With about 20 fidgeting first-graders seated on the carpet in front of her, Kimball Elementary teacher Jacqueline Martinez took an informal poll before reading time.
Are girls allowed to play with Lego blocks? she asked. Can boys like the color purple? Both questions drew a unanimous thumbs up from her students. But their opinions were a bit more mixed when Martinez asked if dads could cook in the kitchen, or if moms should mow the lawn.
“Some people think boys should only do some things, and girls should only do other things,” Martinez told the class.
Over the past month, teachers in a dozen elementary schools in Seattle have piloted similar lessons on gender and self identity that are designed to fulfill new state standards on health education, The standards, adopted last year, require schools to teach students as young as kindergarten about the different ways to express gender, while fifth-graders learn about ways to show respect for all people and how to identify a trusted adult to ask questions about gender identity and sexual orientation.
In Seattle Public Schools, a task force of parents and teachers spent about a year developing the lessons and selecting the books for specific grades, said Lisa Love, the district’s health education manager. She said individual teachers and schools also have increasingly requested age-appropriate tools to help guide conversations with students about gender expression and gender roles.
“Rather than say, ‘Good luck, find your own way,’ we felt the need to show what can be consistently taught (across the district) and that align with the new state standards,” Love said.
“People may mistakenly assume this conversation is about body parts and sex or something very mature and adult,” she added. “But it isn’t at all. It’s entirely about who a person feels they are when they come to school.”
The new books include “Introducing Teddy,” a short story Martinez read to her class about a stuffed bear named Teddy who identifies as a girl and wants to be called Tilly.
“He doesn’t feel right to be a boy,” one student told Martinez.
Other books in the new set address gender diversity (for second-graders) the negative effects of bullying (for fourth graders) and, for fifth graders, how media and culture influence ideas about gender.
Love plans to collect feedback from teachers at the 12 pilot schools before the district expands the lessons and books in all elementary school classrooms next year.
She also may use reports of bullying and harassment and student surveys to see whether the new curriculum helps promote safer schools.
At Kimball Elementary, Martinez said she wasn’t worried about how her students would react to the lesson on gender roles and the book “Introducing Teddy.” Sending a letter to parents made her the most nervous, she said.
“We have lots of different cultures and backgrounds” at Kimball. “I just want to do the right thing and be transparent with my families. This is a conversation we have together.”