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LGBTQ Teachers Walk a Tightrope BU author calls for new ethos in our classrooms

Age-appropriate, scientifically accurate sexuality education, starting in elementary school, would help counter cultural assumptions about LGBTQ people, BU’s Catherine Connell argues. Photo courtesy of Connell

June, a lesbian high school teacher in Los Angeles, proudly marched in an LGBTQ pride parade, exulting in the young people who attended and telling BU’s Catherine Connell that she was “proud to be a gay teacher.”

Yet just a few days later, at her school, a noticeably subdued June greeted Connell, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of sociology. A classroom discussion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had prompted one of June’s students to exclaim, “Huck Finn was a f—ing faggot!” June was torn: as a teacher whose students knew her sexual orientation, she felt badly that she hadn’t confronted the student. Yet she didn’t want to be known as a “gay teacher”—her march day remarks notwithstanding—but rather as a teacher who happens to be gay. 

Recounting June’s dilemma, Connell concludes that there is a “fundamental incompatibility between the demands of contemporary LGBT politics, which center on the ethos of gay pride, and the norms of teaching professionalism, which expect teachers…to be cautious and self-disciplining about their personal—and sexual—lives.” That’s from Connell’s new book, School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom (University of California Press, 2014). After interviewing and observing gay teachers in California and Texas—the former bans discrimination against gays statewide, the latter does not—Connell found that teachers sometimes can’t manage this conflict and quit the profession altogether.

Connell’s book calls for a radical rethinking of classroom culture.

BU Today: Can you discuss the various strategies teachers use for navigating the conflict between sexual identity and professionalism, and the shortcomings you see in each?

Connell: Strategies fall into three basic categories that I call splitting, knitting, and quitting.

Splitters attempt to keep a strict division between their identities as teachers and as gays/lesbians. Imagine dropping off your sexual identity (and along with it, much of your personal biography) at the schoolhouse doors and trying to pick it back up at the end of the day. Knitters try to weave together their professional and sexual identities into a cohesive whole by bringing their sexual identities and politics into the classroom in different ways. Quitters find the process of splitting too arduous and the process of knitting too risky, so they leave classroom instruction by either moving into administration or out of the profession entirely.

Each has significant drawbacks. Splitters feel stressed, exhausted, and often guilty from the work of keeping their professional and personal worlds separate. Knitters put themselves at very significant risk for discrimination, harassment, and job termination. Quitters have to give up their jobs, and often their professional goals, to avoid the conflict.

What’s the solution?

If there were federal protections in place for LGBTQ workers, it would go a long way toward lowering the stakes of disclosure for teachers who want to take that path. Further, we need to reconsider the outdated and anti-gay assumptions that underlie the expectations of teaching professionalism, which hurt not only LGBTQ teachers, but also contribute to school environments that feel unsafe and unwelcome for LGBTQ students and perpetuate homophobic and hetero-normative attitudes in their peers.

The problem doesn’t lie squarely with schools. The one-size-fits-all model of gay pride that demands disclosure is harmful in its own way. Relying on coming out as the primary mode of sexual justice is too individualistic; our focus should really be on the ways that anti-gay and anti-trans sentiment and policy are woven into the fabric of our most sacred institutions and social rituals.

How many LGBTQ teachers quit the job?

We don’t have that data, but we do know that LGBTQs face significant workplace discrimination and harassment, and that this contributes to job dissatisfaction, turnover, and underemployment of LGBTQ workers more generally. For teachers, who are held to very conservative expectations of on-the-job comportment, I would imagine these negative outcomes are amplified. In fact, teachers are under a microscope even when they aren’t on the clock; formal and informal morality clauses that dictate teachers’ public and even private behavior are still common in the profession.

Could you summarize your argument that the campaign for LGBTQ rights winds up reinforcing discrimination?

I wouldn’t say that LGBTQ rights, per se, reinforce discrimination, but I do think that some of the tactics of today’s rights campaigns further marginalize a subsection of the community. Whereas the gay liberation politics of 50 years ago embraced an ethics of difference, resistance, and revolution, the contemporary gay rights movement has taken a turn toward emphasizing sameness, normalcy, and incorporation into the status quo. LGBTQs who don’t want to—or can’t—fit into this normalizing project are not just being left behind, they’re often being told that they are the problem! Rather than discourage teachers from “acting gay” and encourage them to act and look just like their straight counterparts to get by, why can’t we question the institutional and professional norms that limit us to acting and looking just one way?

