“Gotta know how to save people.”
“And fight evil!”
“You need special superpowers.”
“A cape and tights!”
I stood before an easel and chart paper, rapidly recording the eager responses of my third-grade students as they generated a growing list of answers to the question, “What does a superhero need to be successful?” It was our weekly Say Something Do Something meeting, and there was energy in the air. Spring had finally arrived, and I was pleased to recognize that, for the most part, the third-graders in my class had become a strong community of learners. The idea of creating their own superheroes to protect our beloved school was captivating to the soon-to-be fourth-graders.
Each week, one period in every classroom of our school is dedicated to the implementation of a district-mandated anti-bullying curriculum. In these Say Something Do Something Meetings, students in grades K-8 engage in teacher-led discussions and activities designed to develop a common language and provide explicit instruction in an effort to address and prevent bullying behavior. While the curriculum is generally sound, accessible and age appropriate, the lessons have at times felt a bit hollow, without the presence of real-life stories, our own stories. So when I read “Behind the Shield,” a Teaching Tolerance interview with Vishavjit Singh, I was excited to have found a story and perspective that I felt certain would resonate with my students and provide a solid framework worthy of consideration.
Singh drew cartoons that told the stories and experiences of Sikhs in the United States. Who doesn’t love cartoons? Eventually, Singh even donned tights and branded a shield to become Sikh Captain America in an effort to tell his story to a wider audience. Students sighed audibly at the part of the story when Singh, overcome with misgivings at his skinny stature said, “Man, this is not going to work.” Then, they cheered loudly when his wife countered, “If you’re going to do Captain America, you go out as who you are.” The tentative leap from small, ordinary person to powerful superhero seemed perfectly plausible and outrageously heroic all at the same time. The kids were hooked!
And so, armed with a list of superhero traits and a second list of school values they had deemed important, students got right to work creating original superheroes. Some had no difficulty whatsoever adding costumes and powers to renditions of themselves, while others struggled to find the hero within. Some sketched and drew their super character first, while others chose to write detailed descriptions or punchy dialogue. The conversation around the room flowed freely. The superheroes-in-the-making were vulnerable, rather small and remarkably full of power. They had names and feisty personalities. “Bully Freeman” stopped bullies in their tracks, made them listen to sound advice and sent the bullies home happier than before. “Writer Woman” used her powerful pencil to promote the kind of understanding that evolves into friendship. “Invisible Wondergirl” whispered strong, positive thoughts to give other girls courage in the face of bullies.
I think for a lot of kids and even adults, they might not realize it, but just by seeing [an] image on a poster or on a computer screen, it goes in our subconscious and it’s like this new data point that creates a new universe where now we can envision a black Captain America or a turbaned, bearded Captain America. … It’s a fictional image, but when we see it [there’s] a real-life transformation.
At the end of every Say Something Do Something lesson, our class would compile a final list of new or changed thinking titled “Guess What I Think Now!” Below is the list we posted in the classroom following our superhero project:
- Beneath every superhero is an ordinary person.
- I have qualities in me that a superhero has.
- Once I create an image or story [about a superhero], the story I tell can have special superpowers.
- Telling our own stories and listening to other people’s stories connect us and help us understand more about each other.
Fueled by their own experiences and the stories of real people like Singh, my third-grade students had the opportunity to gain new insights by creating superheroes meant to protect our school values and keep our community safe. If our fictional superheroes have the courage to say something or do something, perhaps the small, ordinary people beneath the cape and behind the shield will as well.
Hsu is a recently retired third-grade teacher who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Many misconceptions about transgender identity have flourished as states and municipalities across the country contemplate “bathroom bills.” What often gets lost in the discussion is that transgender people go to the bathroom to relieve themselves, just like everyone else. The ideas that distract us from this basic fact of life are grounded in the following six myths. Educators committed to inclusion and safety for all students—including those who are transgender—can help by learning to separate misunderstanding from fact.
MYTH: Transgender-inclusive bathroom policies put non-transgender students at risk of sexual assault.
FACT: School districts all over the country—including Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation—have permitted transgender students to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity for years. Not one of these schools has seen an increase in incidence of sexual assault or other problems in bathrooms and locker rooms. Similarly, numerous states and municipalities have enacted transgender-inclusive laws and ordinances without any rise in sexual assault or violent crimes.
It is also important to note that transgender individuals are frequently the targets of sexual violence—not perpetrators. Half of transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives.
Advocates for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors should follow the lead of the more than 250 sexual assault and domestic violence organizations that have opposed the passage of laws restricting transgender individuals’ access to restrooms and other gender-segregated facilities. For example, according to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, “Forcing [transgender people] out of facilities consistent with the gender they live every day makes them vulnerable to assault.”
MYTH: Permitting transgender individuals to use the restroom or locker room that matches their gender identity violates the privacy rights of non-transgender people.
