Thursday, December 29, 2011

Preventing Gender Bullying with Lessons of Diversity

I loved reading this article by a grade school teacher who found herself conducting lessons about gender equality for first graders.

I taped up two large pieces of paper and wrote “Boys” on one and “Girls” on the other. “Students,” I said, “what are some toys that are for boys?” Eagerly, the students began to shout out their answers: “Legos!” “Hot Wheels!” “Skateboards!” “Bikes!” The list grew quite long. “OK,” I said, “now tell me some toys that are for girls.” “Baby dolls!” “Nail polish!” “Barbies!” “Makeup!”
Her lesson goes on to discuss whether girls can play with Legos, or boys with dolls -- leading to examples of people the students know personally who blur the gender divide. The teacher mentions, among other tools and tips, two classic books that I'd selected to be part of the collection for younger grades in the Read Aloud program.
The first is William's Doll, by Charlotte Zolotow, a story of a little boy who wants above all toys a doll to hug and cuddle and sing to sleep. His father disapproves, and his older brother teases him, but William's grandmother understands. She buys him a baby doll and explains to his father that William wants to practice being a good father so he will know how when he grows up. This book was first published in the 1970s, and it's an excellent starting point to address what toys and games are considered appropriated only for girls or only for boys, and why that might be wrong.

The other book that the Read Aloud program has used is Oliver Button Is a Sissy, by Tomie DePaola (author/illustrator of the Strega Nona series as well as many others, including Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs and The Art Lesson). Oliver, like William, enjoys activities that are usually reserved for girls (especially when the author was a young boy; many of his works are semi-autobiographical), and some bullies in his school tease him and threaten to beat him up. His friends, who are girls, stand up to the bullies (no teacher interference in the matter), and Oliver eventually wins over some of the nay-sayers by performing in a talent show with his tap-dancing skills. Classroom discussion can center around being different, bravery (both in school and in the talent show), how to resolve conflicts, and how to support a friend.

Obviously, bullying can be founded on many differences like race, religion, or class. Gender bullying, where the differences are how students dress, behave, or otherwise present in a way that is outside the "accepted" categories for their perceived gender, is present in many schools from the youngest grades. It can be reinforced, sometimes unknowingly, by teachers and parents who show with their words and actions that they believe some things are for girls and others are for boys, or that a child who "crosses over" into the domain of an opposite-sex child is doing something wrong. Sexist beliefs don't need to be part of the lesson plan to be communicated to students... but anti-sexist values might have to be added to the curriculum in order to be taken seriously. Texas high school English teacher Peter Elliott puts it simply: "[I]f our schools are not explicitly accepting, then we are tacitly intolerant." Gender bullying can escalate to sexual harassment and physical and sexual violence based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, and at its most extreme it can lead to depression, self-harm, or even suicide after years of torment. Stopping those larger problems and halting the stereotypes and perceptions that lead to bullying requires that instructors take a stand on gender issues both more frequently and at younger ages. Children need to know what their communities and their schools hold as core values.

Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, where the Read Aloud program is held, teaches tolerance and non-violence, and so many of the books chosen for the program are about how to handle bullying or how to model behaviors that are accepting and inclusive instead of divisive. One of the volunteer readers told me at the beginning of this school year that the book about bullying (Nobody Knew What to Do, by Becky Ray McCain) he read to a third-grade classroom was a great topic and well-timed, considering the recent media coverage of the tragic consequences of bullying. Kids -- bullied, bullies, bystanders -- need to know that bullying is not okay.

There are lots of stories about bullying and about inclusion; many of them have been used in the Read Aloud program already. Here are a few more books specifically about gender roles:

The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein
Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?
and Do Princesses Scrape Their Knees? by Carmela LaVigna Coyle
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch
10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert
My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis
Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare by Patricia Polacco
Do you have other favorites?

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