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Beyond the Letters S2: Normalizing Language with Jess Lifshitz

BTL-s2e3-Jess Lifshitz

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 Jess Lifshitz in today's episode as they talk about normalizing language, digging deep into internal work, and how to discuss our identities in a school setting.

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Below is a full transcript of this episode. This transcript is machine-generated.

Maggie: Welcome to Beyond The Letters. I'm Maggie Beatty Roberts.

Kate: And I'm Kate Roberts.

Maggie: And I am excited to have our guest today. Jess Lifshitz, has been in the classroom teaching for over 15 years. She is a fifth grade teacher of literacy in Illinois. She has a popular blog, Crawling Out of the Classroom, that I would absolutely recommend you check out. You can find her at Scholastic Reading Summits and her work has been featured on the Heinemann Podcast and has been a contributor to HuffPost. Jess, we are very excited to have you today.

Jess: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.

Maggie: Before we started recording, we were talking about the Midwest where we are both from, and part of me wants to just start talking about the weather, because it feels like that's like a Midwest thing to do. But instead of that, which we could do, I was curious if you think back across the landscape of your teaching as a classroom practitioner, did you have a critical moment or a memory that stands out to you that maybe was formative in shaping the educator that you are today?

Jess: Well, in terms of shaping the queer educator, that I am, I think I'm actually living through a critical moment. I came out to my students the year that I got engaged. And so, the only out I've really ever been with my students is by sharing my relationship status. When I was engaged, I faced that moment like, "Okay, now I have this ring and ten-year-olds are really observant about things like that. So then they'd ask, and am I going to a, not wear my ring to school or b, lie when they ask who I was engaged to or c, is this the moment I come out?" So, I chose c. And I came out that year and I was incredibly lucky to be supported by wonderful administrators throughout my career.

Jess: But every year after that, the way I came out was by introducing my family. So, that has been my experience and it's been really positive and it's, in the big scheme of things, been fairly easy. So now I'm going through divorce, and with all the struggle that's coming, there's also that big piece of my identity. And what I didn't realize until this moment I'm living in, is that I have been so okay being an out educator because it felt like I had permission to talk about it when I was talking about my family. So, I could say, "My wife," and I could say, "My daughter has two moms." And that felt okay.

Jess: Now, how do I introduce the queer part of who I am without being married to a woman? Because now what I'm noticing is it feels like I don't have permission. Like all of a sudden I don't, then it's not appropriate or acceptable.

Maggie: Like kids [inaudible 00:03:11] last night. And now it feels like [inaudible 00:03:15].

Jess: Right. And I think we feel like we've come so far because I could have a picture of my wife up, but do I really still feel safe saying, "I'm a lesbian without attaching that to describing my family?" And the answer is, "No, I don't." And I have a lot of work to do internally, and we have a lot of work to do in the world because it is okay. That's my identity. It shapes how I move through the world. And that is one of the major things that I talk with my students about. So, how could I leave that piece of me out? But I didn't realize how not okay that felt.

Maggie: [inaudible 00:03:57] we've made progress as queer people but there is still this part where it's like, it is much easier, and I think, a lot of privilege inside of it, of being like, "Yeah, I'm queer, I'm married to one person and we have kids and we're living this kind of way that everyone approves of." It's harder to be either single, divorcing or all sorts of ways. Maybe a gay pride, we can be funky and not fit a mold. But every other day of the year, we should probably still wear our khakis. Still wear our polo shirts and be good gays.

Jess: Right. And that idea that it's acceptable to talk about that piece of my identity if I'm talking about my family, but it's somehow less okay to just tell my students I'm gay. That affects my life. That's a piece of who I am the same way I would share that I'm Jewish. I don't need a reason to share that. It doesn't have to be a Jewish holiday for me to tell the kids, I'm Jewish it's just a piece of who I am. So of course, I would share that. And I don't feel that same acceptance. I think there'll be more questions and concerns.

