Updated: Jun 9, 2021
***The views expressed in this blog are my own***
The summers were always the best times. I grew up primarily in the south, whether it was in the country grass of Mobile, Alabama, among the moon pies and Mardi Gras beads of Shreveport, Louisiana, or the deep red clay of Huntersville, North Carolina. The sun impatiently greeted us each day, summer rains were frequent, and the heat was sweltering. On any given afternoon, you could find my siblings and I hanging from thick, sturdy vines in our backyard, hopping across boulders, catching tad poles in the creek, or digging up wild onions, grass, and globs of mud for pretend “stew”. By my love of outdoor activities that were often deemed messy and “boyish”, I gained the title of being a “tomboy” from peers; a girl who did activities that “boys” typically did and dressed as “boys” typically dressed (shorts and a T-shirt?), and thus was some odd mix between girl and boy. I mean sure, I loved to race the boys in elementary school (and I beat them every time :) ), I enjoyed traversing the deepest parts of our forested backyard, and you could find me running my mouth to anyone who stepped to me the wrong way (I was the tiniest but feistiest thing!). But why was it acceptable for girls to be considered tomboys, yet when boys acted in ways that were considered feminine there wasn’t an “acceptable” term or phrase that allowed boys to be okay with that part of their identity?
Now, when some adults look back on their youth and remember similar days, their first thought is “Man, back in my day kids were kids. We didn’t have this crazy gender thing going on. Let them be kids”.
The truth is, then and now kids are just being kids.
When Sally plays in the sandbox with a dump truck––she’s just being a kid.
When George wears a dress during free play––he’s just being a kid.
When Cecil decides they would rather watch Frozen 2 than The Avengers––they’re just being a kid.
With the arrival of Pride month in June comes a critical time to talk to children about being their authentic selves. What messages are we communicating to students and children about who they are or who they are allowed to be? What messages are we communicating to students and children about how they will be perceived, valued, respected, loved, or lack of all of those things based on what we say and how we act? We, as educators and administrators, are walking billboards for our students and children. We consciously and unconsciously present messages to those we interact with. It’s key that as adults we are continually building environments (whether in schools, classrooms, and/or greater communities) that hold our sweet babies tightly––embracing their authentic selves, celebrating who they are, and normalizing their identities. Here are a few ways we can continuously support children as they explore their gender identity and expression in the classroom. Please note that while this is the month of June where Pride is typically celebrated, this work should be on-going and year-long.
1. Examine the language you use in addressing students. As recently as seven years ago, it was common to hear educators refer to their students as “boys and girls”. While it may’ve seemed harmless to those who were Cisgender (their biological sex at birth matches their gender), it more than likely was harmful and frustrating for students who were still exploring their gender identity and expression. This is why it is imperative that educators check their biases at the door, address assumptions, and develop ways to speak to students that are gender neutral and inclusive. Some educators use terms like “friends”, “students”, “birds” (if the class has an animal or mascot name), or simply “6th graders”. These are all terms and phrases that are inclusive, gender neutral, and allow students to feel a part of a group and not separated by gender. This is something that I’m still working on as an educator. I use the term “friends” but will occasionally slip into “boys” or “girls”. When this happens, I immediately correct myself and will acknowledge this correction with students.
2. Be intentional in the representation of gender identity and expression in the classroom via play and literature. One way to dismantle the negative connotations and stereotypes that previously came with exploring gender identity is to display images, stories, and objects that are the opposite of what one might think is “traditional” to see. Educator and diversity consultant Rosetta Lee always makes a point of discussing the importance of representation in the classroom. Students need to see themselves authentically in a classroom or community to fully embrace who they are and to feel comfortable. One of the actions Rosetta suggests is doing an audit of who is visible and who isn’t visible on your classroom walls. This could be children whose work is predominantly featured on bulletin boards (is it just those students who have work that is deemed “perfect” or “neat”?), pictures of children on the walls (are there no pictures of students of color?), or posters of individuals participating in certain activities (are women only pictured as teachers and men only pictured as scientists and doctors?).
Additionally, what does free play and play time look like in your classroom? Are you subconsciously pushing students who identify as female to play in the play kitchen area of the classroom and encouraging boys to just play with Legos? Gender should not be tied to a certain color, outfit, toy, or mannerism. Be mindful to encourage all students to explore the breadth of toys and opportunities that your classroom holds; not solely pushing a gendered idea on an individual. Girls should be able to dress up as knights just as boys should be able to wear a dress donned by a princess. And for those students who may not identify as male or female, there should most certainly be representation in toys and in the classroom space that allow opportunities for gender fluidity to prevail and flourish.
In terms of literature, broaching discussions of gender identity and expression with children is helpful during story time or read aloud. There is a lot of great literature available that addresses gender identity and expression for kids. A few of my favorites are, It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn, Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, and When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff. I will dive deeper into these individual texts in a follow up blog post next week, but it’s helpful to have texts like these that show students the range of identities and the way they can be expressed.
3. Build a classroom community that directly acknowledges and embraces the inherent humanity and worthiness of all. The other day as I was driving home and after a moment of prayer, the song Worthy by India Arie hummed quietly in the background. I love India Arie and have been a fan ever since Acoustic Soul. However, on that day I took the time to deeply listen to the lyrics of this particular song. India sings:
But either on the ground or in your purse
The smallest piece still holds its worth
Every one of us is worthy
Baby girl, worthy woman
Every one of us is worthy
Baby girl, worthy woman
Every one of us is worthy
It spoke to my soul to simply hear the words that I was worthy, so I could only imagine what it would feel like for children to hear the same and feel the same in their classrooms where they spend so much of their day. How often do we say to students that they are worthy? That they matter to us so much? That they are wonderful and appreciated just for being who they are? In addition to creating and enforcing classroom norms like kindness and compassion, it is just as important to develop a community of learners who value each other, see the worthiness of each other, and share in the appreciation of their humanity. How are you developing a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the worthiness and humanity of your students in the classroom?
All students want to do is feel free, loved, and accepted for who they are. We all have an inherent worthiness; an essential right to be seen and treated as human––with decency and respect. When we deny students the opportunity to be themselves and to express themselves, we are denying them basic human decency. And with so much rhetoric around developing and molding students into well-rounded, caring citizens of the world, we need to be sure that means addressing, acknowledging, respecting, and celebrating ALL of the many wonderful and beautiful identities that make up our world. This cannot be optional. It needs to be foundational. Our babies, children, middle schoolers need to know that who they are is okay––and that we see their worthiness and humanity in and out of the classroom.