I’ve been sitting on this post for a while now. Maybe it’s because I don’t know exactly what I want to say or how I want to say it. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid that I’m going to say something wrong. But as the school year comes to an end and our minds start wandering back to school at some point this summer, I wonder if this is a topic that I need to think more about. This blog post is about books, gender, stereotypes, and what needs to be considered in the early years.
When my teaching partner, Paula, and I were online, we had a daily read aloud time. During the month of June, we decided to read a few different books together for Pride Month. Beth Lyons suggested a wonderful one, What Riley Wore. We followed this up with Pink Is For Boys, and then read Worm Loves Worm. All of our read aloud times were small group ones, which gave lots of opportunities for children to chat with us and with each other about the books. The discussions with our four-, five-, and six-year-olds were very eye-opening, as they were rarely what we expected.
- Many children were vocal about the fact that all colours are for all children. There’s no such thing as a “boy colour” and a “girl colour.” Before we even started reading, Pink Is For Boys, a JK student unmuted and said, “I think it should be called, Pink Is For Boys and Girls.
- Stereotypes exist, even at a very young age. Clothing seemed to influence many stereotypes. This was very evident when reading, What Riley Wore. As soon as Riley put on a dress, the kids were convinced that Riley was a girl. Superhero costumes could be worn by girls and boys, but dresses could apparently only be worn by girls. One child said that it was “illegal for a boy to wear a dress.” It took some time and conversation to help students realize that the clothing does not define the individual.
- While many children were comfortable with using different pronouns and even discussed various options (e.g., she, he, they), most use the pronoun that aligns with the biological sex of the individual (e.g., using “she” for a “girl”). Paula and I found ourselves doing this as well, and reading these books had us listening more closely to what we were saying and how we were saying it. We tried to become more aware of our own pronoun use, and correct accordingly when we made mistakes. Our hope was that students would hear what we were saying and think more about their choices.
- While most children would quickly agree with the key messages in these books, they were often reluctant to discuss their thinking, even in small groups. We needed to give a lot of wait time, ask more questions, and share our own reflections before we had even a few children contributing ideas. Is this because we were teaching online, so didn’t have the same proximity that we do in the classroom? Is this because of a child’s comfort or discomfort with the topic of discussion? Is this because of the presence of parents — additional adults in the room — which might have decreased a child’s willingness to unmute and contribute ideas at times? Is this because of something else altogether?
Before June arrived and Paula and I started reading and talking about these books with the class, we both wondered how we would approach 2SLQBTQIA+ topics and issues with our kids. We’re very aware of the age of our children, and how students often explore gender through play. We want students to be comfortable with this exploration, and we wondered if discussing pronouns and stereotypes would have kids reluctant to play and talk as freely as they do right now. Considering our learning this past month, we’re thinking now that we were wrong. We have to have these conversations with kids because stereotypes are already at play, even at this young age. Is it time for us to disrupt these stereotypes and invite new learning?
Then I think about the books that we read — not just in the month of June, but all year long.
- Are kids seeing themselves in these books?
- Are they seeing their siblings, their parents, their educators, and their friends?
- Are they having regular conversations around gender, and reflecting on what they knew before and what they know now?
Every summer, we buy new books for the classroom. Sometimes we buy new toys and open-ended materials to use. Will our learning this past month impact on what we purchase and how we use these items with kids when we return to the classroom in the fall? Before June, we thought that we were doing the right thing for kids and families. Then we learned that there’s a lot more that we could and should be doing. Learn more. Do better. It’s time for me to live by these words. What about you? As I went to grab something out of my mailbox before publishing this blog post, I found this book in there from a recent school order.
It seems as though change is necessary and is coming.