It was a typical afternoon in Kindergarten. Students were learning new sight words and practicing reading them in context during a shared reading lesson. This Kindergarten teacher pointed out that "he" was one of the sight words for Kindergarten, but "she" was not. Her students were outraged! She was prepared, placing the word "she" next to "he" on the word wall. As they read the text they discussed the gender of the characters. At one point the teacher mentioned that the character could go by "he", "she", or "they", which was a pronoun you could use if you felt like both a boy and a girl, or like neither. One student sat up tall on the rug exclaiming: "Sometimes transgender people use the word they!". Their teacher invited them to write and decorate the word so they could add it to their list of sight words for the week.
"Does it matter to the story?"
One teacher has noticed that when she reads picture books with animals, children always assign them a male gender and describe them using "he". I admitted that sometimes this is my first instinct as well. In order to push back against automatically gendering characters male, this teacher always asks "Well, how do you know?" and then "Does it really matter to the story?". She had just read the book, A Penguin Story by Antoinette Portis, earlier that week and opened to this page to show an example. On this page she anticipated that the students would assume the researchers were male, so she pointed and referred to them as "she". The conversation went a little bit like this.
"That is a boy." - Student
"How do you know?" - Teacher
"Because he has a hat on." - Student
"Well, don't the girls wear hats outside to recess when they get cold too?" - Teacher
"Yes. Well he has glasses." - Student
"I wear sunglasses, and I'm a girl." - Teacher
"Okay, well he has short hair." - Student
"I have short hair, and I'm a girl. Plus it's kind of hard to tell with the hat and jacket on! Does it really matter to the story if he is a girl or not?" - Teacher
"No." - Student
It was 9:05 am. First graders looked up at me anxiously as they waited to find out what song we would sing in our Morning Meeting that day.
I raised one hand and began to wave, and they all laughed. They knew immediately what the song was. Raising their hands, they began to wave with me, joining in for the chorus:
“Hi! My name is Joe. And I work in a button factory! I have a wife, and one kid, and one day, my boss said to me, he said “Joe, are you busy?”, I said “No!”, He said “Push this button with your left hand”, So I did!” We continued through all the verses until we were all pushing buttons with our tongues and when the boss asked if Joe was busy he yelled “Yes!”.
That was five years ago. Since then, I have sung this song countless times with first graders. They love the silly song, the repetitive lyrics and the fact that they get to see me jumping around with my arms and legs flailing as I stick out my tongue.
I sang this song for five years, until one cloudy morning this January when something dawned on me.
It was 9:05 am. Once again, first graders looked up at me anxiously as they waited to find out what song we would sing in our Morning Meeting that day.
Just like always, I raised one hand and began to wave, and they all laughed. They knew immediately what the song was. Raising their hands, they began to wave with me, joining in for the chorus:
“Hi! My name is Joe. And I work in a button factory! I have a wife, and one kid, and one day, my boss said to me, he said “Joe, are you busy?”, I said “No!”.
And then I stopped.
I consider myself a social justice oriented teacher. I work hard to create an environment that affirms all students’ identities and pushes back against stereotypes. And yet, I had never stopped to think about the messages this song was reinforcing.
As I stood there in front of my students, I quickly brainstormed a list:
The man is the one working, it is implied that the wife is staying home with the children, this reinforces heteronormative gender roles.
They are presumably a heterosexual married couple; this reinforces heterosexuality as the norm.
Every verse, the heterosexual couple has another child, this reinforces procreation as the outcome of marriage.
The boss is referred to as “he”, reinforcing men as leaders.
The man is unable to say no and just keeps working until he can’t anymore, reinforcing an inability to get informed consent.
I was in shock that I had left this song unchecked for so many years. I considered no longer singing it, but we had already begun, and 34 eyes were staring up at me expectantly.
So, I said; “First graders, I just noticed that this song sends out messages that are not always true. I’m wondering if we could start again and you can help me change the parts to the song?”
They were eager to do so; they love changing the lyrics as we go.
I asked for volunteers to come up with the name of a new character, then their gender, then their partner’s gender. The students then got to decide what they would get more and more of each time (plants, animals, kids) and the gender of the boss.
When we sang the song again, it sounded like this:
“Hi! My name is Ella. And I work in a button factory! I have a wife, and one dog, and one day, my boss said to me, she said “Ella, are you busy?”, I said “No!”, She said “Push this button with your left hand”, So I did!” We continued through all the verses until one designated child (we had chosen in advance) decided they were too busy, and they yelled “Yes!”.
These were small changes, but they made a world of difference. Not only were children more engaged because they were co-creators of the song, but the messages in the original song were challenged. First graders had no trouble imagining Ella and her wife acquiring more and more dogs as Ella’s boss needed her to push more and more buttons in the factory.
