This week on Beyond the Letters, Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts speak with Cody Miller about approachable strategies for bringing theory into practice when it comes to celebrating and supporting LGBTQ+ students. Cody has taught high school English for the past seven years. In addition to teaching, he has developed and lead professional development for teachers on a range of topics including LGBTQ-affirming pedagogies. Read his full bio below!
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Below is a full transcript of this episode!
Maggie: Hey everyone. I am Maggie Beattie Roberts.
Kate: And I'm Kate Roberts. And welcome to the podcast. If you've been listening to this series, you know that we like to start by thinking about why we are doing this podcast.
Maggie: I was thinking like one reason we are doing this podcast is, I remember an undergraduate, University of Illinois taking a new course offering in college, and it was a queer theory class, and I was so excited and energized, and pumped and the discussions were incredible. It was my senior year of Undergrad, I was about to go into the Chicago public schools and start teaching and I just took notebooks of notebooks of notes in that class and developed lifelong friendships. And then I walked into the classroom as a 22-year-old teacher of eighth grade students, and there was only 12 students, Kate, I don't know if you know that.
Kate: I didn't.
Maggie: There was like 12 students that I had my first year as a teacher, and I was lucky enough to have this out lesbian couple in my class.
Kate: Your students were?
Maggie: Yes. And I had no idea how to support them besides smiling, and getting really like, happy with my face and hands-
Kate: Thumbs up in the background.
Maggie: Thumbs up, like go for it, and I had all these pages of notes of things I could do and I couldn't make the translation into the classroom. I feel like that's why I'm so excited to have our guest today. Let's introduce Cody Miller. Cody is a high school English teacher, soon to be assistant professor of English Ed at a SUNY Brockport, an award winning teacher and holds some wonderful positions at NCTE. I want to say "Hi, Cody."
Cody: Hello, how's it going?
Maggie: Cody, it's so nice to have you here on the podcast today. There's so much I want to know, like I want to start with the teaching tolerance award, I want to start with your work in the high school, but I feel like maybe we could begin our conversation, you know, for me, that moment as being a first year eighth grade teacher, that was a turning point for me I think as an educator. I would just be curious if you had any critical moments like those that were turning points for you and to helping you become the educator that you are today.
Cody: Yeah. So one moment that really stands out to me, and I think about this often actually, was in high school. I am from Florida, but I'm from north central Florida, which is both culturally and socially more akin to like southern Georgia and Alabama than it is kind of, you know, when people think of Florida, they think of like beaches and Disney, but not that part of Florida. I was in high school, I'm a queer person, I was not out in high school and it was the height of the George W. Bush re-election campaign. And George W. Bush was campaigning on what was then called a federal marriage amendment, which would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman in the United States constitution.
Obviously, it eventually failed shortly after he was re-elected, but I'll never forget that in my whole entire high school experience, the only time we ever, ever, ever brought up any issue remotely related to LGBTQ people was the fact that the federal marriage amendment was being campaigned on. It wasn't necessarily a debate in class, it was just mentioned, and that was it. I too took some courses that focused on queer experiences in Undergrad, and I just often think about how, what that meant to me as a person, that the only time I ever heard five seconds of something related to LGBTQ people was around an issue in which a very powerful political figure was trying to do harm to LGBTQ people.
I think about what that said about where LGBTQ people belong in curriculum, and then my own experiences that made me feel as though they didn't belong, right, or if they did, they're only going to be talked about as something debatable should this amendment pass or not. That was very different from being in undergrad courses where you were reading queer experiences and talking about being queer. I think that it's really unfortunate that still today in 2019, so many students, LGBTQ students don't get to learn about LGBTQ topics and narratives until they're in Undergrad. That's obviously a really privileged position, not everyone attends college. I just think that's truly a disservice to students, and it's also harmful. So that was my one experience.
My second experience was last year at the end of my sixth year teaching for teacher appreciation week, one of my good friends who's a colleague had students write a letter to any teacher they had, just saying like, "Here's something you did that was important to me." I received so many letters from out queer kids just saying, kind of simply thanks for being an out teacher. It does give me a sense of... I'm not an optimist by nature, right, but it odes give me some kind of hope that students are ... Queer students are experiencing a different high school experience than I did.
