How Are We To Know Unless You Let Us? An Exploration of Access & Power

I will name a few painful truths I see of the world within which we live. Then, explore what some wise children (and their activist teachers) are doing to rise up and push back on these narratives. I hope to leave you with this truth: when conditions are created within which children can assert their agency against what they see as injustices in the world, their world, everyone’s heart and mind grows broader and may just be what makes all the difference in the end.

My Truth One: I’m a cisgender mama of a young visible transgender child.

My Truth Two: I’m an adult who feels ashamed to check off that identity box right now, but I have a feeling you can begin to help me shift this feeling. I hope.

My Truth Three: I’m an educator with eternal optimism and faith in educators’ hearts, talents, and commitment, but simultaneously believe the schooling system has perpetuated atrocities on the minds of children since its inception by denying them access to knowledge and tools for their own self-liberation. (Not educators as individuals, but the system within which we find ourselves navigating and pushing back on our entire careers).

With my truths named for you upfront, I now have an ask for you: please follow my journey of thought here. It’ll be a painful journey, certainly, and I fully expect many of you to close your browser or close this thought piece on your phone. Fair enough. Your choice to read on or not will not change the fact that I’ve more to say below. If you choose to honor me by reading on, you humble me.

Here’s what challenged my truths one, two, and three, all in one wise fifth grader’s response to her teacher today. Context, then let me back up, and then move forward with something that fills my eternal optimism with hope…

How are we to know unless you let us? were the honest words from a wise fifth grader today in class. My heart, already weary from the violence of words and actions that adults have perpetuated on the young souls of youth across this country these past months, past years, going back really decades, years, centuries, was cut deeper and bled this afternoon while studying in the incredibly amazing fifth grade classroom within which I’ve been a faithful collaborator all year.

The Context

The incredibly prophetic teacher, Jamaica Ross (Ms. Ross gave us permission to use her name because she is incredibly proud of the deep work her students are doing along this journey and I’ll refer to as Ms. J in the rest of this thought piece), and I have been exploring topics around identity with her students all year long through the vehicle of the interactive read aloud. We’ve been expanding our knowledge of the identity of transgender children in Alex Gino’s groundbreaking middle grade novel George these past few weeks. Today, our conversation around the book lead us into an exploration of the concepts around justice and injustice, as a scene in the book gave many students a visceral reaction.

Let Me Back Up

I hear folks state this fact: many adults across the country are scared that books that center LGBTQ characters or themes might be brought into classrooms for children to read or be read to. They say these adults are scared of what might happen when youth gain knowledge about these topics. They say these adults are terrified, really, about what reading these books with LGBTQ-themed stories might do to our young, impressionable youth. Alex Gino said something quite poignant to a group of fifth graders in NYC recently, “A book cannot make you trans, but can make you trans aware and accepting. There is no age before which to be compassionate.” Mic drop, right? Awareness is the first step in building empathy toward others. And, their assertion that there is no age before which to be compassionate? That’s plain truth.

So, I ask you this: do you want a small window into what happens when adults honor children enough to trust that they can navigate big thinking around complex topics? If you’ve said yes, brilliant! In an attempt to paint a picture for you of one way this can look, I’m going to amply the voices, both through the written word and spoke word, of youth across the country, coast to coast. Granted, these are only windows into two sets of fifth graders, one class in NYC and one in LA. While I acknowledge this is a small subset of the general population, well, it’s what I have access to provide you a window into and second, I ask you this additional question: where else are these glorious books being read in our elementary schools? Your classroom? Please reach out to me and share your experiences; we grow stronger together. Your town? Again, please reach out to me and tell me where, I’d love to hear about their story. The painful fact is, though, these books aren’t being read in elementary schools across the country for a myriad reasons, reasons which my colleagues and I continue to unpack.

