(Originally published in Bay Windows, October 11, 2007.)
“It definitely surprised me,” says director Debra Chasnoff of the decision by the Evesham, New Jersey school district to exclude her documentary That’s a Family from its curriculum, after a handful of parents objected to its inclusion of gay and lesbian families. In the film, elementary school children explain to their classmates what they’d like them to know about their families. There are kids who were adopted, have multiracial families, are being raised by a single parent or guardian, have divorced parents, or have same-sex parents. “It’s been used in hundreds of communities with no fuss,” the Academy Award-winning filmmaker notes, adding that it was also screened at the Clinton White House.
The Evesham brouhaha began, as did a similar situation over an LGBT-inclusive storybook in Lexington, Massachusetts, because of a parent’s reaction—or overreaction. Chasnoff explains, “Rather than going and talking to his child’s teacher, he went to the local NBC affiliate and just made a stink. The media ran with it, and fanned the flames of the controversy. It turned out this person is a fundamentalist, and he’s been quoted as saying he’s doing God’s battle by trying to stop the use of this film. He was very successful in gauging other conservative religious organizations to help with all the frenzy.”
The Evesham incident has not, however, stopped her and her media company, Ground Spark (formerly Women’s Educational Media), from preparing a re-release of their 1997 film, It’s Elementary. While That’s a Family is aimed at children, It’s Elementary targets parents and educators, documenting how others have addressed LGBT awareness in the classroom. It’s Elementary “has been used in countless ways to provide training to staff, to be a catalyst for dialogue in school communities,” Chasnoff explains. She hopes the re-release “will be an opportunity for people all over the country to engage in a dialogue about how far we’ve come and what else we need to do.”
The new DVD also includes a companion piece, It’s STILL Elementary, which looks at why the film was made, people’s response, and the situation today. Chasnoff and her team also tracked down six of the original students, and asked whether a lesson in school about LGBT people made a difference in their lives. “All six of them were profoundly affected by the experience,” Chasnoff found. Five identify as straight, but all are active allies. “Some of them have formed gay-straight alliance networks. One of them goes to school in a very conservative area, and she’s constantly speaking up on behalf of LGBT issues and people. One of them . . . had been one of the most prejudiced kids in the class. . . . Today, he’s working with youth, and finds himself in the role of intervening when kids call each other anti-gay names.” Another child, filmed in fifth grade, turned out to be gay. He says that during the lesson captured in the film, he began to think, “Maybe that’s what’s going on with me.” He came out years later, but “just having that experience in a classroom where a teacher was saying supportive things made a world of difference to him.”
Both films are part of Ground Spark’s Respect for All Project, which “seeks to create safe, hate-free schools and communities” through documentaries and accompanying educational campaigns. The series also includes Let’s Get Real, an exploration of name-calling and bullying in middle schools, and Straightlaced (in production), about the pressure to conform to traditional gender roles. Chasnoff says the key to success in using any of the films is for schools to communicate first with parents about why they’re airing them. Showing them without laying the groundwork “could be upsetting to some families that are not on the same page with why it’s so important.”
She advises screening the films in advance for parents. Parents see kids like their own “talking with brutal honesty about what’s going on in school” and get motivated to initiate or support diversity education in their schools. Parents in non-traditional families get excited that classes will be discussing these issues. Chasnoff also recommends inviting families again when the films are shown in the classroom, to make the stories “real and relevant.” She reiterates, “Parental involvement and partnership is really key.” The Evesham school did not involve parents from the beginning, “so they missed out on having the support of all the parents who would have stood by their side. They got kind of blindsided by a vocal minority who didn’t think it was important, or thought it was wrong.”
Ground Spark also produces curriculum guides and training programs for each film, but these should be only a starting point, Chasnoff asserts. A screening of Let’s Get Real can help tackle bullying, for example, but needs follow up. “It’s got to be woven into the curriculum on an ongoing basis. People have to see that addressing bullying and name calling and bias is not an adjunct. It’s not a discretionary activity that’s less important than reading or math or science. It’s crucial in order for good reading, math, or science to occur.”
For Chasnoff, a mother of two teens, making the films has a very personal component. “My boys have been a real motivation,” she says. “I’ve seen what they go through and it’s really fueled my desire to do this.”
It’s Elementary will be re-released with It’s STILL Elementary October 18, and available through the Ground Spark Web site, www.groundspark.org.