In 2011 California ratified the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful Education Act, a law that mandates the inclusion of the political, economic and social contributions of people with disabilities and LGBTQ people in educational textbooks and the social studies curricula in California public schools. The legislation was groundbreaking in its own right, but was only a first step. Real change involves updating textbooks and classroom materials, providing teacher support and fighting efforts to water down or undermine the requirements of the statute. Eight years after passage of the FAIR Education Act, History Happens is checking in with two California educators to learn how the act is being implemented both in the policy realm and in the classroom. Don Romesburg, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University and one of the key advocates of the legislation, engaged in a conversation with Ángel Rafael “Ralph” Vásquez-Concepción, an eighth-grade teacher at Everett Middle School in San Francisco, to compare notes from their respective vantage points.
Ralph: Don, can you please offer some updates on the implementation of the act? How have you seen it roll out from your perspective as an advocate for the act and as a university professor?
Don: Implementation has been slow and has required tireless advocacy by LGBTQ historians, advocacy organizations, students, community members and educators. In 2014, queer historians produced Making the Framework FAIR, a policy document drawing on decades of scholarship, including research based on materials in the GLBT Historical Society’s archives. It proposed comprehensive curricular changes for the California Department of Education to incorporate into its History–Social Science Framework. In 2016 the CDE approved the revised framework, and it now features significant LGBTQ content for elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. Finally, in 2017 the CDE also approved 10 possible textbooks for the state’s K–8 classrooms, which cover most of the LGBTQ material.
Since then, organizations such as the California History–Social Science Project and Our Family Coalition, as well as individuals such as me and Rob Darrow, who works with the Safe Schools Project in Santa Cruz County, have been collaborating with the state’s teachers and administrators to inegrate the LGBTQ content into their curricula. It’s been encouraging to see how enthusiastic educators are. Many want to bring LGBTQ history into their classrooms, but are unsure how. Most K–12 teachers never learned any LGBTQ history in their own primary, secondary or undergraduate education or in their credentialing and graduate programs. So there’s a big demand for training, but unfortunately not much funding to support it. Progress is being made slowly. Individual professors are teaching this content: I’ve been doing it with my undergrads at Sonoma State and so has Wendy Rouse, who teaches history for future teachers at San Jose State. Ralph, I’m interested to know how well you think implementation is going, since you’re on the ground. How proactive has San Francisco Unified School District been about training teachers on the LGBTQ content? How supported do you feel in your school, and what are some examples of ways you are teaching queer content in eighth grade?
Ralph: I feel very supported. At Everett we consistently bring up LGBTQ experiences not just in social sciences and history, but in natural sciences as well. There are many queer and Two-Spirit people who have made important contributions to our democratic and scientific institutions, and as a school we enagage that history as much as possible. During Pride Week, queer content is the backbone of lesson-planning, ensuring that our students get exposure in all their classes. Every teacher brings their unique expertise to bear; for example, I use contemporary art history and queer poetry. Don: Also, Ralph, how could you use the GLBT Historical Society’s resources in teaching students?
Ralph: While consulting the archives for past exhibitions I have curated at the GLBT Historical Society Museum, I have used materials that could serve as primary source documentation of queer life in this city. It would be great to create lessons around some of these materials. Don, can you offer some clues as to how similar legislation is proceeding in other parts of the country?
Don: It’s been so exciting to see how what started in California has taken off nationally. New Jersey, Colorado, Illinois and Oregon have passed laws similar to the act, and now we are waiting to see how implementation proceeds. In Massachusetts, an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum has been put forward, but it’s optional; I’m curious if it will become mandatory, following in the other states’ footsteps.
In August, Maryland’s Department of Education announced that it would incorporate the LGBTQ civil rights movement into its history framework when it is revised in 2020. I expect that we’ll see a number of other states follow suit in the next couple of years. California fortunately set the curricular standard pretty high, and it’s going to be hard for other states to just mention Stonewall and think they’ve done it right. Ralph, what role do you think California’s teachers can play in helping other states create change?
Ralph: We live in a very special state, where teachers have the freedom to prepare students to engage differences and be culturally responsive. Teachers elsewhere face pressure from religious groups and homophobic organizations, and some live in fear of being outed and having their livelihoods destroyed. By continuing to develop community programming around Pride and actively seeking to bring visibility to LGBTQ curricula, teachers in California can help ensure that queer history is not erased, and that it is ultimately protected by federal policy. I also foresee the need for more collaboration between college professors and K–12 teachers.
Don Romesburg is aprofessor of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University. Ángel Rafael Vásquez-Concepción teaches eighth grade at Everett Middle School in San Francisco.