Sunday, September 29, 2013
A Response to "Beyond Pink and Blue"
For this week's assigned reading we were asked by Dr. Bogad to search around and subscribe to www.rethinkingschools.org. As I was looking through various archived issues of this publication, I came across an interesting article entitled "Beyond Pink and Blue," written by a fourth grade teacher named Robin Cooley back in 2003. Ms. Cooley and her class are from a prominent town called Newton, in the state of Massachusetts. This is a town that has been ranked as a "top city to live in" in years past, according to their Wikipedia page. This is an affluent town, a place where we see the evidence of the "rules and codes of power" have played out for decades. What's interesting though, is that according to the author, "Newton Public Schools is actively working to create an anti-bias/anti-racist school environment." As a result of this district wide goal, Cooley and her fourth grade class delve into some pretty deep and rich content which directly addresses many of the stereotypes we see in our society.
Cooley starts off by discussing the first part of the school year. In the beginning of the year her classes worked on addressing gender stereotypes. This was done through a series of readings and picture books, as well as class discussions which asked students to think critically. One story is entitled William's Doll. In this story students learn about a boy who liked to play with dolls. His father disapproves of his dolls, and tells him it's not allowed. It turns out that William has an ally though, his grandmother. Grandmother talks to the father and persuades him that it's OK for boys to play with dolls. After reading the book, students are asked if they have had similar experiences. Student's are also asked to identify who the ally was in the story, and are asked if it's possible for all of us to be allies? Cooley's strategy and questioning are spot on and age appropriate. This is a wonderful way to make lofty ideas and questions relevant and applicable to a fourth grader's life.
Cooley goes on to discuss other books read in fall, the emphasis being placed on gender stereotypes. By the time winter rolls around, the students have moved into a series of readings and questioning that deals with family stereotypes. They read books like Heather Has Two Mommies and King and King, a book that "does not have a typical Disney ending." Students discuss different types of family structures and what these family structures may look like in our world today.
Cooley doesn't mention any specific material her class works with on racial stereotypes. This doesn't mean that she never covered these materials with her class, but just maybe failed to mention it. Going with the sequential order of things, maybe this was the topic in spring? This isn't clarified. She does, however, continue her article with a wonderful story and example of how she says the classes"work on stereotypes was sinking in." The story goes like this: a girl from the class came in one morning upset about the color pink. She was examining the latest issue of "Pottery Barn Kids." Everything in the girls section was pink. "I HATE the color pink," she told Ms. Cooley. From here we learn about a sequence of events that are seemingly unbelievable...
Other kids in the class felt the same as the girl. Boys were upset that they were often portrayed according to gender stereotypes as well. Boys felt underrepresented and offended by the "Pottery Barn Kids" flyer. As a class they decided to write letters to Pottery Barn's corporate office. One student stated in their letter "I do not like the way you put together your catalogs because it reinforces too many stereotypes about boys and girls." Each student goes on to provide specific examples of the stereotypes they found in the catalog. What an amazing example of an answer to the question of "do now?" Ms. Cooley took her class to a level many fourth graders, or grown adults for that matter, never achieve. This became a real living and breathing entity and thought process. It roared in the face of avoidance. It went beyond story time.
In the end Pottery Barn did write back. The company apologized for offending the kids and promised to work on "incorporating (the) feedback in the propping and staging of future catalogs." This is a great example of both ends of the power spectrum working together for change. People at the top, a major corporation, promised to work on improvements for the future (whether or not they will follow through is up for debate). At the bottom, a group of kids made a difference and a personal connection. Somewhere in between was an excellent teacher encouraging us all to carefully reexamine our world view as well as our teaching practices.