Kate: That phrase you said of like that any time people hear things about LGBTQ people, it's something debatable is so intense. Back when I was in high school, it wasn't even debatable. It's like if there was a queer character in something, they were definitely evil and going to die. Do you know what mean? Like the only narrative that we saw growing up was that there was something really awful about queer people, and like to think again that, I'm also not an optimist by nature, but that that probably has changed for a lot of kids, but at the same time, there are places that we go to where that's not that different, or at least there's not enough representation.
Cody: Yeah, absolutely, and the school that I ... when finishing my final year of teaching, I've been there for six years and I'm in a part of Florida that is, it's a university town, but the surrounding areas are pretty rural. The town I grew up in is only about an hour away from where I teach now, and I'll do work sometimes, professional development with teachers that come from these rural schools, and we'll talk about the landscape and how it might be difficult. I always say, I was that rural queer kid, right. I needed a teacher like you and I didn't have that, and so what you're doing is powerful, it's not abstract, it's real. I think also important to know that queer people exist in rural areas.
Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. You can take a picture of the town that I grew up with in, not even a new smartphone camera, like an old school cell phone camera. I grew up in a village of 350 people. So yeah, just speaking to the rural kind of queer experience is, there's just not one way to be, right, in our community. There are so many prism ... Like it's a prism in terms of how many experiences there are. You have this, you were quoted saying that when you teach that you believe that curriculum is a living, breathing entity and the importance of knowing your kids and having them reflected in the curriculum and having them have authorship over that curriculum. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Cody: Yeah, absolutely. I borrowed that phrase from a phrase that often gets talked about in legal theory, that the constitution is an evolving document and kind of as society evolves, our understanding of the constitution should evolve. I think that's certainly applicable to curriculum as well, that the way we think about the world, we should be revising how we think about curriculum, so I think right now they're really important conversations happening around canonical texts and what does it mean, what is the Canon even mean? As we re-evaluate our understanding of concepts like the Canon, then we should also re-evaluate our curriculum. It's living and breathing.
But I also think when I say that comment, is I want students to take the stances we develop in class and the language we use in class, and apply it to any text. So I always love to say that everything is a text and everything can be read. Whether we're talking about a piece of young adult literature, a poem an Ariana Grande song, all of these are texts that are created in our culture and we should, the language we use to talk about I'm an Ariana Grande song, is the same kind of language we can use to talk about say a play.
And so I think it's just really important for students to think about no text existing in a vacuum. I also am always trying to find ways for students and I have to kind of co-construct our curriculum. And if for instance, we were reading a piece and it's a teacher selected piece and it's a short story about the role of family in our lives, let's say, then giving students a chance to say, what are the texts from your life that addresses this theme, and how are those kind of texts speak to each other? So maybe in this piece, here is how family is constructed, here's how we think of family, but in your favorite episode of a TV show, here's an episode that has us think about how families is constructed.
I guess to be more specific, last year we did a unit that looked at how the social construct of teenager has changed throughout history, and we read some nonfiction pieces about when the first concept of teenager came about, and then we actually watch some clips from shows starting with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Saved by the Bell, going all the way to Degrassi, all the way to On My Block. We watched Daria and we talked about how this view of the teenager has changed throughout time. Then students picked a text of their own, most of them did pick TV shows or movies and talked about here's how the construction of youth looks like. And they were co-constructing curriculum because they were picking texts that address the bigger theme, and they're also being in dialogue with the texts we read in class.
Maggie: That's just such an important concept to layer in with young people that we can study the construction of youth, and then we can study the construction of gender, and then we can study the construction of all these other labels or ways that we categorize ourself. And it speaks to your work of transferring that work across lots of different texts, which feels really powerful.
So, as you know, in our conversations we were talking about how one hope Maggie and I have for this podcast is to really speak to educators who want to do more, want to get started supporting LGBTQ youth, colleagues, themselves and schools, so if you were to name some things that you see that you think educators could do more of, what would be some advice you would give all of us?
Cody: I'd like to first talk about kind of two concepts that guide my thinking here. So Joe Herman, Wilmarth and Caitlin Ryan have a piece called Doing What You Can and it's about what can you do in classrooms to support LGBTQ students. I really love that piece because it's doing what you can, which recognizes the reality of your own context, but also that there is something you can do. Like you can do something, and I think that's really important to note.
