Q&A with Upper School English Teacher John Hornung: Making Rural Classrooms More LGBTQ Friendly with Hope in a Box

Q: What is Hope in a Box and how did you get involved with the organization?

A: Former Shipley teacher Sunny Greenberg connected me to the organization, which is focused on making rural classrooms more LGBTQ friendly. Specifically, I participated in their project to get LGBTQ-themed books into classrooms. They will either provide a library of books that deal with LBGTQ themes to teachers who want to have a lending library in their classroom, or they will provide a book to each student and a study guide to teachers who want to teach one of these books. 

I saw that the group was looking for a study guide on The Laramie Project, which is a play that I've been teaching for over 10 years. I actually had the privilege of being in the play over 20 years ago when I was living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and I was part of a community theater there. So, I know the play very well.

Q: Tell us about The Laramie Project.

A: The play was a response to the murder of Matthew Shepard, who was a gay student at the University of Wyoming. Members of the New York City-based Tectonic Theater Company went to Laramie, Wyoming, to interview the town’s residents and see how they were responding to the hate crime and start a dialogue there. The Laramie Project is the result of those interviews that took place over the course of two years. The play is told through the voices of the people of Laramie. The authors returned 10 years later to interview many of people that they'd interviewed before and wrote The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. I teach both plays in my Modern American Drama course.

Q: What are you hoping students gain from studying The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later?

A: There's a lot. One is the history. It's wonderful in a lot of ways that the students who I currently teach are growing up with the assumption that gay marriage is a given. But looking at the not-too-distant past, gay marriage was not a given by any means. I hope reading this play puts that into perspective for them.

I think my goal with any book that I'm teaching is to try to get students to have sympathy for the characters in the book, and hopefully also some form of empathy. I always go back to a quote from CS Lewis: “We read to know we're not alone.” If you're feeling something, there's somebody else who's gone through it. And for people who feel very alone, who are struggling, there's a book out there that can maybe speak to that in some ways. Books can facilitate a dialogue between the literature and the people who read it. I think the play also does a good job of trying to understand the murderers.

Q: How can we use literature to make positive social change?

A: I think the biggest thing that literature can do is teach readers empathy. If we can understand where somebody else is coming from, if we can understand why another person thinks the way that they're thinking, we’re going to go a lot further in terms of being able to engage in dialogue with people who have different opinions and maybe try to change their minds, or at least, not write them off. 

I think this whole idea of “cancel culture” is really dangerous. As a School, we have to teach that there are all these learning opportunities—every time that you read a book, every time that you engage in a conversation with someone, it's an opportunity to help that person, to help yourself, and to help your community, your society by facilitating greater understanding between people. 

If we can have a common language built around literature, we can create connections that will make our communication more meaningful, deeper, not so surface-y. And we won’t be so willing to write off others so quickly.

Learn more about Hope in a Box.


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.