“I’m not a boy! I’m a girl! I’m a girl! I’m a girl!” I followed the words echoing through my suddenly silent 2nd-grade classroom. There sat Alexis on the floor with Diego; puzzle pieces were strewn across the floor.
“What’s wrong, Alexis?” I asked. “You sound upset.”
“Every day someone asks me if I am a boy or a girl, and every time I answer that I’m a girl, but they just keep asking. Why can’t they believe me?”
I thought back to the many conversations I’d had with Alexis about this topic since the beginning of the school year. Alexis is a bright, confident child who expresses herself with ease. When I heard someone ask her if she was a boy or a girl, I would check in: “How do you feel when your classmates ask you about your gender?”
And each time her reply was pretty much the same. “I’m OK. It’s not really their fault. They just didn’t know.”
Several times I asked Alexis if she thought it would be a good idea to discuss this issue as a class—not to call attention to her but to explore in general the issue of gender. Each time she responded: “No, I don’t think we need to do that.”
“Why not?” I once asked.
“Because it’s not that big a deal.”
I told Alexis that if she changed her mind, she should tell me, but I felt tugged in two directions. As a teacher, I frequently explore the “isms” with my students (racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and so on) as a critical piece of teaching from an anti-bias perspective. At the same time, I wanted to respect Alexis’ decision to hold off—though for how long, I was not sure.
Now I pulled Alexis aside. By this time she was in tears. “I tried to be patient with people. I said they were asking me because they didn’t know. But I don’t understand why they don’t believe me when I say I am a girl. Why do they have to keep asking?”
As I gave Alexis a long hug, I thought about another student, one who’d been in my class two years prior. Classmates often expressed confusion as to whether Allie was a girl or a boy, too. And, as in Alexis’ situation, classmates often did not accept her response. I flashed back to the time that year when we were discussing a story about children who wore uniforms to school. I’d asked my students if they would like to wear school uniforms. Allie’s arm shot up in the air with fierce determination. “Yes! I would totally love it if kids wore uniforms in our school. That way all of us would be dressed the same and kids would finally stop asking me if I am a boy or a girl.”
Alexis and I Plan a Teaching Unit
Back in the present, I said to Alexis: “I think it’s time to deal with gender issues head-on with our class. Would you consider developing and leading a unit with me?” The tears were gone. “I sure would!”
The words spilled out of my mouth before I realized I’d offered to co-create a teaching unit with a student. I felt excited at the idea, but I’d never done it before. I often respond to issues and interests that emerge from my students by developing a unit—but collaborating with one of my students on creating and teaching a unit was definitely a first.
“How about if we meet after school on Wednesday? I’ll check with your mom.”
By this point in the year, we’d already had numerous and ongoing discussions about ways to build a supportive community in our classroom—and how, when we make a mistake, we can repair harm with one another. So we had a context for talking about gender in ways that would support Alexis. She was well liked by her peers and accepted as an integral part of our classroom community. I did not believe Alexis’ classmates were intentionally trying to bully her—they were genuinely confused about her gender identity. However, I wanted my students to understand that consistently questioning someone about their gender identity can be experienced as bullying.
A few days later, we began our collaboration. “Alexis, why don’t you first look through the books in our classroom library and pull out anything that addresses issues of gender and accepting people for who they are.”
Twenty minutes later she brought over her book selections. I was excited to look at her pile until I realized it consisted of only seven books.
“Were there any others, Alexis?”
“Nope, this was it.”
When I looked through the books she brought me and thought about the books we had, I realized she was right. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “This sure doesn’t seem like enough books when the topic of gender is so incredibly important.” Definitely one of those teacher moments when I realized I needed to do far better.
Alexis had already read each of those seven books. I asked her what she enjoyed—or perhaps didn’t enjoy—about the books.
“There’s nothing I didn’t enjoy. But what I did enjoy is that when I read these books, I felt accepted for who I am.”
A few days later, Alexis ran up to me when she arrived at school. “Ms. Dale, I thought I’d bring you one of my books from home in case you want to read it.” The book was Meet Polkadot, by Talcott Broadhead.
“Tell me what the book’s about, Alexis.”
“This book is so cool! It’s all about a person named Polkadot and how when they were born, they didn’t get called any gender.”
“And what do you like most about this book?”
“I like that the book celebrates whatever gender someone feels they are, and that it’s all really OK! You can borrow the book if you’d like to.”
“I’d love to, Alexis. Thank you for sharing this book with me.” Now I knew that Alexis viewed herself as an integral participant in shaping our unit.