As I read the articles “Playing with Gender” by Ann Pelo and “Girls, Worms, and Body Language” by Kate Lyman, I could not help but contemplate the balancing act teachers have to perform of not imposing stereotypes of gender or color on children while at the same time encouraging the discovery and celebration of what it means to be a girl or boy of whichever ethnicity or color she or he is.  Preschool teacher Susan articulates one of the reasons this is a challenge, “Our society’s storyline is that we achieve or fail as individuals.  When we emphasize being women, or people of color, or white, we either are held back or we get unfair advantages – according to society’s storyline.”  (Pelo, p. 40 in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 1)  In an effort to not discriminate or give special treatment, many well- meaning people, have willed themselves to become “color blind” and / or “gender blind”  in an effort to treat everyone equally.  However, because each individual has their own cultural perspective, a teacher runs the risk of assuming every student will function and thrive in the world the teacher sees through her or his cultural lens.  Instead of shying away from or glossing over our differences, teachers must “acknowledge [their] own cultural perspectives” as well as their students’ in order to be the most effective teachers and to “cultivate particular values and practices that counter oppression and enhance justice.”  (Pelo, p.40, ROC Vol. 1)

A teacher is also fighting against stereotypes conciously or subconciously imposed on children by their families, in entertainment, and society in general.  Obviously, a teacher cannot debunk all of these, but he or she can teach children to conciously recognize them and analyze messages they may have otherwise unconciously accepted as the truth.  As the Stephen Sondheim lyrics warn, “Careful the things you say, children will listen,” a teacher (and parent) must be constantly aware of what we might be unknowingly teaching our children, after all we have been bombarded with these stereotypes even longer.  I wondered if the third grade girls Lyman wrote about had conversations about being fat and going on diets because of conversations they heard their parents having.  Were they mimicking these conversations to sound “grown up” or because they genuinely believed they needed to diet?

Teachers should not be discouraged by this responsibility.  I am a white female who grew up in 1970’s Houston surrounded by traditional gender roles.  I played with Barbies, wore dresses, panty-hose, and make-up becasue it was the “norm”, and was immersed in the dance world for decades where weight and body type is definitely an issue.  Despite all of that and all of the unrealistic standards for women portrayed all around us, I somehow learned that health and education were more important for a woman, or man, to have than for a woman to have a man.  Teachers and my mother, even with any shortcomings or contradictions they may have had, somewhere along the way gave me the tools to think and assess for myself and most importantly to develop self-esteem.  Of course, I will attempt to do this even better than my predecessors, because each generation should do it better than the previous one, right?

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2 thoughts on “  Appreciate, don’t deny gender and color in the classroom

  1. Each generation should do better than the previous one, right? RIGHT!

    One thing that jumped out at me when I read this piece was the “playing with Barbies” thought. I have a daughter who is four and she loves princesses. But loving princesses (and princess gowns and princess swimsuits and princess dolls and towels and well you get the idea) does not mean she is not a strong or well-rounded little girl. My mother scoffed (literally) when my daughter told her she was a princess. What my mom didn’t understand was that she is a princess who swims like a fish, who works hard, who reads, who wants to fight demon bears (like Merida from Brave) and stand up to bad guys like Mulan did. We “play chase” and I run around the house chasing her, roaring like a monster, she will often run away shrieking. However, she will often turn around, stand tall, and roar right back at me to chase ME!

    Letting kids engage in gendered play will not break them. However, we as the adults should help them explore other roles and aid them in becoming balanced individuals, truly free to take on whatever role they want.

  2. “A teacher is also fighting against stereotypes conciously or subconciously imposed on children by their families, in entertainment, and society in general.”

    I used to think about this and worry about how am I going to fight against stereotypes when children are exposed to media and the opinions of other members outside of class. I thought it would be hard for a teacher to influence the students so much when they spend so much time being exposed to society and being influenced by what they see outside of the classroom. However, a course I took in my undergrad degree called Literature and the Consumer Culture, helped me realize what I can do. Really, the best thing we can do as teachers is to help students recognize stereotypes and challenge each of them to analyze gender roles. Talking about how girls and guys are often unrealistically portrayed in movies can help students see those images in a new perspective. Constantly talking about gender and race issues within the classroom will also prevent color blindness and gender blindness. You are on point when you say that we need to teach children to consciously recognize stereotypes and analyze messages they may have otherwise unconciously accepted as the truth. I think you will do a wonderful job of informing children about stereotypes/gender roles, and prompting them to question what they see in the media.

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