This is the fourth post in the “Complex Books, In Context” series and the first picture book! Check out the first three guides for Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams, and The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater.
In our quest to provide diverse and inclusive texts to our students, we must also be intentional about how we use texts that address social inequality issues. If we use our lessons to only focus on the characters or the craft, we miss an important opportunity to help them understand the world around them. When we lean into the complexity of a book, young people can begin to develop skills for learning about all kinds of complicated realities. We cannot prepare our students to actively engage in complex conversations if we avoid the tough stuff in our classrooms. Students, like everyone else, need to practice this skill. One clear way we can support them is by helping them learn to see the social context surrounding a story, whether that story is in a picture book or YA novel. To “zoom out” on any text, ask yourself the following questions and collect resources on the historical, political, and cultural contexts. (Some of the resources you collect can be for students, but some can just be for you and your colleagues, to provide some grounding for the discussion and prepare for questions students may ask.)
- What background information is important to know about in order for us to really understand what’s going on in this story? (terms, concepts, historical events, statistics)
- Are there laws or policies relevant to this story that we should know about? Are there social movements that have focused on the issues in this story?
- What cultural beliefs (ideas, norms, stereotypes) should we be familiar with in order to truly understand the story?
- What do I, as the educator, need to feel comfortable talking about and answering questions about before leading this conversation/exploration with my students?
In today’s post, I’m focusing on the first picture book of the series. Picture books are perfect for any age as they make the barrier for entry into complex conversations on social inequality issues much more inclusive, whether we’re engaging with 5-year olds or 50-year olds.
Jacob’s New Dress, written by Sarah and Ian Hoffman and illustrated by Chris Case, is a heartwarming and honest story about a little boy who wants to wear a dress to school and how the adults and other children in his life react to his gender-bending fashion choice. I love how this book allows readers to really experience all the different emotions through the eyes of small children. It brings such an empathetic and authentic voice to an issue that elicits so much anger in the adult world. Use the guide below to “zoom out” and create an inclusive space for talking about gender diversity with your students.
Historical, Political, and Cultural Context
What is Gender?
Queer Kid Stuff | YouTube Series
In this video, Lindsay Amer models how we can talk to young children about gender identity, gender rules, and gender expression. Students need a clear understanding of the terminology of gender diversity. For example, Jacob is gender non-conforming, but he does not identify as a girl, so he wouldn’t be considered transgender.
Gender Identity Map
IMPACT Program | Interactive Website
This website offers clear explanations of gender diversity terms and concepts, which I recommend for teachers as a tool to build confidence as you lead conversations with students. This could also be shared with older students.
Pointlessly Gendered Products
Sociological Images | Interactive Website
This Pinterest board is a great example of how you can introduce the idea of “gendering” in a humorous way. As students explore the extent to which products are gendered, they gain an understanding of the arbitrariness of gender rules.
Yes, Men Used to Wear Dresses, High Heels, and the Colour Pink
History of Yesterday | Images
This article offers a few examples of the types of images you can show students of any age to help them understand gender as a social construction that changes across time and place. Clothing and colors are not inherently masculine or feminine–the distinctions are simply based on the culture’s definition at a given moment in time.
An Age-by-Age Guide to Talking to Your Kids About Gender
Today’s Parent | Article
While this article is billed as guidance for parents, it offers really excellent perspectives for educators as well.
Bullying: When a person or a group behaves in ways—on purpose and over and over—that make someone feel hurt, afraid or embarrassed.
Ally: Someone who helps or stands up for someone who is being bullied or the target of prejudice.
The following examples of prompts offer guidance for educators who want to explore social inequality issues with students. The intention is to help educators consider these types of issues before talking with students.
- An essential piece of “zooming out” our conversation around Jacob’s New Dress is to provide students with an understanding of the social construction of gender–the idea that there is nothing natural or inherent about what we consider feminine or masculine, but these rules are constructed/created by the culture we live in. Just like the teacher did in the book (“there was a time when girls couldn’t wear pants”), help students see how much gender rules have changed over time and how different cultures understand masculinity and femininity in totally different ways. For younger students, pictures and paintings of clothing over time and across cultures are a great introduction. For older students, you can help them explore historical and cultural variation in all kinds of gender rules–emotions, careers, interests, activities, etc. Help them place Jacob’s story in context (i.e., “Yes, Jacob is unique in this classroom as the only boy who wears dresses, but definitely not unique if we look across history and cultures.”) When young people can understand gender through this lens, it helps to destigmatize and normalize gender non-conformity in their eyes.
- Especially for younger students who are often quite rigid in their understanding of gender rules, help them break from the binary thinking of what boys can do and what girls can do. You might pair Jacob’s New Dress with books like This Girl Can! and This Boy Can!, which are celebrations of women and men whose interests and skills break our “traditional” cultural understandings of feminine and masculine. Interestingly, while many adults would fully support the idea of the children in their lives being inspired to go into any career of their choosing, regardless of how it has been traditionally gendered, most adults would not be supportive of children wearing any gendered clothing they choose. Help your students reflect on why that might be. Give your students space to reflect on their own gendered socialization–how we learn what it means to be feminine or masculine–and help them see inconsistencies between their own understandings of “girl things” and “boy things.” When we start the conversation by helping them understand gender in context, we see these rules in a whole new light.
- It’s very important that as we read a book like Jacob’s New Dress with our students–and this is especially important for cisgender educators–that we do not inadventently “other” Jacob and other gender non-conforming children. For example, if our discussion of the book is rooted in being “nice” only (i.e., “we need to be nice to everyone, even if they are different”), we’re sending the message that there are “normal” people and “different” people and ultimately we are othering gender nonconforming people–framing them as “outsiders.” Instead, reframe the conversation to be inclusive to all: talk about the ways we all do “girl” things and “boy” things sometimes. Support them as they figure out we don’t all agree on what a “boy” thing and a “girl” thing is. Everyone breaks gender rules. Jacob just happens to break this one. Additionally, help them understand Christopher’s actions through an empathetic lens. Christopher is responding to the larger cultural rules. He is responding to direct socialization from his father. Students need to know that while Christopher can and should learn to treat Jacob how he deserves to be treated, it’s not his fault that he’s reacting that way. Some of your students will experience similar resistance. Help them to process those feelings in a space that acknowledges the power of cultural expectations.
For more on these topics, check out my blogs on “Zooming Out” to Understand Social Inequality, Laying the Groundwork for Complex Conversations, and Partnering with Caregivers for Social Justice Goals.