Identity Conversations: Gender, Culture, and our Physical Expressions of Identity

This week, we continued to explore the guiding question: What makes you, you? We focused on aspects of our physical identity and the ways we express our identity outwardly.

We started the week by reading “Children Just Like Me” by Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley.  In this nonfiction book assembled by UNICEF, the authors and photojournalists, use real photos and descriptions of the daily lives of children from around the world. We examined the ways in which our physical expression reflects our culture. We learned about Celina from the Amazon, Esta, a member of the Maasai people living in Tanzania, Erdene from Mongolia, Meena from New Delhi and Suchart from Thailand. We examined aspects of their daily lives and the impact they may have on the clothing they wear.  We asked them to think about the information we could garner about aspects of each of these children’s identity just by looking at them.  We could tell Celina must live somewhere hot, because she wears light cotton shorts, no shirt and no shoes.  We learned that Está had a shaved head because in her village all of the woman and girls are expected to wear their hair this way.  We learned that Suchart wore an orange robe because he lived in a temple and is studying to become a buddhist monk.

We then read, “My Mom is a Foreigner, but Not Me!” and talked about American children (New Yorkers, moreover) who all have mothers who are immigrants.  We discussed what it means to be a foreigner and to be living in a place with different customs and culture.  We talked about how it might be very hard at times to be living in a place that is so different from where you grew up.  When some of the characters felt embarrassed by the “different” ways their mothers did things, the Beavers considered this.  Many children commented that they shouldn’t feel embarrassed as everyone is different and differences are really good.  We affirmed that it is these differences that make the world a more interesting place.  Throughout this conversation we talked about how our outward expression of who we are can reflect our culture.  We discussed the character whose mom wears a sari or the boy whose mother wears a kimono.  We then talked about the American culture around clothing and some of the things we commonly see.  Providing children an opportunity to examine the ways we communicate our culture is an important step in helping them expand their perspective, and to process an alternate way of living.

Another aspect of identity we explored this week is gender.  At Packer we are committed to shaping an environment which is inclusive.  We know from the research that children can identify themselves and others as a boy or girl by the age of two.  On a daily basis our students are receiving implicit and explicit messages about what it means to be a boy or a girl. In her book, “From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK-12 Schools,” Dr. Jennifer Bryan writes, “Marketers of fashion, toys, and gear populate and dominate consumer culture with grossly exaggerated images of femininity and masculinity.” (Bryan, 2012).   In our classroom conversations we want to help children recognize, identify and reject these stereotypes.  Our goal is to help children see, there are many ways to be a human; all of which are equally valuable and important.  Traditionally we have been offered an either/or view of gender.  You are one thing or another.  We know that the world is infinitely more complex and beautiful.  Leading children to believe that they need to choose one thing over another, limits them in oppressive ways.

This week, we began our identity work around gender by reading “Jacob’s New Dress” by Sarah Hoffman, Chris Hoffman and Chris Case.  This book tells the story of Jacob, a young preschool-age boy who likes to wear the “girl stuff” in the dress-up corner.  He then goes home and expresses an interest in wearing a dress to school.  The book explores his parents’ complicated feelings, as well as Jacob’s feelings of shame and experimentation.  Ultimately, he is supported by his friends and his parents, and finds pride in the way he is choosing to express himself.  As he claims in the end, “There are lots of ways to be a boy.”

In order to more fully unpack the happenings in this book, we first needed to introduce the notion of stereotypes. As we defined them to your children, “stereotypes are when some people believe only one thing to be true about something.” We then referred back to previous conversations we have had about colors, toys and activities in which we engage.  The Beavers have dispelled gendered binaries before, claiming there is no such thing as “girl stuff” or “boy stuff”. We talked about how dangerous stereotypes are. To quote the Beavers – something we know to be true – “anyone can be who or what they want to be.”  Through this lens, we read “Jacob’s New Dress.” The following are some of the quotes from our discussion:

Carmen: It’s a boy and the boy wanted to wear a dress and any boy can wear a dress

Jake: It looked like he likes to wear earrings and he likes his hair to be like a girl.

