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East Village Students Win Fight for LGBT-Inclusive Curriculum in Classroom

By Allison Hope | June 17, 2016 7:21am | Updated on June 19, 2016 6:58pm
 Students from the Earth School have successfully advocated to push a national online education provider to include an LGBT-specific curriculum.
Students from the Earth School have successfully advocated to push a national online education provider to include an LGBT-specific curriculum.
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Colin Schumacher

EAST VILLAGE — An education company that supplies learning materials to millions of students across the nation will be adding LGBT studies to its elementary school curriculum after one New York City public school fought to make it happen.

BrainPOP, an interactive digital educational company based in the Flatiron that's used by students in public schools across the city, has agreed to create a new LGBT Civil Rights-specific curriculum by the fall — following nearly a year of pressure from students the East Village's Earth School as well as an outpouring of grief following the recent tragedy in Orlando.

“Children of all ages are exposed to the terrible news, and as parents and teachers, we are once again faced with having to explain the unexplainable. To help provide kids with context, we’ll be publishing a topic that addresses the historic Gay Rights movement and encourages tolerance and acceptance,” BrainPOP Chief Operating Officer and General Manager Din Heiman wrote on the company's website Monday — a day after gunman Omar Mateen killed 49 people in an LGBT club and wounded 53 more before he was killed by police.

 City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito hugs a student from the Lower East Side's Earth School during a meeting to brainstorm ways to advocate for an LGBT-inclusive curriculum in their elementary school.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito hugs a student from the Lower East Side's Earth School during a meeting to brainstorm ways to advocate for an LGBT-inclusive curriculum in their elementary school.
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Colin Schumacher

“I do hope that the Earth School children that expressed a wish to see a BrainPOP topic realize that their request was heard, and led to real change even before the events of this tragic weekend,” Heiman added in a separate email to the school shared with DNAinfo New York.

Heiman told DNAinfo he planned to prepare standalone LGBT educational materials ready in time for the new school year.

The announcement came as welcome news to the students at the Earth School, where fourth and fifth grade students had been calling on BrainPOP to create an elementary school curriculum devoted to the fight for LGBT Civil Rights.

“What is the purpose of education if not to change things for the better?” said Earth School teacher Colin Schumacher, who spearheaded the charge after his fourth grade class realized last year during their civil rights studies that BrainPOP had nothing available regarding the LGBT community's struggle.

The students sent an email to the company to find out why and to ask that it get added. When the company failed to respond, the students called elementary and middle school principals in the area and asked if they would lend their support. The students sent a second request to BrainPOP with the list of supportive educational leaders, but still heard no response, Schumacher said.

The Earth School’s Principal Abbe Futterman eventually got an email from BrainPOP’s Editorial Director, Jon Feldman, who wrote, “I doubled-checked with our standards provider, and it seems that at present only four states, including New York, have specific standards around LGBT rights. Every one of those standards is at the high school level. While there are high school classrooms that use BrainPOP, we do not create topics that are applicable only to those grades,” according to the email she shared with DNAinfo.

BrainPOP officials wrote in the email that they would consider, "revising the Civil Rights movie to better highlight the connection between the historical movement of the 1960s and the activism it inspired in subsequent generations. This will naturally include the LGBT Rights movement.”

But that wasn’t a sufficient response for the students, they said.

“The kids did not believe that adding LGBT rights as an addendum to any existing video is fair and equal treatment for one of the most significant civil rights movements of their lifetime,” said Schumacher, who teaches fourth and fifth grades at The Earth School, which serves 300 students between pre-K and fifth grade.

The students kept up the battle this spring, creating a standalone website entitled, “Kids for LGBT Rights Now,” which features a multi-faceted effort to push for LGBT-inclusive curriculum in schools, including a video they produced and starred in while wearing a rainbow of different colored shirts, standing in front of various locations of LGBT significance including Stonewall Inn.

The website also includes a blog with updates on their efforts as well as a petition calling on BrainPOP to add LGBT content to its suite of offerings.

On April 29, the students met with LGBT Liaison for the NYC Department of Education Jared Fox, who met with them and advised them on ways to make their advocacy campaign more effective, they said.

"We work closely with schools to develop grade-appropriate curriculum that aligns with the New York State standards and includes positive representations of LGBT individuals and history," Fox said in a statement. "We support the work of The Earth School in creating an inclusive curriculum and encouraging students to get involved through project-based learning.”

A few weeks later, students met with more city officials including New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, her Community Engagement Liaison Mili Bonilla, and City Council and LGBT Caucus Member Daniel Dromm.

Dromm, who faced homophobia as one of the few out gay teachers in the New York City system in the early 1990s, then sent a letter to BrainPOP as well as to Apple CEO Tim Cook, since Apple has been heavily promoting BrainPOP on its products.

“These incredibly inspiring activists have one simple mission. They want BrainPOP, a resource they highly value, to cover history accurately. I look forward to receiving your response about why such content is not on your site and why you have no plans to address its glaring omission,” Dromm's letter read.

On June 8, the students attended the New York City Council pride celebration where they showed the video the kids produced calling on BrainPOP to create standalone LGBT resources. “The kids were the hit of the evening,” Dromm said. “They received a five-minute-long standing ovation.”

The Earth School students with their teacher had planned to return to the New York City Council on June 21 to be recognized for their work as part of the annual ceremony to highlight the accomplishments of New Yorkers — and the news of their success will make the visit even more powerful, Dromm said.

“Many people have laid down their lives, Harvey Milk and others, in this cause for LGBT civil rights," Dromm said, "So I think to present history in an intellectually honest way is something we must do.”