This week on Beyond the Letters, Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts speak with Harper B. Keenan about the importance of having queer representation in our schools, and the great impact that inclusive curriculum can have. Harper currently serves as the Robert Quartermain Professor of Gender & Sexuality Research in Education within the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. He is the founder of the Trans Educators Network, a community building group aimed at supporting trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming Pre-K-12 educators in the United States and Canada. You can read his full bio below!
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Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Kate: Hi! This is Kate Roberts.
Maggie: And this is Maggie Beattie Roberts. Welcome to the podcast. We are doing this podcast because. Right, Kate?
Kate: Yep, we are doing this podcast because. One of the things that Maggie and I were talking about today was how when we were growing up, I don't think there was a single time in my school experience that I saw myself represented, at least not my queer self represented in the books, in the stories, in the narrative, in the framework, in the history, in the science.
Maggie: In the hallways.
Kate: In the hallways. If we were represented, if I was represented, it was always in a negative light, including the one teacher who was a lesbian who was deeply closeted and hiding from everyone. So, one of the reasons why we're doing this podcast is... oh, wouldn't it be sort of what we're here for, me as a little girl. For you as a little girl, right?
Maggie: I know. It's almost like we do this podcast for our younger selves. And honestly, we do this podcast for current day, because this is still the reality for a lot of our kids, and teachers, and communities here in 2019.
Kate: Yeah. I mean, I talk about that from my schooling growing up, but I'm in a lot of schools, not all schools, but I'm in many schools where I would be willing to bet that a kid going through the school system has the same experience or a similar experience as I did in 1980 something. I'm not even going to say it.
Maggie: So, we're going to fill the hallways of this podcast with an incredible voice. Kate, take it on.
Kate: Today we're talking to Harper Keenan, the Robert Quartermain professor of gender and sexuality research and education at the University of British Columbia. We're so excited to talk to Harper.
Maggie: So lucky.
Kate: Hi Harper.
Harper: Hi folks!
Kate: Harper, to be honest with you, I want to hear your entire origin story from beginning to end, because I'm a storyteller, and I want to hear it all. We don't flaw.
Maggie: One flaw though. We have limited time. So I'd just love to pass the mike to you to think about a critical moment in your life, your kid life, your teaching life, or a mentor that helped lead you to becoming the active educator that you are today.
Harper: Sure. So I am a former New York City elementary school teacher. I taught kindergarten, first grade, and fourth grade in New York City public schools, which was all a wonderful experience, and I could talk more about that. But then after I become an elementary school teacher, I eventually went into elementary teacher education, and I've worked at a variety of different teacher education programs, and what I found in that process of making the transition into teacher education is that there were very few trans educators, and I should mention here that I identify as trans. I, also, identify as queer. But in making that transition into teacher ed, there were so few of us becoming teachers, and so in the teacher ed programs that I have worked in, there would typically be about one or two maybe, or often zero, trans educators in programs that had 100 or more teachers.
So that was concerning for a couple of reasons, but among them, I think primarily was the issue that you all were speaking to earlier, which is that queer and trans kids need role models, and most queer, and trans kids, and gender nonconforming kids do not necessarily grow up with queer or trans parents. Some do, and that's awesome, but not everybody does, and so not everyone is closely connected with adults that can be role models for how to live and thrive as a gender nonconforming or trans adult, and so we really need adults who can be those role models for kids.
In that process of realizing that there were just so few of us becoming teachers, I, also, realized that teacher ed programs were not well prepared to support some of the unique experiences of trans educators moving into classrooms, and so I... a few years ago, about three years ago, started an organization called The Trans Educators Network that is designed to be a source of professional networking and support specifically for trans, gender nonconforming, non-binary gender, queer educators, where folks can talk with each other about the unique challenges that come up for them. Now we have chapters that are active across the US, and 450 members across the US and Canada.
Kate: That's awesome. I think that one of the things that I've noticed more than anything else is the isolation of students, of teachers, the way that it's so easy to feel so lonely in our schools.