Maggie: It's like I could just fall down from the power and in realness of that testimony, because it's like, I'm thinking, a couple of things. One, if I attach my queerness and my identity to family structure, something that everybody can kind of like... everybody who's anybody kind of knows the want or the love of either having a child or having a parent or that familial bond. And then also two, this is a rough draft thought that I'm having in the moment, does it normalize the queer experience because we're attaching it to technically a heteronormative structure of marriage? And how much power or place that marriage, the institution of marriage, gives queer folks to be able to legitimize their identity in front of others. And then when that structure is disrupted, what are we left with? I can't tell you how powerful that's affecting me right now.

Kate: It has such far reaching temples, we're seeing right now. It's far reaching because it's about appropriateness, right? And all of a sudden, if my gayness isn't attached as traditional sort of almost conservative idea that feels safe and antiseptic and isn't sexual because it's about family. All of a sudden it becomes this thing that doesn't feel as appropriate for kids, but that same thing comes up about literature in our classroom. Is this book appropriate for our kids? When it would be appropriate if it were a boy and a girl or it was a straight relationship being talked about or a straight coming of age story. As soon as it's same sex or a trans story, it has this inappropriateness to it.

Jess: I think one of the struggles that I have is that I've always sort of said, it's almost like given me a reason why it was okay to say that I'm gay in the classroom, because there was a straight comparison. So I could say things like, "The teacher across the hall doesn't have a problem saying she and her husband did this. So why should I not be able to say my wife and I did this." But there aren't a lot of reasons for a straight educator to stand in front of a room and say, "I'm straight." There's not that equivalent. So I don't have that argument anymore, other than to say, "I think we should be, all of us should be able to stand up and say, I'm straight or I'm gay."

Jess: Then the argument becomes, I share that because it's a piece of my identity, and as an educator, as a human, I want to model that every piece of your identity is welcome in this classroom. And so, that is a harder argument to sell to people because it's not as cut and dry and not everyone understands that. I think the concreteness of being able to say, "Well, the woman across the hall gets to talk about her husband. So I should be able to talk about my wife." That's harder to argue with. It's a little bit easier for people to argue with why I still have the right to bring my full self as an educator into the classroom.

Maggie: And I think that what you're doing too, is like honoring a big old group of people. That it isn't okay that somebody's identity is able to be named because they're in relation to someone else. We need to center that experience for anybody who, regardless of who they are attached to, but I think your point is you're right, like if I'm a single straight identified person, I don't start my lesson, "Hey, I'm Ms. Beattie And I'm straight." Because of course, they assume you are straight. So, you don't need to say, "I'm straight." Because everyone's assuming you are. Whereas, your kids need you to say, "I'm gay." So that they can encounter that, understand and relate to it.

Jess: Yeah. I think it's the same way. White people, don't often state, "We're white." Because we have that privilege of not having to think about it. And I think straight people have that same privilege in a very different way. But that idea that when you are not forced to wrestle with it and confront it and think about it, you're not going to name it. And I think that's the identity work we all have to do in our classrooms. That our full selves are welcome here because our children's full selves are welcome here. And part of making that welcome is naming all parts of our identity.

Jess: When I was married, I didn't have to think about these things. So, this is really a reckoning for me. And I would imagine that most queer educators are probably waiting to be in a relationship before they come out to their students. And I think that's sad.

Maggie: It is sad.

Jess: Because that's not what validates us as queer people. And I think that is a piece we still have a long way to go on.

Maggie: Well, and kids need to see all kinds of queerness. They need to see that being gay doesn't just mean being in a relationship with kids. It can mean a lot of different things. And that there's lots of different markers for that. Like I usually get read at first glance as being straight and I have to lean on other markers to kind of define. And so, I do lean on, "The boys have two moms." Or "My wife." Because my appearance or the way that I physically take up space in a room may not communicate queerness at first go. And then just trying to figure out like a big definer has been taken away from me and I have to redefine how I haven't changed. I'm still here. So how do I change... I don't know. How do I find new markers for expressing who I am, that feels just as valid as anybody else?

