Social Justice Through Children’s Literature Part 2: Gender Identity, Stereotypes, and Discrimination

Last week I wrote about ability and strength, up next is gender. This one’s personal, because, well, I am in the minority group of this category. And to give you a snapshot of myself in a nutshell, I have two profound memories/experiences growing up that really shape this part of my identity.

That’s me circa fifth grade? Spent most of my childhood and adolescence in Ts and gym shorts, and sweats are still my preferred outfits today.

First, I was a total athlete growing up — I ate, slept, and breathed sports. I worked my a** off to ‘get good’ at any sport I set my mind to, and worked my way through soccer, basketball, and eventually field hockey. Played club all the way through college, and playing sports is when I felt I was my best self. But I experienced a lot of gender crisis and coming to age moments because of this. I remember one day, high school, I think? Where I called my mom admitting I was feeling depressed and bawling my eyes out because I felt like I couldn’t live up to the girly expectations and pressure I was feeling at school. Felt like I looked like crap, was insecure, and generally just hormonal and crazy. I have the best mom ever, so she promptly took me shopping to find outfits that I thought would match what I needed to look like. She did everything for me, and I love her for it. I spent most of my high school days preferring to be in sweats and t-shirts…longing for game days because I could wear my sports gear and feel comfortable and dreading other days because I’d sweat through outfits that I thought would make me look the way I was supposed to look..feminine and composed. Obviously I’ve grown up now and realize my experience mirrors many experiences adolescents go through, and I know that it wasn’t nearly as bad as others’ experiences might have been, so for that I’m grateful. But middle and high school is hard, y’all. Because that’s when we really start to face our own identity head on, and how that identity fits in (or doesn’t fit in) with pop culture and our society.

Second, I hated — and I mean HATED — math and science as a kid. I hated it because I wasn’t good at it, and I never felt like anyone really reached out to me to help me understand it. Like really understand it. I’d stay after school with (mostly male) math teachers for extra tutoring and they’d just keep drilling me on formulas and giving me practice problems to apply the formula. And then I’d take these tests with novel problems and have no idea what to do. “Hmm I guess I’ll just use this formula and hope it’s the right one,” would always run through my mind. And then I’d fail tests, badly. I always got As and Bs because of participation and homework (go figure), but I never ever really understood the math. Still have bad number sense to this day because of it. One day I even cursed out my physics teacher in front of everyone and stormed out crying because I. JUST. DIDN’T. GET. IT. and no one was answering my cries for help. I felt so alone and inadequate. And only now do I realize that I fell directly into that trap of women in math and science. I was subconsciously driven away from the discipline by my environment and the people in it, most likely because I was a girl. No, people weren’t explicitly saying “She’s a girl, don’t bother,” but I can almost guarantee that when they saw me struggle, they didn’t help me because they wanted me to understand it, they helped me to simply get me through the class. And that, right there, my friends, is implicit bias around gender.

*If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading and listening as I relived some pretty formative experiences with you.*

So, my list of children’s books that help me explore gender identity, stereotypes, and discrimination is two-fold. On one hand, I’ve included titles that address gender stereotypes and identity. On the other hand, I’ve included titles that address implicit bias, and discrimination against women, and how we might encourage our fellow male counterparts, whether they are the adults or children in our lives, to be an ally. I also included one title on transgender. This is probably controversial to some, and many would advise to ‘stay away’ from this topic until middle or high school, when kids’ brains are more developed to understand this concept. But let me tell you, this advice is once again formed from implicit bias and discomfort. If we looked at kids’ true, lived experiences, we’d realize we need to start addressing it now. In my 10 years in teaching so far, I have witnessed a kindergartener, second grader, and fourth grader (and their families) experience gender questioning and confusion. In two of these instances, these beautiful souls realized, and publicly declared, that they are transgender. And these are the ones who have felt comfortable and brave enough to go through this journey. We know many do not until much later in adulthood, and some never at all.

5 Children’s Picture Books to Support Gender Identity, Stereotypes, and Discrimination

One of A Kind, Like Me / Único como yo by Laurin Mayeno: A bilingual English and Spanish story about a boy named Danny who wants to be a princess for his school parade. The story features his mom, an ally to Danny, as she supports him in finding the materials needed to make his costume. At the end, there’s a wonderful exchange between Danny and his classmates about Danny’s choice to be a princess and how the other students process it. Best for grades 1-3.