Consider this fact from the American Library Association, who compile a list of the top ten most challenged books yearly, as they make this poignant assertion: The American Library Association condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information. Every year, the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles a list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books in order to inform the public about censorship in libraries and schools. The lists are based on information from media stories and voluntary challenge reports sent to OIF from communities across the United States. The lists are found here, for those of you that would like to read up on this further. The five top most challenged books for 2016 have one big thing in common as the reason stated for their challenging or eventual banning: LGBT characters or themes emerge in the book. Just look:

  • Book one, Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer: “Challenged because it includes LGBT characters”
  • Book two, Raina Telgemeier’s Drama: “Challenged because it includes LGBT characters”
  • Book three, Alex Gino’s George: “Challenged because it includes a transgender child”
  • Book four: Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings’ I Am Jazz: “Challenged because it portrays a transgender child…and offensive viewpoints”
  • David Levithan’ Two Boys Kissing: “It was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content”

Wow, the theme is crystal clear: books that center LGBTQ characters or themes are central reasons as to why some adults across the country request these books be challenged and banned from their inclusion in school and classroom spaces. Consider what that means: denial of access to information by adults towards children. We’ll revisit this notion later.

So, back to this: what happens when these books, with trans characters and LGBTQ themes, are read to young groups of children and safe spaces are created within which children can process new their learnings, realizations, and wonderings with one another? THIS: their awareness and empathy grows. And, they rise, in mind, heart, and body. And here’s what I mean.

Here are some NYC 5th graders’ reflections on the experience of reading George as a read aloud this spring with their dynamic activist teacher Lauren Brown (Ms. Brown gave us permission to use her name because, as she enthusiastically expressed, she wants to be visibly tied to the work because she is so proud of her students’ thinking and work). All student work is represented in original unedited form to honor the agency of these young thinkers.

Building Awareness

“This story effected me like no other. It changed the way I see people and it helps me realize how hard it is to be yourself. I am gratefull to have people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bysexual, Transgender, Qeer and many more types of people in my community…I also thank Alex Gino for writing this book. It can change the world.”

“I think it will inspire people and teach people how to be respectful of people who are transgender and to call them by the name they want to be called. The book also teaches you how to respond, if you’re a good friend of their’s or a parrent when he or she come out to you.”

“The book George also made me think how awful it is that through out history people haven’t been able to be themself, either because of their skin color or their religion or anything else.”

“This book was amazing it really got to me and my classmates I think that it is important to let kids know about these things and this book showed it amazingly.”

“This book means alot to me because theres not alot of books out there like this about trangender people and I think there should be alot more books like this. I think this book will inspire kids to be there selfs and that they can be who ever they want to be.”

“I feels this book is important to me because it shows that something sosiety may think is wierd is actually not like for example it’s considered wierd if a boy likes pink or if you are trans. I think it is important to learn about these things at a young age because you will know better in the outside world.”

Deepening Empathy

“I think this book taught me all about Transgender people, and how hard the struggle is to be who you are, and inspired me to have a more open mind about who people are and made me notice, and want to fix, all the sexist, and racist, and unfair things in the world.”

“It’s telling people to stand up for what they think is right, and its showing that you always have to be yourself no matter what other people tell you to do or who to be. Because theres only “one” you, and no body else is the same it’s a very powerful story because it shows the struggle and how Mellissa’s story begins. It also shows what it was like to be her, and everything she had to overcome. Mellissa is an examples of “follow your heart” because she did what she thought was right with many struggles to overcome.”

“What this book means to me is that anyone can be who they want to be and that you have to look out for people who had trouble like Mellisa and instead of being like rick and letting someone like Jeff hurt them you should stand up to them and accept of who they want to be because that person is probley going through a hard time. This is what this book means to me because some kids get tortured every day and have to keep transfiring school until someone like Kelly is there to help them. Also some kids get kicked out of their house if they tell their guardian their LGBTQIA. But mostly I think we should but ourself in Melissa shoes how would you feel if you were teased about being a boy and acting like a girl.”

“This book taught me about other people feelings which helped me be more considerate of other people.”

