Tag Archives: inclusion

The Queer Liberation of Schools

Guest Blogger- Doug Hecklinger*

Happy Pride? It’s a journey.

Schools should be safe a space for all children; where they can feel pride for who they are while learning about and celebrating those who are not like them. As a Queer 4th grade teacher in Brooklyn, NY who spearheads the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives at our school, this has become such an important part of why I still love to teach even after 22 years. .

I grew up in Connecticut in the 1970s and 80s, very much in a culture of fear, misinformation, and bias with regards to the Queer community. I never read a single book with a queer character, never learned about Queer people or events in history, music, art, the sciences, etc., and never had an “out” teacher. My health classes were heteronormative, as were all of the social norms among my peers. The only time being Queer came up was as a way to bully or with regards to AIDS (with an undertone of how the community deserved to suffer due to their sinful ways). No pride whatsoever, only shame.

This was addressed to some degree in the decades that followed with an “It gets better” campaign where (mostly Queer) celebrities were filmed telling Queer kids that it gets better when they become adults. As an adult, I was moved by this, particularly when a sitting President, Barrack Obama, participated. Since Queer oppression has similarities to all forms of oppression, his message, with a dual focus on anti-black racism, was powerful. And it was worlds away from one of the Presidents of my youth, Ronald Reagan, who famously never once mentioned the Queer community despite the AIDS crisis at the time. “It gets better” assured youth that pride would come, if they could just hold on through the culture of shame in school.

I wonder if you can imagine how moved I was this year when my elementary school marched in the 28th Brooklyn Pride parade for the very first time. Though we are a small school with only 200 students, over 50 people marched – students, families, teachers, the guidance counselor, and the school secretary. Most of the people who marched identify as allies, who, as mentioned above, wish to celebrate those not like them. The DEI resources shared in K-5 classes during Pride Month, had fostered a sense of love and respect for Queer culture, and they wanted to join in the celebration.

While marching down a very crowded 5th Ave in the neighborhood of Park Slope I looked into the 5-people-deep spectators and saw people roughly my age or older weeping. Like me, they could not believe that, at least in our school, there was no need for an “It gets better” campaign. It is “better” now. The journey of Queer liberation at our school turned the corner from being a topic only addressed if we witnessed bullying to something we intentionally integrated into our academic day. These efforts serve as both a window into (for allies) and a mirror of (for those who are Queer) the Queer identity. Pride had arrived.

As I continue to reflect on all of this, I am aware that this journey of liberation has a long way to go to affect the current statistic from the Trevor Project – that a member of the Queer community in the United States attempts suicide once every 45 seconds. I know that our school is not the norm, even here in Brooklyn, and that our own journey is far from complete. The degree to which we keep making progress is also the degree to which we stop causing harm. Pride must win to defeat shame.

My scars from being raised in a toxic culture continue to heal, and this year’s Pride Parade was one of the best medicines. Never has my calling to be a teacher been as compelling as it is now. Proud Queer educators like myself obviously have a lot of interest in leading this work, though I hope allies can see their role too. Safe schools require all of us to march together on this journey.

Please say it with me. Happy pride!

*Doug Hecklinger has been teaching in New York City for 22 years, first at P.S. 159 in East New York, and for the last 10 years at P.S. 295 in Park Slope. He has taught 3rd, 4th and 5th grades. He is a member of the Proud Educators group promoting inclusive schools, and is “out” as Queer in his school community, including to his students. He and his husband also live in Park Slope with their nearly 12 years old daughter and dog, Lawrence.

Transporting a Classroom Towards Inquiry

I could almost hear a chorus of silent groans coming from the teachers sitting around the table in the staff room at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn. It was March 17th, 2005, my first day working as a consultant at the school. The new principal, Jett Ritorto, wanted me to introduce inquiry projects and investigative Choice Time to the kindergarten teachers. But it was mid-March and this was just one more new addition to their already over-programmed day. I wasn’t welcomed with open arms!

“We can’t do an inquiry project. This is when we start our transportation unit.”
I recognized this plea from my own not-so-long-ago days in the classroom. I had my theme, my materials, and my time-schedule all set up and then, in would walk a new staff developer with her own agenda, turning all of my plans upside down.

