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The province’s association for teachers released a handbook with ideas to incorporate LGBTQ and First Nations’ perspectives in the classroom. (Nancy Louie/iStockphoto)
The province’s association for teachers released a handbook with ideas to incorporate LGBTQ and First Nations’ perspectives in the classroom. (Nancy Louie/iStockphoto)

Alberta teachers work to make LGBTQ students feel safe, included Add to ...

Cameron Litowski is a numbers guy. One day, about a year or so ago, the 15-year-old wrote a math test with a problem using gender-neutral names. The two folks described in the problem were married.

Cameron, a gay male who came out in Grade 7, noticed the wording.

“It made me feel proud,” he said in an interview. “That was one of the first times I’ve been proud to be gay, because in that moment, I’m like: ‘This is a normal thing. I don’t have to hide this. Maybe I’m not a freak or some weirdo. Maybe this is a good thing.’”

Cameron believes the smallest tweaks in school – like math problems where two fathers calculate their monthly food budget – makes a difference, both to his pride and the attitudes of students like those who ostracized him when he was younger. Now, the Alberta Teachers’ Association has published a 149-page document designed to help instructors make kids like Cameron feel safe and included, all while teaching other students about the LGBTQ community.

The teachers’ handbook is dubbed Prism, an acronym for “professionals respecting and supporting individual sexual and gender minorities.” It covers everything from a list of 35 pronouns ranging from “she” to “ze” to suggestions on how to incorporate First Nations’ perspectives of gender into social-studies classes.

The guidebook’s suggestions range from subtle to more overt examples. It suggests, for example, teachers could invite local drag queens to their cosmetology and drama classes to teach make-up and hair styling. “Students will gain a deeper understanding of sexual and gender diversity while exploring perceptions of gender, masculinity and femininity,” it says.

The ATA developed the handbook after teachers asked for guidance on how to better address and understand LGBTQ issues in their classrooms, according to spokesman Jonathan Teghtmeyer.

“It provides them with different opportunities to integrate resources or content into the curriculum that would help support gender and sexual minority students feel safe, welcome and comfortable at school,” he said Tuesday. “Teachers want to make sure that students who identify as gay, transgender or questioning feel welcome and supported at school.”

The ATA, aware that scores of conservative parents and teachers are reluctant to address LGBTQ issues in classrooms, stresses Prism is a resource for teachers rather than a mandatory slice of the curriculum.

“The lesson plans that are put into this toolkit are completely optional.”

About 14 per cent of Canadian students identify as a member of the LGBTQ community, according to a study the Egale Canada Human Rights Trust published in 2011. The study surveyed roughly 3,700 students across Canada, except for Quebec.

Cameron, now in Grade 10 at Red Deer’s Hunting Hills High School, said he felt his classmates and teachers knew nothing about being gay when he came out. “Every time I went to gym class, I was bullied,” he said. “They didn’t know anything about gay people except [believing] that we’re all predators.”

Indeed, students across Canada report hearing a steady stream of homophobic and transphobic comments in school and facing verbal, physical and sexual harassment related to sexual orientation, according to the Egale report.

Jacquie Hansen is the executive director of the Alberta School Councils’ Association, an organization that represents parents of children in the province’s publicly funded schools. The ASCA, she said, does not have an official stance on how to address LGBTQ issues, but favours environments where children are comfortable.

“Our membership is wanting to ensure there’s a safe place for all kids to be,” she said. “The expectation is that all kids will be respected and have an opportunity to be safe wherever their learning exists.”

ASCA members, she added, have asked for a “toolkit” to help them better understand the LGBTQ community, too.

Discussions and legislation tied to gender identification and sexual orientation in schools are divisive in Alberta. Provincial legislation protecting gay-straight alliances in schools, for example, was met with resistance from the Catholic bishop for Calgary. Further, debate continues to simmer over the government’s guideline that students be allowed to use a washroom of their choosing.

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