Helping Teachers See Students in All Their Gender Identities: An Interview with sj Miller

sj Miller is a teacher and activist who serves as Deputy Director of Educational Equity Supports and Services at Steinhardt’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.  sj helped draft the Beliefs Statement about Social Justice in English Education, which informed the CAEP Social Justice Standard VI; the first ever standard in the United States that advances social justice work in teacher preparation.  sj received the 2017 AERA Exemplary Research Award for Teaching, Affirming, and Recognizing Trans and Gender Creative Youth: A Queer Literacy Framework (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).  We spoke about sj’s work promoting tolerance and diversity in the classroom.

You’ve created resources that support teachers and students.  What are you most proud of about this work?

Teachers are using the work I’ve created.  They see the importance of paying off a debt to students that is long overdue. They see the importance of teaching, affirming, and recognizing students in all of their gender identities and folding in new knowledge as students’ identities continue to emerge. They are staying open and are paying attention in ways I have never seen.  They are asking for more strategies all the time, which pushes me to be more inventive and resourceful.

Trans scholar sj Miller

How can educators integrate social justice into their work?

Teachers must be willing to look inside at own their privileges and entitlements.  If they come from backgrounds where they have been disadvantaged, they must stay committed to the work and have faith that their students will benefit from their own life experiences.  They must also stay committed to growth that can help them shift their mindsets and beliefs, and work to recognize when they are engaging in acts of microaggressions.

All teachers need resources. What do these resources look like?  I encourage teachers to read, study in groups, talk, march, watch films, read, go to events, and be mindful about the types of professional development they select.  This is important because professional development can inform their understanding about how identities are positioned as marginalized. Teachers can also unlearn prejudice and reconstitute their beliefs as they interrogate their biases.

You use the hastag, #istandwithqueeryouth, as your signature.  Can you tell me more about that?

Youth today who are gender identity woke are re-architecturing the landscape of social contexts. Gender identity woke is the self-awareness about one’s gender identity that simultaneously questions its construction and the impacts of its social positioning.  It means staying engaged and being prepared for its evolution. With rapid inventions of technology and social media the 21st century; with affordable computers, wider access to technology, social media, Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube, young people are documenting their transitions and recording their gender expressions in ways that were never available to previous generations.

What we see today is the fortification and impacts of many multiple trajectories realized by students who are turning to each other for affirmation and recognition. Beyond what is commonly heard and seen within youth culture, students are revealing that their engagements with advocacy, peer groups, and social media are spaces that they can use to develop and understand their gender identities with each other.  They are inventing language and generating new forms for literacy learning. If teachers build upon and integrate these youth spaces as forms of literacy into their lessons, it would likely increase engagement, motivation, and agency.