I am all for celebrating LGBTQ people! I’m just suspicious of limiting the celebratory spotlight to those who appear “normal.” I do expect that some people will feel that doing so is a necessary, strategic compromise on the road to broader rights and acceptance for all, and I respect that. I’m just perhaps more skeptical and cynical about the outcomes of such a compromise.

What do you mean when you suggest in your book that we take “more seriously the idea of children’s own sexual agency” and that “children have a right to the world of sexuality?”

Part of what sustains the pride/professionalism dilemma is the cultural assumption that children should be shielded from knowledge of LGBTQ genders/sexualities, that this knowledge will be corrupting, confusing, even dangerous for children. That assumption ignores, of course, the existence of LGBTQ children, and it also underestimates all kids’ capacities for understanding the existence of LGBTQ people. The belief that children are asexual and ignorant of sexuality is so pervasive in our culture, it’s very difficult for many of us to accept any suggestion to the contrary.

But I do believe that children should be given more credit as sexual subjects. In practice, this might mean, among other things, incorporating age-appropriate, scientifically accurate sexuality education into K-12 curriculum in ways that would both respect their right to sexual knowledge and set them up to make truly empowered and informed decisions about sex and sexuality later in life.

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Making Transitions Work For Students And Teachers

Some of the most challenging moments in a teacher’s day are during transitions—those moments when we move between academic subject areas or activities. Students may see transitions as an opportunity to release tension built up after long periods of passive instruction. Teachers, on the other hand, generally want short and efficient transitions from one activity to another.

These differing needs can lead to conflict. Students may be frustrated that they have little opportunity for social conversation or individual self-care. Teachers may be frustrated that their transitions are taking too long precisely because kids are indulging in social conversation or individual self-care.

But we may be missing an opportunity here. After all, what students are craving is the opportunity to relate to one another positively and practice self-management by giving themselves a break between sessions. These are important social and emotional learning (SEL) skill areas, and transitions can easily be infused with SEL skills practice. Let’s think together about how we can create transitions that fulfill both our needs and the needs of our students.

The Teacher’s Need for Efficient Transitions

How many of us have stopped instruction to remind students to refrain from side conversations? It’s a frustrating experience for any teacher. Because presentational instruction is often more effective and efficient when students are silent, some of us conclude that students should be silent during transitions as well. But what creates effective and efficient transitions is clarity, not silence. We need to consider the possibility that transitions could involve talking, laughing, moving joyfully, or listening to music and still be efficient, if we are clear about what should be happening in the transition.

Understanding Student Needs

Classroom climate is determined by the quality of the relationships in the room. Positive relationships make everyone feel safe and supported, which, as research tells us, increases academic performance. Our students’ urge to have social conversations throughout the day speaks to this need. In addition, sitting still and absorbing information for long periods is truly challenging for many students, as it is for many adults. In addition to connecting positively with their peers, students may need a chance to cultivate their own self-management skills by engaging in some type of self-care between long periods of passive academic instruction.

Meeting Teacher and Student Needs

If we accept that our need for efficient transitions and our students’ needs for social conversation and self-care are equally valid, we can look at transitions as an opportunity to provide everyone with more of what they need. We just need to provide some guidance about what kind of social conversation or self-care students can engage in during transitions.

Sometimes kids simply need a break between activities. These breaks can be as short as two or three minutes. The more autonomy that we provide during breaks, the more willing students will be to join us in the next planned activity. Consider providing a menu of break activities and let students choose. You could allow them to chat with friends quietly, draw, write in their journal, listen to music using headphones, daydream, or stretch or move around in some other way—especially helpful between sedentary tasks.

Sometimes, you may want to suggest transition activities that address the particular needs of the moment. For instance:

Failure And Resilience Might Be The Best Teachers

Successful Thinking: Learning from past failures and using personal intuition are crucial factors of success, says L’Oréal Australia and New Zealand CEO Rodrigo Pizarro.

The past few years have been difficult for companies and leaders globally. However, for L’Oréal Australia and New Zealand CEO Rodrigo Pizarro, his family background of entrepreneurship and resilience in Portugal helped him to not only pivot the cosmetic and skincare company’s focus during the global pandemic, but to significantly grow the company.

