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Michigan Teacher of the Year talks anti-racism, LGBTQ inclusion in the classroom

Courtesy of Owen Bondono
Owen Bondono is the first openly transgender teacher to be selected as Michigan Teacher of the Year. He aims to cultivate "a classroom where people feel safe, and they feel like they want to share and be a part of that community."

Owen Bondono, Michigan’s newly named Teacher of the Year and a ninth-grade English language arts teacher at Oak Park Freshman Institute, works to create a classroom community in which students feel comfortable sharing their experiences and ideas with eachother. But as a fall semester unlike any other approaches, and some schools lean toward virtual learning to limit the spread of COVID-19, Bondono is having to rethink the way he conducts meaningful class conversations with his students.

Bondono and his students spend time at the start of each year talking about identities and the communities they come from in order to build an atmosphere of trust. That means it’s important to deliberately talk about racism and anti-racist work with students in order to give them tools that help to communicate their experiences to other people, he said. At Oak Park, a public school for ninth graders, 98 percent of the student body is African American.

“I have students saying to me all the time, ‘Oh, that’s happened to me, I didn’t realize that was something that happened to everyone,’ or ‘I didn’t realize there was a term for that,’” he said. “So just by having these conversations about who we are and what we’ve experienced, we sort of, as a class, develop a vocabulary together to talk about things and to make plans for what we can do next time.”

Bondono is Michigan’s first known transgender Teacher of the Year. He said this year was the first in which he was out to students, partly because until recently, it would have been legal for him to be fired on the basis of his gender identity. Now, though, it’s something that comes up naturally in classroom conversations and he said, it’s been an honor to talk with students about his identity and help them grow.

“Whether or not [my students] are also LGBTQ, I might be the first person they’ve ever seen who stands up and just says, like it’s a normal thing that you should not be ashamed of, that I’m transgender. And that’s meaningful to them.”

After a jarring spring semester, when the pandemic forced schools to close and instructors to alter their curricula to fit a virtual setting, Michigan schools are navigating the challenge of preparing for a new academic year with safety precautions and, in many cases, online learning. For Bondono, that means getting comfortable with holding classroom conversations in a virtual format. 

He’s been conducting group discussions with students online for summer school, which has given him a sort of “preview” of what the fall could look like. While some aspects of online learning make group instruction challenging, he said, there are some unexpected benefits to it, as well.

“One of the nice things is that with Zoom, with the chat feature, I’m getting participation sometimes from students who might be too nervous to speak up in class, because they're putting it in the chat instead,” he said.

Click on the audio link above to listen to the entire conversation with Owen Bondono.

This post was written by production intern Nell Ovitt. 

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