Evolving classrooms: How children’s books combat gender norms

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Cheryl Greene is the Deputy Director for Welcoming Schools, a program that assists elementary educators with professional developmental resources for their classroom. The mission of Welcoming Schools is to provide a safe environment for all types of families and children. One of the best ways to educate children on gender norms in a more subtle way, Greene says, is through books.

“Books are one of the most effective ways to educate students,” Greene says, “Books that portray diverse families and characters that don’t fit gender stereotypes are an important tool in creating respectful and welcoming school environments.”

Books like “Made by Raffi” and “Ballerino Nate” may not be household names yet, but they are inspired by real-life stories of children who felt they did not conform to gender norms.

“Made by Raffi” author Craig Pomranz got the idea to write a book after his godson, Raffi, asked him if there was such thing as a ‘tomgirl.’ Raffi did not enjoy rough play and loud noise, and began to question himself for not being interested in ‘boy’ activities. In the book, a boy named Raffi enjoys making scarves, but is teased at school for being different than the other boys.

“It is a multilayered concept when you think about it, a tomboy is a relatively positive term. The concept of a tomgirl, not so much,” said Pomranz. “It begs the question, why is feminine a negative idea?  Why is it considered perfectly understandable that a girl would like to participate in activities considered for boys, but a boy who wants to participate in what is thought of as girls’ activities is shunned?”

Welcoming Schools provides books, lesson plans, and practice scenarios to help educators prepare their classroom for these situations. While Greene acknowledges these situations can be difficult to approach, she believes teachers play a huge role in ingraining gender stereotypes in children’s minds, even if it’s unintentional.

“Teachers can help break this cycle by both modeling and encouraging students to be who they are,” said Green. “Colors are for everyone. Toys and games are for everyone. Educators can set that tone.”

Mary Juzwik is a professor in Michigan State University’s College of Education, and specializes in literature, being a strong advocate of children’s books that convey messages of acceptance.

“My main job is to expose students to a wide range of children’s literature, and I am pulling things in that speak to that issue in different ways,” said Juzwik. “The beauty of literature is that it’s non-didactic; it doesn’t hit people over the head with its point, but it brings you to individual’s experiences.”

Juzwik has added children’s books into her curriculum that highlight boys or girls who are interested in activities that may be unconventional for their gender – such as girls who don’t like to wear dresses, or boys who don’t want to play sports.

“I think setting up dialogues, engaging people to read stories about people who are different than them, is the approach I want to take; it’s just widening kids’ worlds, that’s really what education is about,” said Juzwik.

Kim Bradley decided to write “Ballerino Nate” after attending the Nutcracker, where her friend’s son said he wanted to become a dancer. The real-life Nate went on to take ballet classes for many years.

“I think children begin to develop awarenesses of gender issues very early. Most kindergartners could give you a run-down on what things are ‘boy’ and what are ‘girl’,” Bradley said.

Juzwik says helping her students learn to establish healthy classroom environments once they are teachers is a top priority. Ideas such as posters with an equal sign or a rainbow flag are ways she believes teachers can promote equality. However, she also believes in the importance of allowing other students and parents who may feel differently to be comfortable in the classroom.

“I think it’s context dependent, you need to be really sensitive to the community that you teach in; [but] I’m absolutely committed to supporting those kids and want to train teachers who are tuned into what those kids need to not only make it safely through school, but thrive in school,” said Juzwik.

Creating discourse about gender norms and acceptance is a conversation Pomranz believes is relevant. In “Made by Raffi”, he uses playful images and words to convey the message in a way that children will better remember.

“We need to help children explore all layers and new skins on themselves to learn to become whole. If we can help any child find self-assurance, it is better for all,” said Pomranz.

With a positive response to “Ballerino Nate”, Bradley sees how not only society is evolving, but how her own stance on gender norms has evolved as well.

“My feelings about gender and identity have continued to grow, and I think it’s very important that all children see themselves reflected in the books they read,” said Bradley. “So I laud books that tackle gender identity head on.”

Looking forward, Juzwik hopes that schools will continue to adapt to a welcoming environment for students who are vulnerable due to their feelings of being different.

“My best advice for my students is within your classroom, create a policy that says ‘In this room we do not bully, we do not call people names, we do not marginalize,’” said Juzwik. “I really believe in relationships at the core of teaching and learning, and creating a learning environment where everyone’s voice counts.”

You can listen to ‘Different’, a song inspired by Made by Raffi, here.

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