by Chelsea Grosbeck
Throughout his 18 years teaching, Bretton Varga noticed a lack of LGBTQ+ education in public schools.
Because of this, Varga developed his own curriculum and modified it for the digital interactive platform KidCitizen—a free, all-access online application that provides the opportunity for students and teachers to be the creators of their own content and to share their social, political and cultural findings from around the world.
The platform allows students to search for their own primary sources to learn about history beyond what’s in their classroom textbooks—just as Varga did in his research for the project.
Varga’s curriculum highlights the civil unrest of San Francisco in the late 1970s. As one of the prominent cities fighting for radical change, students explore the life of Harvey Milk, the trailblazing leader at the forefront of the LGBTQ+ movement.
The KidCitizen digital episode, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Remembering Harvey Milk,” pairs the student with an animated character named Ella, who helps the viewer to analyze a primary source and gather photo evidence to further investigate the topic. The overarching theme that follows the student through this interactive is to consider, how the memories of important people are preserved in society.
As part of Varga's KidCitizen episode, fictional character and their digital mentor Ella asks students to consider why memorials like airports and schools commemorate someone and what they did to deserve the recognition. Source: KidCitizen.net
Milk, an advocate for the flourishing LGBTQ+ communities of San Francisco, emerged as an up-and-coming political force and quickly became the voice for the underrepresented and disenfranchised people of the city. After winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he became the first openly gay elected official in the United States. Although his life was tragically cut short by his assassination in 1978, the impact of his activism lives on.
As an LGBTQ+ ally and native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Varga says Milk’s story has always been something of significance in his life. Because of this, Varga said he wanted to incorporate Milk’s story into his classroom, but when he started doing research for his lesson plans, he noticed a lack of resources available on the topic.
“LGBTQ+ related themes are virtually nonexistent in our curriculum now,” Varga said. “And I wasn’t looking to slip the story of Harvey Milk into it either. I really wanted to break away.”
What separates Varga’s project from the rest is the Library of Congress hadn’t asked for LGBTQ+ curriculum to be included as part of the KidCitizen resource, but the team believed Varga’s content was too important to not include, and seized the opportunity to publish. His content turned out to be exactly what they were hoping for.
“Bretton took the initiative in finding the primary sources,” said Michael Berson, a professor of social science education in the College of Education, who along with Ilene Berson, PhD, developed the KidCitizen platform. “We’re extremely proud of his achievements. He’s made it his own.”
Varga’s work has been recognized by others in the field. In January, he was nationally recognized by the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender History (CLGBTH) for his work in developing inclusive LGBTQ+ curriculum.
As a lifelong learner, Varga said he is continuing to make changes and challenge the current curriculum.
“I want to increase the way students are thinking about social studies related issues, but do so in a way that is much more inclusive of the current iteration of social studies,” he said.
Harvey Milk’s photographer, Daniel Nicoletta, gave Varga access to never before seen photos of Milk.
“Bretton’s opening the door for students and educators,” said Berson, who also serves as the program coordinator for the doctoral program that Varga is completing at USF. “...Not only by sharing someone else’s history, but by bringing the history he’s helped to uncover into the classroom.”
On top of his full-time teaching career, Varga is wrapping up his last semester of doctoral studies at USF. He’s planned a visit to Dr. Berson’s doctoral course, “Technological Innovation and Social Studies,” to share his innovations with other USF students, and will also present his research at the American Educational Research Association's Annual Meeting in Toronto in April.
In sharing Milk’s story with a new audience every year, Varga said he plans to continue Milk’s inspiring legacy through inspiring his students, and to press the importance of activism.
“As a social studies teacher, social justice is number one in my consciousness of what I want my students to be able to do—conceptualize society and civics—and realize how we engage with different types of people and how we all can be more responsible, tolerant and inclusive.”