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Dedicated to Teachers

Beyond the Letters S2: Learning from our Students with Arhm Wild

Corrected-BTL-s2e1-Arhm-WildWelcome to season two of Beyond the Letters! If you haven't listened yet, check out the season two preview show, or go back and re-listen to season one!

To kick things off, Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts talk with guest Arhm Wild about supporting and learning from our students. How can schools support their LGBTQ+ students when resources are limited? How does centering LGBTQ+ students benefit everyone? And how can teachers and school administrators communicate with hesitant parents?


Below is a full, machine-generated transcript. 


Maggie: Here we are in season two of our podcast. I just want to paint a moment for you that describes why this voice that we're about to hear inspired this episode.

Kate: Absolutely.

Maggie: Okay, so I'm on the Cross Bronx Expressway, I'm on the phone, I'm doing everything safely, headsets.

Kate: I'm glad you added that in.

Maggie: I feel like I needed to. And this guest was so captivating and informative and just a really wonderful time that I was like, I'm going to get into an accident if I don't pull over and continue this conversation. So I pulled over on the Cross Bronx Expressway. I'm not saying I got off on an exit, but it was definitely off on the side of the road. Because I needed to grab out my notebook and start taking notes.

And so I'm so excited to introduce our guest today, Arhm Wild, a Kundiman fellow from Ann Arbor, Michigan. They are a poet and a social justice educator. They are currently the diversity coordinator at a school in New York City where they run the diversity and equity programs across the school. They have a book coming out this spring entitled, Cut to Bloom, with Write Bloody Publishing. I'm so excited to welcome you to the podcast.

Arhm: Thank you for having me.

Maggie: So the way that we like to start is to begin with a little bit of the personal. So I don't know if there's a moment from your life as an educator, as a human, that you feel like is a critical moment for you, a time that that changed you as a queer educator or queer person.

Arhm: Yeah, for sure. So I would say the moment for me had to be around organizing the Gender and Sexuality Alliance Summit at my school. It was incredible to see all the kids showing up with their full on rainbow gear and being 10 years old and being comfortable with claiming these identifiers in this way that I never was as a high schooler.

I think there was one out gay student at my high school and everyone else was scrambling to distance themselves as much as they could from queerness, to seeing these kids maybe really realize the power of representation and role models. I'm so tired of seeing these movies where either queer folks are depressed and their lives are full of despair because they can't be either who they are, or they can choose who they're with, but then they have to give up so much.

So for me, the first time I met a fellow queer Korean American was when I was 27 years old. And it's amazing to see the possibilities with the next generation of how they can see so many different types of people across the gender and sexuality spectrum represented. And not only represented, but to offer real role models of all the different ways that we can look and perceive ourselves.

So that summit made me realize how important this work is, to provide role models and representation, and was a chance for me to recommit to this goal of mine, to provide as much programming as possible where kids really could see themselves reflected in different ways. Because I think, growing up for me, there was just such a dearth of role models. If you're a gay, you had to look this way. If you're queer you had to look this way and that was it. Can't meet.

Kate: It won't meet in the middle. Yeah.

Arhm: Exactly.

Kate: I always feel like the youth, when I encounter kids who are able to be themselves in a way that I wasn't, it always strikes me how much young people can be our teachers if we let them. I know there was one time I had a younger friend, because I'm pretty old now, who I was making some self deprecating lesbian joke, just as a verbal tick and he looked at me and he was like, "Why are you doing that?' And I was like, "What do you mean?" And I literally was like, "It's funny." And he's like, "But it's not. That's part of your self hatred." And I was like, he doesn't feel that way and it was such an illuminating moment to feel like that doesn't have to be reality.

Arhm: Yeah. It's a different world for them.

Kate: Yeah. It's beautiful.

Maggie: I like how much you speak to diversifying the images of just what it looks like to be queer, what it looks like. The just multiple ways that we can construct our gender and wear it and the different options. You just said it's, back in the day, there was, you either looked this way or you looked that way. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that, as you see kids, I don't know, having those verbal confirmations or even what you pick up on their subtle communication, just with the different representations that there are now and how you intentionally build programs and courses to help that happen.

