Good Stuff 27.4

Navigating Gender and Sexuality

By Kalei Sabaratnam

From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom:
Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK–12 Schools

By Jennifer Bryan
(Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2012)

I teach at a school that names social justice work in its mission statement. Our professional library includes volumes on incorporating many kinds of diversity, but gender and sexuality are underrepresented. Jennifer Bryan’s From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK–12 Schools is a wonderful basic resource.

The book begins with background information, presented in a way that is accessible and unintimidating. Bryan starts with definitions, some that I knew and others that I didn’t. Under the umbrellas of biological sex, gender identity, heteronormativity, and sexual orientation, she breaks down terms and concepts.

The chapters that follow are rich in specific examples of lessons, classroom discussions, reflections, and quotations from teachers that highlight the importance of this work. Among the most helpful aspects of the book are the case studies where Bryan shows a teacher doing classroom work around sexuality and gender diversity, and then shows how it could be pushed one step further. There are chapters on early elementary/elementary and middle/high school education that discuss developmental appropriateness at a variety of ages.

My favorite chapter, “Heteronormativity at School—Questioning the ‘Natural Order’ of Things,” opens with a quote from the lesbian poet, writer, and theorist Adrienne Rich: “When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” To avoid pressuring my students into boxes that may not feel comfortable, I don’t separate them into girls and boys when lining them up for lunch. But Bryan urged me to ask myself: Where else in the school day am I proactively considering gender and sexuality diversity? How am I derailing the idea that there is a “normal” for sexuality and gender?

From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom helped me have conversations with teachers on my grade team that weren’t polarized or judgmental. I felt supported in how to explain why this information is necessary for kids—and the discussions gave my team an opportunity to talk about our assumptions and our hopes for work around this aspect of social justice. For example, my co-teachers and I had a series of talks about who we were calling “changemakers,” “heroes,” and “main characters” in our curriculum. We realized how many of the heroes we told our students about were straight men. So we brought in biographies, nonfiction texts, and news articles about people who ignored gender norms and gender rules, including Hudson Taylor (founder of Athlete Ally) and Billie Jean King. We read an historical novel about a female orphan who dressed as a male to buy property and vote. We studied Bayard Rustin during our discussion of the Civil Rights Movement and introduced the work of feminist activists from many time periods. We were “making the abstract accessible” and using real people to highlight the many ways someone can be different.

This book encouraged me to discover more places I could go with gender and sexual diversity in my classroom and with my colleagues. Bryan reinforced my commitment to support all of my students as whole people and challenged me to do even more.  

Kalei Sabaratnam is a first-year teacher at The Project School in Bloomington, Indiana.