Trouble With Simple Advice

Never teach something that will need to be unlearned later. This seems like such simple advice, and in today’s world never more important. In a diverse world still searching for social justice, we cling to our myths and the traditions we have around them. As the Lower School Library and Technology Teacher as well as the Lower School Diversity Coordinator at a progressive Quaker school the myths and half-truths from my own education are constantly crowded in my head as I select books for the library, teach media literacy, create workshops for teachers and most importantly build lessons for my students. And yet, there are times that I wonder about how to best approach preparing students to be the kind of compassionate, empathetic truth seekers we strive to help nourish. 

All schools work to value the light within each child, and as a librarian, I take very seriously the need to not only have a wide range of books that reflect our population but just as important, the faces that aren’t represented in our student body. Finding books from diverse authors, representing a range of people in all of their humanity, has become somewhat easier over the years. I have a growing list of resources to support me in this endeavor which includes The School Library Journal, Embrace Race, Teaching Tolerance, The Brown Bookshelf, and The Advocate to name a few. It is a task I enjoy. It allows me to feel as though I am having a positive impact, I know how to find the books, and I know how to order them. I am lucky enough to work in a school where this is the expectation so there is nothing revolutionary about my actions.

Buying new books is easier than revisiting old favorites. Often when I pull out a cherished book from my childhood or even a newer favorite book, I find stumbling blocks. How am I supporting the myths, stereotypes and simplistic narratives that are playing out over and over again in our society? Even if I am not overtly teaching them, am I allowing them to go unchallenged, even supported through the books and materials I have? And although I can stand in front of adults and talk about the power of teachable moments, this hard line becomes blurred when I look out into the young faces in front of me. A diverse group of learners also means representing various levels of awareness. For instance, some of my first graders think boys wearing pink shoes is a non-event, while others would find it uncomfortable to the point of silliness.

The truth is in any one day I can have a fabulous discussion about stereotypes with the fourth grade, using the book A Boy Named Queen by Sara Cassidy, and inadvertently reinforce the same gender stereotypes with a younger audience by reading a book about a boy putting on his friend’s pink shoes. This causes great hilarity in my one of my younger classes. Except for the child who didn’t find it funny.  That child simply became quiet. And I don’t know why. Could this child be gender fluid?  I felt ill prepared to facilitate a conversation about gender stereotypes. I made some weak points about how pink sparkles can be for everyone, but this was greeted mostly by giggles.

And therein lies the problem. Much like our student body, our library represents society over years of development, with all of its stops and starts. For older students, this very much feels like an inroad to difficult conversations. For younger students, students that are sheltered and think of the eighties the way we think of ancient times, this perspective seems elusive.  And a strong part of me feels they have the right to giggle at pink shoes, as much as they have the right to laugh at girls going in the boy’s bathroom by mistake. It is meant to be silly. Except when I look into that one student’s eyes. And then it doesn’t feel so funny.

How Do You Throw Like a Girl?

This summer our history department chair shared a collaborative document of resources for teaching Social Justice and Multicultural Understanding. I was immediately drawn to the link for Spike Lee’s short documentary, Throw Like a Girl about Mo’Ne Davis. In the summer of 2014, Mo’Ne became the first girl to ever pitch a shutout in the Little League World series. She was the first American girl to play in the Little League World Series since 2004. Even if you never plan to use the film in the classroom, I emphatically encourage everyone to watch the 16 minute profile of this incredibly talented, eloquent, and humble young role model!

Embedded in the document shared by our department chair were resources for utilizing the many links in the classroom. I scoured the internet for other ideas and found the Philadelphia Chapter of the Anti-Defamation League’s unit for teaching about gender stereotypes along with this film.

This idea for a new unit to share with my Fifth Grade students also got me thinking about ways in which I could creatively incorporate the theme of our school’s core values which we were rolling-out for this academic year. The core values are: Be Brave, Authentic, Compassionate, Curious, and Spirited. I had created resource lists of books in our library catalog for our teachers to use that showcase a core value within the theme of each book. And after researching more about Mo’Ne Davis, it was clear that she illustrated each of the core values in all that she has accomplished and embodies. In the film there are many references to Mo’Ne’s attendance at an independent school in Philadelphia, which is a great connection for our girls as well.

We began the unit by drawing pictures of baseball players. You can see from the students work below that not all of them chose to illustrate a male player! We displayed the pictures which were anonymous and then captured the commonalities and differences in our drawn characterizations of the players. This activity helped situate our current understanding and where we had areas to grow our learning.

IMG_0738IMG_0740The Fifth Grade students complete a capstone research project at the end of the year which culminates in a five-minute speech for the Lower School. I am fully integrated in this project, and work with the homeroom teachers to prepare the students for their research. As part of this unit on Mo’Ne Davis I sought to actively incorporate the skills students will use later in the year. To that end, I selected articles from the New York Times, CNN, and Time magazine to read and summarize for the class. Resources used for the Fifth Grade speech process typically include multiple formats and this lesson gave students exposure to the news articles most students would use as a source in their speech project. By sharing my rationale for using news articles to learn more about Mo’Ne Davis, I was thrilled to see the students understand my logic and dive in to the readings!

We discussed vocabulary related to the readings and used throughout the film such as stereotype, gender, discrimination, and role model. Our discussions were spirited and we will conclude the unit by viewing Spike Lee’s film: Throw Like a Girl, along with the video: #Likeagirl. The final step in our learning is to throw a baseball and see if we can “throw like a girl” and approximate this young athlete’s incredible speed and location!