Friday, December 02, 2011

How to help your daughter's teachers re-think gender

There's so much good stuff going on right now to help Jewish boys and girls grow up with a sense of self-confidence -- and one that isn't predicated on gender stereotypes. But what do you do when your child's teacher didn't grow up attending Moving Traditions programs, hasn't been to a training on the "evaded curriculum" and doesn't even realize that Jewish chicks rock?

Julie Sissman writes:
"I wanted to share with you the email below that I wrote to my daughter's school administrators. Not in response to any incident or specific concern I had about the school, but rather in response to my ongoing fear/concern about raising strong, healthy girls with high self-esteem and confidence - and my concern about raising boys who see their full range of humanity open to them, rather than a narrow view of what 'masculine' means.

"I encourage you to use this email as a template to edit and send on to your own kids' school administrators and community group leaders (or forward to friends/siblings with kids). If we each take up this important issue, and each school does professional development around it, we could, together, have a big impact. (Obviously, if your child doesn't go to a Jewish school, then you wouldn't include the Jewish-related items. Similarly, if your kid is well past pre-school, you would put in different examples.)

"To give extra motivation - I sent this to our school, not knowing what response I would get. They took it up very seriously and appreciatively, spending 3.5 hours today on a professional development workshop for faculty and administrative leaders on the topic.

"If you're in NYC - I actually designed and facilitated the workshop! And I'd be happy to bring it to your school, also.

"Here's to building a world where both girls and boys see a broader range of possibilities!"

Here's Julie's letter:
Hi xxx,

I never fail to notice how often someone limits my daughter's choices - at the doctor's office, when they say "Do you want princess stickers?" At the arts shop, when they say "Do you want pink paint?" I recently saw a couple of articles that made me think more about how gender is "taught" (formally/consciously and unconsciously) to children, which prompted me to write this email. 

Our children spend so much time in school and their teachers and administrators have such a powerful influence on their individual thinking, as well as their group dynamic. Therefore, it's incredibly important that teachers and administrators have a gender lens as they look at what goes on in the classroom and as they interact with children. Here are a few examples:
  • Do the teachers react with as much excitement when girls build a tower with blocks ("Look at how tall/complex that tower is!!!!!!!!!") as when they dress up as Snow White ("You look so beautiful!!!!!!!!!")? 

  • Do they offer all children, both boys and girls, varied options for exploring the world (such as puzzles and blocks or art/crafts) and equivalent suggestions for play-acting ("Would you like to dress up as a firefighter today?") 

  • Similarly around holidays - Because there are so many more men in the stories and holidays, are teachers/administrators going out of their way to bring women's stories and women's voices in?  Is Esther viewed as a critical protagonist or as a confused and scared accomplice to Mordechai? Are figures like Deborah brought in to the curriculum?  Is Miriam highlighted as a critical player in the Pesach story as well as Moses? Are Ushpizot invited into the sukkah, in addition to the traditional group of Ushpizin

  • Are girls encouraged towards math and science as much as boys are?  

  • Are teachers aware - or do administrators who observe point out - any subtle differences in ways that teachers interact with boys and girls?  

  • What ongoing professional development and ongoing feedback is included/provided for faculty - especially those who may have grown up in communities where girls and boys were not given the same opportunities?
I'm hoping that school can be a place where my daughter's options are kept as open as possible - which is only possible if her teachers have an awareness of these types of things and how limiting they can be. Especially since many other children will be perpetuating gender stereotypes with their words and actions, I'm hoping that the teachers will help keep open the windows to opportunity.

These windows of opportunity are, of course, also important for the boys. There's a world and palette that our society tries to limit boys to, also.

These articles that I read not only comment on what teachers say and what they encourage, they also comment on what is included in classrooms. For example, perhaps the preschool classrooms do not need to have high heeled shoes for the kids to dress up in. As I've watched the girls having to walk gingerly around the classroom, I've wondered, "Is 3 years old really the age at which we want to impede our girls' movement in this way? We don't have shoe-dress-up for police officers or firefighters or chefs. Maybe dressing up the body but not the feet is good enough for a princess, also."

In case you're interested, I'm including the links to the articles that prompted me to write now. I'd be happy to hear your reactions. And I'd love to hear more about how the school - both in the preschools and beyond - thinks about these issues. One of the things my husband and I love most about the school is how thoughtful you all are, so I'm sure you already have a point of view! :)

Thanks for listening,

Julie

And here are the articles Julie recommends, that led her to write this letter in the first place:
1. How to Talk to Little Girls, by Lisa Bloom (Huffington Post). "This piece resonated a lot with me because I've been struck how waiting in the morning for school to start, almost every parent says to each girl as she arrives, 'Hi! I love your dress/hair/shoes/coat/etc.' I've been bothered, but couldn't quite articulate it to myself. This does a great job."

2. Taking a Stand Against the Princess Culture, by Susan Tomchin (Jewish Woman Magazine). "An interview with Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter. This made me think about how girls are dressing up, how Talia's already asking me to wear nail polish (because she sees other girls wearing it), etc. and helped paint a broader context for all of that."

3. The film Miss Representation. "This film focuses on media and advertising - I think it's a really important film."

Do you have suggestions of other resources and must-reads? Post them in the comments.
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