I would like to take this opportunity to thank my former student, Jackson, for giving me the nudge I needed to start opening up my eyes.
But first, let’s go back 20 some odd years in time. My principal had just returned from an administrative retreat. She called a meeting with the faculty to let us know that we were no longer to refer to our students as girls and boys (we could say “students” or “children” instead). We were also not to group or separate children based on their genders. She even explained it in a way that should have resonated with me: “Would you ever ask your students to line up with all Caucasian children on one side, and all Latino children on the other?” I am embarrassed to admit that I thought she was being silly, and for this I am truly sorry. At that time I would sometimes group students by gender. I would occasionally have them lineup in girl boy order. I would change the taggers in games by having boys choose girls, and vice versa. I never gave this a second thought; it was just “how we always did it”.
One of the big events in my school is the Second Grade Hoe Down. It is a grand collaboration between classroom teachers, art, music, and PE. As is done in traditional square dancing, boys and girls were always partnered together. This is how it was always done; that is, until my eyes were finally opened.
Jackson was assigned female at birth. I always thought of Jackson as a tomboy: she liked to wear boy clothes, loved sports, and all of her best friends were boys. I never thought beyond that. Not until, that is, we started our square dance unit, and Jackson was utterly miserable and let it be known! Mind you, this was second grade. Jackson did not want to be forced into dancing “the girl part”. We came to a compromise by allowing Jackson to be partners with their very best friend, and that seemed to satisfy them at the time.
This is the gift I received from Jackson: a chance to deeply reflect on what I was doing. Why did I insist that boys and girls were partnered together? Did it really matter? Could this be causing harm? In what other ways might I be causing needless harm to vulnerable children because of my actions? All of these questions started buzzing around in my head, and that is when my eyes finally started to open.
After that year we allowed the children to pick their own partner. We eliminated all of the Square Dance songs where the calls had girls doing one thing and boys doing another. We took gender out of groupings entirely, and students chose which role they danced. We immediately noticed that ALL children were enjoying themselves much more!
This trickled down into all other areas of PE as well. Once my eyes started to open, I realized that I had done a great disservice to many children in the past. I thought about my Julie, my Johnny, my Eli, my Aaron, and how so many of my blind actions potentially caused them emotional harm.
Jackson is now in HS, openly identifying as male, and navigating life with the support of his loving family. I thank you, Jackson, for helping me open my eyes. I apologize to my former student that I harmed through my actions, and hope the children I taught after Jackson benefited from my open eyes.
*This microblog was written with permission from Jackson (name changed to protect his privacy) and his loving family.
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Give Students Language by Nicole Collins