Vivian: [On the cover,] he’s playing with dinosaurs.

Milo: He looks like he needs to go to the bathroom.

In reference to Jacob putting on a dress, and another student criticizing him:

Arjun: that’s a put down the thing that (Christopher) just said.

Asher: and Christopher is wearing a dragon.

How do you think it made Jacob feel when Christopher told him dresses are only for girls?

Elfie: Really sad.  His friend Emily is giving him a put up because she did something nice.

We then discussed what we saw all of the boys wearing in the dress up corner of Jacob’s classroom.  We asked them to think about what they think these boys might want to play?

Asher: Policeman had guns

Carmen: Jacob wants to play princess or maybe he wants to play fireman?

Jake: maybe he wants to play he’s the fairy and he gives a big dinosaur a wish

Elfie: He can even be a queen. Christopher wants him to be a boy like a pirate or something.  But remember, on the computer a boy’s wearing a skirt (in reference to a picture of Jaden Smith we saw, in which he is wearing a dress).

Milo: Maybe she [the teacher] thinks it’s a costume.

Carmen: I think it’s like a fairy costume and he wants to wear it.

When Jacob asks his mom if he can wear a dress to school, we asked the Beavers to share what they thought his mom’s answer should be.

Cate: Of course you can

Ezra: You can wear dresses if you want to.

Ruby: I think Christopher really wants Jacob to be a boy because he always wear the girl clothes.

Steelo: Maybe Christopher thinks that girls are the only ones who can wear dresses and that boys are the only ones can wear pants and shorts.

Téa: What? That is so not true.

What would you say to Christopher to stand up for Jacob?

Harry: Boys can wear anything they want to!

Téa: You’re being naughtier and not a nice person, it’s really not what friends should do.

Steelo: I would say, Stop being mean!

Elfie:[I would say] I didn’t do anything to you, why are you laughing at my friend?

Charlie: I think Jacob probably felt powerful when he said he was in his dress. I bet he felt powerful because boys can wear shorts, t-shirts, or dresses.  Whatever they want.

On Thursday, we read “Horace and Morris But Mostly Dolores” by James Howe, illustrated by Amy Walrod. Throughout the book the children identified the stereotypes that were inhibiting Dolores and her friends. In this story, Horace and Morris but mostly Dolores love adventure.  They love to play pirates and explorers.  One day Horace and Morris are told that “A boy mouse must do what a boy mouse must do” and are asked to go play at a club where only boys are allowed.  Likewise, Dolores is told “a girl mouse must do what a girl mouse must do.” Dolores finds herself sad, depressed and bored when being forced to join the “Cheese Puffs Girls Only” club where she is told she can only do things like have tea parties and play princesses.  As we read, the children recognized the inherent stereotypes that were limiting Dolores.  Here are some sound bytes from our conversation:  

How do we believe Dolores felt when she saw her friends Horace and Morris go play in the ‘boys only’ club house?

Elfie: If we were in that book and we wanted to go in there and it said “no girls allowed” then we will be really sad.

Ezra: That would make me feel sad.

Lucia: [She felt sad] because she didn’t have someone with her.  She didn’t have her friends.

Vivian: Because she wants to see her friends but they are in a boy’s club house.

We introduced the word “ally” as a person who stands up for others and fights for equity or “fairness.” What would an ally do to help Dolores?

Téa: [An ally would] change the sign!

Charlie: It could say “Girls AND Boys allowed”

Milo: Maybe they could break off that sign and put it in the garbage?

How do we believe Dolores was feeling when she was in the ‘girls only’ club house?

Ruby: And also I saw that all that girls were wearing was dresses.  Boys don’t have to like black and blue…I like black and blue.

Cate: Sad… It’s like they are forcing her to do these things…

Emerson: She can make her own choices.

When the mice decide to make their own club that rejects stereotypes and includes all types of mice, we asked: Who do we believe will be allowed into Horace, Morris, Dolores and Cloris’ club house?