Pizarro, who has led the local arm of the global cosmetics and its 40 brands for eight years, says during the pandemic, listening intently to his employees and customers and acting promptly “ahead of the trends” was an important part of the company’s success.

Under Pizarro’s leadership, L’Oreal has transformed into a leading digital business, with a strong focus on data analytics and AI. Every employee at the company in Australia and New Zealand has undergone a data literacy program to enable them to make data-centric decisions, Pizarro says.

L’Oreal Group, the French parent company of L’Oreal Australia and NZ, reported revenue of 18.6 billion euros ($28.5 billion) for the first six month of 2023, an increase of almost 20% on the previous corresponding period. In Australia, the company experienced double-digit growth in the second quarter of 2023.

What was the most formative thing in your childhood that made you want to succeed in business?

Seeing my father’s journey over his working years. Seeing him succeed, fail, succeed once more, only to fail again three times. The first two times as a senior executive in two different organisations, the third while running his own business.

I have learned from all moments, but mostly from his failures. I have learned about resilience – it’s not how you fall but how you get back up. I learned about trust, or better, when not to trust.

How have you managed to build L’Oréal Australia and its stable of around 40 brands despite a challenging market?

First and foremost, I have surrounded myself with an incredible team of talented people who are skilled in their respective fields and positions. As the CEO, it’s my job to ensure that our people are nurtured professionally and personally. For me, it’s about keeping my eyes on the future – anticipating and creating a vision of what will keep us at the forefront of the market. A few imperative things that come to mind include our strong focus on data and analytics, growth of technological and digital innovations … and of course, robust sustainability initiatives.

When choosing what trends to back, what’s your decision-making process?

Trends, by definition, come and go. Yes, we can surf them on the short term, but to be successful long-term we need to identify what the behaviours are that are here to stay and over-invest in them. To establish what these are, we need to be constantly listening to our consumers and employees and tuned in to the overall vision of the industry and key opinion leaders within it. Lastly, we all need a little bit of luck.

“I have learned about resilience – it’s not how you fall but how you get back up. I learned about trust, or better, when not to trust.”

– L’Oreal Australia and NZ CEO Rodrigo Pizarro

What characteristic of yourself do you think is underrated by other people?

I have a very strong vision and intuition about business growth drivers. I can identify quickly, in different circumstances … major opportunities for growth and the developments needed to drive significant transformations that will allow that growth.

This skill is also very useful in moments of crisis where I can keep my cool and see the ways out of it, anticipate and commit in decision making.

This was the case through Covid, focusing on people and making successive decisions initially to ensure their health and safety, but later to perfectly balance the employee wellbeing, motivation and productivity.

Is there anything in your daily routine that keeps you sharp, sane and motivated?

Exercise. I start my day in the gym … to release adrenaline and get my body and mind ready for the everyday challenges of life. In my personal time, I like going on bicycle rides with my son, and being active by enjoying sports together.

If you had $10,000 to invest, perhaps for a niece of nephew, where would you invest it?

I like to take risks, so I would invest if in NFT, or property in the Meta world – it’s the future.

This is an edited version of the conversation.

How School Leaders Can Rebalance Teachers’ Job Demands And Resources

Teachers are experiencing increasing demands on their time and decreasing resources to meet those demands. Here’s a way to put things back in balance.

Teachers have always felt like the balance at work was tenuous: It often feels like there is insufficient time, too many changes, and too many students with complex needs for one teacher to handle alone. Yet teachers generally found a way to persist and maintain their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

This past year, things felt different. Prognosticators who imagined the year would be easier than the previous one were sadly mistaken. School shootings. Security threats at school board meetings. Covid fatigue. Insufficient pay. Insufficient support. As teachers struggle with the combined weight of these issues, it has led to a greater physical, psychological, and emotional imbalance for our nation’s educators than ever before.

There are real costs to the stress that teachers are currently experiencing. In the National Education Association’s November 2023 teacher survey, 55 percent stated that they were more likely to leave the profession early, up from 28 percent in July 2023. Ninety percent of teachers in the same survey stated that they perceived burnout as somewhat or very serious. The RAND 2023 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey found that, compared with the general population, a higher percentage of teachers reported frequent job-related stress and depression symptoms.

