October 01, 2019

NYSUT book tasting event celebrates inclusivity in education and literature

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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book tasting panelists
Caption: Panelists shared personal stories and info about how to make LGBTQ faculty and students feel safe and welcomed in school. Photo by Andrew Watson.

In the fall, there are opportunities for wine tastings, cider doughnut tastings, apple tastings — and now, book tastings. That’s what was happening at NYSUT over the weekend, as educators and community members came together for a night of “conversation, celebration and inspiration.”

During the event, a panel of educators, a civil service worker and a transgender teenager shared info about how to make LGBTQ faculty and students feel safe and welcomed in school. Participants also received a free book to “taste.”

Teen panelist Aryn Bucci-Mooney said just seeing a triangle symbol on a teacher or counselor’s door, indicating that it is a safe space, “makes a huge difference” in helping LGBTQ students feel comfortable about themselves.

Mooney said he has felt comfortable changing now in the boy’s locker room, but another transgender friend, who has a different body type and is not as assertive, has been bullied.

“He doesn’t really have a space to change,” Bucci-Mooney said.

When asked what school staff can do to help all students feel safe in regards to gender expression, Bucci-Mooney said, “It’s really important for staff to step up and let students know that you’re all different from each other.”

Suggestions throughout the panel discussion included:

  • Avoid lining up students as “boys vs. girls.”
  • Eliminate hall, bathroom or library passes that say “boy” or “girl.”
  • When teachers hand out “getting to know you” papers that ask students about their interests, work, etc., they could include asking students what is there preferred pronoun.
  • Provide gender-neutral bathrooms.
  • Include transgender people, non-binary people and drag queens in classroom and hallway school posters of people who are esteemed in society.
  • Avoid using “ladies and gentlemen” during announcements or “brothers and sisters” as solidarity references for unions.
  • Expand resources and books available in the school library.

School librarians Alicia Abdul and Kristin Majkut, Albany Public School Teachers Association, hang up signs and posters, and host diverse authors and speakers.

“The more we hear other voices, it’s better for everyone,” said Abdul.

“There’s an explosion of resources. It’s an exciting time for school libraries,” said Majkut. She said plot lines used to be predictable: “Someone’s going to find out I’m gay, and I’ll be in trouble.” Now there are many diverse themes and story lines.

One of Aryn’s two moms, teacher Gina Mooney of the South Colonie TA, said students are allowed to ask teachers to call them by a name different than their given name. Some ask teachers not to disclose this to unsupportive parents. She shared how one student went back and forth among different names as a gender fluid person, and she urged teachers to “just listen.”

“A flippant attitude can just crush a child,” Mooney said.

Thea MacFawn, North Colonie TA, said GLSN, an education organization promoting inclusive schools, provides a guide for policy development in schools.

Transgender panelist Owen Gilbo, 55, who is working for the state, said he never heard the word transgender until 2009 “but I knew when I was four that I was a boy. I didn’t have a word for it until I was 45.”

The books at the book tasting were purchased through a grant from former NYSUT Executive Vice President Catalina Fortino, which is earmarked to promote LGBTQ inclusivity across the state.

Colorful copies of picture books for grades K–2, and books for middle and high school, were available, including Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, illustrated in gouache, watercolor and ink on brown paper to tell the story of a young boy’s dream of dressing like a mermaid.

It Feels Good to Be Yourself by Theresa Thorn, Zenophobia July by Lisa Bunker, and The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater were also given away.

The event was modeled after the National Education Association’s Day of Reading, as part of its human rights campaign in support of transgender and non-binary youth.

“NYSUT is committed to ensuring that students learn in an inclusive environment,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said. “Reading is critical to a child’s development, and encouraging all students to read inclusive books can help teach them from an early age the importance of treating everyone with respect.”

Schools and communities can raise awareness about LGBTQ students by taking part in a national day of reading. When a rural Wisconsin school cancelled a planned reading of the book I Am Jazz because of a threat of a lawsuit by a parent, the local library became the site of the reading. Six hundred people came to support a local, young transgender student. Now, annual readings are held all over to reflect the importance of this movement.

To register for the National Day of School and Community Readings on Feb. 27, 2020 and receive support and materials, contact LGBTQ Committee member Maureen Singer at mosinger10@gmail.com.

“We are so grateful for Catalina’s generosity and NYSUT’s support of our work to help create a more inclusive society,” said Singer.

The NYSUT LGBTQ Committee includes teachers, school-related professionals, higher education faculty, retirees, school librarians and school psychologists. The committee’s work centers on examining the atmosphere toward LGBTQ people in education and advocating on various issues affecting LGBTQ educators and the LGBTQ community at large.

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