Think middle schoolers are too young for a QSA? Think again
At the Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont, young adolescents have carved out a space where they can be their authentic selves. While that’s critical during middle school, it’s especially crucial for LGBTQ students.
As we kick off the third season of our podcast, let’s hear more about Crossett Brook’s QSA by listening to one of the students instrumental in its formation, as well as some of the educators who support them.
I’m honored to offer this story about how the Crossett Brook QSA started and some of the lessons learned along the way.
I was completely blown away by the empowerment of these students when they facilitated an epic staff meeting to educate teachers on LGBTQ issues in general and how to improve the environment at their school in particular. These students’ #everydaycourage is very real, the connections they’ve made with each other are quite special, and their commitment to making positive change is irresistibly contagious.
A full transcript of the podcast appears below.
Hello my name is Isabelle Morse. You can call me Izzy for short. My pronouns are she/her and they/them. I identify as bisexual and androgynous. I usually don’t say that I identify as androgynous, I just kind of let it happen.
Today on the 21st Century Classroom we hear about the creation of the Crossett Brook Queer-Straight Alliance.
It’s a group for LGBTQ students (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) and their allies to learn about themselves and support each other during middle school. We’ll hear about what they learned and what they taught adults along the way.
The Staff Meeting
Teachers gather at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, VT, at an afternoon staff meeting in January. Teachers sit in small groups talking animatedly and arranging little slips of paper. They’re trying to match LGBTQ vocabulary with definitions. As one table struggles to understand the difference between biological sex, gender identity, and gender expression, a seventh grade student wanders over to their table to help.
A few students circulate throughout the room, helping teachers with the learning activity. These students are members of Crossett Brook’s recently formed Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA). The students created the vocabulary activity, and they’re running the staff meeting.
But for staff, the learning has just begun.
After the vocabulary matching exercise ends, the students seat themselves at the front of the room. They’ve arranged the chairs so they appear as an expert panel. The faculty sponsor, Profe, stands up and explains that each student will introduce themselves before opening it up to questions. And everybody is wondering how exactly this is going to go.
Educator: Jamie, would you like to start?
Jamie: laughs No! How about Izzy?
Izzy: Hello my name is Isabelle Morris. You can call me Izzy for short. My pronouns are she/her and they/them. I identify as bisexual and androgynous. I usually don’t say that I identify as androgynous, I just kind of let it happen. And so, do I just like explain my story…? I never really came out to my parents, they just slowly figured it out. And my brother was the first one to say ‘you like females’ and I was like ‘yes!’ Because I would just kind of slowly talk about who I was attracted to with my parents and they just slowly kind of figured it out. And I just now, like, addressed it. I said ‘you guys know this, right?’ and they were fine about it. So it was a pretty smooth experience.
After this, the three other students on the panel share their stories. Not all of their coming out experiences were smooth like Izzy’s. In fact, some of the students haven’t yet come out to their families.
There were some awkward moments as students shared intense feelings and recounted emotional experiences. There were some tears from both students and teachers as one students talked about harassment he had experienced.
As the session unfolded, the teachers’ respect for the #everydaycourage of these students was palpable.
There was also a lot of discussion about basic issues of interaction.
Teachers asked students how they should know what pronouns to use, how to make sure they weren’t outing students, and what to do to make their classrooms LGBTQ-friendly.
Izzy ended the afternoon with an invitation:
Izzy: I know a lot of teachers are here early in the morning, and that you have a lot of work, but if you are ever have a free morning on Wednesday, we are in there. Or if you have a more direct thing that you don’t think all of the staff needs to know, you could go through Profe or one of us, and bring up the issue, and we could bring it to Profe. I would like to start running like a QSA letter to give to all of you, and then when there’s an issue or something coming up for QSA, I could send out an email and you would all just say ‘gosh, here it is.’
This meeting was the product of months of planning. Throughout the fall, Crossett Brook’s QSA student group met twice a week on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Wednesdays are productive meetings for organizing and activism, while Thursdays are more socially oriented. Here’s how Izzy described the meetings.
Izzy: I think it’s nice to have those Wednesday mornings so that we can figure out how to set up these big meetings, like we had a waffle party and we’ve had a pizza party with a movie that we watched. We’ve done two of those, we watched ‘In and Out and “Vic to Victoria’ which are both movies about the LGBTQ community and- Julia Roberts is fantastic- I think it was Julia Roberts. I can’t remember.
I think it’s nice to be able to plan fun things in the morning, but then Thursdays are really nice, because you can just kind of go there and… We’ve had people talk about their bullying experiences.
Thursday lunches are full of laughs, intense bonding, and peer support.
Izzy: It’s nice to be able to have those students open up about their problems and what’s happening with them. And it’s nice to have that because then we can kind of- not even just to stop the harassment and bullying, but it’s just an extra good part that comes with it and it feels so nice. If you’ve ever sat down with someone and just vented all your problems and then you just kind of sit there and go, “That felt better.”
