Innovative courses feed College of Education's UOTeachOUT

BBQueer attendees, led by Educational Foundations students that included Max Sandoval and Greg Leijon, play a game with a rainbow parachute.

It's not unusual for the UO's Julie Heffernan to get phone calls from teachers needing help dealing with lesbian, gay or transgender issues confronting them in their schools.

Her expertise is becoming known through a seminar course she teaches, Education as Homophobia, in the education studies department of the College of Education. It immerses students into the societal climate that fosters bullying related to lesbian, gay, transgender (LGBT) and related issues of sexual identity.

"This course is designed around issues of homophobia in schools, because it's a piece that gets missed in schools," said Tina Gutierez-Schmich, co-director of UOTeachOUT and a professional development specialist in the UO Center on Diversity and Community.

"We talk frequently about racism in schools," she said. "It's very visible and present. Gender, gender performance and sexual orientation aren't topics that teachers, historically, have had information about or training for addressing such issues."

The course is part of an equal opportunity program required of seniors pursuing a bachelor's degree in educational foundations. They must take at least two of seven seminars: Education as Homophobia; Education as Patriarchy; Education as Diaspora and Immigration; Education as Ecojustice and Education; Education as Racism; Education as Poverty; and Education as Colonization and Genocide.

The program, which includes UOTeachOUT, an annual conference on gender identity and sexual orientation issues in education, is perhaps the only one of its kind in the nation. It is in its fifth year.

The 28 students in the homophobia course head out Thursday, May 15, to take part in the fourth annual UOTeachOUT on gender and sexual orientation minority issues, which Heffernan and Gutierez-Schmich founded. They'll also attend an all-day conference Friday on the UO campus.

This week features three related events:

  • On Thursday, 9 a.m.-noon, students in the homophobia course will help host the fourth annual Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) Youth Leadership Summit that Heffernan and Gutierez-Schmich founded. The summit will be at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene, 1685 W. 13th Ave. It brings together approximately 150 LGBT middle and high school students from the Bethel, Eugene, Springfield and Cottage Grove school districts for a creative writing workshop with author and youth activist and storyteller Ivan Coyote. UO students also will lead healthy teen activities under the supervision of the Lane County Public Health's Prevention Program.
  • On Thursday, 1:40 p.m.-3 p.m., UOTeachOUT goes to North Eugene High School, 200 Silver Lane, for an all-school assembly centered on anti-bullying and anti-oppression. The school's junior class this year has been studying civil rights, oppression and social justice issues. Coyote will the main speaker, addressing oppression related to social bullying in a talk titled "One in Every Crowd."

    Coyote, born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, also will be the keynote performer in Friday evening's open-to-the-public closing event of the all-day UOTeachOUT conference at the UO.
  • On Friday, a related academic conference will begin at 9 a.m. in the Erb Memorial Union, 1222 E. 13th Ave. It is open to the general public but geared toward K-12 teachers and students. The event is co-sponsored by the UO Department of Education Studies and the Associated Students of the University of Oregon (ASUO) Women's Center. This year's event is part of the annual meeting of the Northwest National Women's Studies Association.

Three tracks at Friday's conference will focus on gender performance, research, and gender and sexual minority issues. Preregistration is required with admission ranging from free to $35 based on the affiliation of attendees. The conference program is filled with talks by researchers from both the UO and several educational institutions in the Pacific Northwest.

Admission is free for Coyote's 7 p.m. conference-closing performance and book signing, which will be held in the Great Room of Global Scholars Hall, 1710 E. 15th Ave. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.

Heffernan says she vividly recalls a veil of silence about gender-related issues that existed when she began her research. While barriers are breaking down through safe-school initiatives and changing laws, including Oregon's in 2010, there still is a long way to go, including teacher training, she said.

The seven UO seminars and the annual UOTeachOUT are helping to prepare tomorrow's teachers about the social issues and reach out to existing educators and the public, she said.

UO College of Education researchers previously had built an international reputation for recognizing warning signs of trouble and developing programs that reinforce positive behaviors in schools -- efforts that are being utilized by schools in many countries.

The equal opportunity courses, Heffernan said, rather than focusing on behaviors, "look at the hidden curriculum, the practices and professional silence related to engagement and policy implications for each of these identity discourses in which we typically end up talking about at-risk kids and their negative education outcomes."

Faculty who run the classes call them "flip courses." Instead of focusing on the victims of social bullying as at-risk kids in her homophobia course, she said, "we talk about homophobia as problematic, and how homophobia and heterosexism play out on elementary, middle school, high school and college campuses."

Heffernan cites statistics on research focused on Oregon's schools. Some 40 percent of LGBT kids in the state have thought about suicide, she noted. "Fifty percent of LGBT kids face physical assaults at school, and 70 percent face homophobic harassment. It seems to me that it is a moral imperative for us to help teach teachers figure out what to say and what to do.

"We're talking about the whole framing about gender that is risky or polluted," Heffernan said. "The toxic environment is affecting everybody. Everybody does better when you clean it up, when you teach teachers about gender issues."

Annual UOTeachOUT events began on May 2 with BBQueer 2014, a barbecue fundraiser that supports the educational program's outreach and the annual pink prom, an inclusive prom to give lesbian, gender non-conforming, bisexual and transgender high school students a chance to experience an LGBT prom.

Preparation for the barbecue, which features a silent auction of locally donated items, requires the students in Education as Homophobia to engage what they've learned in class by, what is for some, going outside their comfort zones. They must, Heffernan said, approach local business owners, explain the problems faced by LGBT kids in schools and attempt to solicit a donation for the auction.

Afterward, the students write a report about their experience. Their stories, Heffernan said, often are filled with emotion. "They learn about being stigmatized. They can later better engage with the kids who are actually at risk."

Jerry Rosiek, a professor in education studies, helped write the original proposals for the seven seminar courses. He also was the cook at BBQueer.

"I am generally invested in promoting teacher activism that promotes queer positive spaces, gender pluralism, and LGBT justice in schools and beyond," Rosiek said. "I include content about such issues in all my classes. Our program is designed not just to address gender politics, but also to be queer identified. Julie's classes and her and Tina's work on the UOTeachOUT give a powerful public face to our department's internal commitment to these values."

- by Jim Barlow, Public Affairs Communications