Rainbow Connection’s 2021 NJEA Convention GLOW UP!

by Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson

The 2021 NJEA Convention was a milestone for LGBTQIA+-focused inclusive practices, with 18 workshops led by classroom educators, school nurses, counselors, librarians, learning disabilities teacher-consultants (LDT-C), and more.

The message is no longer some vague notion about an LGBTQIA+ curricular mandate. Rather, the NJEA Convention let us know loud and clear that LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Education is for all of us, and here is how we are doing it!

For this month’s column, we are celebrating NJEA members who created and facilitated workshops. Below you’ll find their reflections on the programs they presented. We honor their work as our LGBTQIA+ colleagues, friends, peers and allies.

From left: Jo-Ann Johnson, Renee Turonis, Cole Callahan, Michelle McGreivey.

LGBTQIA+ Inclusion for educational services personnel: Speacial Ed, Health, Media Services, and Counseling.

Michelle McGreivey, Librarian/Media Services Hoboken High School I chose to provide this professional development at the convention because libraries are leaders in providing nurturing and safe spaces for all kids in school. We support all learners with diverse and balanced collections in multiple formats. It is critical that our students see themselves in our collections, which means we need to stand ready to defend intellectual freedom and the right to read. Even now, library collections in schools across the state are being challenged for materials some would like to repress. LGBTQIA+ students need to know that they belong, but too many do not get the chance to feel that way.

 Jo-Ann Johnson, LDT-C, Child Study Team (CST) at Point Pleasant Borough High School

Workshops on LGBTQIA+ students have been around but have gained popularity since the recent law has passed. Yet not many workshops were geared towards LGBTQIA+ students and special education. There are intersecting challenges that students we work with experience, and a need to help CSTs and special education school staff to be confident and prepared for inclusive conversations with our students. 

Throughout my years as a high school special education teacher and as an LDT-C, I have worked with and advocated for students with a wide variety of individual needs as an ally in all the ways that help to make school and school experiences more equitable. I have advocated for inclusion of students with special needs for over 20 years and am grateful for the opportunity to advocate for the needs of the LGBTQIA+ and special needs communities. I embrace the opportunity to learn as much as I can to continue to show all students respect and to be able to share this topic with other professionals throughout the state is very important and exciting. 

Renee Turonis, School Nurse, Hoboken High School

I am committed to supporting all students in my health office. But I am also committed to getting outside of my health office and being part of the school community. This work and allyship to the LGBTQIA+ community in my school and beyond is one of the reasons I wanted to share my enthusiasm with participants at the NJEA Convention. I want to encourage school nurses to make a difference by helping students get beyond the vague stomach ache or their feelings of isolation in school. School nurses often sit on attendance committees and in other roles in their school where they see the impact of—or lack of—inclusive approaches. It is a known fact that LGBTQIA+ students are three times as likely to have missed school in the past month and have lower sense of school belonging and higher levels of depression. It is important to look at students holistically, get beyond the minor aches and pains and make the mind/body connection. Those of us in the health office can encourage students to seek out the support they need in order to feel a sense of belonging in their school.

Further, being the GSA advisor in my high school over the past four years has given me the opportunity to help students find their people and their sense of belonging in our school community. I have witnessed their struggles and their resilience. It has opened up dialogue between students, parents and faculty. As a parent of a lesbian, I can empathize with parents trying to support their queer child through their high school years. 

As a GSA adviser, hosting events has given me a way to tap into student needs to be part of something and encourage them to show up and find their voice with their peers about who they are and what is important to them. My experience as a GSA advisor and a 21st-century nurse made me want to pay it forward at the NJEA convention.

Cole Callahan, School Counselor, SAC, NCC, LAC Middletown South High School

Going to NJEA as a member was a dream come true. I have always wanted to help kids navigate school and life, but I also had the goal of using my experience and training to support LGBTQIA+ youth. This was important to me because it was an educator who was there for me when I felt like an outcast. It was incredibly rewarding to share that passion with my co-presenters and session attendees. We can all learn so much from one another, if not at least knowing that we are not alone in this. We began the ripple effect and students will feel it up and down the state. 

Steve Koumoulis

LGBTQIA+ Inclusion in ELA Classrooms

Dana Maulshagen, College English, ELA and Film, Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School 

I appreciate the way that providing professional development and presenting at conferences makes me more reflective of my own practice. Despite—or perhaps because of—busy schedules, increasingly complex responsibilities at school, and a climate that doesn’t always make teachers feel valued, I find it helpful to have a reason to dig into pedagogy and expand my own horizons so that I can do the same for my students. My goal in working on LGBTQIA+ curriculum and inclusivity is to increase exposure to marginalized voices and to make students more aware of how they think about the world and their place in it. Presenting at conferences and workshops creates opportunities to research new texts and best practices. Exchanging ideas with other educators enriches the experience as well, and this ultimately benefits our students, who all deserve an expansive and transformative education. 

LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Classrooms:  Where to Start, How to Keep Going

Allison Connolly, Equity Coach, Township of Ocean School District

In 2019, I was asked to write lesson plans to support the LGBTQIA+ and Disability Inclusive Curriculum mandate. Getting involved in this endeavor, and—later—coaching one of the schools participating in the pilot program, was some of the most rewarding work of my professional life.  I am grateful that I get to continue coaching teachers and administrators about the importance of inclusive classrooms through my work as a classroom teacher and with organizations that amplify this, including Make It Better for Youth and Garden State Equality.  As teachers, our most important job is to build relationships with our students, and to help them see positive representations of themselves in their classrooms and in their lessons.  When students—especially LGBTQIA+ students—are provided with meaningful windows and mirrors in their lessons, they thrive.  Inclusive spaces and practices are crucial to the success of all students, so it’s imperative that we provide opportunities for teachers and administrators to not only discuss best practices, but to address potential obstacles.  Inclusive strategies should be dictated by sound pedagogy and underwritten by data and help strengthen any educational professional’s practice in the classroom.

LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Practice in STEM Classrooms

Jodi Foster, STEAM Coordinator and Teacher, Henry Hudson High School

STEAM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics) have always been about expanding our understanding of the universe and making better, easier, more accommodating spaces for humans to thrive within. It only makes sense to be inclusive of all within that mission. When we look back through time it has been the bravest among us who have pushed the limits of understanding and led to enlightenment. How nice would it be to be able to say that we were in some small way part of the effort to remove the boundaries—for LGBTQIA+ folks and everyone else—to progress.

LGBTQIA+ Issues & Content in the History Classroom

Steve Koumoulis, social studies teacher, Middletown South High School

A good history teacher is a storyteller, including perspectives, topics, and people actually involved in the story, which helps students see themselves in those spaces. By seeing themselves in those spaces, and as part of the story, it gives students a sense of pride and hopefully the inspiration to create change in the present and beyond. This is what history is all about. We emulate those from the past whom we admire, we learn from triumphs and mistakes, and we make our futures through being informed by the past. This social studies presentation brought forth myriad historical events and resources for teaching about them that illuminate the experiences and contributions of LGBTQIA+ people throughout history with the express purpose of enabling queer students to see themselves as having rich, productive histories and the potential for rich, productive futures.