ABC For Me: What Can He/She Be? by Sugar Snap Studio and Jessie Ford: Both ABC What Can He Be and ABC What Can She Be is a series of board books that teaches boys and girls they can grow up to be or have any profession they choose. It is subtle – it does not directly address the issue of gender, but the professions included in each text are ones that are often associated with the other gender if thinking in the terms of a binary gender system. Best for babies – grade 1.

A Is for Awesome!: 23 Iconic Women Who Changed the World by Eva Chen: Another ABC board book, but this one showcases women from history who have overcome obstacles and challenges to achieve great accomplishments and make great contributions to our world and our society. Not only does this book support women in shattering the glass ceiling, it also features women of many different cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds – kind of a double whammy! Best for babies – grade K.

My First Book of Feminism for Boys by Julie Merberg: Another board book (gee, I have a lot for babies on this topic!), this one targets young boys especially, in helping them to understand what they can do to be an ally to women, without being too pushy or direct. The language is simple, and so are the pictures, and while it is designed for babies and toddlers, I’ll still revisit it with my boys as they get older and understand this more. Best for babies – toddlers, but useful through elementary school as well.

I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel: This picture book tells the story of Jazz Jennings, based on her real life experiences of being transgender, and recognizing her discomfort with her assigned gender at birth at a very young age. The story is told in a simple, clear way and has received great reviews. Jazz Jennings continues to be a spokesperson for transkids everywhere. Best for preK – grade 4.

Remember, each title is linked directly to my Amazon List for Social Justice Children’s Literature, including other titles in this topic that didn’t make my top 5 but still deserved a shout out. I hope you enjoy!

Taking a Toddler Through the Stages of Writing

So writing. Yeah. Probably the most hated subject by kids in elementary school. For lots of reasons – it’s hard! It takes lots of executive functioning to transform an idea into a plan into a draft into a revised draft into a published version. Not to mention the mechanical side of it – the physical act of handwriting (or typing if your kiddo is older!). It takes a lot of effort and a lot of patience.

But I LOVE writing (duh, blog!), and I LOVE to teach it. And I absolutely love to teach it to the kids who struggle with it the most.

And writing is for all ages…looks more like language development and storytelling for babies and morphs into pictures and drawings for toddlers and finally transforms into conventional writing as kids move up the grades in elementary school. And it has such a reciprocal relationship to reading, that when you see a reader fall in love with writing or a writer fall in love with reading, your little teacher heart just melts.

I’m so happy that my own kiddos have taken to drawing and writing so much. My 4 year old is my little artist, and my 2 year wants to do everything he does. So it works. We do “drawing lessons” most days, and we’ve done quite a few full on books, whenever the 4 year old asks to!

This is my first foray into vlogging/visual blogging, so enjoy watching the stages of writing through the mind of a toddler!

No age is too young to start. His little brother is his shadow, so of course I incorporate him into our activities too. And since big brother is doing it, he usually eats it right up!

Like I said, there are so many other ways to encourage writing in young kids too – you don’t have to co-write big long books all the time. We do interactive drawing and writing all the time, and sometimes even directed writing too. Here’s an example!

And lastly, no need to just stick with fiction. Can do nonfiction too! Here’s an example!

(Still working on left to right directionality with that one!)

HAPPY WRITING!! 🙂

For the Love of Reading

If you’ve read my introduction you know I’m a K-4 literacy specialist by trade. I love all things books, but one of my favorite things in the world is seeing little kids get lost in a book, jump up and down on library day, or laugh out loud and follow along as you read to them. Reading is magic, at least to me (and many others I think!), because it’s both therapeutic and informative, it’s both entertaining and educational (for life…not just when you’re little).

One of the single most important things when it comes to developing literacy skills in young children is encouraging and helping kiddos develop a love of reading. And this post will PREACH that. I mean legit PREACH it, because I’m about to offer 20 tips for encouraging the love of reading in your own kids. And if you even do some of these 20 things, you’ll be well on your way to creating an authentic reading environment for your kids to grow up in. And that environment is what will mold them and shape them into literate adults.

I’m not going to go into detail on all 20 things, because, well, you can read. but I will elaborate on a few that I believe are some of the most important.