To establish and maintain a highly effective teaching staff, we must acknowledge that management practices profoundly affect our educators. As important as instructional leadership is, it will not resolve teachers’ professional imbalance between job demands and available resources. Emotional leadership, or leadership that tends to the social and emotional well-being of adults in schools, is explicitly aimed at balancing job demands and resources so that teachers can experience a state of well-being at work. Emotional leadership might help address the current state of imbalance for teachers.

The Demand-Resources Equation

Consider an equation that places job demands on one side and job resources on the other. When job demands outpace job resources, imbalance emerges, negatively impacting teachers. For instance, increased stress levels can lead to decreased job performance, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment. All of those factors raise the potential for increased burnout and attrition, which flow downhill to impact children.

Job demands this year included teaching children as well as stressors like awareness of school safety or the potential consequences of using a controversial book. Potential resources, in this context, include intangible supporting dynamics like time, job control, social support, or supportive leadership. When resources are lacking, teachers are more prone to stress and begin to experience burnout.

The long-term consequences of imbalance are pervasive and expensive, both economically and personally. Imbalance costs school districts directly for physical and mental health treatment expenses; in the long term, imbalance becomes even more expensive due to increased insurance premium costs, diminished productivity, and turnover.

Creating a Better Balance

Kenneth Leithwood, a leadership professor at the University of Toronto, identifies four school leadership “paths”: the rational, organizational, family, and emotional paths. The first three relate to leaders’ investing time and resources in instruction, operations, and relationships. The emotional path, however, is rarely addressed. Emotional leadership brings increased balance by centering the emotional path, tending to the emotional needs of the community that can result from the stresses of job imbalances.

So, how might an emotionally attuned leader work to balance the demand-resource equation?

Subtracting demands: First, as leaders, we need to learn to subtract. It is easy to believe that we need to add more programs to address some of the deficiencies from the past few years. Our leadership brains tell us overwhelmingly to add, but this mindset increases demands on teachers’ time, focus, and energy. Instead, school leaders need to think longer-term and consider subtracting demands in the following ways:

Decrease demands on a teacher’s mental energy. As a school campus, focus on achieving one essential school improvement goal, like getting all students back on grade level. Then, see whether that focus has a greater impact than if you were focusing on four to six goals. From an emotional leadership standpoint, this strategy can decrease stress and burnout and increase teachers’ sense of efficacy by minimizing the need to juggle multiple priorities.

Reduce demands on teacher time. Audit each demand placed on the teachers that does not directly impact the essential goal you identified above, and suspend it for a time to see what happens. Look at all your meetings, reports, and testing dates and ruthlessly ask, “If we didn’t do this anymore, would it hurt our students?” If yes, keep it; if no, pause it. You can always add things back in. You are trying to free up time for teachers to feel like they have more control over their lives. For instance, allow teachers to use their planning times for actual planning as much as possible. Again, from an emotional leadership standpoint, this strategy can decrease stress and burnout and buffer teacher time for more focus on students.

Explicitly state what is not important. This clarity is key: After you reduce the number of goals for teachers, you must also clarify what teachers do not need to worry about completing. Providing focus means not just reducing the number of demands you make on teachers but also making plain which previously held demands can now float off their radar.

Increasing resources for support: After subtracting demands, consider increasing resources if the equation still isn’t in balance.

Return as many decisions as possible back to teachers, especially when it comes to their students. Job control is the largest factor that helps teachers feel satisfied with their work. From an emotional leadership standpoint, giving more control back to teachers can help develop more trust and job satisfaction.

Research has shown that teachers need supportive leadership to build trust, self-efficacy, and motivation. Leaders must learn to support these common emotional needs most frequently mentioned as important to teacher well-being. These can be supported by leaders who learn how to recognize when they are low and build them through leadership actions such as reinforcing the meaning of being a teacher or helping them manage stressful situations.

Teachers may be in the midst of a great resignation, and there is little mystery why. Teachers have led unbalanced lives for too long, and administrators have neglected to provide tools for balancing job demands and resources. By subtracting demands and supporting teachers with more resources, school leaders can increase the satisfaction and commitment of teachers to their profession.

Teachers Become Students As Bu Hosts Institute To Address Adolescent Well

Teachers Become Students as BU Hosts Institute to Address Adolescent Well-Being

Poet laureate Robert Pinsky speaks to a room full of educators as part of a National Endowment of the Humanities-funded summer institute July 13 at COM. The program will run from July 10-22 and will focus on adolescent friendships as viewed through popular media such as books, TV, and film. Photo by Cydney Scott


Teachers Become Students as BU Hosts Institute to Address Adolescent Well-Being Codirectors Karen Harris and Stephan Ellenwood say the program is helping teachers address “a major concern”

All eyes have been on students since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic back in the spring of 2023, as reports from across the country outline the decline in emotional well-being in school-age children. 