“This book means alot to me. it has taught many things I did not know about before. For instance, learning how to be as respectful and kind to the LGBTQIA community.” “Furtheremore it has taught that I should be who I want to be and not what other people want me to be. In conclusion, this book has been a great experience for me and taught me how to be the best person I can be.”

A Move Forward

As a parent, as an educator, as a community member surrounded by children, I’m going to ask you to imagine with me for a moment.  Get an image of the children who you have contact with daily or weekly. Take a moment to imagine them in your mind’s eye. Ready? Now, consider them when you read this excerpt from Maya Angelou prophetic poem entitled Still I Rise:

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

Student’s Rise into Action

Two children rose up. Yep, I witnessed it with my own eyes and I’ll attempt to paint the picture for you. This is what I witnessed one rainy day during a lunch in Ms. Brown’s NYC classroom: two fifth graders sat down with author Alex Gino to ask them about a list of trans themed books they were compiling. When asked a bit about the background of this list, here’s what we all found out. These two girls, inspired by the book George, that they’d just finished reading in their class, had decided upon this truth: why did they just learn about the trans identity and the trans community now in fifth grade? Why hadn’t they learned about this and read books about this earlier in their life? They decide that they wanted children in their school to have access to books at all levels earlier than fifth grade so they could understand what this identity was all about at younger ages.  So, here’s what they did (mind you, I’m tearing up just reliving this moment of revelation). They began a lemonade stand. Yep, a lemonade stand on the street in the middle of New York City. They earned $136. They took this $136 to the school library and told their school librarian that they wanted to purchase trans inclusive texts at all grade levels for the school so that kids at all ages could read about this before reaching fifth grade. And, with Alex Gino on campus for an author’s visit day in May, they sat down with them at lunch to make sure their list of books was mindful and asked them for any additional books to add to the list. Below is their write up of their experience. Take a few minutes to really read through it and reflect upon what these two young children actually began: The Zosie Transgender Rights Organization:

 

Perhaps you noticed the two printed tweets on the bottom left and right (sorry, I had to amplify their activism right away…spread their idea into the world in big ways, right?). One of the girl’s moms responded to her daughter’s activism on the tweet thread: “As the mom of one of these students, I’m so proud of them! Their vision, ideas and FOLLOW THRU to make change. Bravo!” In case you were wondering how parents responded to their children reading George and learning about the trans identity, here’s one feeling: PRIDE.

Big Work To Be Done

So, let’s circle back to today, shall we, and revisit one 5th grader’s statement in Los Angeles when her class was tackling chapter 5 of Alex Gino’s George. Remember she asked this pointed question, “How are we to know unless you let us?” In response to a scene in the book where Melissa, a fourth-grade transgender girl who has yet to reveal her truth to anyone in this part of the book, tries out for a school play of Charlotte’s Web. She presents visibly as male, so she is told by the adult holding the auditions she may only try out for the male characters in the story. She, instead, decides to live her truth by trying out for the part of Charlotte the spider. Once Melissa finished Charlotte’s monologue, this is how the adult reacted, both through actions and words: “Ms. Udell was frowning, and a think crease had formed across her forehead.” “Was that supposed to be some kind of joke? Because it wasn’t very funny.” “You know I can’t very well cast you as Charlotte…Besides, imagine how confused people would be.” “Ms. Udell pushed her chair back into the classroom, shaking her head.” (pg. 70-71).

In a silence conversation response, Ms. J’s students were asked to respond to this thinking stem, What are you trying to figure our right now with regards to the book, the characters, events, topics, our study? Many of the student responses centered around trying to figure out why an adult would react this way, both by words and actions, toward a child just trying to live their truth. From their words:

“What I am trying to figure out is why doesn’t Ms. Udell be accepting to what people want to do that’s unusual?”

“What I’m trying to figure out is why Ms. Udell was being so rude about George [Melissa] wanting to be Charlotte.”

“I think Ms. Udell was being rude because she thinks it is weird seeing a boy wanting to try out for a girl part.”

“Me, too because she did not care about how she feels.”