  1. Reading aloud to your kids as much as possible and surrounding them with books is single-handedly the most important thing you can do. Not only will this help them develop a love of reading, but it will result in leaps and bounds in terms of language development. Not to mention it will establish sacred family time detached from screens and technology. And it’s NEVER too young to start!
  2. Don’t force it. This is especially hard for me with the boys. Because I want so badly for them to occupy their days pouring through books, transporting themselves to make-believe land or learning new facts to answer their wonderings. But the more you force it, the more you’ll create a combative culture around reading. And once you have a combative culture around reading, that can be one of the most challenging things to break. It’s also one of the things that can impede them from making normal progress in learning to read conventionally in school. Reading engagement is key.
  3. Choice. Kids need the freedom to choose what they want to read so they can wonder and explore and learn on their own time. But giving them choices also means you have a responsibility of showing them what all the choices can be. Expose them to different genres, different authors. Nobody wants to be pigeonholed, but sometimes it’s easy to get pigeonholed if you don’t know what else is out there.
  4. And it’s NEVER too young to start. I’ll say it again. It’s never too young to start! I know this isn’t in the top 20, but just a reminder that there’s lots of research that suggests that even babies in the womb benefit from hearing mom or dad read to them. Starting early (a) helps you create a habit and (b) let’s a baby experience allllll the sensory aspects of reading, like touching and feeling and hearing and seeing (your facial expressions as you read).

Here’s what my kids are currently reading. Bruises on the left, when I asked them to pick their favorites from our current display in the playroom. Bow on the right – her current nightstand pile – the ones we read to her at bedtime.

I’m going to press pause for a second and give you some real honesty, because I can preach all I want but you also need to know reality. I did everything right with the bruises. We started reading to them straight out of the womb. And as babies and even in the early stages of toddlers, they ate it up. Loved reading. I would catch them knee deep in book baskets that I keep scattered around the house, all on their own.

As both boys have gotten older, they are starting to take more after their dad than me when it comes to reading. My husband’s facetious claim to fame is that he made it through high school with Spark Notes. “I’ve never finished a book in my life,” he brags. (Really something to brag about, huh?) Nowadays, they’d rather wrestle or run or play with PlayMobil over reading a book, and I’m lucky if they wander over to the book shelves and baskets on their own once a day. Now, who knows. It could be just a phase and they’ll come around again – I’m still doing all of the things I’m preaching in the most authentic way possible (without putting pressure on them). Or maybe they won’t, and that’s ok. Not everyone grows up to be a book lover. My husband’s doing just fine personally and professionally, even if he is a self-proclaimed anti-reader. I’ll never tell him this for the sake of his ego (albeit facetious), but he actually IS a reader. He just doesn’t realize he’s a reader – it’s just that he doesn’t read traditional things like books or magazines. But you can find him on his phone or iPad for hours, reading blogs or sports stories, or googling biographical information on Lin Manuel Miranda after watching Hamilton.

How To Increase Your Toddler’s Attention Span (Yeah, right!)

If you’re a toddler mom, tell me you haven’t experienced this before and I’ll tell you you’re lying:

In a moment of feeling bold, you decide to peruse Pinterest to find the perfect craft for your toddler(s). You start by selecting a cute and polished paper-plate pig that involves pink paint, a pom-pom nose, googly eyes, and some construction paper. You think, “Easy enough!” So next, you head to Amazon to buy the materials you don’t have hanging around the house. The next day, the materials have arrived so you spend all of nap time prepping…portion sizes of pink paint distributed into containers for each kid, old table cloths or newspaper taped to the tables, googly eyes laid out for selection, paper plates pre-cut to match the shape you’re looking for, construction paper pre-cut to the needed shapes. The kids are up and they are super amped for the craft of the day. They sit down at the craft table and before you can blink, there’s pink paint on the windows, pig ears glued where their butts should be (if glued at all!), and ten million googly eyes covering one pig (Guys, pigs only have two eyes, remember?). It’s one of those real Instagram vs. reality moments. There are two types of mom responses here. Either you give up on your Pinterest perfect dreams right then and there and live in the moment of chaos, OR you tell the kids to go find something to do while you finish/fix the paper plate pigs yourself. And then you hang them up on the kids art wall as if the kids actually made them themselves. Oy vey.

Ok so, moral of the story…how do you get a toddler to actually have enough attention span and motivation to do something without it (a) turning into complete and total chaos and (b) entertaining them for all of 5 seconds before they’re on to the next best thing?