In the months since this has happened, I have begun singing this song less, although kids do occasionally ask for it because they love filling in the missing parts. After this incident, I have examined other routines, books and activities in my classroom more closely. I have asked myself: “What explicit or implicit messages am I sending about gender?” and “How can I push back?”.
As teachers, we have so many things we are used to doing over and over again. Sometimes we do things purely by habit. It’s a song we sing every February, it’s a poem we read each November, it’s a book we read each time we’re doing this unit. I’m inviting all educators and families visiting this website to take a more critical look at the small things we do each day that send messages to our children. I invite you to examine these messages and find the ideas about gender that you are enforcing or pushing back against. How can you change the existing structures in your setting to create more gender inclusive classrooms? I hope this website encourages you to think more critically about the role gender plays in your classroom and provides tools to help you in taking next steps to create a safe, affirming and supportive learning environment for all your students.
"BIOGRAPHIES OF WOMEN"
When one upper grade teacher began to notice that all of the boys in her class chose male biography subjects but the girls were more flexible in their choices, she instituted a new rule: everyone would study women. She has built up a collection of biographies of women and feels strongly that emphasizing the accomplishments of women benefits all students in her class.
"IS HE A GIRL?"
One day a teacher was sitting at a table with several children, including a child with very long hair. A student at the table turned towards this teacher and asked: "Is he a girl?"
The teacher looked at the student and suggested that they ask the child that question.
The student turned towards the child and asked: "Are you a girl?"
The child responded: "No, I'm a boy."
The student said "Okay", and they all moved on.
This teacher said that she emphasized "talking with" others, as opposed to "talking about" others.
"Girls can, boys can"
One teacher, reflecting on a lesson from many years ago, discussed how while a lesson had felt progressive at the time, she know saw that it was a very binary activity.
About a decade ago, this teacher had read the book Oliver Button is a Sissy with her class. One of several follow up activities asked the children to write and draw on a sheet of paper divided in half.
On one half, under a blank spot for a picture, it said "Girls can _____". The other side said "Boys can_____".
This teacher said that at the time, she saw it as a positive activity that was getting kids to push back against stereotypes the had learned. She commented on how many of the boys in the class wrote "Boys can wear makeup" after a discussion they had had about actors and stage makeup.
Looking back, she now realizes that while this activity asked students to understand that boys and girls can do many things, it also reinforced the message that you have to be either a boy or a girl.
"Colors don't belong to anybody"
An early childhood teacher spoke about she has consciously changed her language over her teaching career, going from using "girls and boys" and "guys" to using terms like "children" and "friends" which have no gender connotations.
She also discussed ways in which she has taught a series of lessons about how there are no such things as "boy things" and "girl things". She mentioned that these lessons had largely come from play and discussions she had witnessed her students involved in. One of the big messages she would often give was that "colors don't belong to anybody".
"Feelings and actions don't have a gender"
A school counselor pointed out the fact that many of her materials were old and inherited. Many of the dolls and game pieces were not only gendered, but also lacked people of color. She specifically mentioned that her large fire truck only came with a fireman. When playing with this toy, she makes sure to mention that "anybody can be in the fire department".
In addition to inheriting old toys and games, she has also inherited old books.
She pointed out that in the stories where the child is struggling with a physical behavior, the main characters are boys. In the stories where the child is struggling with their feelings, however, the main characters are girls.
Curious, she looked through many of the books while I sat there. All of the characters in the book about autism were boys. A book about gossiping featured two girls as the main characters. In a book about fighting, it was the more female-looking child who was injured. A book about being destructive featured a boy. All of these characters were white.
This is a direct quote taken from an interview.
On the first day of a shared reading (before we started reading the book), I asked the students to take a “sneak peak”. They were making guesses on what the book would be about based on the front cover. When I spoke, I used she/her pronouns to describe the character on the front cover. Immediately, one of my students raised their hand and stated, “You should say ‘they’ because we don’t know if that person is a boy or girl. We haven’t started reading yet, and they haven’t told us what they liked to be called.” His comment made me so proud! I of course had in fact read the book before and knew the character was referred to as she/her, but my students did not know this. I felt like they really understood the importance of not assuming someone’s gender identity and felt strongly about not making assumptions (and standing up to others when others made assumptions).
"Taking gender into account"
This is a direct quote taken from an interview.
I try to refer to bathrooms as “people who need to use the bathroom assigned for boys” instead of “the boys’ bathroom.”
I try to refer to my students as “fifth graders” or “friends”.
If there is a group of same-gender students chatting, I try so hard to not say “GIRLS,” or “BOYS” (although sometimes I fail).