Maggie: Thank you so much for just the work of the representation in teacher ed. Like I'm just scrambling notes down in my writer's notebook here, and, also, preparing everyone with education awareness, stances, just eyes and ears towards this issue. I, of course, am, also, writing down that we are definitely going to ask you where people can find more information about The Trans Educator Network as it feels like an incredible resource.
Kate: So one of the things that we talked about earlier, you and I, Harper, is that I think that most of the teachers listening, most of the educators that I come into contact with want to do more. They care about their queer and trans kids. They care about their queer and trans colleagues. They themselves might be, but they're not always sure what to do, right? They don't know how to get started. It seems so big. It seems unmovable, or they're afraid, or there are what feel like very real obstacles to making change.
So if you could wave your magic wand and make all the educators in America do something different, or if there was a list of things that you wish could happen that feel like manageable steps to make real progress, what do you think that work would be?
Harper: Yeah. First, I think that it is important, this is what I always say to my students who are becoming teachers, to always recognize what is within our locus of control and what is not, and so we live in a society that is not supportive of people who are perceived to transgress gender, and there's only so much that teachers can do about that. That said, the classrooms that we have are these beautiful laboratories where we can start to envision the societies we might want to live in, and so there are things that we can do.
And so one part of my work right now is around this idea of trans pedagogy, which is thinking about what it would mean to build pedagogical strategies and skills from knowledge of trans experience, what would that mean? A few years ago I wrote an article that was called Unscripting Curriculum Toward a Critical Trans Pedagogy, and in that, what I talk about is this idea of unscripting. I think that's something that teachers can start to do, is think about how is gender scripted in your classroom? Gender, of course, as it interrelates with race, and disability, and class, et cetera. But what is the script for gender in your classroom? Do you have particular stories or narratives that have emerged among your students, or even in their classroom materials about the ways that boys are, the ways that girls are, and the ways that trans kids are, et cetera, and looking at trying to analyze that script with your students. So what are the beliefs that we've developed about gender, whether that's within or classroom or in our lives outside of school? What have we heard about gender? What do we know about it and what might challenge some of those beliefs?
And so really to being in an engaged dialogue with our students about that, I think allows for greater flexibility for all kids around how they express their gendered ways of being.
So I think that's a key thing, is to really think through is the way that gender works in my classroom flexible, or is it pretty rigid? Are the roles and ways of being that I ask for my students very rigid?
Maggie: If you were to think of some specific examples of scripts that you see in classrooms that feel inflexibly gendered, what kinds of things are you thinking about?
Harper: Yeah. So a lot of it is really basic stuff. So, like I said, I'm a former kindergarten teacher, and I worked at a school where everybody lined up by boys and girls, and there were a lot of assumptions, right, about who belonged in which line. So I think to first look at why are we organizing kids that way, by boys and girls, what information does that actually give us about kids, and is that a flexible system? Could a person move around in that system from the boys' line to the girls' line or not, and why not, and engaging kids in a conversation about that I think is useful, and that could, also, pertain to bathrooms, to the language that teachers use in classrooms, to looking at with kids ... I think you could do this with kids as young as preschool or kindergarten, where do we see gender in our classroom? We see it in pronouns. We see it in the facilities of our school. We see it in the games that we play. Sometimes at recess, boys play certain games together, and girls play certain games together, and why is that? What does that mean, and what would it mean if somebody broke the kind of expectations that we had of boys versus girls. I think that, again, creates more flexibility for all kids.
I will, also, say that looking at our texts and classroom materials, too, the books that we read, how are girls usually represented in the books that we read? How are boys represented? How are kids who are not boys or girls represented, et cetera?
Maggie: I just love the rhythm that you've set out with noticing and imagining possibilities, right, or noticing and disrupting, or noticing and unscripting. That kind of rhythm feels really replicable, and I would agree with you, could happen in lots of different ages of classrooms.