It’s just like you needed to talk about it. Or when you cry when you have all these pent-up feelings and you just cry and cry it all out? And it’s like, finally this weight’s been lifted off and it feels really awesome to just be able to be a person that people can go to me and talk about it. I have had younger students than me, I’ve had fifth, sixth and seventh grades come up to me and be like, thank you for bringing me here because this is really awesome and they’ve told me about their bullying experiences.
Here is the faculty sponsor, who goes by Profe with her students as a gender-neutral name, on the two days:
Profe: I think the group wants to… they want to do that education piece in their community. They want to see the atmosphere, the climate change. That’s been one of their goals. I think what brings them is the peer support. That’s what keeps them coming back. That time having fun with friends and also feeling like they can be their whole selves in that space.
Profe [PROH-fay] was an important player in the start of this group. And Profe let Crossett Brook principal Tom Drake know during her hiring interview that she was interested in helping LGBTQ students.
But the groundwork was being laid before she was even hired. Let’s hear from the educator assigned to be Profe’s mentor during her first year.
Jen Hill: Hi. I’m Jennifer Hill, the librarian at Crossett Brook Middle School.
Well, the first part of the story is great need without any adult door opening. I almost imagine knocking on the door. Nobody just serves you when you open it. The few things that came together this year that allowed for that is… which is interesting. There are two things that I’m thinking of and one of them is a person. So having Profe on staff as our world language teacher? Someone who’s like, “Oh, don’t you guys hear all that knocking? Then, just open the door.”
I was Profe’s mentor, so when Profe said, “What do you think?” I said, “Oh my God, that would be amazing.” Just the amount of relief was tremendous. Definitely, Profe, as an experienced leader of queer-straight alliances, was huge and her willingness to do it here, also huge. Then, interesting among the students was with the bathrooms. Just what that did, in terms of conversations on teams around gender and having bathrooms that are no longer gender-specific is very interesting.
Life: How did the bathrooms happen?
Jen Hill: Tom was going to put these signs up on the walls of the bathrooms that were gender-neutral. It was funny because it was either boy, or girl, or whatever. Then it was almost just, “Do ‘Toilet’, something simple.” And so he did that. I don’t recollect saying, “Tom, why don’t we have gender-neutral bathrooms?” I don’t know where that came from prior, but it was exciting, and I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled.
This is how change in schools happens. It’s a combination of student need and adults who are willing to notice and listen.
Often, random acts like a bathroom sign put up by the principal can spark conversations and set in motion a chain of events. A new teacher helps launch the students group. The students run an entire staff meeting. Teachers start to put up signs in their room designed by the student group that signal safe spaces. The health teachers even consulted with the student group to revise the gender identity unit in the health curriculum.
Then there’s the importance of tapping into resources, organizations, and models from outside the school to strengthen and accelerate the change.
As a student, Profe had worked with an advocacy organization called OutRight Vermont. As a faculty sponsor, Profe arranged for some of Crossett Brook’s QSA students to attend an OutRight Vermont event. Here’s Izzy again:
Izzy: We’ve gone to a, it’s called the fall conference that Outright [Vermont] puts on. Outright is the LGBTQ advocacy program for Vermont. They brought in GLADD, which is… I can’t remember what the acronym is, but it’s like all about the legal harassment of students in the LGBTQ community. If there’s a problem with pronouns or teachers not accepting you, when legally they have to accept you and use proper pronouns it could legally bind them in situations. Because once you bring in legal aspects it shuts down the harassment and bullying, especially from teachers- which I’ve heard happened- which is just not morally correct.
So the empowerment of these students is institutionalized and fully supported. OutRight Vermont provided students with networking opportunities and access to key information like the low down on their legal rights. They also had a presence at the QSA-run staff meeting to provide moral support. And they even provided materials and instruction for the revamped gender identity unit in the health curriculum. All very helpful.
Yet there needed to be student leaders there to get things moving, to knock on the door, to urge adults to open it.
Which all helps to illustrate two things to recognize about young adolescents making change: they are capable of way more than you might imagine, but they need support.
Here’s Profe’s thoughts on the power of middle schoolers to create change, when given the right support:
Profe: I think if anything this group has exceeded my expectations coming from a high school. I feel like middle-schoolers are still busy but they have a little more space to take on different projects and tasks. It felt like there was just less competition for that time. These guys have just a lot of passion in the process of doing of discovery. They’re figuring a lot out and I think that middle school dynamic of really being at the beginning of their journeys has some more vigor to it than the high school dynamic that I’ve seen.
Yeah, I think they’ve done a good job really. Following through on things and coming up with ideas for what they want to see. Then, having done this before, having involved in the community, it’s easy to pull from other sources, to fit their ideas in. If there’s more of a template and some structure and scaffolding it, get them from that idea to something they want to create. They’ve been good at doing their part to make that happen.
Izzy Morse is the de facto leader of Crossett Brook’s QSA group. She’s well respected by her LGBTQ peers, as you can hear from Jamie’s story at the staff meeting —
Jamie: Oh wait, real quick, have to thank Izzy over here. Because the first time I heard the announcement for CBPA, I wasn’t sure. But Izzy asked me if I was going and I said “sure”. So credit to Izzy because I probably wouldn’t be as comfortable with myself as I am now.