Here’s where my professional expertise comes in:

The *fake* answer, but definitely grounded in lots of research and development theory: engagement through motivation and developmental appropriateness. Motivation for a toddler is usually extrinsic…i.e. is the activity or materials you are using new and novel, and bright and shiny? Seriously, think about a kid in a candy shop, or a toy store for that matter. Bright, shiny, new – we definitely don’t have it already. This triggers curiosity and desire, which is step 1 for attention spans and motivation. Developmental appropriateness is huge for toddlers too…i.e. is the activity doable for the toddler? They haven’t yet developed the idea of persistence or growth mindset, so if something is judged as too hard or they get frustrated, they’ll give right up. Let me tell you, those Pinterest perfect crafts are almost always NOT DOABLE for toddlers…show me a 3 year old’s perfect fingerprint tree that looks exactly like the model picture…you can’t!

Here’s where my mom-pertise comes in:

The *real* answer, grounded in lots of trial and error with my own kids as guinea pigs: You can’t and you don’t! A colleague once told me multiply your child’s age by two, and that’s the number of minutes your child can attend to one activity at a time. So if your kid is 2, that’s 4 minutes of attention per activity; if your kid is 4, that’s 8 minutes of attention per activity. I have no idea if this is accurate or not, but it made sense to me, and I’d even go so far as to say some days that mathematical formula is even pushing it. So the best way of getting around it is by adjusting YOUR expectations for their attention spans, not trying to actually change theirs. Avoid big elaborate activities, or at least don’t have such high expectations for yourself that the water park you set up outside (water table, sprinkler, baby pool, slip and slide) will entertain the toddler for the entire afternoon. Because guess what? It won’t!

Soooo, what does that mean? You’re telling me there’s no hope? Negative, there is hope. Just re-adjust your approach and you won’t be disappointed. If you need to kill time at home and want to provide activities for your toddler outside the regular free play, select a small amount of time, and plan lots of tiny, easily-preparable activities for that small amount of time.

In the dog days of the pandemic when school was still in session but kids were home and parents tasked with schooling (or if they are elementary-aged, parents supporting/teaching schooling), I’d pick 1 hour per day as “school time”. But during that hour we’d do about 5-7 different things. We ALWAYS did morning “circle” songs, calendar, and read-aloud; those are non-negotiable. As for the rest…Sometimes I’d have themed activities around a “material of the day”. So if play-doh was the material of the day, we’d write with play-doh, do math with play-doh, do sensory and scissor skills with play-doh, make a craft with play-doh, etc. Or sometimes I’d just have all different small activities related to literacy, numeracy, fine-motor, and problem-solving skills that had no theme at all but introduced new materials that the kids don’t typically have free access to in the playroom. I’ll be showcasing what some of these days looked like more in upcoming blog posts, but just for reference all of the photos in the tile gallery at the beginning of this post are activities we did during one of our first days of “School at Home”, as Luca likes to call it.

[Bare with me as I start to move all my instagram highlight reels over to the blog…]

Tile gallery image caption, from left to right: (1) Name rockets – a fun way for kids to practice writing or making their name. My 2 year old got his name letters pre-written and he just had to put them in order, whereas my 4 year old had to pick blank squares and write each letter on a square. (2) Counting jellyfish – I prepped this while they were doing their name rockets. My 2 year old just had to work on beading each pipe cleaner, which requires a lot of attention to fine motor skills. My 4 year old had to count, recognize numbers, and practice 1:1 correspondence by making sure the number of beads on the pipe cleaner matched the number written above. (3) Mystery book buddies – I would arrange a facetime call with a friend or family member, and the kids would get to pick books to “read” aloud to their mystery book buddy on facetime. Their friend or family member also got to “read” to my kids. Even though they weren’t actually reading any of the words (or if they were, it was from memory, not true decoding skills), they were practicing story structure or reading the pictures and this is a huge step in language development. Not to mention continuing to develop their love of reading. (4) Scientific drawings of things found outside – A great way to encourage pre-writing (that stage before kids actually write letters and words to make sentences) is to encourage drawing and labeling. One way to do this is to find things outside and accurately draw them and label the parts. This helps kids start to understand that writing represents something (i.e. has a message), and once ‘written’ the message doesn’t change.

“To Go” Packs

Moms, you can thank me later. We created “To Go” packs organically one day when I literally couldn’t fit the things the bruises were asking me to take with them into my diaper bag. It’s stuffed to the brim with all the stuff I actually need, and probably forgotten toys and snacks at the bottom because it’s just an endless pit anyways. They’ve been a lifesaver and here’s why.

