Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Where did the girls go? Why is it difficult to find children's books for preschoolers with girls as the main character?

When I first started my storytime connection newsletter* a friend commented that I should make a strong effort to use a balance of girl and boy main characters in my book selection. I filed the suggestion in the back of my mind but didn't give it much thought. I figured I would naturally be ale to find a balance of books for both genders and did not want the book selection to suffer because I was forcing myself to use books only because they were about a girl. Plus, I wanted to focus on actually writing the newsletter first before I got into political correctness. As the months have gone by and I'm getting more into the swing of writing the weekly newsletter I have been surprised by the lack of books with girls as main characters. I stumbled upon a great list of 11 children's books that pass the Bechdel test, but they are all chapter books for older readers. Forget the Bechdel test, I'm just looking for books where the main character is a girl. I don't care who she's talking to.

My book list so far has been Little Blue Truck (Blue is a boy, as evidenced in the gender pronouns), Dancing Feet (gender neutral so that one gets a pass), and Rhyming Dust Bunnies (all four dust bunnies have boy names). Even when the character's gender does not matter at all the authors seem to revert to using boy names or pronouns. Next month will be Shiver Me Letters, and as far as I can tell all the characters are boys. I have Alice the Fairy by David Shannon and A Busy Day on my list for upcoming books, but after that I am a bit stuck. Piggy in the Elephant and Piggy series is a girl, but while I love those books I have a hard time finding quality art and sensory activities to go along with them. The same goes for Knuffle Bunny.

I adore the Ladybug Girl and Fancy Nancy series, but those are for older readers who can sit for longer periods of time. As is Blueberries for Sal. I'm not a fan of the Olivia series so I am staying away from that. The baby in Good Dog Carl is actually a girl, which you don't learn unless you read later books about Carl when the baby grew up. I have to admit I was surprised to see the baby was a girl. Why is that?

The problem solidified itself when I started typing up some of the stories my four year old likes to tell. They are silly, nonsense stories but she loved the idea of seeing her words in print. Out of nowhere one day she asked "I want to see my story again. Will it be a boy saying it?" 
What? A boy saying it? I had to ask multiple clarifying questions to try to understand what she meant. Why would her story be about a boy? It turns out that somehow in her four year old logic she assumed once a story is typed up it magically becomes about a boy, or at least told by a boy.

The more I try to think of quality children's books for younger readers that feature a girl as the  main character, the more difficultly I have. Why is it that in the world of make believe animals and talking objects all of our heroes are boys? It seems we have come farther in gender equality in the real world than we have in the imaginary stories we share with our children. Do we assume that two and three year old boys will have absolutely no patience listening to stories about girls, while two and three year old girls will be perfectly content to listen to a story about a girl?

I would love any recommendations you have on books for preschool students who have a girl as the main character. For my newsletter I am usually looking for books with a simple plot line and a good rhythm or repeated lines to encourage active engagement.

*This winter I started a weekly literacy newsletter for young children. I take one book a month and each week send out a new activity to connect with the book. There is usually an art activity, a sensory activity, and recommendations on how to use the book to promote social/emotional development. If you are interested in subscribing to the newsletter you can sign up with this link. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

What we can learn from camera angles and instant replay

Over the weekend I caught a moment of the Yankees vs Red Sox game when the game was paused so the umpires could use instant replay to challenge whether or not a ball was foul or a home run. In order to fill the air time on TV while the powers that be determined the right call, the announcers replayed the hit over and over again from different camera angles. The first image I caught showed that the ball clearly fell to the left of the foul pole, making it a home run. I didn't understand how it could possible be called foul. Why was this even a question? I made rude comments about the umpires needing glasses. And then they showed the hit from another camera angle, one that made it look like the ball was clearly foul. I stopped babbling and just stared. How can one actual occurrence look so different depending on where you were in the stadium? After watching the first video angle I knew what I saw. I was 100% confident. Yet no more than 10 seconds later I saw it from another perspective that made me be completely unsure of where the ball fell.

How different events can look from alternate perspectives always amazes me. It's unnerving when you think about it for too long. How can you ever be completely sure that you've seen what you think you've seen?

I see this play out in special education almost every day. Except there is not any video replay to help us go back and analyze what we saw and view it from different perspectives. We need to rely on our colleagues to help us examine a situation from every angle. That's not easy. In order to be open to even realizing there are different perspectives out there we need to be able to acknowledge that our own perspective may not show us the full picture. This requires more than a bit of humility and a lot of trust for our colleagues.

If the decisions we make for kids come from a belief that we have the only right answer and everyone else is confused, lazy, or just plain wrong, we can miss out on seeing the full picture of the child. And that doesn't impact just one run on a scoreboard, but often can change a child's whole life.

I think about my reaction to the first video replay. Before I had the whole picture I was loud in my confidence. It seemed easy to say ridiculous things about the umpires and be critical of their call. Yet it did not take long for me to eat my words when I saw the other camera angle. How often in our lives do we talk critically about others but never get to see the other angle and we walk away before we fully understand the whole picture?

I struggle with two sides of this problem. I can see a situation from my own perspective and make judgmental statements about those involved. Yet I also can be quieted from others' loud convictions. Even when I see a perspective on a student that differs from the popular opinion I can struggle to share my view when others at the table are loud and confident in their views. I catch myself thinking that other people must be right if they are so loud about their beliefs and I keep quiet. Or worse, I decide that although I think my perspective is valuable, challenging the norm is too much work at the moment and again I stay quiet. In both instances, when I am loud and sure and when I stay quiet, kids lose. It's something I am working on daily.

Kids are complex. There is no way as a teacher to see every side of them. What we see in our classrooms is not the full picture. Our particular backgrounds and training lead us to draw one conclusion about a child's needs that could be very different than someone else's. When we act with open minds and listen to all perspectives at the table we can create extremely powerful teams for the child involved. But if we shut others down and assume our way is the only right way we limit the potential plans we create for our students. This can be devastating for kids - the ones who don't learn to read because the "right" way we are teaching them isn't working. Or the kids who end up in the office day after day because we are not looking at the student's behavior from another angle.

Special education often pushes us to make a decision about how to serve kids and then to stick by it. We come to a formal meeting and write plans on legally binding paperwork. We try to get everyone to agree that this is the right plan. Of course we could always come back together to change the plan, but that often involves another meeting and more paperwork. And sometimes that means admitting things were not as black and white as we want them to be.

We are so busy that sometimes it feels like we do not have the luxury to sit down and fully examine a situation. Yet when this happens we slip into making snap decisions and forgetting to see all sides and gather all of the pieces.