Kate: And that idea of flexibility. That word is so powerful to me, because I think one obstacle people come up against, myself included sometimes, right, is this "but I can't change everything" right? I can't disrupt yet all the systems that I'm encountering. That idea of saying you can notice it and you can start to look for places of flexibility feels like something people can do.
Harper: Yes, absolutely. And I think the other point that I would just make here is that it's a great thing to get excited about this idea of trans pedagogy, and something that I have noticed since publishing that article is that people are excited about trans pedagogy, but I, also, want to emphasize that trans pedagogy can't really thrive unless trans educators can be comfortable in schools, and that doesn't mean that trans pedagogy is something that only trans people can do, but it is this litmus test of can trans-ness exist in schools.
And so the other point that I would make in terms of what people can do is to really advocate for trans educators, and there are some very practical ways that I think that can happen. Trans educators need trans competent health care. They need jobs, and they need to be treated with basic respect in their work environment, which means things as simple as people getting your name right and referring to you with the correct pronoun, and not questioning which bathroom you should be in, et cetera.
Schools, in addition to being places where gender nonconforming children can be, it, also, needs to be a place where trans and non-binary adults can be.
Maggie: The fact that you work within teacher preparation, feels so important, and I would just love your noticings or reflections on this new generation of teachers, and what you notice in the intersection of your work.
Harper: Yeah. I have to say I think that most of the teachers that I work with, the pre-service teachers that I work with, they have a genuine desire to support queer and trans people in the places where they work, whether those people are kids or adults. I'm meeting very little resistance from my students, and instead, they are really excited about this.
So I think that has been a wonderful challenge to some of my own assumptions about the kind of battles that I might expect in teacher preparation. So, yeah, I mean I think most of the teachers that I work with are really committed to this idea.
There is a challenge of making space in teacher education for more queer and trans people. I think something that comes up a lot is that schools really are very gendered places. I mean teaching has been historically a very gendered profession that historically has been seen as women's work. I think that's not a problem, but it is a very gendered space. And so for people who are queer or trans, going back into a place that was often, for many of us, not a great place to be in our own pre-k to 12 education brings up a lot for people, and so I think there's a lot of barriers to entry into the profession of teaching that need to be addressed, and there, also, needs to be additional support for queer and trans teachers in every teacher preparation program, because it really does bring up a lot for people about their prior experiences with schooling.
And that's, also, true for any marginalized group in schools. So that often happens for teachers of color, of course, and disabled teachers, too.
Kate: Absolutely, because I think this idea of creating a space where people can thrive wherever they are, the gender spectrum is really interesting, because, again, I think most people are into the idea, but then they hit against the system that they're in, right, the ways that things have always been done in their schools.
So it might be interesting just to linger on this idea of practical things people can do. Like you named the bathroom systems we have in schools, the idea of boys and girls lining up on other sides, the stories we tell in classrooms.
Maggie: The books that are in our classrooms.
Kate: The books that are in our classroom libraries. Are there things that you've worked on in classrooms or in your teacher education work?
Harper: Yeah. I mean a lot of it is not necessarily stuff that would be labeled as this is about queer and trans stuff, and I think that's important to highlight.
Kate: That's right.
Harper: Something that I say a lot when I talk about this topic is that being supportive of trans people and trans-ness in general is about accepting the possibility that people can change, and so in order to create room for that, that flexibility that we're talking about, you have to have a really strong classroom community, where there are ways for children, and adults, to share ways in which they're changing or growing, and that the classroom community can respond to that.
I think, for example, having regular morning meetings where you are building classroom community and really authentically, genuinely getting to know each other and learning about the ways that the classroom community is growing and changing together on a regular basis, opening regular channels of communication for children to be in dialogue with each other and with their educators creates more flexibility, it can, is having just that community building space in the day, and it, also, builds relationships, right, that kids can rely on and build trust through.
So I think, yeah, a lot of the courses that I teach are around that theme of building classroom community, so that we can build relationships where change and flexibility are expected.
Kate: I mean I think it's the same idea. When we work on these things, it's not just for the targets of these issues, right? It's not if I make a more inclusive space, it's not for necessarily just the people who identify as trans or queer. It improves the quality of education and the quality of life for everyone in the building.