The other piece is Jeff Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morell have a concept called Radical Pragmatism. And it's this idea that you have radical aims of restructuring what classrooms and schools look like, but you're pragmatic about it. So if the reality is you can only include LGBTQ books and book clubs, including that is something, and that pushes us a little bit closer to an equitable and just classroom than not doing that. Doing What You Can and Radical Pragmatism are two concepts that really frame my thinking around my work as a career educator, doing career affirming classroom work. Is it okay if I just kind of give some...
Maggie: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Maggie: I mean I love that. I think it's like what ... It's so interesting as a queer educator because I hear that and I'm like, yes. I think that is one of the obstacles we all feel some times to doing something is that the thing we're trying to end, or fight, or transform, or create seems so big and there are so many obstacles that are out of our hands that I think it's difficult sometimes for people to feel like I can take a first step here. Do you know what I mean? Like there is stuff I can do that I have control over that will make a big difference.
Cody: Sure, and I always want to acknowledge people's, you know, the kind of legal, the kind of policy landscape existent. I'm in Florida and we no longer have tenure protection for teachers, and so that does mean that if you do speak up and disrupt some homophobia that there could be repercussions. The last thing I want is for a new teacher who is fighting the good fight to lose their job, because that doesn't help anyone. And so, I always try to keep that at the forefront of my thinking.
One thing I think educators could do and especially for non LGBTQ educators, is really to educate themselves on LGBTQ contemporary topics and history. Because the reality is most of us who attend public schools in the United States didn't get LGBTQ history in their classrooms. I mean if we're lucky, maybe we had a really great teacher, some states now I believe Illinois, New Jersey and California require LGBT history, so that's three out of 50, which is a good start, we got a while to go, more than we had two years ago.
Maggie: It is.
Kate: And I will be the optimist is the room, yes, between the three of us, we'll take it, it's good.
Cody: I think that's important, is that one thing to do is to understand not just LGBTQ content so you can teach it in classrooms, but also understand LGBTQ history, because that's an important part of queer people's humanity. And so there's a lot of great podcasts that I'd like to suggest. Teaching Tolerance has a podcast called Queer America that's really wonderful and looks at different moments, kind of flashpoints in queer history, then unpacks them. And then three podcasts that talk about contemporary queer life that I really, really love. One is Strange Fruit, and it talks about a range of queer issues, including legal issues that are facing queer people, and it takes a sociological perspective and I really appreciate that.
Slate has a podcast called Outward that talks a lot about contemporary LGBTQ issues. Few weeks ago they did a really great episode that looked at Queer life historically in rural spaces. We often think of queer life and career culture and big urban metropolitan spaces, but this kind of looked at the history of queer people in rural spaces. And then the last podcast is Nancy, which is a queer focus podcast, and specifically there's one episode about LGBTQ educators, so teachers and administrators in public school systems, and I think that one's really good. That would be the first thing for educators, especially non LGBTQ educators, to really understand the history of LGBTQ people in this country.
Maggie: When you guide us to just holistically educating ourselves on the accomplishments and trials and systematic struggles or opportunities that a group of people has, it just helps take sometimes a two dimensional view on the LGBTQ community and gives us a 4D view on it. You know, just as a classroom teacher, even with these first few tips, Cody, it's so helpful to say there are just so many angles that we could take our work, and depending on where I stand as an educator, I might take a more like, let's just look at the legal stuff that affects this community. Or let me just permeate my classroom with lots of stories of diverse families that have all different types of family structures. Or let's look at queer people in rural spaces. And so just even in these first few tips, what I appreciate is just I see a huge root system growing from that suggestion of different avenues that I could go down as a classroom teacher.
Kate: And also that focus on, it's the internal work first. Like the idea that, you know, the tip you didn't give was hey educators, go find your gay friend and ask them lots of questions. There is enough out there on the internet, on podcasts, there's stuff out there to help me as a white person, get educated on the experience of people of color in this country. I don't need to ask my friends or my colleagues, I can do that homework myself. And it actually takes a lot of emotional labor off of a queer person shoulders if you don't ask them. Because if you ask them, they'll probably answer. Like how much have we answered questions in our life that we're like, "Oh okay, here we go." And it's fine, I'll do that work, but it's work, and you're suggesting we can educate ourselves.