Arhm: Yeah, for sure. A lot of what I'm going to be talking and sharing about today is the different procedures and protocols we have at our school, but also some of the different programming. So I run a LGBTQ affinity group for the middle schoolers here and it was incredible, because one of the students on the first day was like, "I'm pansexual" and just listed off all these other identifiers that I was like, wow. Like you were saying earlier, how can we let the kids teach us?

But the affinity groups are a great way to keep a tab on what's going on and create responsive programming. We meet every other week during lunch in an undisclosed space where if you're in attending, you have to ask a facilitator where the location is, because we were having some issues with different folks coming by and be like, "Is this is the LGBTQ affinity group?" And kids having to out themselves, so we found that having a confidential space was really important.

But to speak to the cultural pieces that you are going at, everyone in our school introduces themselves using pronouns. And I think because it's become such an embedded part of our culture, that it really has made some shifts. Whenever I'm in a new space, I try to not only introduce myself using pronouns, but being sure to explain why we do that as a practice. And I'll usually say something really simple, like we want to create an inclusive space and we don't want to make any assumptions about the way people identify based on their expression.

And if I have the time and space, I'll try to connect that to another identifier. Like, so for example, if someone is Korean American, you don't want to assume that they're Chinese and start speaking to them in Chinese or if someone is a white passing, but is actually Latinx, you don't want to make those assumptions. And I feel like tying this explanation to another identifier usually helps people understand what exactly it is I'm getting at.

And of course, making it an invitation and not a requirement, but have ended up having some really fascinating conversations, especially with people who present cis, but maybe have some different questions.

So I feel that is a pretty easy and doable cultural piece that can happen in schools. And for me, I think that having people continually ask for my pronouns really helps open up a line of questioning and help me be able to articulate ways that I identify. It was in this job at my school that I started, oh, I do identify as gender binary. And I do identify as someone who wants to use they/them pronouns, but I really don't think I, myself, as an adult could have come to that without this cultural practice of using pronouns. So that's a huge one.

We also have gender inclusive bathrooms at our school, which I know that is something that a lot of educational spaces are starting to do. We rolled them out with an all staff training for our staff and faculty, and communicated that we're opening up the bathrooms, not only being in compliance with New York state law that states that anyone should use a facility that matches their gender identity, but also talked about the social, emotional health of our students. So shared information about the different anxiety and harm that trans and other GNC folks can experience in the bathroom, and talked about the effects of this gendering and other microaggressions on the mental health of transgender and GNC kids, but also provided some general foundational knowledge on vocabulary, and also what to do when you mis-gender someone and just try to give some basic tips that people could use so that they're not stuck on apologizing and giving them some baseline practices.

So we plan to do this training every year as a refresher for our staff and faculty, but now we're also thinking about how do we train our parent body around why we have gender inclusive bathrooms and then also a refresher for our kids, because I think a common misconception that people have is, that's a gender inclusive bathroom, that means if I'm cis, that space is not for me. So what refreshers do we need to have for our student body as well? But our thought is that if we start with our parent body and the adult body, that they can then field the questions for the students.

Maggie: Can't you see why I pulled over on that Cross Bronx Expressway? You need to tweet at us if you are in the car right now, listening to this and you too decide to pull over.

Kate: Be safe everybody.

Maggie: I suggest a proper exit or rest area. There's something that I want to make sure is captured. And I know Kate has something too, because she was writing things down. I just loved this moment where you said, okay, if and when we mis-gender someone, what do we do when that happens? ? And I all of a sudden just saw this cascade of lessons and conversations that we can do with people of all ages of when we've made an assumption that's not there, instead of ignoring it or coiling into embarrassment or shame, or like I'm so stupid that I didn't know that, but really just practicing this idea of, well, what do we do when that happens? That really struck me as beautiful.

Kate: And the idea that you're bringing to the table is that one, is that it takes structures of support. That this isn't about one person in a classroom having a nice lesson about blah, blah, blah.

But it's about having a system in place that is going to proactively support kids and anticipate spots of trouble and then practice and consistency with that support over time is [crosstalk 00:11:09] because sometimes when I was in the classroom, I want to do the good stuff for my kids. All my kids. And I would try to do things, but it would just be me alone and then 40 that minutes would be up and the bell would ring and all my kids would leave and enter into the wider school community that either was or wasn't supporting kids in that way.