I want to get just to flip it, like you were saying of the colleague across the hall, you being able to say like, "Well he gets to talk about his wife. Obviously, I can talk about mine." But like I remember being in fifth grade ish middle school, and there was a, we assumed straight PE teacher who was single. And it was so thrilling to everyone that he was single. Do you know what I mean? We were not threatened. It was not inappropriate that we knew he was single and probably dating. And we were obsessed with who he might be dating. We would talk about it probably in very inappropriate ways. The kids were inappropriate for sure. They'd be like, any female teacher or female that walked in the building, we were like, "Are you dating her?" And he's like, "No." All the time.

Maggie: So it's this idea of like, it's the same thing. Why is that completely normalized and acceptable and a marker that one can hold on to, to express themselves. And yet again, there is this feeling of like, "Oh, well, I probably shouldn't say it because it's different because I'm gay." And are all the kid's are going to say that about any woman that walks into school? "Are you dating her?" It would be awesome. That would be so awesome.

Jess: Because there's a lot of women who are walking through and that's the dream.

Maggie: I know you say that gay marriage is the marker of success, but I think that's the marker of success is when our schools, "I saw a woman, are you dating her?" That's the mark we'll know we've made it when it's that normalized.

Kate: There are many reasons I'm excited to talk to you, but one is just your huge experience in the classroom with kids, upper elementary, a lot has changed over 15 years and a lot of things have also stayed the same. Are there things that you do in your classroom, moves that you make, resources that you use, that you could offer people just starting out in this work to start trying?

Jess: Yeah. You probably want those resources.

Kate: If you feel comfortable sharing them.

Jess: I have a pen in hand. You have more than just that. I think what I've come to understand is that any work that you're going to do in the classroom has to start with yourself first. And I think it actually can be detrimental to children if you rush into the work in the room before you do it within yourself. And so, I feel like the first learning has to be internal and reflective. And the way to do that in my opinion, is to just be very aware of the voices that are informing your instruction and your practice and your understanding of self and identity. When I started to look at the voices informing all that understanding, they were very white. They were very white and they were very straight. And they were saying very similar things.

Jess: And so for me, the big game changer was getting on Twitter and finding an online community that was more diverse than my physical community. I've grown up in a lot of white spaces. I've grown up in a lot of straight spaces. Education in general is a white straight space. And so, I am also not a social human, so it is hard for me to make connections with people in the real world. So, the online space allowed for me to have almost instant access. And in my opinion, removes all excuses to not diversifying the people who are informing your understanding of life. So, for anyone wanting to start the work, I think getting on Twitter, I'm sure there's newer cooler spaces online to be, I just don't know them.

Kate: That's still a really powerful and good one. I feel like if you haven't explored Twitter, that is absolutely a first go to place to go.

Jess: Yeah. And to be deliberate about the people you're following. For me, in terms of race, starting with the #cleartheair hashtag that will lead you to so many important people, Val Brown herself will lead to so many important people. And I think from there, also looking for queer voices in education. And that doesn't just mean gay and lesbian educators, but people who are transgender and non-binary because when I think of my own learning and how much further I have to go, those are the spaces, those are the voices I still need to draw from. So, that would be like, step one. Increase the amount of people you're listening to and the diversity of those.

Kate: And just to add onto that to listen, then do you mean, like to take the time to read and wrestle and listen and be internal, not external. It's not necessarily saying, I'm going to add to everyone on Twitter that I have questions for but then I'm going to actually use Twitter as a platform to take in new information and then wrestle with it inside myself and figure out.

Jess: Yeah. And I've had to really deliberately force myself to think differently because sometimes I'll read a tweet from an expert in children's literature and representation in terms of diversity. And I'll read a tweet that is critical of a text. And I can still hear in my own head, hear myself think, "Well, no. They're overreacting." And I have to catch myself and instead reframe it as, "I don't yet understand the problem. I need to work harder so that I get it." And that's been a really deliberate shift for me. So, now I approach it from, I know they're right, but I don't understand why yet. So I have to do the work. And usually, they've already put it out there as to why something's problematic. I just need to go find it and read about it and do better.

Jess: So I think that's something we can do when we see those and just sort of check ourselves when it's like, "Oh, come on. They're overreacting." To like, know that, that's a sign of oppression, that we live in an oppressive system. And instead say, "No, I know they're right. I'm not sure why. Let me understand." I don't remember what I was going to say.

