Published November 16, 2021
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed by History UnErased in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by Deb Fowler, Inge De Taeye, Nahanni Rous, and Eric Marcus.
Deb Fowler: Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
In episode one of our pilot season, I spoke with veteran elementary school educator Chip James about how K-5 teachers can help dismantle gender stereotypes. Before you listen to this follow-up, I recommend you check out that earlier episode; it provides context for the story you’re about to hear.
One of the many things I admire about Chip is how skillfully he seizes on opportunities to educate his young students about their world, and how he guides them towards greater understanding of themselves and each other in an organic and really joyful way.
That was especially true with a story Chip told me about a mug—a pink mug. I’m sharing it with you because it led to a spirited classroom exercise that you can easily recreate with your students to explore and deconstruct rigid ideas about gender. Have a listen.
Chip James: One example of identifying a teachable moment happened in a group that I led, um, some years ago now—a group of six third graders. It was a perfect study group because it was three young humans assigned female at birth and three young humans assigned male at birth. And we would get together once a week to have lunch together.
A lot of times the kids will come into my office to put down stuff before they go to the cafeteria and buy their food or their drinks or whatnot. So on this day, a couple of kids ran in first to save their favorite seats. And, uh, one of the kids immediately said to me, “Mr. Chip, what are you doing?” And I was sitting there drinking a cup of coffee and didn't really understand what the kid was talking about.
And he says, “Your cup! You’re drinking out of a pink cup,” which I was. Not that I would not have chosen this cup, but this cup I actually got from the collection of coffee cups that accumulates after retirees have left them there in the teachers’ room.
So I said to this boy, “You know, it’s funny you bring that up because that's what we're gonna talk about in group today.” So we opened the meeting. I asked the boy permission, uh, to relay what he had said to me. And of course he gave permission. And, uh, I said, “You know, um, when John came into the room, he said to me, ‘Mr. Chip, how can you do that?’ And he explained that he was having trouble with me drinking out of a pink cup.”
And immediately the rest of the kids at my table rolled their eyes, and they were agreeing with him: “Yeah, Mr. Chip, how can you do that?” I said, “Well, it's got a bottom, it's got a handle, it's filled with coffee exactly the way I like it, and I don't understand the problem.” And, again unanimously, they were saying, “Pink is a girl color. You can’t be drinking out of a pink cup.”
And I said, “Wait a minute, you mean there are colors that are just for boys and colors that are just for girls?” And they said, “Oh yeah,” looking at me like I'm a moron. And I said, “Wow, I clearly need some help with this.” And I got up and I drew a line down the center of the board, and I wrote titles on top of the binary list: “Boys” and “Girls.”
And I asked, “Okay, let's make the lists for boys and for girls.” And since this had started with the color pink, of course we had to continue with the colors, and they were very stereotyping—such that boy colors are blue, green, brown, and black, and girl colors are red, pink, purple, and yellow. And again, these were very unanimous.
They went on then with a very disturbing list—disturbing because it was extremely, extremely stereotyped, such that girls like to sew and dance and clean and cook. And they care more about their looks.
DF: And, Chip, what age are these students again?
CJ: These are third graders, so they're like eight, nine. So, and boys like to run and build. They like cars. They are more interested in, and better at, sports, and they care less about their looks.
So as we populated these two lists, I noticed that kids started actually pulling their stuff closer to them in little lunch territories. Not only that, I noticed that two kids were getting really angry at each other, and they were actually kicking each other under the table.
So I said, “You guys, let's stop this list right now. I want to talk about what's happening at this table right now. What is happening?” And they got very quiet. One little girl, Anna, says, “There are things on these lists that are wrong.” And I’m thinking, hallelujah, please speak.
DF: Say more.
CJ: And she went on to say, “There are things that are on these lists that are wrong.” And I said, “Do all of you agree that there are things on these lists that are wrong?” And again, they were unanimous: “Yes.” I said, “Okay, so let's work in reverse. Let’s talk about each item on the list. If you can give me evidence that an item on the list is not correct, we will agree to remove the item from the list.”
Immediately, the girls began with, “Well, it's not necessarily true that boys are faster than girls, or that boys are stronger than girls.” And it turns out that the evidence was that Claire had beat Thomas in a race that very morning in the school yard before entering the building, and she beat him fair and square three times in a row. Everyone saw. So everyone in—was in agreement that we could remove that from the boys’ list, that boys are faster and boys are stronger.
So we continued with that process of deconstructing the list. And as the boys' list grew shorter and shorter, they sat there absolutely in silence. And I could see them almost shrinking in their seats as their list was being dismantled. And none of them being able to attempt to own something on the girls’ side of the list.
So I needed to help them. And luckily I was assigned male at birth as well, so I could do some modeling for them, and I could sort of tease them into tolerating owning something on the girls’ list. So I said, “Tony, was I hallucinating last week when you brought me a Tupperware with spaghetti that you made yourself?” And he said, “No, I make really great spaghetti.”
And I said, “I have the evidence. I will vouch for your great spaghetti. However, does that mean that it's only girls who can like to cook and be good at cooking?” And he says, “No, I'm a good cook.” And I looked at the rest of the group. “So, is it true that boys can cook as equally as girls?” They all agreed.
So we removed cooking. I also said, “Now, listen, I also happen to know that it takes some time and effort to make those perfect little spikes on top of your heads. I also know that it generally requires a product.” And the boys are looking at each other and giggling. And I said, “I know how much time and effort it takes to tie those shoelaces in that special way that you like to tie them in. And I know that you would not leave your house to get on the school bus if you were not satisfied with how you are looking. Am I correct?” And, again, the boys are looking at each other and they're, and they're really, like, chirping with bursts of giggles.
And the girls—watching the girls watch the boys tolerate some discomfort… Using humor with them is a great way to help them to tolerate discomfort. So the girls were so happy and thrilled. All six of those kids were giggling as we continued to tear apart these lists.
So, finally, we're at the end of a 30-minute group, and there are still some items left on the lists. And I said, “We are short on time, but I have an idea.” And I took the eraser and I erased the line down the center of the board. And this same girl, Anna, who was the first one to say, “There are things on these lists that are wrong,” she said, “That's it! There should just be one list.” They are all now nodding their heads feverishly up and down in agreement.
And I said, “All right, well, if we are gonna have one list, then we need to have one title.” And I erased “Boys” and “Girls” from the top of what had been two lists. And I asked, um, “So what should be the new title of the one list?” And that same girl, Anna, raised her hand and said, “Humankind.”
And that's what I wrote on top of the one list. And they were so satisfied with that experience, they literally went skipping down the hallway—skipping down the hallway, linked arms—to go back to class, and...
CJ: Liberated and lighter and safe because if there’s only one list, no one is gonna make a mistake with what they choose. No one is going to have a faux pas. And that all started with, “Mr. Chip, how can you do that? How can you drink out of a pink cup?” So...
DF: The potent pink cup.
CJ: Yes. Yes. So that's an example of a teachable moment that you go at organically, and using their own experience and using their own language increases the likelihood that they’re going to be invested in what you're saying to them.
DF: Thank you so much, Chip.
CJ: You're welcome.
DF: Chip James is a former elementary school teacher with a private practice serving LGBTQ-identifying youth.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed by History UnErased in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by me, Deb Fowler, Inge De Taeye, Ali Lemer, and Eric Marcus.
The music you heard is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thanks for listening.