Cody: Yeah, and I agree with you. There's always that kind of, when a non LGBTQ person asks a question, there's always that kind of first moment of like internal eye roll, and then you're like, okay, smile face, here we go ...
Maggie: And it's with love, and I'm glad you're asking, but still, okay, this is work, right.
Cody: Right. No, for sure, and I appreciate my non LGBTQ colleagues who will go and read, or research, or think about a book and then want to come and just talk about the topic, but not seeking me as like a resource, if that makes sense. Like, "Oh I read this thing, it was really cool, like here's what I'm thinking, what have you thought about it?" And I'm always down with that, because it's like you've done the work first.
Maggie: Yeah. And it just positions us all to do the work together as opposed to a single point conversation. Do you have any other suggestions or tips that we could take away from your work in the classroom?
Cody: Yeah. So, I do a lot of work with pre service teachers. I mentor a lot of pre service teachers when they're doing their internships, and something I always say is that you really have to always have a rationale for your work, but especially a rationale when it comes to including LGBTQ topics in classrooms. I could go on for hours about how I despise the standardized landscape that we're in, as I'm sure we all equally despise it as most educators do. However, it is the landscape that we're currently in now, and if we're going to constantly be asked to validate our work with standards and rationale, then I think we could use that language to advance the work we're doing.
I think that it's really important that whenever we're including LGBTQ texts and voices that were able to say, here's the kind of standards we're hitting and here's what we're doing with it. Because I also think that a lot of folks will use standards to kind of master homo and transphobia. I know of stories of teacher friends who will have administrators say, "Why are you teaching this? You should be doing the standards. We got to hit these standards." I think that my read of that is it's almost like using the standards as it is a ... No one wants to be seen as a homophobe, so instead it's like, well you need to be doing this instead of that. If you're able to say, "Well like here's how I work, its the standards, here's the ideas we're hitting," it provides you with a shot against that criticism.
One thing I really appreciate is both... curriculum material and teaching tolerance's curriculum material always align their work with the common core standards. And I think from my end that's really intentional, to say if you try to, if you get hit with someone saying, "Why are you doing this? What are your standards?"
You can say, "Here they are."
Almost like the standards as a shield against potential pushback.
Maggie: And also just giving your teaching a ton of context too. Like my teaching has context with the standards, my teaching has context with empathy and humanity, my teaching has context for the contemporary issues that our kids are living. And even just kind of like role playing that conversation of, you know, in the faculty lounge of let me just talk about my lesson in terms of different frameworks feels really empowering for me as a teacher and helps me feel really grounded in those decisions that I'm making in the curriculum.
Kate: Okay. Cody, I think we have time for one more suggestion.
Cody: So, if it's okay if I talk a little about in the English context, if I could talk a little-
Kate: Please do.
Cody: Two things in this kind of realm of the English context. One is, the importance of young adult literature, especially as more young adult literature is being written by, and written for Queer youth. Folks like Mark Oshiro, Sara Farizan , Adam Silvera, just to name a few, have some really great books out and I feel like every year there's more and more really great high quality LGBTQ young adult literature being written and published. I think that one way to include that work is to include it in literature circles.
If you're doing a literature circle around a major theme like family for instance, and your selection of books, you can include LGBTQ books that students can choose. I think that's one way to also navigate some pushback, is that if you have an angry parent that doesn't want these included in the classroom, you can say, "Well, you know your student doesn't have to read it. They can take and pick something else."
Now I'll say I struggle with this stance a lot because in classrooms all across this country, you require all students to read heteronormative narratives all the time. And I think what message do we send when we say LGBTQ text will be part of literature circles and therefore a choice. But I also know, again, the political reality of schools and if the only way we can get LGBTQ books in is through literature circles, I'd rather have them than not have them.
And then the second thing is about the Canon. I get that some teachers are tied to certain texts because of standards, context and AP courses, et Cetera, but I also think there's ways that we can kind of queer these texts. If you're reading Romeo and Juliet, you can offer students like a project that lets them make a text connection, so they can connect to a film, a movie and other book, and they can bring in texts from their own life that center LGBTQ characters to make connections to those themes in Romeo and Juliet.