Kate: I think that's so important. No, it was just talking about the importance of listening when you're following those people on Twitter and you're learning from other people to just position yourself in a place of listening, not asking.

Jess: Yes.

Maggie: Hearing your initial reactions and reframing them with a more curious lens.

Jess: Yeah. And I think that's led to the most significant growth within myself. It's just getting myself to listen and work to understand. I think that's a good place to start. And then, I think when you're ready to dig in to work in the classroom, we are teachers of literacy. So to me, the books and looking at identity. I think Sara Ahmed's book, Being the Change is a perfect place to start. What I didn't understand a few years ago was how important it was to ask the children to look at their own identities before I ask them to value the identities of other people. I think I skipped over that. I think I told myself a story that, that was like cutesy community building. And I don't have time for that.

Jess: And what a shame that was that he didn't get that earlier. But Sarah's book, I think really pushed me to understand that understanding your own identity is really the place to start with the kids as much as it is for me as an educator. So, doing the work, naming facets of identity, including sexual orientation, which I've also decided we need another term for, because I think a lot of the problem is that people associate it with sex, which obviously I'm not bringing that up with fifth graders until May.

Kate: Until May.

Jess: But just sort of naming those things and naming all the facets of identity and getting kids to look critically, I think is a good place to start. And then making sure that you're reading books that allow opportunities for kids to understand the people we share this world with. I think it's really important... I think there's a lot of great books, the book that's coming to mind that I want to just sort of wrestle with is the book, Red, about the crayons. And it's great, lovely book. It talks about... I can't remember if it's a blue crayon that has a red wrapper or the other way.

Kate: It's a blue crayon with a red wrapper.

Jess: There you go. And so, I think as educators, we sometimes feel really proud of ourselves when we read this book and we're like, it could be about someone who's transgender, but it's not about someone who's transgender and it doesn't name that there's a person who's transgender. And I think it's really important when we're starting the work that we're really deliberate that the books we're choosing really honor the identities that we're trying to bring into the classroom.

Jess: And I think our kids need to hear all of us as educators say words like gay and lesbian and transgender and non-binary because the only time I think, so many of our kids hear us say those words is when we're yelling at them to say, "Don't say... Don't call them that." That's the only time they hear their teachers say it. And so, then they associate gay as a negative word. I can't tell you how many times I've been playing boggle with the kids. And I know they see that the word gay is there and they're like... So, these kids will even ask, "Can I write the word gay?" And they know I am gay.

Maggie: Right. And you're like, "No."

Jess: "No." Because I want to win. But the language themselves itself, they think is inappropriate for school and when we're reading the books, we read the books that use the words.

Maggie: And to normalize it, right?

Jess: Yeah.

Maggie: To normalize it, to make it not a big deal to say that word right. For them to hear it enough that it is part of language. It's not a strange thing to hear a grownup use those words to identify people that way. To read stories about people that way.

Jess: And the truth is the world is really helping us out.

Kate: The world is really helping us out.

Jess: Because I can't tell you how many times I say the word transgender for the first time in the school year and the kids all raise their hands and go, "I watched Jazz Jennings on whatever channel." Because she has her own show right now. And so, the only space like with so many other things, I think education takes so long to catch up with the rest of the world that our kids are using the words, but we're not. So they think like, I can use it outside of school, but that's not something I can talk about here. So reading the books that say the words. And for straight educators to say the words makes it easier for me as a queer educator to say the words without any one complaining.

Maggie: I could keep talking for the next hour basically, but I just want to recap a couple of things and then let's do closing thoughts. So, what I love is that what you bring to the table are really simple things anyone can do. That we can get educated by making sure that the voices we're hearing are from a wide array of identities and perspectives and experiences and learn to listen. That we can start to name things in our classroom and bring books into our classroom that offer up language and identities and experiences that we want our kids to see themselves in, to see others in and normalize it a bit.