Luca and Dominic get to pack their “To Go” packs every time we go to a restaurant or any place that doesn’t have kid-friendly activities or things to do. I have rules around my “To Go” packs, and they actually LOVE when it’s time to whip ’em out and pack ’em up. The rules are simple:

  1. Anything you pack has to fit in the To Go pack. This helps us (me!) avoid having to tote around a massive T-Rex or over-sized coloring book.
  2. The To Go pack has to zip up. This helps us (me!) avoid having to bring every animal, car, dino, food item, notebook, and crayon along with us.
  3. You have to carry your own To Go pack. This helps ME. Period. Not only am I no longer responsible for keeping track of and finding the things you’d like to play with at the restaurant, but I also don’t have to break my back lugging a 40 pound diaper bag around.
  4. The To Go pack has to have a combination of learning toys and for-fun toys. The learning toys (see photo above) are kept in a place where the boys don’t have every-day access to, and the for-fun toys are toys from the playroom they can simply choose to bring along. They end up loving the learning toys the most anyway because novelty is good and I like to add new things into the box randomly so they are always surprised.
  5. The To Go pack never has food or snacks. My kids snack their way through the day anyway, so free access to all things food, especially junk, never works out in my favor. And I don’t want to find any ants or bugs in your bag because you put an open but unfinished travel pack of goldfish back in there. I keep the snacks in the diaper bag.

There’s a reason every mom and teacher loves Target, Home Goods, TJ Maxx, and Marshall’s. ALL my learning toys usually come from the bargain aisle at Target (Ladies, NOW is the time to hit this aisle up if there’s any chance the kids will be home with you for remote learning in the fall. If you wait till August, it’s picked over and all the good stuff’s gone!), or one of the Maxx franchises. The bruises and I really love the Melissa and Doug brand. It’s a CT based company so we feel like we’re supporting something local (just in my head?), and they tend to be quality products that are easy on the eye, not electronic, developmentally appropriate, educational, and affordable. The Water Wow packs and travel coloring kits are some of our favorites.

What do you want to read about?

As much as I can rattle off ideas for content or thumb through the photos on my phone for inspiration, I know there will be days or weeks where I got nothin’. I’d love for this page to be as interactive as possible. If you’re a fellow mom or teacher, or just someone who stumbled upon this page and wants to give me a run for my money, I’m game. Ask me a question, drop me a line, give me some feedback. If you’re a fellow blogger and happen to notice how much my page is struggling in design and/or content, give me some advice, I’m begging you!

My family

So by now you’ve heard about the two bruises and the bow in my life. And let me tell you they are my everything. But there are two other members of my family that you probably won’t hear as much about (on here anyway). My husband’s name is Mike and usually he thinks I’m all things corny, but surprisingly he’s been super supportive of my foray into blogging. So much so he even offered to pay half of my domain fees…he knows I’m a teacher coming off maternity leave surviving off a balloon check in the middle of summer.

Then there’s the dog…you know…the family member who starts off as your baby when you’re newly married but six years later turns into, Brady..who? whenever someone asks “Hey, how’s Brady doing?” Between toddler-tail-tugs and baby-bops, our not-so-little puggle Brady gets the short end of the stick most days, but he’s as loyal and loving as ever. At the end of the day, he completes our family…after all, he’s been here since the beginning.

Bruises Bows and Books…explained

Ok so I kind of explained myself on my homepage, but I know it’s not really clear and I don’t really know the first thing about writing a blog. I was kind of hoping I’d sign up, pick a template, and just have to fill in the blanks…how naive! I’m learning as I go and man is it a heck of a lot harder than you would think. My dreams of becoming @themotherchic or @livinginyellow or @dayswithgrey overnight are dashed.

Anyway…the Bruises and Bows section of this page have to do with my kids. I’ll share triumphs and trials of raising two (very different!) boys on the Bruises page, and I’ll share triumphs and trials of raising my girl on the Bows page. I’ll share the good, the bad, and the ugly, and you don’t have to agree with me. I’ll share tips and tricks for the education and development of elementary aged kids, including my own, on the Books page. My expertise is in reading and writing instruction, but I dabble in math too….my dear colleague, Tara, is the math specialist and my partner in crime at school, and she has taught me everything I know about raising mathematically literate kiddos.

I’m not so sure I’ll get any followers here, and that’s ok. If it just turns into being my own (public?!) diary, I’m cool with that. I was always into journaling growing up anyway.