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.
Sometimes our students teach us. We created a bookcase of “Pink, Purple and Princess” books to save labor for the librarians because so many of our K-2 girls ask us for books of these types. We then made another bookcase in the same area for “Pirates and Superheroes” to have an option for the boys. We do not ever say anything gender specific about these categories. They are just additional options when selecting books. We find, when given the chance, there are boys drawn to the PP&P books and likewise girls who select from the P&S shelves. No judgment on the part of the classmates. I’m guessing that starts later.