FACT: This myth relies on two false assumptions. The first is that transgender individuals enter sex-segregated spaces looking for sexual gratification. The second is that seeing anatomical features typically associated with another gender violates privacy.
As discussed above, the first premise is factually incorrect. Transgender individuals, like everyone else, are simply using the locker room and restroom to shower, change clothes and go to the bathroom. Schools, municipalities and states that permit transgender individuals to use the facilities consistent with their gender identity report no increase in sexual assault or violent crimes.
The second premise—that seeing anatomical features typically associated with another gender violates your privacy—relies on an interpretation of privacy that exceeds its accepted meaning. Privacy is generally thought of as a right to keep certain information or aspects of ourselves from being disclosed. It is not a right to never see bodies that are unfamiliar or look different from one’s own.
When people raise privacy as an argument for limiting transgender access to facilities, they’re often revealing an emotional truth that many people share. Young people are told throughout their upbringing that their bodies are private, and they may not have previously seen bodies that are typically associated with another gender. When they do see bodies that look different from their own, they may be curious and ask questions that make adults uncomfortable. Do these students have a right to privacy? Yes. Do these students have the right to prevent others from using the facilities? No.
Most people agree that it’s OK to have separate men’s and women’s locker rooms; permitting transgender people to use locker rooms consistent with their gender identity does not disturb this principle, as long as one accepts that transgender women are women and transgender men are men. And support for this idea is strong: Medical experts have explained that gender identity is the primary determinant of biological sex, along with chromosomes, hormones and internal and external reproductive anatomy.
Schools committed to inclusion and safety should allow any uncomfortable student—transgender or not—to have access to alternative restrooms or changing areas, as the federal government suggested in recent guidelines. In their Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students, released in May 2016, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice state, “A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so. A school may, however, make individual-user options available to all students who voluntarily seek additional privacy.”
A related myth troubling some school leaders is that cisgender boys will exploit inclusive bathroom policies to harass girls. But this doesn’t happen—school districts with inclusive restroom policies like the Los Angeles Unified School District have shown that. And, even if it did happen, the school’s disciplinary or anti-harassment policy would apply, regardless of where the harassment took place.
MYTH: Transgender identity is a mental illness.
FACT: Transgender identity
is not a mental illness. The word transgender
describes a persistent and authentic difference between a person’s gender
identity and the sex they were assigned at birth. For some individuals, this
difference results in pain, discomfort and distress.
The good news is transgender individuals can relieve this pain and discomfort through authentic expression of their gender. For some individuals, physical interventions such as hormone therapy aid in achieving a sense of well-being and authenticity. For others, wearing hairstyles and clothing that are more comfortable helps to alleviate distress.
Although transgender identity is not itself an illness, transgender people may experience mental health issues because of discrimination and disapproval. Some transgender young people lose friends, families or a place to sleep when they begin to live authentically. They may be subject to abuse at home, at school or in their communities. Years of surviving rejection and stigma can take their toll, causing anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders. But these illnesses do not cause—nor are they caused by—transgender identity. They result from social exclusion and stigma.
MYTH: Children aren’t old enough to know their gender identity.
FACT: In reality, many children know their gender identity from a very young age. Rather than interrogate our young transgender children or students about their gender identity, we should support them and encourage them to explore this facet of their identity.
When youth begin to express a desire for medical interventions, it is recommended that parents or guardians take their child to medical and mental healthcare professionals who have experience working with children and adolescents who identify as transgender. These professionals may recommend fully or partially reversible medical interventions such as puberty blockers or hormone therapy if children insistently, consistently and persistently express a gender identity that differs from their assigned sex. A variety of interdisciplinary gender identity clinics exist all over the country to holistically serve these young people. In addition, emerging research suggests that social transition “may be associated with better mental outcomes among transgender children.”
MYTH: Transgender women are not “real” women, or transgender men are not “real” men.
FACT: Designating individuals’ gender identity as “real” or not reflects a lack of understanding about the difference between gender identity and assigned sex. Gender identity refers to a person’s deep-seated, internal sense of being male, female or another gender. Gender identity is the primary determinant of biological sex, along with a number of other factors including chromosomes, hormones and internal and external reproductive anatomy.
A person’s gender identity can differ from the sex a doctor designated on the birth certificate (assigned sex) or the way they were raised. This difference gives rise to a transgender identity.
It’s common for people unfamiliar with gender identity and assigned sex to insist that there is no difference; however, scientists, psychologists, advocates and educators who have studied gender for decades offer clear evidence that, for some individuals, there is a difference, and that difference is beyond individual control.
Ultimately, we should honor individuals as they identify themselves to us. The alternative causes harm by perpetuating stigma, negative stereotypes and essentialist notions of gender.
MYTH: Someone is not transgender unless they medically transition.