Elfie: Boys and girls allowed.

Emerson: All mouse children allowed.

Tea: Adventure club: all mice allowed.

Jalen: All the mouses allowed.

Harry: Everybody allowed.

After reading these stories, we introduced Jennifer Bryan’s gender continuum.  This construct challenges the oppressive nature of a gender binary and offers a framework, which embraces the inherent diversity of gender identity.  Specifically we discussed gender identity, “the way one thinks and feel inside about their gender”; gender expression, “the way one shows the world their gender;” and the bodies we are born in, “the body parts each of us has at birth.”  We talked about how each of us falls somewhere on this continuum and that from day to day these aspects of our identity can be different and don’t always match up.


We then placed where we think Jacob from “Jacob’s New Dress” and Dolores from “Horace and Morris But Mostly Dolores” would place themselves on the continuum.  We debated and contributed our thoughts about the identity of each of these characters based upon the facts we could gather through the books.  The Beavers agreed that both Jacob and Dolores would fall on different places on each continuum.  We then talked about how all of us can use this framework to help us describe our identity.  We named the fact that for some people their gender identity may line up with their gender expression and the body in which they were born; but for some, it does not.  We closed the week by reading the book “Players in Pigtails” by Shana Corey, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon, another book which rejects the stereotypes and talks about America’s first female baseball team.  

After a week of read alouds exploring the identity of others, we culminated our discussions today by reflecting on the physical expression of our identity. During Morning Meeting, we laid all of the printed photographs of the Beavers in their favorite outfits on the rug. We participated in a gallery walk to observe these images of our students and ourselves.   This conversation began with Sara modelling what her appearance and chosen clothing could show about her identity.  Carmen noticed, “[Your skin] looks a little white but really peach”; Alex noticed, “Your hair is long but also brown and blackish”; Pearl remarked, “You look like a girl, but you don’t wear colors like a girl.”  Sara agreed, affirming that although the body she was born in is that of a woman, and she identifies and feels like a woman, she doesn’t dress in a stereotypically feminine way.  We asked them to then think about what we can tell about the external expression of identity in our community. Here were their thoughts…

Milo: I notice Arjun is looking like his brother Theo!

Harper: Jake is holding a ball…he likes soccer.

Jalen: Harry is not holding something, but his hands are moving. I think it’s called a punch.

Harry: I like to move my body alot forward and backwards. This is a city bus shirt that I made and I like buses.

Ruby: Alex’s picture is telling me that she likes pretty stuff, because she is wearing a pretty pink dress. She has a feminine gender expression (pointed to the continuum).

Vivian: It looks like that Steelo loves robots, because there is robots on his pants and shirt.

Steelo: These are not all robots, these are all super heroes.

Elfie: I like Rescuebots and if someone like Rescuebots they just laugh because it’s the same.

Carmen: Steelo is moving his body; I think maybe he likes to move.

Harry: Ezra is almost on his tippy toes.

Carmen: He [Ezra] looks happy.

Cate: Asher loves Iron Man.

Milo: He [Asher] likes silliness a lot.

Ruby: Arjun… I know he really loves Star Wars now.

Tea: It looks like she [Carmen] wanted to show more of a feminine way, she wanted to show to the world that she loves girl stuff.

Elfie: This outfit kind of shows who I am. I like wearing dresses and skirts and t-shirts and pants. I think that my favorite color is pink and I like wearing pink, because it’s dark and light and I really like it.

The Beavers were delighted to see all of the photographs together.  As we reflected on the images, we noted how the exterior can reveal nuances of the individual.  Our community is diverse and is beautiful because of it.  

We are teaching children how to confidently describe themselves, explaining to them that their descriptions of themselves can change as often as they like.  Identity is fluid.  As they grow and change they will learn new and different ways to describe themselves, each of which we hope will be more empowering than the last.  We believe that every child in this community is unique and we want them to learn the vocabulary they need to celebrate their uniqueness with their peers.


Leave a Reply