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Seeking a better solution to Forum’s teacher preparation

Following the growing popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement due to the murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day in 2020, Forum educators have taken on a new social justice initiative. However, the Forum teachers need to handle discussions surrounding racial identity and gender expression differently. Because the curriculum is already excellent and continues to be updated, altering the lesson plans alone will not solve the issue. The curriculum is only a part of the equation; teacher preparation is arguably even more critical. I believe that Forum facilitators need to have sustained education in the subjects they are teaching to fully understand how they should present the material to benefit everybody. 

According to Ms. Jessica Keimowitz, Director of the Upper School, “Professional development for teachers of all disciplines — including Forum — is of the utmost importance. All Forum teachers have attended biweekly meetings this year in order to preview the lessons and ask questions. Furthermore, Forum teachers attended the National Anti-Racism Teach-In this past August and have attended trainings with the YES Institute.” 

The biweekly meetings are with the Forum teachers and not with an outside trainer or facilitator. While I do believe that these collaborative conferences are important, my argument is that faculty needs regular meetings with outside experts. This is an opportunity for Forum classes to both address the issues that have come up and to move forward toward a more inclusive class.

Brief workshops will not solve the issue, as students are still experiencing microaggressions, misgendering, and racism in class. We have had all sorts of outstanding speakers over the years, but one workshop is a quick fix instead of a permanent solution. Maybe, to improve the overall Forum experience, we should deepen faculty development with sustained training from the YES Institute and other organizations so that students feel safe and included in all of their classes, especially Forum. 

The significance of teacher training proved especially crucial to me on Friday, December 12, when I had drastically different back-to-back experiences with teachers using almost an identical curriculum. 

To further educate the student body on gender identity and discrimination, BRIDGE, Dana Hall’s gay-straight alliance club, enlisted the YES Institute’s help. Based in Miami, FL, the YES Institute’s youth advocates hold presentations and share stories about their gender and sexuality experiences. Forum classes surrounding gender identity and expression were held on the same week as the YES Institute’s event at Dana Hall. I attended both presentations: one in my Forum class and one with the YES Institute about two hours later. My Forum experience made it clear that Dana Hall has a serious issue with its courses, but it also presented a solution. 

BRIDGE hosted the YES Institute over Zoom on December 4, 2020. Ms. Erica Ramirez, Ms. Linda Derezinski, Ms. Rebecca Kimball, Ms. Margie Bailey, and about fifteen Dana Hall students were in attendance. The speakers were 19-year-old Seth Morales (he/him), a sophomore at Florida State University, and Michael Louis (he/him), age 16, who attends an arts high school in the area. Michael and Seth encouraged participants to stay engaged, remain on camera, and “be brave, not perfect,” meaning that nobody should be afraid to speak up. 

Seth began the conference by running through the basics of gender identity and asking the participants to reflect upon times in their life in which they heard slurs or microaggressions relating to gender or sexuality. Seth noted that these events “impact every kid regardless of their gender identity and sexual orientation.”

Seth also discussed how race and gender intertwine. For example, he mentioned that 82% of Black transgender youth are verbally insulted and that LGBTQ+ Indigenous youth are 2.5 times more likely to report a suicide attempt than their white peers. 

After Seth led a brief PowerPoint presentation on gender stereotypes, Michael shared his story as a transgender man (FTM) and his experience with gender. “Sometimes they won’t listen to you because it’s just that mindset of ‘I’m an adult, I’m older, and I’ve learned more,’” he said about coming out. “Some adults hear that, the pain and the struggle, and they’ll understand.”

While the story was heavy and difficult to hear, the audience provided support through Zoom’s comments section. Almost everyone who logged onto the meeting spoke up voluntarily. Seth and Michael then offered advice to Dana Hall students and faculty about how they could be more inclusive towards gender identity and expression. 

Some of their advice included implementing gender-neutral restrooms, avoiding gendered greetings, and asking people their pronouns. “Just be that calm energy that that person needs,” Michael said about coming out. “Coming out is such a scary and overwhelming experience, but to just be there and be like, ‘okay, I’ll accept you’ … takes out a lot of that stress.” Seth ended the meeting by saying that there was no one way to be and that all attendants were valid.

This session, to me, is what a Forum class at Dana Hall should be. The Forum facilitators attended two sessions with the YES Institute, and they developed their lesson plans with YES Institute’s guidance. Dana Hall made a great decision in using these lesson plans from the YES Institute, as they are very well-versed in these subjects. Unfortunately, I was shocked by my Forum experience in relation to the session with the YES Institute. 

I want to preface this by saying that this was just my personal Forum experience. I have asked students with different teachers about how their classes went, and they all had mixed reviews, none of them particularly positive. While the session I was in was by far the worst, I concluded that this was not an issue with only my teacher but across the board.

My Forum class began with the Bem Test, which was invented in 1974 and consists of three columns of personality descriptors such as assertive, tender, and moody. The subject rates each term on a scale of 1 to 7 based on how much they identify with each word. At the end of the test, we were all scored based on how “masculine” or “feminine” we were. Everyone in my class scored “androgynous” except for one person, who scored feminine. Much to my luck, I was that one person. My teacher addressed me in front of the class and mentioned that I “should have scored androgynous.” While the lesson’s point was that gender norms have changed over time, everyone in my class expressed disappointment in their results. 

But what came next was much worse than any Bem Test score. Our teacher called out each student of color by name, skipping over the white students. She then asked each of the BIPOC students what gender expectations were like “in their cultures.” Individual students from multicultural households were called out and then pointedly asked about their families’ gender expectations. My teacher has now removed the Bem Test from her curriculum for future years but has not mentioned other aspects of the class. 

Given the School’s clear commitment to improving diversity and inclusion and to faculty development, I know that the School wants to do the right thing. But let’s not decide that the right thing means having a couple more workshops when the solution is sustained faculty development. With these measures in place, we can prevent incidents like this from happening and further the happiness and well-being of students in Dana Hall Forum classes.

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