— and is firmly grounded in her identity as an LGBTQ student. Here’s Izzy at one of the lunch meetings sharing an example of responding to micro-aggression.
Izzy: When I say I’m going to QSA they’re like, “You’re going to gay club?” And I say no, I’m going to a place where everyone is accepted you should come too.
Izzy credits her self-confidence and poise to her family, but also to early experiences being bullied.
Izzy: I learned most of this from my father actually- definitely my mother, but when I was… and it helped a lot. It’s so weird to say this but it helped a lot to be bullied when I was younger. I was targeted when I was younger by a girl who was way shorter than me, way skinnier than me. And I was kind of a chubby kid, so it was always like, you’re fat, you’re gross and you’re way too tall, you’re freakishly tall, you’re a giant. And that kind of stuff. It stuck with me for a long time. And then my dad would say, you can’t change how other people think of you, but you can change the way you think.
I thought that was a really, really wise thing to say, because it really changed my views on things. He also said, you can’t change how other people act to think or what they do, but you can change what you do and how you think. It really switched my point of view on things. Because I was always trying to get the other kids to stop, but I just ended up ignoring it and honestly there is not much you can do with… you can’t fix someone’s ignorance, you can just try and help them and explain to them, “Hey this is what I’m feeling when you say this kind of stuff.”
I had said that kind of stuff with them at one point and I said like, “Hey this is really negative, it’s making me feel really negatively about myself and it’s just a horrible thing to do.”
And Izzy has a message for people who wonder if middle school’s too young to be dealing with serious issues of identity:
Izzy: I’ve had a bunch of people passed away in my family who are really big influences in my life, and even though I’m only 14 I’ve had to deal with all these heavy subjects.
I think a lot of people see it as when you’re young you can’t have experience with these types of topics, but I’ve had all of these things happen to me in the past five or six years and I’m still… it’s only been 14 years since I was brought to the planet. I think it’s not — I don’t think anyone should take away the importance and the — I can’t find the word, but no one should take away the importance or the substantialness I think- maybe- of someone’s feelings or problems or emotions or experiences just because they’re a certain age or because they’re a certain race or gender or sexuality or something.
It really doesn’t matter, we’re all humans.
Developmental research suggests that middle school is the time when students are most influenced by their peers. And the students involved in the Queer-Straight Alliance at Crossett Brook Middle School at least, have carved out a special kind of space. One in which they support each other in their emerging identities.
But this space isn’t a protective bubble shut off from the rest of the school. It follows students throughout their day.
Izzy: It creates this close knit community in between schools and so whenever you see someone that you helped or whenever you see someone from QSA, you just kind of high-five in the hallway and you’re like, “QSA jokes!” (You obviously can’t see me doing that, but I just did my awkward finger-guns, because it goes well with it.) It’s just like you can incorporate a little inside jokes and stuff and it’s just really nice to have such an accepting community of kids in the school that you can match your feelings with- that’s not the right set of words, but like you can associate yourself with such an accepting group. Okay, I’ll stop. laughs
Educators of young adolescents know that for students to be successful in school, they need to have their basic human needs met. Students need to feel safe, they need to feel respected, and ideally they feel empowered and inspired. The QSA has managed to do that so successfully that faculty sponsor, Profe, wondered aloud about how to recreate this for the non-LGBTQ students in the school.
Profe: How do you create that safe space for kids? That’s a question that’s come up before doing retreats and things. There’s the ground rules that are set and the space that’s created there is usually one that… it isn’t always comfortable. There’s conflict in that space. People have opposing views. But you’re allowed to sit with that discomfort and you’re still respected for what you’re bringing to the table and your perspectives. I think people really feel that kind of safeness in that space too.
How do you give that experience to everyone where they feel that much like they can be their whole selves? I think a lot of kids are missing that today. I think a lot of kids miss that a lot in adolescence, but I think in the digital world there’s a lot of posturing and figuring out how to look a certain way, or being yourself in spaces and then being shut down because there’re trolls all over the place. There’s a lot more acceptability of just negative stuff. Kids get a lot of that.
Creating safe spaces in schools may be more important now than ever before. Schools don’t have anything to lose by creating supportive spaces like QSAs where love and acceptance are the norm. In fact, in a 21st Century school, these kind of spaces may be absolutely necessary.
Izzy: One of my friends, they were very withdrawn, very quiet, and now that I’ve met them and they’ve come into QSA, I can see how much more open and happy they are and I think it’s a lot because of the QSA and just a big group of people accepting each other. What I always say is, it’s the famous old saying, but you literally get nothing taken away for loving someone. It’s free, you don’t lose any and it’s just love everyone. You don’t lose things from loving people or accepting people.
The 21st Century Classroom is the podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education. You can find out more about the Tarrant Institute at blog dot Tarrant Institute dot org, and follow us on twitter at @innovativeEd. Life LeGeros produced this episode. The music, as always, is by dirtwire. Huge thanks to the faculty, students and families at Crossett Brook Middle School, all the students of the QSA group, and special thanks to Izzy Morse, Jamie Atchinson, Jen Hill, Tom Drake, and Profe, also known as Gabriel Ely.