FACT: People can be transgender even if they don’t take hormones and even if they haven’t had surgery. For some people, gender-affirming healthcare such as hormones or surgery is necessary to achieve a sense of well-being and authenticity. Other transgender people do not require any gender-affirming healthcare in order to live authentically. For still others, gender-affirming healthcare may be unaffordable or advised against by a medical professional.
Transgender individuals often face serious barriers to high-quality, affordable, culturally competent healthcare. Many transgender people avoid seeing medical providers for fear of discrimination, and half report having to teach their doctors about transgender care. Especially in light of these barriers, it is inappropriate and inaccurate to judge the legitimacy of someone’s transgender status based on what medical interventions have been performed.
Although some transgender people do not medically transition, it is not merely cosmetic for those who do. For many people who are transgender, medical transition is an integral part of living an authentic and happy life. In fact, numerous courts have held that gender-affirming healthcare is medically necessary.
Be an Ally
These myths survive only so long as non-transgender people fail to educate themselves and others about the facts. Be an ally to transgender individuals by offering these truths in response to misperceptions you hear among students and staff. Together, we can strengthen the fabric of our community by ensuring all individuals are valued for who they are.
Mula is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Mansfield Family Foundation.
Several months ago, I spoke to a group of students at Metro Montessori Middle School in Portland, Oregon, about my life as a gender-fluid person, an immigrant and a person of color. At first, the youth were shy. After all, it was 8 a.m. and my coffee hadn’t kicked in yet, so I was kind of in the same boat.
But it didn’t take long for us to break the ice and have an amazing conversation.
Many of the youth had never heard the term gender fluid, but that didn’t stop them from asking questions and being engaged. We talked about everything from the umbrella term queer to my own gender expression journey.
They asked, “What was it like being gay in Jamaica?” “When did you know you were gender fluid?” “What is the difference between transgender and gender fluid?” And “How did your friends and family respond to you coming out as gender fluid?”
At the end of the session, the students left me with a new sense of purpose and a hope that their generation will have greater understanding for people like me.
The next day, their teacher forwarded me an email from a parent that I will never forget. The email reads:
H. throws backpack into back of car and hops into front seat.
Me: Hi Love, good day? Today was OWL, yes?
H.: Yes, Mom.
Me: How were this week’s guests?
Me: I thought there were going to be three transgender guests, each talking about their experience.
H.: Nope, only one.
Me: Who was it?
Me: Tell me about Giovanni.
H.: He’s from Jamaica but has been living here for a while.
Me: And he’s trans?
H.: No Mom. Giovanni is gender fluid.
Me: OK, how is that different than trans? You might have to explain that to me
H.: (turns up the radio)
Me: (turns down the radio) Seriously, help me here.
H.: Gender fluid means you don’t identify or feel like any one specific gender.
Me: Whereas trans…
H.: You feel a specific gender but your body may not be that.
Me: Got it. Thanks. I’ll stop for now.
H.: (sarcastic) Thank you, Mom.
(Quiet driving moment)
Me: So…can a gender-fluid person be gay, straight or are they also sexually fluid?
H.: (exasperated) MOM!!!! (turns up radio)
Me: (turns down radio) I want to understand.
H.: They are queer.
Me: Isn’t queer, gay?
H.: No. It’s different.
H.: MOM!!! You’re so annoying.
Me: I prefer curious.
(We arrive at practice, H. gets out of car as quick as he can)
Me: (shouting through window) Thanks, H.. I’m glad you can help me here.
H.: (sarcastic, walking away) That’s great Mom. Goodbye.
(Later that night, after dinner…)
H.: (hands me his phone open to Instagram and @iamgiovanni who had posted a photo and a few words about his visit to MMM) This is Giovanni, check it out, he posted his visit today…
Me: Cool. Seems like a nice guy.
H. showing me @iamgiovanni was a big deal. It meant that Giovanni connected with him enough that H. sought him out on Instagram. And by sharing it with me, I knew our 7-minute car ride conversation mattered.
I never expected this outcome. Who would know that H. would later become the teacher, educating his parent using his own succinct explanation of gender identity and sexual orientation—not something he got from slideshows or pamphlets, but just from an open and honest dialogue?
In the LGBT advocacy realm, there's a common theme “to change
hearts and minds.” Too often, we forget some of the most important hearts and
minds we’re shaping belong to youth. There’s a lot they can teach us, and
there’s a lot we can teach them.
Resources for Educators
Metro Montessori Middle School fosters a community where students can understand, embrace and celebrate their differences. This space creates the opportunity for students to learn and to take those lessons into the world. For educators wanting to follow Metro’s lead, here are three resources.
A school play for K-5 students, Why Frogs and Snakes Never Play Together, tells a story of friendship. Two groups of young frogs and snakes cross paths and become friends. After sharing the good news with their parents, they were forbidden to ever play together again.
