January 23, 2008
Would Proposed Limit on Discussing Homosexuality in Tenn. Schools Permit Bullying?
As a former public high school English teacher, I appreciate the everyday conversations that "spring up" in the middle of class. For instance, a conversation about a poem could prompt a student to make a comparison to his or her religion or even his or her sexual orientation.
In fact, such analogies are generally encouraged, as students begin to develop a sense of independent thought and an ability to engage in critical thinking. Normally, under these circumstances, the teacher is more of a facilitator than an "instructor"--guiding the students' comments to further a vibrant classroom discussion. It is not the teacher's job to silence a student when he or she expresses an independent (and usually very thoughtful) comparison to his or her own life or experiences. However, sometimes, the teacher may find him or herself guiding the discussion further by asking the participating student questions like, "That is an interesting analogy, can you explain your thoughts a bit more?" Or "Yes, I can see the connection there. Do you think the author intended for the reader to make connections between the character and the reader's own life experiences? How so? Or "How does the protagonist's struggle with his or her own identity connect to you as a modern reader?"
Is the teacher, in this instance, "instructing" the students about the student-initiated new topic or theme, such as religion or sexual preference? If so, a proposed Tennessee law would stifle such conversations. See First Amendment Law Blog for a link to the full text of the proposed bill aimed at forbidding "instruction or materials on any sexuality other than heterosexuality."
Similarly, as a high school teacher, I made a point of enforcing the classroom rule about "respecting others" by forbidding students from bullying classmates. The rule also applied to bullying on the basis of perceived homosexuality. Would a discussion with a student, reprimanding him or her for pushing another student and/or calling him or her epithets due to the other student's sexuality, be considered "instruction" on homosexuality? If so, this law would permit the school to ignore bullying and potentially violate other laws protecting student well-being.
For more information about laws that protect students from bullying based on sexual orientation in public schools, see NCLR publication "Fifteen Expensive Reasons Why Safe Schools Legislation is in Your State's Best Interest." & NCLR publication "Harassment & Discrimination: A Legal Overview."
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