Supporting LGBTQ+ Students in Secondary ELA

Supporting LGBTQ+ Students in Secondary ELA cover

Supporting LGBTQ+ Students in Secondary ELA

by Danielle from Nouvelle ELA

Supporting LGBTQ+ students will literally save lives.

As I write this post, legislators across the United States have made our LGBTQ+ students a political flashpoint in ways that put their very lives at risk (1). New laws aim to police Trans students’ bodies and restrict their liberties in school and athletics. 

According to the CDC, 1.8% of students identify as Transgender. According to a 2018 report, “Transgender students were more likely than were cisgender students to report violence victimization, substance use, and suicide risk” (CDC). The report recommends taking immediate steps to create a safe learning environment and access to culturally-competent physical and mental health care. 

Years ago, I read the Trevor Project’s Facts about Suicide, and it gave me a laser-sharp focus on keeping students safe. According to their research, 1 in 6 students (grades 9-12) seriously considered suicide in the last year, and LGBTQ+ students were three times as likely to seriously consider suicide than their heterosexual, cisgendered peers. As I applied those numbers to my classes of 30 students, I knew that I had to do everything in my power to keep my students alive

Trevor Project Suicide Prevention Hotline 866.488.7386

According to the National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, LGBTQ youth having at least one supportive adult in their lives were 40% less likely to contemplate suicide.

It has never been more important for us to show up and protect our students. 

Education has always been political, and these political maneuvers threaten our students by compromising their safe learning environments and health (CDC, above). 

Above all, we must create a culture of safety for our students. 

So, yes, we need to act now.

Let’s get started.

Keep safety as our main goal

As we implement the ideas from this post, please remember that our main goal is student safety. In practical terms, that means protecting students against violence from their peers, their teachers, and their carers.

Do not “out” a student.

“Outing” a student means exposing their gender identity or sexual orientation to another student, teacher, administrator, or to that child’s parents. 

If a student feels comfortable enough to share parts of their LGBTQ+ identity and experience with us, we cannot assume that they’ve shared it with anyone else in their lives. We don’t know what other people would do if they found it. We must act as though we are shielding them from deadly violence, because we are. We know from countless news stories that children are not “too young” to be victims of anti-LGBTQ violence (2).

Alright, phew. That was a tough paragraph to write, but we need to be honest with ourselves about what we’re dealing with: our students’ lives are at stake. 

Image of brightly colored flair pens and a pronouns pin.

Model and practice inclusive language

As English teachers, we are extremely well-positioned to model inclusive language! This is an instance in which our passion for words is life-saving! That’s amazing. Here are five tips for harnessing the power of language in our classrooms: 

  1. Introduce ourselves using our pronouns. Add them to our email signatures. This is a painless way to fight against the societal assumptions about gender presentation (how we look) vs. gender identity (the identity we feel). 

  2. Model gender-inclusive language. We can practice using gender-neutral nouns, like “firefighters” instead of “firemen.” We have an opportunity - particularly as we read older texts - to hone students’ sense of this. We can actually stop on gendered words and ask students to find a gender-neutral term. Additionally, when we need student help, we can be inclusive: “I need two students to carry these boxes of books to the library.” 

  3. Use the third-person singular “they” for all individuals unless otherwise told. As English teachers, we get bonus opportunities to practice this skill. Anytime we meet a new character in a novel, we have an opportunity to suspend our assumptions until we’re informed of their gender by the author. 

  4. In our Carer Communication, we can suspend assumptions about familial ties and relationships. Instead of making the heteronormative assumption that families are composed of one mother and one father, we can focus on the care. As a kid who was orphaned young, I can tell you that seeing “Parents” on school communication continually hurt. Instead, try “Carers” in communication and “Your grownups” when talking to kids.

  5. Humbly accept accountability from our students if we misspeak. This is an excellent opportunity to model the interpersonal communication skill of apologizing and decentering our own feelings. Here’s one great article about doing so. 

Provide opportunities for students to celebrate their identities

As English teachers, we want to share our passion and skills around the written and spoken word. Since identity is at the core of culture, language, and communication, we can center it and celebrate it in our classrooms. 

  1. As part of any student survey we do, we can distinguish between a given name and a chosen name. The Daring English Teacher has a great free student survey that has space for this information and students’ correct pronouns. [Safety hint: We can also ask students how they’d like us to refer to them when we speak on the phone to their carers.]