“It’s harder for [students] to make new friends now,” says Chris Watkins, who teaches high school English in Chattanooga, Tenn. “They’ve been out of practice with actual socialization and they seem to struggle, or be reluctant.”

Photo courtesy of Karen Harris

For educators like Karen Harris (Wheelock’92), it didn’t take a pandemic to understand that students need more institutional support when it comes to their inner lives—which she made her mission as an English teacher at Brookline High School’s School Within a School program. Her class, Friendship and Literature, examined the bonds young people have with one another by looking at texts such as The Great Gatsby and Toni Morrison’s Sula. She says the curriculum is designed to give students tools to unlock their own emotional languages.

“We had one whole block conversation about boys crying, and how they felt they weren’t allowed to cry except in these very specific ‘bro’ moments,” Harris says. “And we were able to unpack it and look at why that might be.”

The program’s growing popularity among students showed Harris she was onto something; after leaving her teaching position in 2023 to write full-time—and witnessing the pandemic’s havoc on her own high school–aged children—she felt the urgency to pass on what she’d developed with colleagues at BU and in Brookline High School.

In 2023, Harris was awarded $168,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to hold a summer institute at BU, which she titled, Friendship and Identity in Literature, Film, and Adolescence. Harris partnered up with Stephan Ellenwood, a Wheelock associate professor emeritus and, in her words, a “mentor-slash-pseudo-dad,” to codirect the program.

“In fleshing out all my narrative and my rationale for the application, I came to believe even more and more in this class,” Harris says.

On July 10, 25 high school English teachers, including Tennessee’s Watkins, arrived at BU to attend the two-week institute. The attendees, who lived on campus for the duration of the program, comprised a wide range of English teachers—from first-year educators to 25-year veterans at public, private, and charter schools around the country.

“You really couldn’t ask for a more diverse group,” says Alexandra Patterson, a program attendee from Mercersburg, Pa.

With a curriculum ranging from Sula to Aristotle, and a roster of visiting lecturers, such as Niobe Way (author of Deep Secrets) and Lashon Daley (author of Black Girl Lit), the program was, according to Ellenwood, a testament to Harris’ ingenuity.

“Karen’s teaching strategies are based on stories that provide students with a vocabulary for creating and maintaining important relationships and friendships,” he says. “She has tapped into a major concern among adolescents.”

Attending teachers quickly learned that the program wasn’t designed to impact just students—they benefited, as well. For some, it was the first time they’d had any meaningful professional development since before the pandemic, or the ability to discuss texts and share skills in person.

“So much professional development was happening online and it’s a lot more lecture based,” says Patterson. “It’s a lot more like ‘Here’s some resources,’ and much less collaboration and conversation. Here we’re getting ideas from each other and collaboration, and that’s what we value right now.”

Educators Alexandra Patterson, from left, Michele Hettinger, and Stella Lehane during a National Endowment of the Humanities-funded summer institute July 13 at COM. The program will run from July 10-22 and will focus on adolescent friendships as viewed through popular media such as books, TV, and film. Photo by Cydney Scott

For others, it was healing to step out of the role of educator and be a student again. “Things like this [institute] are really powerful, because we get to be students for a couple of weeks,” says Lindsey Thompson of Kansas City, Mo. “We get to have the same experience that we want our students to have.”

On July 13, former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, visited the institute. When it came to teaching emotional literacy to students, his message was simple: “You don’t start out with what it means—you start out with how it feels.”

He told an anecdote about his grandson, with whom he shared the poems of Wallace Stevens while the young man was in COVID quarantine. Pinsky noted that his grandson initially struggled to grasp the poem, “The Pleasures of Merely Circulating,” but patience, encouragement, and the power of their bond, he says, “made a Wallace Stevens fan” out of him.

Harris says the institute was constructed so that visiting speakers like Pinsky could provide a theoretical framework for “friendship studies,” while her role was to help guide the curriculum model into practice.