That's a real effort. I was really struck by how proactive you are and your school community is, that you didn't wait until an unfortunate incident happened, which I think a lot of school communities do. They wait until there's a moment of homophobia, or racism, or transphobia, and then they try to respond to that thing that happened as opposed to saying, we can get ahead of this. Support to make a more inclusive environment is beautiful.

Arhm:  Yeah, it's always a balance between being responsive and proactive. And I think just as a diversity practitioner, it's super uncomfortable being the firefighter. [inaudible 00:12:08] blew up in our faces, can you come and try to do something about it? And I feel like our capacity for influence in those moments are so much smaller as opposed to the times when we can interact with people when they're in a calm space.

And one of the things I'm really excited about that we're doing is that we created a swim time that is open only to trans or GNC kids, because swimming and being in swimsuits is one of the times that those folks are often the most uncomfortable and experience the most anxiety and the kids have a PE swim credit that they have to fulfill here. So we're going to offer an hour every Tuesday, starting in February to the end of the year so that they can have different opportunities to fulfill that credit. And that is one of the proactive program that we're doing that I'm really excited about.

Something else we do at my school is we have an overnight accommodations policy, which offers a all gender space to people in case that they want that on a school trip of some kind to try to mitigate that anxiety that kids might feel. And I think it's always that question of, let's not make kids do the emotional labor of telling us how hard something is in order for us to respond and how can we, as an institution and the adults, take on those gaps of understanding before they become a repeated issue for kids.

And to that end, we have a advisory program here called the Community Curriculum where we'll train the advisors to then run the training with the kids themselves. So some of them have been just around the fact that race and gender are social constructs, and what are the differences between the [inaudible 00:13:57] and trying to create a common language with our students. And we're hoping that that can be a proactive move as well.

Maggie: The two phrases you said that just really struck me, one is that idea that it's super uncomfortable to be the firefighter is brilliant. And that same idea that links the thing of we don't want kids to have to do the emotional labor of telling us that this is really uncomfortable.

What strikes me about that is that as educators, we know how to do that in other areas of our teaching life. I know that if I have a lesson in my eighth grade classroom with scissors and glue and string, I can anticipate that there's going to be some areas of trouble that I want to circumvent. Or areas of discomfort. Or opportunities to be naughty. I know how to do that. So it's using that teacher brain into these other ideas of identity and intersection in our classes. That's beautiful.

Arhm: Exactly. And how do we get our teachers to have a different mind frame about what inclusivity means? So that means to not post a roster of your kids on the first day of class with the sex assigned at birth. That means that you're using words like gender balance when talking about your students, as opposed to the ratio of boys and girls. And something that we're just starting to get into is with our athletics department on how do we divide activities in different ways besides the binary.

It's so interesting, the idea of trying to give teachers a different lens for which to look at things, because we can't be there every moment that a potential hazard around gender or sexuality might come up.

I also serve as a Director of our program that orients and trains our cohort of new teachers. So it's always really exciting to [inaudible 00:15:51] with opportunity of what training can we provide for people to have a lens and to expand that lens to include the different needs of our students.

Kate: And I think to reflect some things back, to amplify some of the work that you and your colleagues and your students are doing, one, it's looking for tricky spaces that may not feel tricky for you, but you just imagine where they could be tricky. The overnight policy. How kids decide what room feels safe for them to sleep in. The swimming area. The locker room. Identifying those places and building, not just lessons and language, but policies and protocols that help sustain that work.

Another thing is just when I'm dividing activities, whether it is having kids line up or forming groups in my classroom, just looking for other creative ways, different ways, beyond the normative binaries that we tend to use when we're quickly grouping kids. Boys and girls is something that tends to be really common.

The other thing too, there's so much language learning that I'm doing, learning from you, this idea of looking at a list of kids through the athletic program through gender balance versus ratio of boys to girls. You have this really nice balance between bigger systems and protocols, and also these small moves that you're making that feels like I have so many footholds to hold onto as I either get started in this work or continue this work.

Maggie: Can I admit my own ignorance and have you help me out a little bit?