I assured them that we would not be dropping the transportation unit. Instead we would see what happened if we approached it in a new way. I suggested that they each go on a neighborhood walk with their class that week, with a focus on exploring the different ways that people could travel, to, from, and around their neighborhood. After the walk, they should encourage children to share their observations. This would give the teachers a sense of what the students already know and also what form of transportation seemed to interest them the most. That would allow them to narrow the focus of the class’s transportation study.

When I came back to the school the next week, I met with each teacher individually. The inclusion team, Dana Roth and Karen Byrnes, were excited and eager to share their experience with me. Their children had lots of questions about the subway and that was where they wanted to focus their study. The three of us spent the rest of the period preparing an anticipatory web, plotting out the many possibilities for a subway study. All seemed well.

Later in the week they contacted me and sadly told me that a subway study was out of the question. One of the students was confined to a wheelchair and would have to be excluded from all subway trips. They decided to switch to a bus study. I suggested, however, that they first bring the problem to the class and see what kind of solution the children came up with.

The children were outraged! “That’s not fair! Saim should be able to go on the subway just like us!” Here began a most unusual transportation study – The Wheelchair Project.

The class decided to find out more about Saim’s wheelchair and what it was like for him to move around the school and neighborhood. Saim was pleased as punch to be the center of attention (Dana said that she would not have pursued this route if the child was sensitive about being singled out).

They began the study by interviewing Saim. After the interview, they all sat around him in a circle, observing and drawing. The teachers began webbing what children already knew about wheelchairs and also collecting their “wonderings” on post-its and adding these to the web. From these activities, they decided to focus their study on movement and accessibility. These were the two areas where the children had the most interest.

News about this unusual transportation study traveled around the school like hotcakes. When the school’s physical therapist heard about the investigation, she provided the class with an unused wheelchair. This became a very popular wheelchair observation center. Children used magnifying glasses, tape measures, and detail finders (a square of black paper with a peek-hole cut in the center) to look closely at the different parts of wheelchair. They drew the wheels, the brakes, and the gears. Then they shared their drawings and ‘recordings’ with the children in the block center who were constructing their own version of a wheelchair. This chair took many days to construct. It sometimes fell over and was rebuilt often and eventually was held together with yards of masking tape!



The class visited the school bus that brought Saim to school to see how the lift helped children with walkers and wheelchairs get on and off. They interviewed the driver and also met Manny, a very affable upper-grade child who used a walker to help him move about. Manny was invited to the classroom where he was interviewed. He then gave each child an opportunity to try out his walker.

After this experience, a lift-bus was built in the block center. After a few days, it was deconstructed and the children built “a better lift bus.”

They walked took neighborhood walks, checking to see which stores and sidewalks were “wheelchair friendly.” Then they walked around the school to find out if their school was wheelchair accessible. The front of the school had lots of steps! How did Saim get into school? In an exciting moment of discovery, they found the symbol that they saw on the lift bus, along with an arrow. The class followed the arrows until they came to the ramp entrance. Problem solved!

They visited a neighborhood house that had been altered to make it wheelchair accessible and they interviewed the owner of the building.

This study certainly held the interest of the class and raised a new awareness of the challenges in Saim’s daily life. The children developed a feeling of respect for Saim and for the other children in the school who used wheelchairs, walkers and crutches.

Over the years, I have returned to the school to visit Dana Roth and I’ve always been intrigued by the variety of studies taking place in her classroom. On one visit, the children were investigating colors – inventing colors, exploring the various names of Crayola crayons and coming up with their own inventive names for their newly mixed colors. On another visit, the children were building a school in their dramatic play center, reflecting their investigation of their own school. Dana still does some thematic studies but she also listens closely to her children and develops inquiry projects based on their interests and wonderings.

I haven’t worked at the school for the past five years, but I’m going back in the fall to, as Laura Scott, the new principal, says, “Give a refresher course” in inquiry studies to keep it alive and well at the school. Let’s see what happens.