Rewey Bette Inglis, who, in 1929, became the first woman president of the National Council of Teachers of English, was a visionary teacher, writer, and observer, and her extraordinary contributions continue to influence our profession. Each year WILLA presents the Rewey Belle Inglis Award to an outstanding woman in English and/or English education. Since its inception, recipients of the award have been women who have “exhibited outstanding professional service relating to the role and image of women in the profession and in NCTE.” Like the best work on gender, Mollie Blackburn’s work expands possibilities for girls and women and, indeed, for all of us as gendered beings.
Mollie Blackburn has helped us understand how LGBTQ youth experience literacy in schools and in their own activist work, and how teachers can work against homophobia and heteronormativity. In her latest book, Interrupting Hate: Homophobia in Schools and What Literacy Can Do About It, Blackburn paints a powerful picture of the role that homophobia currently plays in schools. She analyzes conversations with youth both in and out of schools to discuss how they draw on literacy practices as they develop agency and engage in activism. Blackburn also discusses ways to help both youth and teachers develop as allies.
In September, I asked Mollie if she would agree to a phone interview to discuss critical issues around sexuality and gender dynamics, trans policy for schools, and activist work.
Candice: What does winning The Rewey Belle Inglis Award mean to you personally?
Mollie: To be recognized for the ways that my scholarship, teaching, and service has contributed to women in English Language Arts Education is a real honor. To be positioned among people I admire like Lou Ann Reid and Cathy Fleischer, among many others is, of course, an honor. And to be celebrated in the name of Rewey Belle Inglis is amazing. Her passion for joyful teaching resonates with me, and that she had conducted teacher research project thrills me, since I started this journey with a teacher research project and my next research project is, again, teacher research.
Candice: You describe your research “as critical and activist in nature”, what do you mean?
Mollie: Interrogate inequitable power dynamics around sexuality and gender. I work to make changes in the world and the lives of children.
Candice: How would you explain the broader significance of your research to educators?
Mollie: I am all about disrupting oppression, recognizing that often times people are marginalized in some ways and privileged in others, and that these ways change from context to context, that is, power has real material consequences, but it is fluid. So, when I talk about power dynamics in relation to sexual identities or gender expressions, I know that these can never be understood in isolation from power dynamics defined by race, class, religion, among other identity markers. And I hope that what I learn in focusing on sexual identities and gender expressions might inform oppressions experienced more broadly.
Candice: What recommendations would you offer educators and other professionals who work with children and young people representing diversity in terms of age, race, class, gender, and sexuality?
Mollie: Work across difference. Listen passionately and lovingly, like your life depends on it, because yours might, but even if it doesn’t, some else’s does.
Candice: Explain further your model for educators in creating a safe learning community for all students.
Mollie: No real model. But the work Caroline Clark and I have done with teachers, work that we started with Jeane Copenhaver-Johnson and Jim Buckley, has been about on-going work that varies according to the needs of the group members, sometimes reading, sometimes writing, always eating and talking, more recently conducting and analyzing transcripts together. We’ve been meeting for 10 years, and the kind of work we’ve done together has varied quite a bit in that time.
Candice: What titles do you typically include in your LGBTQ themed book discussion group?
Mollie: So this was a group I facilitated with Caroline Clark, but it has stopped meeting now, but in that group we read …
- young adult books like Boy meets boy, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Finding HF, What happened to Lani Garver, Keeping you a Secret, Am I Blue?, God Box, Skim;
- books marketed to adults, like Fun Home, The Color Purple, Fried Green Tomatoes, Written on the Body, Other voices other rooms
Candice: What are some of the challenges faced by The Pink Tigers, the teacher inquiry group committed to combating homophobia in schools in central Ohio?
Mollie: Using queer-inclusive curricula in schools and making others aware that all identities matter. It is challenging for individuals to listen across differences.
Candice: What victories can the group celebrate?
Mollie: Starting GSAs (gay and straight alliances) in schools and learning to listen lovingly and passionately to others like your life depends on it.
Candice: In your research, you have spent time interviewing and studying LGBTQ youths’ perceptions of gender rules and regulations in schools. What are some of the observations these children have made? And how much has changed since the time you conducted your research?
Mollie: I think more has changed for lesbian and gay youth and less for gender non-conforming youth, whether or not they identify as LGBTQ. I think school is better for some LG kids and still hostile for most gender non-conforming or gender creative kids.
Candice: You were involved in a teacher inquiry project examining privilege through literature with sixth-grade students who have been identified as gifted and talented. Which literary selections were used?
Mollie: Queenie Peavey by local author Robert Burch. It is historical fiction about self-knowledge, femininity, and hope.
Candice: What types of privilege were studied?
Mollie: Class and Race. More specifically, race because of the racial diversity of students in the class and because of the book’s setting in the Great Depression and the fact that the main character’s father is in jail and does not, therefore, contribute to the household income.
Candice: Can you say something about the demographics of those students, and some of their reactions to the project?
Mollie: Approximately half African American, half white. In this context, most African Americans were working class and most white students were middle class, although this was not absolute. The students I remember struggling with it the most were white middle class students, who were deeply invested in the myth of meritocracy, but they were able to at least question that myth through our talk together.
Candice: Considering the importance of inclusiveness, and the academic disparity between boys and girls as evidenced by testing data, how do we maintain academic integrity while still attempting to recruit and represent students from various genders in honors and AP courses?
Mollie: Well, I should say that I’m a little put-off by tracking in any terms, including honors and AP courses, but understanding that they are alive and well in our schools, I advocate for gender non-conforming teachers engaging students with literature that provokes students to interrogate gender dichotomies and the heterosexual matrix.
by Candice Monech and Heather McEntarfer
feature image Mary