Arhm: Of course.

Maggie: When you say gender balance, what do you mean by that? I was a little fuzzy. I think I might know the category, but I'm not totally sure.

Arhm: Yeah. So in a way of like, do I have 10 boys and 10 girls in my class? You're trying to conceptualize it outside of the binary of is there gender balance of people who identify as GNC and people who identify as women or men, and just trying to conceptualize it in a way that breaks out of the binary.

Maggie: Thank you for that. And I know your work, you've been a classroom teacher, you are currently teaching courses to middle school kids, high school kids. I know that you have an experience of a range of kids from the earliest stuff like pre-K to sending kids off beyond 12th grade. Do you have anything to say in terms of watching this work unfold across the different age groups that you work with?

Arhm: Yeah. We're thinking about sex ed right now in the middle school and thinking about as a sixth grader, what vocabulary do you have to talk about gender identity, and what I find time and time again, that people are like, they're too young to understand or they're too young to have really thought about this. But what studies and research show is that if you are a member of the target group or a marginalized group, you are most certainly thinking about this and you most certainly need language to think about this.

My wife, Anne Wilde, is writing a children's book right now about a gender nonconforming kid. And it's just so exciting to me to think about the different resources out there. We're helping kids have this language and helping families have this language as well.

So for me, when I'm thinking about the K-12 scope, I'm thinking a lot about scaffolding. We know that education is really a series of repetition, and of course that being developmentally appropriate is a huge thing, but I want to find ways to make it less of an excuse to say that they're too young because that's just absolutely not true.

Maggie: So to me, I think that is almost always... Obviously. There's common sense. We know what feels inappropriate for a pre-K kid, but I think it always comes down to people. I'm scared of parents. It's not that I think talking about these things is inappropriate for children, it's that I'm afraid that the children's parents or guardians are going to think it's inappropriate that I'm talking these things. Because anyone who knows kids... Our son is very young, but he's thinking about these things. So are his friends.

I know you work with parents. Do you have any work that you've done that helps educators when they're confronting a parent or a parent population that feels confused, scared, angry, defensive about some of these issues coming up in classrooms?

Arhm: Yeah. The cool thing about this position is that often those parents will be asked to come speak with the diversity coordinator and we can take that conversation on, because it's hard as a teacher-

Maggie: Tip one, have a diversity coordinator at your school. Go ahead.

Arhm: Exactly. Because it's really hard to defend your curriculum, especially if you're teaching curriculum that you've been mandated to teach. So I think having a point person to talk about it could be really helpful. I think at that point personally, especially someone who's a counselor or in the mental health field could be really helpful because they could explain, well, this is what we understand about how it affects children's mental health to either talk or not talk about these things. And I think proactive training is a huge one. I think so much of the conversation is how do we get the parents up to speed to where the kids are.

So I think that's why we're really excited to do a gender inclusivity training with the parent body. But then the question is, how do you get everyone to the table? Because you can guess at what parents are going to show up to an optional training. So what does it look like to capture a bigger audience? And so some of the ideas that we've been wrestling with is, would it be different if the training or programming was coming from the parent body themselves? We have several parent bodies here, and I think that they could be potentially really powerful to have initiative coming out of the parent body.

Obviously the [inaudible 00:22:21] coordinators would be collaborating with them and helping and supporting them with that. But that's an idea that I'm really excited about pursuing and seeing what different yield and what type of different audience members we can capture.

Kate: That's awesome. Oh my gosh. I feel like you just took us on a course of study of how to revamp all of our schools in the country. Thank you so much.

Arhm: Yeah. It's so fun to be able to talk about it. Because it's definitely the effort of so many people at my school and if it weren't for my colleagues and I think I'm really grateful for where I'm working because the mission of our school is often about equity and inclusion and it's great to have that foundation.

So I think the different protocols and procedures are really helpful because you can always point back to those. Well, we have a gender inclusive policy, or we have an overnight accommodation policy, and sometimes that's the foundation you need to really push for the work that you deem necessary at your school.

Maggie: So while we are all pulled over on the side of the road because we're listening to this podcast, we do something over here at Beyond the Letters called the Closing Five, where we ask five of the same questions to the different folks that we are interviewing. And I want to know if you're ready for question number one.

