What We Can Teach Students On Valentine’s Day
This is it! Your chance to proactively lasso a commercial holiday and turn it into compelling classroom fodder. If Halloween left you numb and dismayed (sweet children and cheeky adolescents wearing violent and sexualized costumes), let Valentine’s Day be a pedagogically corrective experience, for you and your students.
Last month I had the privilege of working with my colleague Debbie Roffman and fifty PreK-12 educators at a welcoming mountain retreat in the Hudson Valley. The setting was picturesque; our topic was complex: Sex, Gender and Sexuality: Educating Students, Supporting Families, and Creating Safer School Communities. Three days full of questions, clarity, contradictions, wonderment, fatigue, inspiration, uncertainty, good humor and plenty of timely resources. Under these conditions, a spunky group of Elementary, Middle and High School educators tackled Saint Valentine’s Day.
We focused on bringing Gender and Sexuality Diversity education “alive” in the classroom by identifying effective pedagogical tools and practices. Curriculum integration? Use of visual media? Hands-on learning? Yes, yes and yes. I challenged each age division to design a lesson (or unit) that placed Valentine’s Day at the center. They had 30 minutes to brainstorm and design the lesson, creating something that each participant could use in their own subject or discipline. (1st grade art, 3rd grade writing workshop, middle school science, U.S. History, senior Ethics seminar)
Getting Down To Work
Before they began, I offered a single catalyst: a 5 minute video depicting the evolution of same-sex marriage in the United States from 2003 to 2014.* Picture us. A group of 25 educators, all of different ages, races, genders, sexualities, and religions, watching the map of the United States closely, trying to track the progression of state-by-state color changes.
In 2003: 4 maroon states (constitutional ban) 39 red (illegal), 5 white (no law), 2 pale green (some protection) 1 light green (civil unions) 0 dark green (legal).
Silently we observe the shifting color scheme and try to make sense of 2005: 19 maroon, 25 red, 1 pale green, 2 light green, 1 dark green.
By 2012 California has changed color four times and the Northwest, like New England, is going green.
The final frame in 2014 depicts a checkerboard that directly contradicts the map we started with. No one says anything until someone from the Middle School table says, “Wow.”
How We Are Taught To Think About Valentine’s Day
When I checked out the Valentine’s Day resources on the National Education Association’s website, there were the predictable coloring pages, word searches, heART projects, and a history detective puzzler involving a weapon purportedly used in Al Capone’s St. Valentine’s Day massacre.
Another link took me to Valentine’s Day videos on the History Channel, and I discovered that heteronormativity is alive and well in this series of short clips, including The Science of Love: Attraction, The Science of Love: Kissing, The Science of Love: Heartbreak. As the viewer learns that approximately 60 million couples get engaged every year on February 14th, they do not see a single image of a same-sex couple in any of the footage.
Using Our Time-Honored Pedagogical Tools To Teach New Material
Elementary teachers use the map of the United States to teach students about states and capitals, the four main directions, symbols and legends. Fourth graders learn about Early American culture, native peoples and the pilgrims. Middle schoolers trace the Underground Railroad across the Mason-Dixon Line. High school students look at patterns of immigration in the U.S.; they try to understand the Electoral College, the significance of red and blue states. Why not use the same map to teach students about Love? About relationships, family, privilege, discrimination, and the fight for the right to legally marry?
Understandably, teachers worry about the developmental appropriateness of any lesson or course of study. And many want to know if it’s their job to bring up issues of gender and sexuality, or should they wait until the kids ask? One teacher put it this way: Do we have to go on some big safari, looking for all this stuff? Can’t we keep it simple, especially for the younger kids? It’s really about respect for all.
And that’s just it. One of the ways we teach students about respect for all is by studying those who have had to fight for that respect ever since this country began. Native americans, African slaves, immigrants, women. For many groups such struggles are part of history and part of current events. The “safari” in search of understanding the history of same-sex marriage requires the map of yesterday, today and tomorrow. And students on such a quest need a boatload of pedagogical skills to comprehend the swiftly evolving data.
Most every teacher in that session came up with ways to make Valentine’s Day 1) a thoughtful exploration of different kinds of LOVE (family, friendship, romantic) and 2) a robust examination of the rights associated with those types of Love. The result? Critical learning that will last long after the candy hearts are gone.
*deftly created by my research assistant, Smith College junior, Em Beauchamp, using www.freedometomarry.org as the source