New in Middle School ELA: The 57 Bus and LGBTQ+ Experiences in the U.S.

June 29, 2021
Caroline Gambell

We have recently added a new unit to our 7th Grade ELA curriculum: Claiming Our Place: LGBTQ+ Experiences in the United States.

This unit centers around The 57 Bus, a nonfiction text about an agender teenager, Sasha Fleishman, who was assaulted while wearing a skirt on a public bus in Oakland, California. The unit begins with a two-day (very!) brief overview of the last ~60 years of LGBTQ+ history in the United States and culminates in a capstone task in which students independently research a significant LGBTQ+ American and write a persuasive essay about why this person should be honored as a hero.

 

Why write a unit about the experiences of LGBTQ+ Americans?

Because LGBTQ+ history is American history

The guiding question for our 7th Grade ELA curriculum is “what does it mean to be American?”

My goal in designing the scope of the units was to give students as many perspectives as possible through which to consider this question, and repeated opportunities to complicate and deepen their answers. And so much of my work was driven by the question of whose voices and stories are centered in the conversations we have about America and “Americanness”—and whose have historically been marginalized.

Estimates put the number of LGBTQ+ Americans at 9 million, and 1 in 6 members of Generation Z identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. There have been LGBTQ+ Americans for as long as there has been an America—and LGBTQ+ people have been living on this land since long before the arrival of European colonizers.

While this unit is not a survey course of LGBTQ+ history (nor is it an attempt to represent the experiences of all 9 million LBGTQ+ Americans!) it is an exploration of the American experience through a queer lens.

Because middle school students deserve to have themselves, their families, and their communities represented in the ELA classroom

In many ways, I wrote a unit that I wish I had when I was a middle school student. As a queer kid growing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I was desperate for stories about other LGBTQ+ young adults. From what I remember, I only found two books at my local library that seemed to speak to my own experience (shout-out and huge gratitude to the authors of Am I Blue: Coming Out from the Silence and Annie on My Mind!). Even if there had been more books available about LGBTQ+ young adults, and even in my liberal New England college town, teachers in my middle school wouldn’t have dreamed of teaching one.

While there has been a fantastic proliferation of YA books about LGBTQ+ people in the past 20 years, studies show that teachers are still not including them in their curricula. According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network 2019 school climate survey, only 11% of LGBTQ+ middle school students report LGBTQ+ inclusion in assigned readings, and only 15% report positive curricular inclusion of LGBTQ+ topics (14% report that LGBTQ+ topics are included in a negative context).

 

Isn’t middle school “too early” to talk about LGBTQ+ issues?

According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network 2019 school climate survey, 80% of LGBTQ+ middle school students report that they were harassed for their sexual orientation, and 65% for their gender identity. Quite simply: If students are old enough to bully LBGTQ+ classmates or be bullied for being LGBTQ+, then students are old enough to read books and discuss LGBTQ+ people.

I’m very mindful of the fact that it is illegal in six states for teachers at any grade level to use this unit or even talk about LBGTQ+ people and experiences in a positive way. The existence of such laws affirms why the inclusion of LGBTQ+ stories in school curricula is so important and so urgent.

 

What will students take away from this unit?

Students learn about the history of discrimination against—and activism of—LGBTQ+ Americans

The first essential question of this unit is: What challenges have LGBTQ+ Americans faced in the past, what challenges do they continue to face, and how have they survived and thrived in spite of repression, violence, and discrimination?

With the full knowledge that it is impossible to even scratch the surface of the complex history of LBGTQ+ people in this country in a few short days, this unit opens with a lesson in which students study a timeline of events from the past ~60 years. They will read closely, pulling out examples of state-sanctioned discrimination, important moments in LGBTQ+ community-building and activism, and significant leaders, activists, and trailblazers.

Students will then work in small groups to create a poster that educates classmates about a significant event or aspect of LGBTQ+ American history, including “sip-ins,” (pre-Stonewall protests against bars that openly refused service to gay people) and the work of AIDS-advocacy group ACT UP.