Maggie: And then there's also this whole idea of just being able out to trouble, and again, internally first, and then externally the idea of appropriateness and inappropriateness and when is it okay to be gay? And when is it not okay to be gay? And how do we offer kids different visions of what queerness looks like. That it doesn't have to be a kind of traditional family model for it still to be all right, because there's lots of ways that straight people get to be in the world. That's really, really helpful, Jess. Thank you.

Jess: Okay.

Kate: We are at the time of our podcast, the music is coming on. The show credits are rolling.

Maggie: Why don't we have a theme song?

Kate: And we're here to talk about the closing five. Closing five is a ritual that ends our podcast by posing the same five questions to each guest and just peeking into their lives a little bit by studying the answers they get. Are we ready for question number one?

Jess: I'm ready.

Kate: Okay. Question number one. What is one thing we won't see you without?

Jess: What I want to say is something to read. And that's mostly true, but what's always true, my phone.

Kate: All right.

Jess: I wish I was a person who just could answer, something to read, which is mostly true.

Maggie: But within your phone, there are things to read.

Jess: There you go. That's right.

Maggie: So I think you could say, "Something to read."

Jess: My answer is, something to read.

Maggie: Well done. Good answer. So impressive. You're so literate.

Jess: I'm so literate.

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

Jess: A hooded sweatshirt. The Midwestern thing.

Kate: Because of the cold and the winds.

Maggie: Oversized?

Kate: Do you remember your first concert? And if so, what was it?

Jess: Let's answer it this way. The first concert I remember going to is Indigo Girls at Ravinia. Do you know Ravinia?

Kate: I definitely do. Yes.

Jess: I actually hate Ravinia.

Kate: It's Ravinia but it's the Indigo Girls.

Jess: It's an outdoor concerts, there's a lot of people. It's very crowded and that's where I saw Indigo Girls.

Maggie: But can I just back up and say that you now have won the award for the most lesbian answer to any question, right?

Kate: I mean, I would say, yes.

Maggie: I think you won, well done.

Jess: Thank you.

Maggie: We have no prizes.

Jess: But I'm still winning.

Kate: But our respect.

Maggie: Our respect, you won.

Kate: Who was your first queer icon?

Jess: There's this Australian singer, songwriter, her name is Missy Higgins. I think she was queer for five minutes, but it happened to be... well, no, she's queer. I don't know how she identifies. I don't actually know her. She's not a friend of mine, but as I was coming out, which happened later in life, like 25, 26, she was also dealing with rumors of her own sexuality. And for whatever reason, I totally connected to her story. She's also really cute that helped, but our coming out sort of intersected. And so in my mind, we're friends. She's my icon.

Kate: That's fantastic. I have to look her up. [crosstalk 00:27:26] It's going to be a t-shirt, some playlist [crosstalk 00:27:29].

Jess: Thank you.

Kate: Who is your current queer icon?

Jess: I'm going to go with Roxane Gay.

Maggie: Well done. That's a good one.

Jess: That's a good lesbian answer too.

Maggie: That's a good lesbian answer, it's also a good literate answer. And now you've doubled the literate and the lesbian answer for the win.

Jess: Thank you.

Maggie: That is brilliant. I think she's engaged.

Jess: Yeah. I saw that too.

Maggie: So now she can tell people she's gay.

Jess: Yeah. She can come out now.

Kate: Thank goodness. It's appropriate now. Well, thank you so much, Jess. It's been such a privilege to talk to you.

Jess: Thanks for having me. It's been a privilege to be here.

Maggie: Yeah.

IMG_4350 (1)Jess Lifshitz teaches 5th grade ELA in Northbrook, IL, which is a suburb of Chicago. She has been teaching for 16 years. In addition to her work in the classroom, Jess was a part of the first cohort of Heinemann Fellows, she has written for several literacy related publications and writes on her own blog regularly at crawlingoutoftheclassroom.wordpress.com. In everything that Jess does, she believes in helping students learn to use reading and writing in order to better understand and create positive change in the world beyond the classroom. When not teaching, she spends time at home with her seven-year-old daughter and their various pets.


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: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Jessica Lifshitz, Kate Roberts, LGBTQ, Maggie Beattie Roberts, Beyond The Letters

Date Published: 06/21/20

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