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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Picture Walk Through Gender Differences

By Peter DeWitt — August 30, 2011 2 min read
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When I taught first grade, I introduced a new book to my students during calendar time. The book was entitled First Snow by Caldecott Award Winner Emily Arnold McCully. It’s a wordless picture book that I had never used before but I loved the illustrations. Pauline, the school librarian suggested I use it with my students.

I decided to use it for a “picture walk” one morning, which is a good literacy practice to do with students before you actually read the book out loud to them. A “picture walk,” although I’m sure it’s called something different now, is a way to get students actively engaged in the book. I always tried to balance between allowing the students to passively listen to a story for enjoyment and actively engage them in a story for instructional purposes.

I remember opening First Snow for the first time with the kids sitting on the carpet anxiously anticipating what would happen next. If you have ever spent time in first grade, you know that they like to call out and provide an opinion or insight. Sometimes, as teachers, we’re lucky when that insight has to do with the topic we are actually teaching! Young children really love to interact with the adults around them. They want to be heard.

However, something happened that none of us expected that day in Room 6 in Arlington Elementary School. I opened a page to mice wearing various colored scarves, getting ready to go sledding. One particular mouse, who was about to go down the big snowy hill first, was wearing a pink scarf. A little boy in my class pointed at the picture and said, “Look! The girl is going to go first!”

It was clearly a teachable moment that I could not let pass us by. I asked him how he knew it was a girl, and he said, “Because she’s wearing a pink scarf.” He said it so matter-of-factly, like there was something wrong with me that I could not tell it was a girl. I looked at the rest of the class and asked them if a boy could wear pink. For the next fifteen minutes I watched my first grade students debate whether a boy could wear pink, and if the mouse in the story was in fact a girl.

The boy who started the initial conversation got upset because he was adamant that the mouse with the pink scarf was a girl. That’s when I realized that boys and girls learn gender differences at a very early age, and some of those gender differences are so strict that they involve colors that only boys can wear and colors that only girls can wear. It’s why there is always an overabundance of pink clothing in the girl’s section of any clothing store.

After many conversations, and the fact that I wore a pink shirt the next day, we all agreed that girls and boys could both wear pink. Many of the parents, including those who taught across the street at Vassar College, were quite happy that I taught the lesson because they believed that boys and girls should not be confined to gender differences. However, it’s still a discussion I find myself having these days as a principal.

“Teachable moments,” for a teacher or principal, can be a very important teaching tool because they come up unexpectedly. I used the book First Snow by Emily Arnold McCully every year so I could have the same discussion. And every day after that discussion, I wore a pink shirt, which as a school principal, I still do today.

Find books without words and do a picture walk with students, and ask thought-provoking questions where boys and girls can learn about gender differences. Books like Free to Be You and Me by Marlo Thomas and Christopher Cerf are perfect examples of books that teach about gender differences to children Find examples of books where girls are doing things that are typically done by boys and vice versa Teaching about gender differences is a way to teach children about acceptance. These books allow teachers to educate students about compassion, resilience and toughness.

McCully, Emily Arnold (1988). First Snow. Harper Collins. New York.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.