Students study urgent issues facing LGBTQ+ Americans today

It’s important that students understand both “how far we’ve come” in the struggle for legal protections for and social acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and that there is still so far to go. 

While the incident described in The 57 Bus took place fewer than ten years ago, so much has happened in the last decade—same-sex marriage wasn’t yet legal when Sasha’s skirt was lit on fire.

In this unit, students will read articles about “bathroom bills”—laws that have been proposed in states around the country that discriminate against trans and nonbinary people by requiring that they use the restroom that matches their gender assigned at birth. Students will also learn about recent decisions from courts on the rights of transgender students.

Students interrogate the idea of “binaries” 

The second essential question of this unit is: How does binary thinking shape the way that we understand other people and the world around us? Dashka Slater, the author of The 57 Bus, pushes readers to question the way that binaries limit our ability to understand the full, complex humanity of other people.

One of the most powerful passages in the book is a poem that initially seems to promote binary thinking:

“There are two kinds of people in the world.
Male and Female.
Gay and Straight. 
Black and White.
Normal and Weird.
Cis and Trans.
There are two kinds of people in the world.
Saints and Sinners.
Victims and Villains”

(The 57 Bus, p. 215) 

Students will closely read this poem and unpack Slater’s use of verbal irony. They will consider how Sasha’s coming out and presentation as an agender person—someone who does not identify with the categories of “male” or “female”-- challenges societal expectations and beliefs about the gender binary. It is only by rejecting the binary thinking presented in the above poem that the reader can truly see Sasha. 

Students perform independent research about a significant LGBTQ+ American of their choice

The culminating project of this unit is a writing task where students will research and then write a persuasive letter about the accomplishments and contributions of a significant LGBTQ+ American. 

In this unit, you learned about queer people in the United States (and on the land we now call “The United States”) who have survived, thrived, and shaped this country for the better. Queer people have had to fight for social acceptance and equal protection under the law, in the face of discrimination, persecution, and violence.  

In this writing project, you will research the life, work, and accomplishments of a member of the LGBTQ+ community to be celebrated on a postage stamp. Nominate this leader through a letter to the United States Postal Service's Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, which honors “extraordinary and enduring contributions to American society, history, culture or environment.”

Above all, students should come away from this unit knowing that LGBTQ+ stories are American stories; LGBTQ+ history is American history; LGBTQ+ heroes should be seen as American heroes.

 

How can I supplement other Fishtank 6–8 ELA units to make them more inclusive of LGBTQ+ stories and experiences?

The Giver

  • Add a question to the culminating Socratic Seminar about how students predict that LGBTQ+ people would have been viewed in Jonas’s community. 
  • Introduce the concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” and ask students to consider how the medication that young people have to take when they first experience “stirrings” relates to this idea.
  • Ask students to write a “memory” that the Giver could transfer to Jonas that introduces him to the concept of gender and sexual diversity. 

Women in the Arts

Refugee

  • Explain to students that in some places in the world (including the United States), people can claim asylum based on the fact that they are LGBTQ+ and are persecuted in their home countries. 

Night

  • Teach students about the Nazi persecution of LGBTQ+ people during the Holocaust.
  • Provide the book The Iron Words by Michael Fridgen as a possible independent reading option for students. This young adult novel tells the story of a college student who meets a Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned because of his sexual orientation. 

Persepolis

  • Assign a small group of students to research and present on LGBTQ+ rights in contemporary Iran for the unit’s main writing project.
  • Provide the book If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan as a possible independent reading option for students. This young adult novel tells the story of a teenage lesbian couple in Iran who must keep their relationship a secret—or face terrible consequences.

 

 

Caroline Gambell is the ELA Curriculum Director for Grades 6–8. Caroline grew up in New Haven, CT. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in gender and women’s studies from Pomona College and a Master’s degree in English literature from Middlebury College. Caroline began her career at Achievement First's Amistad Academy teaching 7th grade English, and later taught 8th grade English at KIPP New Jersey’s Rise Academy. Most recently, she was the Middle School Literacy Curriculum Director for KIPP New Jersey.