  2. Make Identity Mapping part of our “getting to know you” activities. I love these activities because “knowing yourself” has always been such a key motivator for writers, poets, and speakers. We can loop our students into a long history of self-reflection. [Safety hint: plan with students about how much each person will share. Students will benefit from knowing what’s private to them and public to the class.]

  3. Plan activities for LGBT History Month (October). There are so many amazing LGBTQ+ writers, thinkers, and artists to feature in our curriculum!

Create an inclusive library and curriculum

Here on the Coffee Shop, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about including more voices in the curriculum instead of maintaining the reputation for “dead, White guys.” LGBTQ+ voices are definitely part of that! Let’s take a look: 

  1. Give our students access to inclusive classroom libraries. Brittany, the SuperHERO Teacher, wrote a great post with recommendations here. Addie Williams collected even more ideas for promoting diversity in this post. On my own blog, I share recommendations of middle grade books featuring LGBTQ+ main characters

  2. Include LGBTQ+ speakers and teachers as part of the expert voices in our classrooms. For example, I love sharing TED Talks and TEDEd videos as “expert voices” for teaching concepts. I love this TED Talk by Gabby Rivera about writing and developing a character. We can amplify LGBTQ+ voices in big and small ways, and this is a great habit to fold into our unit planning!

  3. Include positive representations of LGBTQ+ folks in our curriculum and classroom decor. It isn’t all struggle! In this LGBTQ+ History Poster Set, I feature amazing LGBTQ+ activists, athletes, thinkers, and writers. Having posters like these up is a great visual cue to make LGBTQ+ students feel welcome.

Respond to anti-LGBTQ+ behavior

Responding to bigotry and harassment is different from responding to other types of student misbehavior because we’re protecting a student from harm. Whereas we may address Johnny’s tardiness privately and not make a scene, we need to address his anti-LGBTQ+ behavior immediately and publicly. We can make this a moment of learning by labeling how and why the behavior was wrong. This isn’t about shame; it’s about growth. 

  1. Have a plan for how we will intervene in student harassment and bullying. Practice and role-play with a colleague, if we can. GLSEN has a guide on page 16 (page 18 of the PDF) of their Safe Space Kit that I strongly recommend. [And remember, if our students correct us on an appropriate behavior, we have the opportunity to practice humility and reconciliation.]

  2. Address intolerance and bigotry that we hear from colleagues. No “joke” is too small to go unconfronted. We are able to hold our colleagues accountable to protect our students. 

  3. We can fight for inclusive policies and handbook language in our schools. For example, does our dress code demand a gender binary? How can we support our gender-nonconforming students? 

Pull quote from blog post on sticky note

Provide resources for the safety and well-being of our students

Our students’ safety needs to be our number one goal. Here are some resources we can provide for the safety of our students: 

  1. Put up a Safe Space poster in our rooms to indicate that students can come talk to us when they need support. There are tons of free posters online, including in the GLSEN Safe Space kit. We can also purchase a decal or find a poster that suits our needs on a site like Etsy. 

  2. Make menstrual supplies available in our classrooms. There’s a lot of research in general about “Period Poverty,” or the fact that a large number of menstruating youth cannot afford supplies. This is something that can become a safety issue with Trans kids, especially if they’re not out to classmates. For the dignity of all of our menstruating students, we can make these supplies available without barrier.

  3. Use these free posters from The Trevor Project to connect students to life-saving hotlines. 


All teachers have the ability to save the lives of our LGBTQ+ students, but ELA teachers are especially equipped to guide students in adapting language and communication for the safety of all. We can model choosing the right words, advocating for the dignity and safety of others, and apologizing when we get something wrong. We can also provide students a wide variety of voices and stories as we expand our curriculum. 

It’s okay if we make missteps, as long as we’re learning and growing. 

Here are some further resources:

  1. Check out this episode of The Daily Podcast for a broader view of these bills passing through state legislatures.

  2. Check out GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey for more statistics about the kind of harassment (verbal & physical) and violence faced by LGBTQ+ youth.

  3. Additional reading: NEA resource page on Supporting LGBTQ+ youth

Teaching Reading - Crunch Time Tips for Testing

High-stakes testing means different things for different teachers in different settings. Let me share with you the setting that I teach in to better understand why I address testing the way I do.

In the state of Florida, in order for students to graduate high school, they are required to pass their 10th Grade reading assessment or a concordant score on the ACT or SAT. My population of students is typically reading two-three grade levels below. They are 98% minorities, 50% immigrants, and from low socio-economic households, so meeting this state mandate is a must for them. So it does not matter how I feel about these tests, I need to make sure my students are equipped to master them because for many of them, their quality of life is dependent on it.