And when we're thinking about the cannon and the debate around the cannon and canonical text, something that I would turn teachers to look at is the #DisruptTexts, which was a movement started by Julia Torres, Lorena Germán, Tricia Ebarvia and Kim Parker. It's a grassroots movement that really challenge us to think about how do we disrupt this notion of the cannon for racial, gender, justice, also justice for LGBTQ people. That's a movement that I think is really important to think about... those teachers.
Kate: Yeah, and DisruptTexts has great format on Twitter too for the busy person in the world, because they do these solo chats right, where it's like it takes, you can take it across the entire week so you don't have to be at a Twitter chat at a certain time. You can just enter into the conversation when you want to, which is really, I think, empowering for a lot of educators.
Cody: Yeah, absolutely. And sj Miller, who is a really great English ed scholar also has some articles that talk about the importance of young adult literature and AP courses and SJ's article kind of talk about what that could look like, so that's another good resource too for English teachers.
Maggie: Thank you for that.
Kate: Thank you Cody. This is all super practical and also big. These little moves that we can make that can make I think huge differences in our kids' lives, in our teacher's lives, in our school lives, which means it's time. Do you want to say that?
Maggie: I think we are at time for the closing five. Hey, high fiving, high fiving. Cody we have five questions that we like to ask all of our guests here at the podcast. My first question to you is you'll never see me without my ...
Cody: Worn out messenger bag.
Maggie: I think I want to get pictures of what everybody says and put them above the podcast so that it's like you're emblematic item. That's beautiful. How long have you had this a messenger bag?
Cody: I think the version I'm on now is four years. They normally go through four year cycles.
Maggie: Okay. Okay. We could do a whole podcast on messenger bags to be honest with you, because I am obsessed with bags.
Cody: I guess like that answers it's, you'll never see me without, but at one point there are new messenger bags, so I guess at that point you'll see me with a newer model of that one.
Maggie: All right, well currently it's your beautifully worn out messenger bag. What's your favorite article of clothing?
Cody: It's so cliche, but a cardigan.
Kate: Oh, that's so good though.
Cody: Yeah, tried and true, right.
Maggie: For a long time my nickname was "old man super cool," because all I did was wear cardigans and I'm always a little grumpy, so I feel that. I feel a club forming, Old man Super Cool Cardigan carrying, cardigan wearing, messenger bag carrying. Cody, what was your first concert?
Cody: It was journey, but without Steve Perry.
Kate: Oh, so sad.
Cody: I think I was in like sixth grade and my parents took me to it, so yeah [inaudible 00:26:37].
Kate: I mean, you should be proud of how sad that is.
Cody: Yeah, yeah. [inaudible 00:26:43]i was like oh I love Steve perry, and I'm like well, he wasn't there.
Maggie: He wasn't there. Your first queer icon.
Cody: Marco from the show Degrassi, The next generation.
Cody: Who later becomes a teacher in this show, and the actor who plays him is in a really cheesy gay Christmas movie called Make the Yuletide Gay.
Kate: I like everything you're saying right now. This might actually be the best thing you've offered on the podcast.
Cody: You have to watch it. It's from, I don't know, 2010 maybe. My boyfriend and I watch it for like the past, I don't know, six or seven years during Christmas. So it's really-
Kate: I mean, we're going to get it on rotation. I've written it down, it's happening.
Cody: It's very cheesy, but like-
Kate: Listeners everywhere are thanking you for this.
Cody: Yeah, you're welcome. And also, Degrassi, for me is such an important show.
Maggie: Current queer icon?
Cody: Representative Sharice Davids of Kansas.
Maggie: I'm clapping right now.
Kate: Yes, love it, beautiful.
Maggie: Cody thank you so much for your time and your wisdom. It feel like you opened the door of your classroom in this podcast and we just walked in. We thank you so much for sharing what's in your heart and what's in your work with the students down in Florida.
Cody: Thank you so much for having me.
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Cody Miller has taught high school English for the past seven years. He predominantly taught at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the public K-12 lab school affiliated with the University of Florida's College of Education. Starting in the fall 2019, he will be an assistant professor of English education at The College at Brockport, State University of New York. In 2016 he was awarded the Award for Excellence in Teaching from Teaching Tolerance in and in 2019 he was acknowledged as one of the 30 Under 30 literacy educators by the International Literacy Association. In addition to teaching, he has developed and lead professional development for teachers on a range of topics including LGBTQ-affirming pedagogies.
Kate 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.
Maggie 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