Arhm: Let's do it.

Maggie: All right, so question number one. What will you never see me without.

Arhm: My coffee thermos. 100%. As educators, we're all getting up at 5:00, 6:00 in the morning. It's so funny, one of my sixth graders drew a picture of me the other day and in it was my coffee thermos.

Maggie: How do you prepare your coffee? Kate drinks her-

Kate: I'm black, no sugar.

Maggie: And I am many creams, many sugars.

Kate: All the cream, all the sugar.

Arhm: I'm a oat milk and maple syrup person.

Maggie: Okay, look at you.

Kate: Nice. Respect. Milk and maple syrup.

Maggie: Question number two. What is your favorite article of clothing?

Arhm: I would have to say a hat. I think it can express different parts of who I am. And I think being in an administrator role at my school, it's always fun to have the opportunity to express different sides of me. I'm not just the type A, let's get everything done administrator. I love the versatility of it.

Maggie: Do you have a favorite style of hat, or is it by your mood?

Arhm: It definitely changes. I have a pretty big fedora collection, but I would say my love for hats has definitely shifted in the direction of snapbacks.

Kate: I always want to pull off hats and I feel like I can't do it. I don't know why. I love it when I see people in hats, it's the best.

Arhm: I have to say that's not true. Everyone can wear hats-

Kate: Thank you. I appreciate the support. I'll try. I'm going to try.

Maggie: Do you remember your first concert?

Kate: This is so embarrassing, but I think as an Asian American queer kid, who was trying to get as close to whiteness and as close to straightens as possible, Backstreet Boys. 

Maggie: Look, Backstreet Boys is embarrassing, but your first concert being Backstreet Boys, that is not embarrassing. That is awesome.

Kate: There are many people agreeing.

Maggie: That's right. There's a lot of people being like, yes. People are going to the one now. There just was a tour.

Kate: Wasn't there?

Maggie: Yeah. You have another chance. Who was your first queer icon?

Arhm: Did you ever watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

Kate: Yes.

Maggie: Did we?

Arhm: Willow, I would have to say, was my first queer icon. I know her queerness wasn't played up a lot in that show, but she at least was queer and there definitely wasn't a lot of queer folks on TV when I was growing up. So I would have to say Willow.

Kate: Willow was great. And the storyline with Tara was one of the most tragic things that has ever happened on screen. Maggie doesn't know what we're talking about right now, but she's nodding like she does. 

Maggie: Your current favorite queer icon?

Arhm: There's so many now to choose from, which is awesome. But for her swag and just what she's brought up to the conversation about the way that sexuality can shift over time, the visibility that she's bringing, I would have to go with Sarah Ramirez from Grey's Anatomy and Madam Secretary.

Maggie: That's awesome.

Kate: That's awesome. Yeah. Great. She's great.

Arhm: Her outfits are so on point.

Maggie: I'm looking at the clock and you are a teacher's teacher. The bell is going to ring and you are going to go to your next party. Thank you so much for spending a class period talking to us and sharing all the work that you do and your colleagues and your students do. I'm leaving with just pages of notes. And so your generosity of both intellect and heart is so noted. Thank you very much.

Arhm:Thank you so much for having me and creating this space. I love your podcast. So I really am honored to be with you all today.

Maggie: Same.


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Cut to Bloom Author PhotoArhm Choi Wild is the author of “Cut to Bloom,” a poetry collection published by Write Bloody Publishing in 2020. They have worked as an educator in New York City for the last 7 years, and is currently working as the Director of the Progressive Teaching Institute and Diversity Coordinator at a school in the Bronx. They hold a MFA in Poetry and a MS in Education and was named a finalist for the Jake Adam York Prize in 2019. Their work appears in The Queer Movement Anthology of LiteraturesBarrow Street, The Massachusetts Review, Split this Rock, Hyphen, Foglifter, Lantern Review, F(r)iction, and other publications. They live in Brooklyn with their wife and 11 year old dog. 

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Kate Roberts, LGBTQ, Maggie Beattie Roberts, Beyond The Letters, Arhm Wild

Date Published: 05/24/20

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