So here are some things that I do to help my students make learning gains.

It is crucial that they use their time wisely since most of their tests are timed. Especially for struggling readers since they spend the bulk of their time reading and not leaving enough time to answer questions. Much of the focus during crunch time is helping them to be strategic readers by doing the following:


Previewing the text is key to determining what type of passage they are reading. If you preview and recognize that the text is fictional, then your focus is to recognize the development of the characters’ traits, their motivation, theme, conflict, and other plot elements since that is what the questions will more than likely be about.

Questions for non-fiction are typically aimed at the author's viewpoints, arguments, organizational patterns, or central ideas. You may ask, why does it matter and this is how I explain it to my students;Your brain needs a little assistance to know what to key in on as you read. Our brains are doing a million things to keep us breathing, sitting, and alert while it is also reading which in itself requires a heavy load for it to do. Narrow down for your brain what to focus in on by recognizing the type of text and say to yourself, “I need to look for fictional details” or “I need to look for non-fictional details.” 

Download the FREE What Readers Notice Reference Sheet I provide my students to reference as they are working!

Reading with a Purpose

By April, my students can finish this sentence that I say repeatedly, “it doesn’t make sense to read to the end then realize you don’t understand what you read.” A good majority of my students are what I call word callers. They can read every word on the page and they believe that is all reading is. They get to the end and lack a deep understanding and sometimes, not even a surface-level understanding of the text. 

So we practice chunking the text by stopping and asking questions about a section. Chunking could be at the paragraph level or even sentence level.  The goal is for them to recognize when comprehension breaks down and fix it then and thereby identifying what is causing the breakdown instead of waiting till the end. 

Students are also taught to process what they read by doing a quick summary of 5 words or less. They begin the year annotating or writing in the margin but over time I remove that requirement to write it once I realize that it is becoming an automatic practice in their heads. Most state testing platforms are not built to accommodate students annotating on the passage which is why the written annotation is not the end goal.

Decoding Questions

Have you ever read a student’s response and asked yourself, “what question were they answering?” If you are like me then the answer is MANY MANY TIMES! Because most of the year, I only do free-response short answers, I know students struggle with knowing what a question is asking them. 

We spend time teaching a skill but that skill can be asked a number of different ways on a test, so empowering students with the following steps helps them to think through the question. 

  1. Teaching academic language such as convey, or address.

  2. Having students underline keywords in the question.

  3. Put the question in their own words

  4. Answer the question in their minds before looking at any choices 

Lastly, in order to help our students make gains on reading assessments, there are some tips that I would like to share aimed at teaching best practices.

Knowing and Understanding the Standards

Even after years of teaching the same standards, I still pull out my state Item Specifications, review the wording of the standard, as well as to look at the sample questions and how the standard could be asked depending on the question type. In Florida, students are not just assessed using multiple-choice questions but also question types such as multi-select and drag and drop.

Also, we get caught up in remediating missed skills from prior grades, and we forget to hone in on the required skills for our grade-level standard. Case in point, let’s look at the following Common Core Standard:

CCCS.R.5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

Now ask yourself, have your secondary students only been identifying cause and effect, problem-solution, or sequence text structure or have they also analyzed the role a sentence plays in a paragraph or the contribution a paragraph makes to the development of a passage?

Grade 5 requires students to “Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.” Meanwhile, Grade 7 requires students to “Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to the development of the ideas” and Grade 9-10 requires students to “analyze in detail how an author's ideas or claims are developed and refined by particular sentences, paragraphs, or larger portions of a text (e.g., a section or chapter).”

Notice the staircase in what is required of the students and the difference by grade level which is why it is essential that as teachers, we know the standards and prepare students appropriately.

Depth Of Knowledge Levels

Another key strategy is using crunch time wisely and spending it where it will be most effective. Most teachers do not have enough time to cover all the standards much less time to go back over them so figuring out which standards to focus on in our limited time is key. 

That is why, my students only do short answer responses the majority of the year because as we work on our reading skills we are also working on our writing skills. Their writing score is a big chunk of their overall reading score and when you think about what is required of them to produce an evidence-based essay, then you recognize it is a DOK Level 4. The value of a DOK Level 4 question will weigh more than simpler tasks. 

