm here. That's my primary reason.

But I'm coming to be more courageous, I think. And I'm coming to learn that it's really not a different topic. And that if we don't have kids who can see themselves in the books in the classroom and in the school library, or if they feel unwanted or unseen just as a person, then of course, how can they learn? How can they learn to read or write or do any of the other millions of things that we want them to do?

So I think that I owe that to my daughter, what she did to really, just through her own joy and own excitement in seeing that one book really changed a lot in how I think about representation and belonging and the role of supporting LGBTQ kids and kids who have LGBTQ family members in all schools.

Kate: I think about, there's a lot out there about what teachers can do differently in their classrooms. And there's a Facebook group that Maggie and I were a part of for a while of LGBTQ teachers talking about their experiences. And the experience of teachers is so different. That's the no duh statement of the podcast, but specifically, there isn't safety around being queer in the classroom, speaking up about queer issues in the classroom, in a lot of places. And it's hard to know. In my school, I wasn't out, although many kids suspected, due to my short hair cut and its natural style, they had a few clues, but I never said it out loud. And part of it is that I really didn't know how my administration was going to support me or not. And I had the same principal, but there was a sense of, I am vulnerable in this. And that requires an extra amount of courage and ability to sort of push through that and say, "I don't care. I'm going to do it anyway," which I think is a lot to ask of the new teacher, certainly. And even a lot of vets.

Jen: As a new teacher, you're just barely like, did I put the right shoes on this morning? Did I bring the right books to school? You're barely surviving sometimes. So I can imagine why I'm like, I just don't even want to go there. It's risky. It makes me vulnerable. I wonder how my kids would see me. Or if parents would start requesting kids to be removed from my classroom. So yeah.

Kate: Well, so those are realities. I think you've experienced, I know we've experienced it, when you do start having those conversations, people don't like it sometimes. There is reality there too, of it's easy to kind of say, here's the list of things you should do. It's harder to have the conversation of how do you navigate the pushback, the homophobia that comes our way, when we do start agitating for change.

Maggie: And it feels like, in my mind right now, it speaks to the importance of allies, helping queer folks stabilize the ground in which to then take the risk. So it feels like one part, I relate to that part of your story of, I had to have some sort of stability. Because by nature, I feel unstable all the time because in many ways my existence is a risk. And so thinking about a school community creating the stability for kids and teachers to take those risks feels really important.

And I feel like in the recording of this podcast, I've been thinking about the identities of LGBTQ+ educators and LGBTQ+ and gender nonconforming kids. But yeah, this third group. Kids with LGBTQ families, making sure there's a real diversity of family structures represented in your classrooms, so that kids do have that opportunity to see their family structure reflected back with them. Because you're right. How can they learn if they feel unseen?

Jen: Yeah. And also, I can share a couple of things since then. So one is, one of the districts that I was working in, and I had already had multiple years with this district, the people knew me well, we'd built relationships. And I was doing a day where I showed a clip of Rudine Sims Bishop talking. I had everybody... we were in the library. Everybody went to a different shelf. And I basically used the Lee & Low survey of your library. It's like, how many books on the shelf have this characteristic? How many have this characteristic or this character? And they were so with me on gender representation, they were with me on racial representation. And then I said, how many of the families that you see on the shelf have two moms or two dads? And it was like... We can't do that. And then they actually... And I had gay teachers sitting in my room, fighting me on this. You can't do that. This is too conservative. It's a school 40 minutes from where I live. It's not even far away. It's not in the deep South. It's in the Northeast, not too far from where I live. And they're like, "We cannot do that."

And they had the principal and the superintendent, once I saw what I was talking about, they came into the room, and they were listening. And at lunchtime, they were like, "We can't do this. You've got to shut this down."

Kate: Really?

Jen: Yeah.

Kate: That's amazing. What did you do in that moment?

Jen: Well, in that moment, I talked about... I think I used like a lot of the Trevor statistics around suicide rates and depression. And I talked about how this is children. And if you feel like you don't have kids in your school community who don't either identify as gay or will identify as gay or have family members, there is no way that this school community is completely isolated from all of that. And you're making kids feel left out and making feel kids... That's kind of where I was like, it's about the children. It's not about the teachers feeling comfortable being out. We'll get there, too. But it's really about the kids, that they feel safe in this school community and are they a part of the school community.

In that moment, their minds were not turned. But I will say about a year later... I no longer work with the district, but about a year later, one of the coaches reached out to me and he's like, "I just want you to know that that had an impact, and things are changing. We're ordering new books." And so I think that's another thing to think about, is sometimes in the moment you've got this real resistance, but it plants a seed and later, something good comes up. I wasn't fired from that district, just to be clear. It wasn't like it was a typical story of I'd been there for multiple years, they're switching the initiatives to math. It had nothing to do with that, but that seed was planted and something grew from it kind of down the road.