“I’m not a friendship expert, per se—that’s why I’m having these scholars come,” she says. “But I know how to design courses. I’m giving [attendees] the primer, and lots of research that I’ve read, curating and sharing stuff with them, in the hopes that they’ll dig into what makes sense for them.”

Early in the program, the attendees assembled into small teams with the objective of designing a curriculum around friendship and literature. On the program’s final day, the teams presented them to their peers. Each shared curricular goals and suggested reading materials and facilitated a group activity, again allowing the participating teachers to see things through their students’ eyes.

According to Harris, these conversations were some of the most vital during their short time together:

“You can’t get away from it, especially in the humanities: you’re the leading curriculum,” she says. “I don’t want teachers to forget that they are part of the curriculum.”

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A Passion For Projects: Students Have A Voice — And A Choice

“When students talk about their own work, they get so excited,” says May, who is currently president of the Washington State Board of Education . She was struck, too, by the amount of effort the young people — even those with a tendency to slack off — put into their projects because they were able to choose a subject about which they were passionate, were allowed to take learning wherever they pleased, and knew they were going to present their work publicly to local experts and community members.

Traveling to a few high schools that had adopted “project-based” and “performance-based” learning, committee member Bobbie May remembers her pleasure at seeing how enthusiastic the students were as they presented their projects to peers, teachers, and visitors.

It was the early 1990s, and a Washington state education reform committee was investigating what learning looks like when students are allowed to choose the subjects of long-term, cross-disciplinary projects.

Impressed by what they saw, the committee recommended that the state require students to complete a culminating project that demonstrates growth in key academic areas as a graduation requirement. “We specifically stayed away from a senior project and called it a culminating project because we’re hopeful it will show progress over time,” says May.

In 2001, the state Board of Education accepted the committee’s recommendation and voted to put the requirement into effect in 2004 with the incoming freshman class that graduates in 2008. The board also totally revamped teacher certification programs so that teachers would be prepared for a performance-based system. May credits the Legislature’s patience (“They didn’t expect miracles in two or three years!”) with allowing for an orderly process and providing sufficient time to win support and build a strong foundation of teacher knowledge.

A Good Fit

The culminating project proposal fit nicely with four educational goals outlined by the Washington Legislature in the 1990s: mastery of reading, writing, and communication; knowing and applying the core concepts of math, the social, physical, and life sciences, civics and history, geography, the arts, and health and fitness; thinking analytically and creatively and integrating experience and knowledge to form reasoned judgments and to solve problems; and understanding the importance of work.

The “how” of implementing culminating project requirements is left up to local districts. Lake Washington is among a handful of school districts that already have a culminating graduation requirement in place. Technology is an integral element of every project.

“Technology should be a natural component of everything [students] do,” says Heather Sinclair, district director of secondary curriculum and staff development for Lake Washington. “It should be a natural tool they use on a day-to-day basis. It shouldn’t be something that is scary or contrived. It should be authentic and realistic.”

PowerPoint ® is becoming routine. Students also make videos using digital cameras and movie editing software. They burn their own CDs. They use the Internet to converse with their mentors and conduct research. One student created a steam engine out of Plexiglas; another used computer-aided design (CAD) software to design a sailboat.

Because students choose their own projects, the nature of their study is as varied as the teenagers themselves. Projects can range from working with real scientists on the Human Genome Project and sharing their experience through video or written reports to writing and producing a play or building a “battlebot” robot and explaining how it was built and how it works. One Lake Washington student who suffers from dyslexia conducted research on the disease and then used this information to work with younger boys with dyslexia.

But endorsing projects alone is not enough, some educators warn. Despite her belief that “the most powerful way to learn something is to use it,” educational consultant and former Washington high school teacher Eeva Reeder says she would “have a hard time arguing in favor of [a project graduation requirement] unless it’s done right.”

Reeder, who has created project assessment rubrics for several districts, knows firsthand the difficulty of creating projects and assessments of those projects that challenge students and measure important skills. She had her geometry students design a Year 2050 school that was judged by local architects.

There’s a big difference, Reeder says, between rebuilding a car for the first time and rebuilding it for the tenth. She says teachers and students need to be clear on a long list of assessment criteria — from extending the student’s knowledge to demonstrating analytical, logical, and creative thinking to effective background research and evidence of initiative. It also means starting substantive project-based learning in the early grades.

But done right, Reeder says, the culminating project “has the potential to be the single most powerful change agent in the school.”

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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