Maggie: And that the norm is change and flexibility, and that we get confidence in a culture of fluidity, as opposed to feeling confident in a system that's very rigid, right, and so that idea of opening up a space that does have strong community, that does amplify moments of, "Oh, I used to think this, but now I think this," or just that idea of could this go another way?
Harper: Yeah. I think that classrooms shouldn't be places where thinking gets calcified and really rigid, like you're saying. They should be places where we are in a continual process of learning, and that that never ends. So we should expect that we will never know everything there is to know about a person or a way of being, et cetera. We're always going to be in process.
And I think another thing that I would add here is that we, also, have to recognize with kids, and with each other, with teachers, that there's a lot of different ways to be trans, and not everybody even uses that word. So something that I've tried to address in a lot of my work is that there's no one gender system in the world. So different cultures, different societies have lots of different ways of organizing gender, and so I think that's, also, a really cool thing to explore with kids, what are the different ways that gender is organized in different places, just so that our understandings of trans-ness themselves are, also, not becoming rigid. There's commonly an assumption that to be trans means I switch from being a woman to being a man, and it just sort of happened overnight. That is not actually a narrative that I think most trans people strongly identify with, and when you get into trans communities, there is so many different ways to be trans, or queer, or gender nonconforming, and I think that when something is so marginalized, school, like trans-ness is so marginalized, those stories and ways of understanding that marginalized identify can then become really rigid, because we just don't know enough about it.
Kate: So before we start to close out here, you had mentioned earlier that you had three guiding questions for educators.
Harper: Yeah. The three guiding questions are what are the scripts I have internalized about bodies and the world, including my own and my students? How can I support my students in analyzing their own scripts, and how can I support students in imagining something different?
Maggie: So, Harper, we are at the portion of the podcast that we like to call the closing five. We have five questions that we like to ask...
Kate: ...profound, deep, probing questions.
Maggie: My first question to you, Harper, is you'll never see me without my-
Maggie: Oh, good answer, literacy. My favorite article of clothing.
Harper: Really good shoes, really cute sneakers.
Kate: I just sprained my ankle, so I'm going to need to hit you up for some sneakers.
Harper: Oh, no, I'm sorry.
Kate: It's all right, but I need some fashionable sneakers, because I'm not looking good.
Maggie: Harper, what was your first concert?
Harper: It was Mates of State at the Black Cat in Washington, DC.
Kate: That is epic.
Maggie: That's so cool. That's really cool, humblingly cool.
Harper: I didn't suggest it myself. It was my girlfriend at the time.
Kate: So she was very cool.
Harper: She was much cooler than me.
Maggie: Do you have a first queer icon?
Harper: Yes, definitely George Michael.
Maggie: Yeah. How about your current queer icon?
Harper: My current queer icons are kind of old school themselves. I think it's a toss up between Dolly Parton and Prince, may he rest in peace.
Maggie: Oh, yes. I think you can hold onto those. I think they're timeless.
Kate: They are timeless. You don't have to couch it as old school. It works.
Kate: Harper, thank you so much for your time, and your sharing, and connecting with us and so many people listening to this podcast.
Harper: It's so lovely to talk with you. Thank you so much for doing this.
Maggie: Thanks, Harper.
Harper: All right. Take care.
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Harper B. Keenan began his career as an elementary school teacher in New York City public schools. Harper earned his PhD from Stanford Graduate School of Education, and currently serves as the Robert Quartermain Professor of Gender & Sexuality Research in Education within the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. He is the founder of the Trans Educators Network, a community building group aimed at supporting trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming Pre-K-12 educators in the United States and Canada. His research and scholarship broadly addresses how adults talk with children about complex social issues, and his current projects focus on anti-racist queer/trans pedagogies and violence prevention in education. His work has been published in scholarly journals like the Harvard Educational Review and Teachers College Record, as well as in popular press outlets like Slate and The Huffington Post.
TEN website: www.transeducators.com