Kate: There is something there about the slowness of change and the ability to keep the drum beat going. It's not sort of taking off in the moment, or you're not seeing the results right away because sometimes people do need to have a weird reaction and then marinate on it for a while and feel it for a while. But the initial reaction isn't necessarily the truth with some capital T. I think it also brings to mind the idea of just how we help school districts talk to parents and help communicate with parents. I think it's the one fact that gets me sort of dark and depressed at times, is the idea that in places, there are places where we really are just fighting to say that gay people exist. The battle is just to have the existence of gay people recognized in curriculum.

And that even that can feel too scary to many places, because there is a reality that there are parents who will be very noisy and vocal in opposition to that. There's got to be more to help parent communities advocate what they believe in too, because there's in that community, I'm sure there were parents who would voice and be like, "I don't like this," but you know there's parents in that community that are like, "Right on." And I wonder sometimes why it's only the more conservative parents that have the loudest voice in communities like that and how we nurture parents. We're like, wait, wait, no, I really want these books in my kids' classrooms.

Maggie: And maybe even too, to add an overlay to that, just how going against a normative perspective of the community, whatever it is, this is how it's always been, or this is the ingrained culture of our community, when you are trying to advance a secondary story. Or a different way that could go, going against a normalized version of a story is really difficult. And just what needs to be in place, in order for that conversation to just even split in a couple of directions, just instead of going down one steady stream all the time.

Are there ways that you have found, in your capacity right now as an educator, that helps us do more? I heard you saying, immediately I went, and I started to get lots of books for my own home and when I demonstrate. Do you have any tips for those of us out here that want to do more, but don't know how or where to start?

Jen: See, this is where I feel like, no. And I need to have a good answer to this. If I'm eagerly listening to your other podcast episodes, and there are people who have been so incredible and specific about you go here, and you do this, and you do this, and you do this. I'm still in the, you gather books, you make them available. You stick to the award winners that are sort of unquestionably good examples of children's literature. You back up the why with statistics of the impact that not doing this has on kids. And I tell my own story. And tell my story of my own children.

And I think I've always had this way, I think, as being somebody that you wouldn't, by looking at me, know that I'm queer. So I have always had this way of people building a relationship with me and getting to know me and liking me. And then it's like, surprise. I'm one of those people that you thought you didn't like. I feel like I'm in that position a lot.

Kate: I bet.

Jen: So I think sometimes... I can remember even, I was doing an Institute Day, and I was talking about classroom libraries and curating collections and what kinds of books to be looking for and different kinds of award winning lists to be looking at. And of course, I included the Stonewall awards and things like that. A number of the teachers were uncomfortable. And I was like, "You guys have a problem with this? I just want you to know, my kids have two moms. Did you know that?" And they were calculating what that means, what does that mean? And I think that sometimes people are like, oh, once you know the person personally, maybe it's less... I don't know.

Kate: I think you name that as a small thing, but I think that's a huge thing. I know there's been studies done of how do you actually change people's minds, if they're fixed in an idea system. Facts don't do it. Statistics won't change a person's mind, necessarily. What has had the biggest impact on change is having a personal connection to somebody, somebody's stories. Storytelling being like, here's my experience, with a kind of openhearted, as much as possible, vulnerability of this is who I am. And I'm standing right in front of you, as opposed to a Twitter status update or a Facebook post. I think that has huge impact and is a real form of activism. And so one of the things you could sort of couch in yourself is, well, I'm not doing this as much as I should, et cetera, but I know that a big part of my activism is just going to places and being semi-likable and doing work, and making jokes, and then hey, you've had a really nice interaction with a lesbian. What a nice experience for the both of us.

And I think there is more ground shaking work that can be done, that I've tried to do, that certainly peers, people we've had on this podcast are doing some of that huge, ground shaking work. But there's huge value in that. And I think it's one of the reasons why we wanted to talk to you. You're-

Jen: Value in the subtle. I think I also do little things, and then people slip into my DMs or come up to me quietly after, and then we have a meaningful conversations in more depth about it. I'll post a book list on Facebook, or I'll mention a reaction to a lawsuit that's, whatever. And people will then come to my... And they know, oh, she's somebody I can approach.

I just had a situation like this with a teacher who had a child in her class that she was worried about. And she realized she really didn't have good literature in her classroom, and she wanted to change the way she does her read alouds and what books she's offering, make that child feel really welcome and seen. And she thought to come to me. And why did she think to come to me about it? Probably partly because I have these subtle little posts occasionally. Or in the start of my workshop that I just debuted this year around comprehension, I start off by talking about identity work and use Sara Ahmed's work and identity webs and things like that. And I put mine up, and I have a rainbow flag on it. And even if I don't call it out... Some days I do, some days I don't feel like it. It's there. Everyone knows what a rainbow flag is. No doubt, someone will pull me aside or come up to me and be like, that was so courageous of you to put that up there, or thank you for doing that, and have a conversation with me about something.