OWL (Our Whole Lives), the resource used by Metro, is a lifespan sexuality education curriculum anchored in respect for differences in gender expression, sexual orientation and culture.
A project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, Welcoming Schools offers a trans-inclusive set of tools, lessons and resources made to create more welcoming elementary schools.
McKenzie is the founder of Queer Intersections Force and serves as a youth ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
The Atlantic: “Black alumni of the class, many years after graduating, uniformly credited the social-justice course for provoking a process of self-exploration that altered their sense of justice and influenced their self-identity.”
Chicago magazine: “I’m a black girl from the South Side. I was raised by a single mom because my parents are divorced. I understand what it’s like to be low-income, to be a girl, to be black, for three different things to be weighing on me. There’s lots of levels of oppression.”
EdSource: “The framework stresses the importance of incorporating diverse historical perspectives of Hispanics, Native Americans and other ethnic groups.”
Education Week: “The number of K-12 students who received at least one out-of-school suspension dropped by nearly 20 percent since the 2011-12 school year, but disparities persist.”
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE): “... I believe it is my duty to ensure that the texts I bring to my classroom are as diverse as my student population.”
The New York Times: “‘When I talk to younger people, I tell them I’m the same as Anne Frank,’ said Jacques Grishaver, 74, another ‘hidden child,’ who was born in Amsterdam in 1942. ‘That’s always where I start, because I want to tell them that it wasn’t only Anne Frank. There were more.’"
The News Tribune: “Always, he says, it’s in the back of black people’s minds that ‘you can do everything right, and still end up dead.’ That’s why he was inspired to teach his students about what to do if they are stopped by an officer while driving.”
SFGate: “‘By seeing themselves reflected in lessons and materials, [LGBT] students’ experiences are validated and their sense of self-worth reinforced, creating the opportunity for students to be able to achieve academically.’"
ThinkProgress: “Decades of racial bias against black Americans and the legacy of slavery are evident in our classrooms.”
WNYC: “[New York City] plans to eliminate suspensions of children in kindergarten through second grade (suspensions of pre-kindergarten students were previously banned), and instead encourage schools to use more restorative practices, like counseling.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com , and put "What We're Reading This Week" in the subject line.
Editor’s note: This piece was written during the week of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s shooting deaths by police officers, as well as the deaths of five officers in Dallas, Texas. This is the second of two TT staff reflections on these events. Find the first here and teaching materials to discuss these events here.
Here I sit, at the end of my first week at Teaching Tolerance. I sit in the shadow of the Civil Rights Memorial and Dr. King’s first pastorate. I am steps away from the epicenter of the civil rights movement—and watching as my newsfeed explodes with violence.
For days, I have been awakened to grim news. On my way to work today, I sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with my son, fighting back tears for his beautiful life. His young, male, black life that I know is not safe. I would protect his life with my own, but this week is another startling reminder that, no matter what I do, there will be times when I cannot protect him.
I was pregnant with my son when Michael Brown was killed in Missouri. I remember weeping with my hands held to my growing stomach, knowing that my son would be born in this unfair and confusing world. As mothers-to-be often do, I imagined what my son would look like. And I knew that his skin tone could be any range of color because of his mix of cultures and races. But my pregnant daydreams were tinted with fear. I was terrified for what my gut already knew: I could teach him to be proud of his unique blend of cultures and heritages—and of his skin—and to be respectful to others and accepting of all. I could control this. But I could not control how the world would see him.
Now he is here, and as the months pass and he swims and plays in the sun, his skin gradually darkens. His beautiful curls grow tighter and his big, dark eyes stare up at me. He is too young to understand me, but I say to him every day, “Mama’s got you.” I’ve got his back, but weeks like this make me feel like the world will turn its back on him.
He is so similar to the hundreds of boys who have entered my classroom, their personalities, skills and gifts a second thought to a society that sees color first. I taught them respect, I taught them to value their minds, and I showered them with love. I taught them how to navigate this world as best I could, but I could not control how their skin would affect their lives.
As a mother and as an educator, I’m concerned. I’m scared. I know that I am running out of ideas of what to say to my son when he gets older. I am just as tongue-tied as I was when I stood in front of a classroom full of boys looking to me with pleading eyes for answers after Michael Brown’s death. As we watch the new normal unfold in the United States, what do we tell our sons, our daughters and our students?
For now, I sing during car rides with my son. I focus on what I can control: reading our favorite books every night or cheering together as he says a new word. While he sleeps, I take time to pull out the box of handwritten notes from my students that I cannot seem to part with. I scroll through old videos and pictures of my brilliant students learning, dancing and doing anything to make me laugh. These small moments with my son and memories of my students are what bring me joy to face another uncertain day.
Mascareñaz is a teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.