In a nutshell, if a question requires one step of thinking it falls low in terms of depth of knowledge but a question that requires a student to process multiple ideas and connect them are higher on the depth of knowledge chart. For the writing task, students are asked to read and comprehend, choose evidence, identify and analyze patterns in the evidence across multiple sources, and then create/ synthesize a written product. That is the epitome of a demanding task. There are also reading standards that require a deeper level of thinking from students and those are primarily the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas standards. When deciding what texts to use, choose to use paired texts so that students can connect ideas across them and analyze each author’s claims or perspectives.

Thematic units throughout the year especially in book clubs are a great instructional tool to have students constantly thinking through multiple perspectives on the same topic. My favorite thematic unit is one we do on the role of Upstanders which you can find in my TPT store. 

Small-Group Instruction

I am a big proponent of small group instruction even at the secondary level. In order for students to make adequate learning gains, their needs have to be met. Some students need remediation at the phonics level, some need fluency skills, and others need enrichment at the comprehension level. During crunch time, most of my instructional block is broken down into small group time with the exception of the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes. For the rest of the year, there is whole group guided instructional time as well. The goal is learning gains and until we drill down to the root of the issue and address them, the students will produce the same result. 

The last tip is to always keep students at the front of our instructional practices. Testing season can be nerve-wracking for them and us and it happens at the time of the year when we are ready to bolt to summer break. So if it is packet after packet, they will become disengaged. There is still a place for novels paired with non-fictional texts during crunch time. There is still time for high engagement by making test prep fun by gamifying. Yes, it is necessary to drill skills but we shouldn’t drill our students to boredom.

Huge thanks to Samantha for sharing her wisdom and experience with us! Samantha spent the first seven years in a high school working as an Intensive Reading teacher before moving to middle school as an Instructional Coach. She's now back in the classroom teaching 6-8th grade, covering everything from Cambridge English to Intensive Reading.

Want to read more from Samantha?

Check out her fabulous blog where she shares so many helpful tips, strategies, and books.

Also, be sure to check out her TeachersPayTeachers store where she shares engaging resources that help students find success with reading and writing.

Diverse and Inclusive Short Story Ideas

In a short story rut? Tired of the same short story anthologies that you have used for years? Want to add some new voices to your collection?

I have spent the last several years on the hunt for DIVERSE and INCLUSIVE short stories to add to my teaching. I still love using the classics, however, I know the importance of including a variety of voices and experiences into my teaching and have had fun looking for and using modern short stories written by an amazingly talented and diverse group of authors.

One of the first things I do when I start a short story unit is to talk about the short stories students have read previously.  I might have to prompt them with the titles I know they read in previous years at my school, but we come up with a list of short stories they remember.  We discuss as a class who the authors are and whose voices are most represented in the stories they have read.  It is then easy to generate a list of whose voices are missing... and whose voices they would like to hear in the stories we read in class.  From the list I will look for stories that I think will pique their interest and share a voice they might not have heard before. 

Not only do I want my students to see themselves reflected in the curriculum and the stories they read, but I want them to hear and read about the experiences of others. I think learning about others people's lives and their achievements, challenges, and beliefs helps students build empathy and understanding.  Many of my students have such a narrow view of the world that I want to expand and challenge their thinking by exposing them to voices that they may not have heard before.

The great thing about mixing up your short story unit and moving towards a more inclusive collection of stories is that regardless of what short story you teach in class, you can still cover all of the elements of short stories.  I love to use my SHORT STORY GRAPHIC ORGANIZERS to help students review the elements of plot, setting, characterization, conflict, theme, mood, tone, and more! The great thing about the organizers is that they can be used with ANY SHORT STORY!  

Grab this FREE GRAPHIC ORGANIZER to use as a jumping-off point for a deeper analysis of any short story.  It's a quick and easy review activity after reading any short story.  

Here are some of my favorite short story anthologies to use with middle - high school students.  Full disclosure - I have not read all of the stories in each book as I'm slowly working my way through them all... it's an ongoing project. However, these are all books that I am proud to have on my bookshelf for students to read during silent reading or to borrow.  I have used stories from several of these books with success in my classroom.  Click HERE to download a copy of the list I have made.

It is so important to me that all of my students can see and find themselves in the pages of a book or short story.  I am lucky to teach where we do not have a prescribed curriculum and I do not have to use a district-provided set of novels or short stories. I have the freedom to find and use stories and novels that I think will work in my classroom.  

Unfortunately, I do not have class sets of any of these books - I read the stories aloud with students and we discuss them as a class.  One of my goals for next year is to get a class set or two of several of these books to add to my school's book collection.  

For more specific short story recommendations I recommend checking out this resource from Nouvelle ELA

Happy Reading!

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