So maybe there is something to just being visible, but I do feel like I need to be doing more. I'm eagerly anticipating more episodes of this podcast so I can learn what else I could be doing.

Kate: One thing I just wrote down in my notes, in addition to, I think, is an amazing line, which is there is so much value in the subtle, in the subtleties. But just also thinking about you are a walking mentor text, that people like you, like me, like anybody, can follow to be a queer or gender nonconforming educator, that may not be able to live out loud with activism, or may not exactly have a place to start. But I feel like it's just another vision of how to live your story in a way that feels like, this feels like a comfortable way to live my story today, as an educator that is pretty public. And for me, I think that's really empowering.

I also love, again, how you couch things, again, through your kids. Even that line that was said a couple of minutes ago, "My kids have two moms." It's just another way to frame... because the other way it could go is like, "My wife and I were in the grocery store," or whatever. And that doesn't surprise me because you anchor so much of your work and existence as a good human being, as what's right for kids. So to bring that to this other part of your life just feels so wonderful.

Maggie: And I think we can't put down the subtle or the beginnings. We want to have a range of people that we're talking to. Imagine if every teacher in America gathered books that embraced LGBTQ kids, families, existence, and told their own story, at some point mentioned their gay relatives, their gay friend, their gay colleague, just talked about it. Colleen, in the last season, talked about how if you can normalize and just say things without a lot of trumpeting, it doesn't have to be, we're going to talk about the gay now. It's like, yeah, so I was with my uncle and his husband. If you can normalize it in a way, I think it has a much greater impact than we want to give it credit for. And that's something that every teacher can do. I may not be able to change the systems in my school district, but I can get a book on a shelf, and I can tell the story. I can mention a person in my life who is queer in some way.

And that has a huge impact. I know it does. Because when I was growing up, that's all we had, was little crumbs and obviously, I want more for kids today and more for teachers today. But those things saved my life. It's not an exaggeration, to know that Jodie Foster's existence and what I intuited about her saved my life. To know that I wasn't alone.

And again, because of who you are and the way that you offer information to us and the world, is having those stats, I think, at the ready. When you were quoting some of those places of, "You know how many percentages of kids XYZ," having that research of what happens when we're not, or what happens when we are. What are those just... Yeah. I think about those national school climate surveys that we can take a look at, or Listen being a great recourse, to just have a couple of stats that we can just put out there as a conversation starter.

Kate: All right. Are you ready for... We like to end our podcasts with these closing five questions. I don't know if you're ready, Jen.

Jen: I don't know if I am either, but let's have at them.

Kate: Let's give it a shot. First closing five question is you have to sort of complete the sentence.

Jen: Okay.

Kate: You'll never see me without my...

Jen: My Hydro Flask. I have a 40 ounce...

Kate: VSCO Girl!

Jen: I love that you know what a VSCOGirl is. My 10-year-old has informed me. And I should say it Hydro Flasks, although she would roll her eyes at me at that, if she saw me do that. Yes, I, before the VSCO Girl craze, have carried around a tremendous amount of water at all times. I drink a lot of water. So Jen calls it my ball and... my partner is Jen. She calls it my ball and chain.

Kate: Nice.

Jen: Always with me.

Kate: A constant partnership. More durable than any human partner. Fantastic. Okay. My favorite article of clothing is...

Jen: Probably yoga pants. If I'm not presenting in front of an audience, I'm in yoga pants. Probably too much. I probably shouldn't go to the grocery store in yoga pants, but I do. I'm constantly in... yes.

Kate: You should try presenting in them. Just see what happens. Maybe you could have them 24 hours a day, 365.

Jen: The closest I got, one time I was flying to... I went to Montana for presentation, and I had a suit, and I forgot the pants for the suit. And I presented in jeans, which now I do regularly, but back then was... As a new staff developer, who do I think I am, showing up in jeans? Yoga pants is next level of cas, though, for presenting.

Kate: I believe in you, Jen, I believe in you.

Jen: Maybe I can pull it off.

Kate: Okay. My first concert was...

Jen: God. Paula Abdul.

Kate: Yes!! So good.

Jen: That places the year, certainly.

Kate: It does.

Jen: Paula Abdul. Cold-Hearted Snake.

Kate: Yeah. Did she have the animated cat in her show in some way?

Jen: I don't remember the animated. I remember that from the video, but not from the show. Yeah.

Kate: Okay. My first queer icon was...