“George feel sad because the teacher thinks it was a joke but it was nerves to talk.”

“I agree because George [Melissa] was telling the truth but they never believe and thought it was a joke.”

“Also the fact that Ms Udell said is that a joke boy doing a girl part when she said joke gorge went blank.”

“She is letting girls do their part but not vice-verse so people aren’t free.”

Catch that? …people aren’t free.

Concept Building: Exploring Language

As Ms. J and I reflected upon these wonderings from her students later that night, it struck us: children were reacting against the adult’s treatment of a child, both by the adult’s words and actions. They were reacting against the oppressive nature of the positionality of the adult and the child in the story. To facilitate her student’s unpacking of this concept of the often unjust nature of the power structure between the identity of adults and children, we decided to follow a line of thought before beginning the next chapter the following day. Ms. J began the conversation with this question: Justice: when you hear that word, what do you think? What does it mean to you, think maybe of a song, poem or phrase you’ve heard. Below are some of her student’s responses as they tackled their understanding of the concept of justice.

Building a Context for Empathy

To make this concept of justice even more concrete for her students, Ms. J asked them this question: Think about a time when you’ve been told no—no ice cream, no toy at the store, no I don’t want to be friends with you, no I don’t accept you for who you are. It gives you a feeling. How does that make you feel or imagine how you’d feel. Her students met in with a partner to share their ideas before revealing their truths as a whole class. Below are the ideas generated from the question:

Agency and Power

Ms. J continued to facilitate her students’ thinking by stating that when people are not accepting who you are, all of those feelings occur. This is when one of her students asked this pointed question: “Why doesn’t Ms. Udell understand? She’s an adult.” And here’s where students began to put the pieces of the conversations we’d been facilitating for weeks together. A student responded with this truth: “On the ladder of privilege (written about at length in this reflection here) transgender falls down on the ladder—she’s against it and she doesn’t accept it or hear about it.” “Because maybe Ms. Udell thinks Melissa doesn’t know about that stuff and Melissa is just playing around.” “Yeah, because in fourth grade, I didn’t know about being transgender.”

Ms. J chose to support her students’ lines of thought around  the concept of adult power over children, by layering in an exploration around the idea of agency next. She stated, “Melissa wants to play Charlotte but the adult in the story takes away her agency.” After defining what agency was, she stated that it was dangerous to take away one’s power and choice and that the adult in the story does this visibly in two ways: both by her actions (shaking her head, not letting Melissa try out for the part of Charlotte) and by her words (saying, “Is this a joke?”).

To continue to support her students’ understanding around the concepts of agency and power, Ms. J asked her students to consider this question, What would you think if someone said I couldn’t read George in class? What do you think about that? After giving them time to process with a partner, here are some of her students’ thoughts. Get ready, because here in lies the crux of the point I’m trying to make: when adults make the conscious decision to deny children access to information, texts, and experiences to explore the world around them in the context of the classroom, they essentially rob children of their agency to build their knowledge base and to gain tools within which to push back on the injustices in the world.

“That’s rude. This is someone just trying to teach about this and prepare kids for the future. It’s great to hear from our teacher about this, she’s being open about her life. You must not care about the trans community if you won’t let her read this book.”

“That person is messed up that they don’t want to share this information with students.”

“That’s rude because we have to learn about transgender so we don’t feel weird about the transgender community.”

“If that person said no, they are probably immature because they don’t think kids are ready and we’ll joke around and not take it seriously.”

“Adults just think kids are not mature enough, but this is maturing kids.”

“Whoever says no isn’t ready for the book themselves—they are just scared. Or don’t want to know—scared about the facts.”

“That person is just rude. Knowing about trans, gay, lesbian people, that’s maturing us on how to respect people, like using she not he. How are we to know unless you let us? You are maturing us. You don’t have to do this; you’re choosing to do this so when we come across people, we know how to do this.”

