Recently, someone I know, who is training to become a teacher in a fairly progressive setting, posted a question on Facebook. The problem, as I understood it, was this: How does one teach masculine & feminine nouns, without reinforcing gender stereotypes and/or alienating those whose experience is located beyond our currently short-sighted definitions of male and female? The prescribed lesson requires
dividing children into groups of male vs. female, and identifies both masculinity and femininity in terms of a male or female’s capacity to become a mother or father. In the context of recognizing and respecting gender diversity, this is somewhat problematic. One proposed solution was to eliminate the lesson completely. Another was to“talk to (any) child who might be hurt by the activity, beforehand”.
I have a few thoughts on the matter…
First, talking to a child (or anyone) who may be hurt by an activity, or potentially exclusive exercise, prior to engaging in that activity is NOT a solution. Such a conversation will serve only to a) single out the child; b) mark the child as an anomaly; and c) undermine the child’s trust, safety & sense of belonging. Such a conversation is a salve for the teacher, not the child. It does not help to exclude a person from a community exercise. It does not help to say to someone about to be wronged: “I know this is wrong.” and then go ahead and do it anyway…
Our responsibility as teachers, individuals, and as a society is not to gloss over our short-comings by expressing remorse and politely asking the “other” to sit on the sidelines as we carry on about our business. Rather our responsibility is to change the way we conduct our business so that the “other” is recognized and included as a valued member of the “all”.
Gendered language is a reality in our society, and children learn it, with or without the benefit of a classroom setting. The beauty of the classroom though – is that a conscientious teacher has the opportunity to initiate thinking about the confines of gendered language, at the same time as teaching it. For these teachers, it goes without saying that the act of dividing kids into groups of male vs. female is outdated and harmful. It is also unnecessary.
By locating discussion of gendered nouns in external imagery only, these lessons can, at the very least, be taught without forcing participants to self-identify with gender designations that may or may not fit. In settings that allow for it, a pro-active teacher could even include images that reflect gender diversity – creating an environment of visibility and acknowledgement, without having to single out any member of the group. For teachers willing to go the extra mile, these images, whether of humans, animals, insects, plants or inanimate objects, can also serve as the catalyst for deeper discussions.
If you choose to go this route, get creative. In addition to the common ones, use photos where biological sex is not obvious. Engage critical thinking. Ask kids to figure out who is male and who is female; who is masculine, who is feminine. Ask: “why?”. Ask: “how do you know?”. Ask: “but what about…?”(For example: What about a man who can’t make babies? What about a queen who can’t have kittens? What about a woman who has facial hair? What about a man who has breasts?).
Talk about the difference between the physical traits we are born with, and the personal characteristics that make us who we are. Ask: “what is a real man?”. Ask: “what is a real woman?”. Ask: “why do we have to be one or the other?”. Ask: “what else is there?”. Terms such as straight, gay, lesbian, transgender, intersex and so on do not even need to be brought to the table.
Create a discussion that encourages participants to explore the concept of spectrums. Provide images and scenarios that are not generally represented, or are under-represented in your community. Get the kids thinking & finding answers for themselves. Get them talking about differences. Get them talking about diversity. Get them talking about how to solve the problem of relating to someone or something that doesn’t fit into the proverbial box.
Gendered language is a fact. Penises are a fact. Vaginas are a fact. Skin pigmentation is a fact. Sperm plus egg equals baby is a fact. We need not be concerned that our children learn facts. We should be profoundly disturbed however, that most of our children learn only selective facts.
That penises and vaginas come in all shapes, sizes and colours is also a fact. Intersex genitalia is also a fact. Sterility, regardless of gender, is a fact. That having a penis, or a vagina, or both, or neither does not define who a person is, what they like, how they act, or who they love, is a fact. That the color of one’s skin does not make one more or less intelligent, more or less decent, more or less valuable, is a fact. The list goes on and on…
No amount of discourse, education, flag-waving, or debate can change the nature of one’s reproductive system, the shape of one’s genitals, the color of one’s skin, or the calling in one’s heart. These things simply exist. They just are. And none of them inherently, is a problem.
The problem is what happens when we view these things through the lens of our personal, religious and societal values. The problem is the way we relate to these things; the meaning we apply to them; the judgements we make; the way in which we deny or allow these things to define who we are, and how we relate to one another.
It is true that gender is multi-faceted and complex, but what we have to remember is that these discussions, at the core, are really about our VALUES. Do we value conformity or authenticity? Do we value judgement or unconditional love? Do we value hatred or kindness? Do we value ego or compassion? Do we value obedience or self-determination? Do we value sameness or diversity? Do we value violence or peace?
Ultimately, whatever lessons we have learned, whatever information we have encountered, whatever experiences we have lived – we choose what we DO in our lives, based on our values. Perhaps, if we teach our children good values – then whatever they experience in life – they will view through that lens. Perhaps, if we teach our children good values – they will become authentic, love unconditionally, practice kindness, act with compassion, determine their own course, celebrate diversity, and know peace – all on their very own. Perhaps, if we teach our children good values – then whether or not a noun is masculine or feminine won’t matter so much anymore.