Jen: See, I came out late. I came out in college, and so I want to say Ani DiFranco.

Kate: We just saw her.

Maggie: We just saw her.

Jen: Gosh, how many times have I seen Ani DiFranco? It never gets old.

Maggie: Never, never.

Jen: Never gets old.

Kate: Okay. And follow up, my current queer icon is...

Jen: That's a good question.

Kate: It's okay to say me, if that's...

Jen: Well, you know who I'm really inspired by, intrigued by, and entertained by recently is JVN. I've been listening to his interviews. I haven't read his new book, but I just feel like he's really courageous in sharing his stories and what's happened to him, and he's an inspiration to a lot of people, and he's just so lovable. How do you not like him, right?

Kate: It's super political at the same time.

Jen: Political, but in a very nonthreatening way. I don't know. [crosstalk 00:28:13] good watching him. I'm watching him. I'm watching him.

Kate:  Well, this has been a complete treat. Thank you so much for [crosstalk 00:28:21].

Jen: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me. I hope [crosstalk 00:28:24].

Kate: I can't wait to go back and go back and listen to it.

Maggie: I know. We're going to go back and listen to it.

Jen: I hope you've got some usable information. And for all your kind words throughout, I appreciate it.


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Jennifer Serravallo is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book, which have been translated into Spanish, French, and Chinese. These and her other popular books and resources help teachers make goal-directed responsive strategy instruction, conferring, and small group work doable in every classroom. Her newest titles are Teaching Writing in Small Groups, A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences, Understanding Texts and Readers, and the assessment and teaching resource Complete Comprehension for Fiction and Nonfiction.

Jen is a frequently invited speaker at national and regional conferences and travels throughout the US and Canada to provide full-day workshops and to work with teachers and students in classrooms. She is also an experienced online educator who regularly offers live webinar series and full-day online workshops, and is the creator of two self-paced asynchronous online courses, most recently Strategies in Action: Reading and Writing Methods and Content.

Jen began her career in education as an NYC public school teacher. Now as a consultant, she has spent the last fifteen+ years helping teachers across the country create literacy classrooms where students are joyfully engaged, and the instruction is meaningfully individualized to students' goals. Jen is also a member of Parents Magazine Board of Advisors for education and literacy. 

Jen holds a BA from Vassar College and an MA from Teachers College, where she has also taught graduate and undergraduate classes.

Learn more about Jen and her work at Hein.pub/serravallo, on Twitter @jserravallo, on Instagram @jenniferserravallo, or by joining The Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook Community

AU_Roberts-Kate_AuthorPhoto_web-4Kate Roberts is a national literacy consultant, top-selling author, and popular keynote speaker. She taught reading and writing in Brooklyn, NY and worked as a literacy coach before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in 2005, where she worked as a Lead Staff Developer for 11 years. Kate's latest book, A Novel Approach, asks how we can teach whole class novels while still holding onto student centered practices like readers workshop. She is also the co-author of Falling in Love with Close Reading (with Christopher Lehman), DIY Literacy (with Maggie Beattie Roberts), and she co-wrote two Units of Study books on Literary Essay. Her work with students across the country has led to her belief that all kids can be insightful, academic thinkers when the work is demystified, broken down and made engaging. To this end, Kate has worked nationally and internationally to help teachers, schools, and districts develop and implement strong teaching practices and curriculum.Follow Kate on Twitter @TeachKate and KateAndMaggie.com


maggiebeattieroberts-10Maggie Beattie Roberts began her teaching career in the heart of Chicago and then pursued graduate studies as a Literacy Specialist at Teachers College, Columbia University. She worked as a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for nearly ten years where she led research and development in digital and media literacy, as well as differentiated methods of teaching and content area literacy.

Maggie is currently a national literacy consultant, guest teacher, author, and frequent presenter at national conferences. She is committed to helping teachers tap into the power of their own deep engagement in reading and writing, and leads school-wide staff development around the country. She is happiest teaching alongside teachers in their classrooms. She is co-author of the popular book, DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor, and Independence (with Kate Roberts), and authored several Heinemann Unit of Study books on the teaching of writing. Her latest article, Thinking While Reading: The Beautiful Mess of Helping Adolescents Learn and Celebrate How Their Minds Work (co-authored with Kristen Robbins Warren), is featured in the December 2016 issue of NCTE's middle school journal, Voices from the Middle. You can learn more about Maggie’s work, as well as access videos and other resources, at KateAndMaggie.com.

Follow Maggie on Twitter: @MaggieBRoberts 


Topics: Equity, Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Jennifer Serravallo, Kate Roberts, LGBTQ, Maggie Beattie Roberts, Jennifer Serravallo Podcasts, Beyond The Letters

Date Published: 07/05/20

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