Injustice

Ms. J decided to name the elephant in the room that her students were edging toward at this point and tackle the concept of injustice in this context. She stated: “This is the absolute opposite of justice. This would be called injustice. We need to learn this. And, this injustice is happening in the world.” She went on to say that in some places, adults are telling teachers they cannot read books like George, and others she’s read to her students this year that explore similar themes. Plenty of evidence nationwide supports this fact that censorship is alive and well in our national culture, if we think back to the top five challenged books from the ALA’s 2016 research, right? Her students were viscerally shocked, with one little boy, jaw dropping to the ground, stating, “What, the book about the bear? But that’s such a good book.” Yes, kiddo, I agree. It is such a good book and yep, even that one. Before she continued her read aloud of the next chapter of George, she left her students with this thought to linger upon: “What can kids do about that? Now that we have this information, what are our responsibilities to do? Our minds are broad and open, more than others. You have a responsibility. What are you going to do to push back with the knowledge you have? This knowledge is allowing us to push back. You guys have a lot of power. What will we do with it?”

Responsibility to Speak Truth to Power

Phew. Wow! Let’s take a breath and pause to process this artful tapestry of thought Ms. J just wove with her students. Ready? I keep circling back to this one line from Grace Paley’s poem entitled Responsibility, explored in this thought piece at greater length here, as I process what I witnessed in her classroom today: “It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power.” I’m going to suggest something to push this line further, though: it’s also children’s responsibility to speak truth to power. And you know something I steadfastly believe? They do. Children do every day. But here’s my concern: Are we listening? Are adults being mindful of the words our children, our students, the youth around us are speaking every day? It’s our grave responsibility to listen. To listen up to our children’s truths, to our student’s truths, to our youth’s truths. Why? Because on the ladder of societal privilege, we hold the power. We can render children silent and powerless. We can render them invisible by our words and actions. We have a grave responsibility to do right by them. I believe this starts by listening. Listening with the intention of knowing their authentic selves in our homes, our classrooms, our communities. Then, following this up with creating safe spaces where their ideas have a platform for expression and others hear their words, their ideas, their perspectives. And then, a responsibility to act. To act upon the injustices we see perpetuated upon the souls of children we advocate for daily across the nation in our homes, our schools, our communities. When children look to us as the power-holding adults in their lives and ask of us to act, our only humane response should be to act: act swiftly, mindfully, and justly on behalf of ALL children. And now a painful truth that I urge us to examine while looking in a collective mirror as adults and reflecting upon the truths these fifth graders expressed about how vital they think it is that we read trans inclusive texts in our home, our schools, our communities:

How dare we use our adult power to deny children authentic opportunities to voice their ideas and to be truly listened to.

How dare we use our adult power to deny children access to information in our homes, schools, communities.

How dare we think so little of children and teachers to challenge books with the intent of keeping them out of the hands of skillful teachers to read them and facilitate revolutionary conversations with students that build their awareness, depth of empathy, and create spaces for students to rehearse “life stuff.”

As that one wise fifth grader in Los Angeles stated, “How are we to know unless you let us?” Students trust us to provide them access to what they’ll need to navigate life, not just school. Are we doing right by them? Are we robbing them of the experiences these two sets of students had when they studied the trans inclusive text George on their respective coasts?

I’ll leave you with this idea to consider, and I hope you do: Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, recently met with President Obama, and wrote this response to their meeting: “How do we get young leaders to take action in their communities? Thanks @BarackObama for your visit & insights tonight in my hometown.” One way? By creating the conditions within which youth gain the tools for self-liberation, their actions are amplified, and they grow into adulthood empowered. Love is actionable. Respect is actionable. Trust, that’s actionable, too. Trust that children can tackle these complex conversations and rise up in big action. Trust that children can read these books with LGBTQ themes and characters and come out on the other side not only more empowered but with larger awareness, broader minds, and bigger hearts. Won’t you join my colleagues and I and the glorious children doing this powerful work? I bet you will, or perhaps already are in powerful ways, in your homes, your schools, and your communities. Together, we rise.

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Published with permission from an educator ally, who is also a mother of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C

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