Conversations, plural

Most of my best teaching happens through conversation. Conversations. Plural. My students and I had conversations about race and melanin and segregation for a couple weeks around Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, which fit into our yearlong conversation about identity and community. That yearlong conversation involves a lot of shorter conversations about what it means to be Deaf or deaf, how to advocate for accommodations, and their right to choose a preferred modality for communication.

The topics we covered this week during calendar time, transition times, and during some of those happy teachable moments were funny, surprising, important, and mundane. It was a very ordinary week, really. Our conversations are often this way. My students know that if they ask me a question I will always answer it, and I will do my best to answer it honestly. They know I will try to tell a story to help them remember the answer and the information. They know I do not know everything, and that they will be included in the search for the answer.

Here is a rundown of the things we learned during informal teaching time this week (not counting the actual structured reading, writing, math, and social studies time):

  • The stuff in our noses is snot. If you plug your nose when you sneeze, it can pop your ears. They won’t explode out your head (thanks for asking, Taz), but it will hurt. Possibly a lot. (“I have very snot my nose! Sneeze ears BOOOOOM!!” –Taz)
  • Even though Immodium makes you feel better and stop pooping, it doesn’t mean you are instantly healthy. Your body still needs to rest.
  • Faces have left and right sides, not east and west, but if they did, the west side of my face was twitching.
  • Sometimes teachers get sick, too.
  • I will never leave school early without first saying good-bye and telling the kids where I am going and when I will be back.
  • The preschool teacher makes a lot of exciting noise when one of her students uses the bathroom because it was the first time that student showed communicative intent. Yes, he is three years old. Yes, most three-year-olds are talking and using the bathroom pretty well. But just like TLK was nervous to talk in front of people in first grade and is now a confident tri-lingual third-grader (after a lot of practice in a safe environment), the preschool kids need a lot of practice to catch up. That’s why we get excited; we love watching our kids learn something new.

I had two conversations about gender expression with one of my students this week. We have a small school–84 students in PreK through the Super-Seniors. My students know almost everyone, so when we get a new student, they notice. Usually they follow standard conversational norms: What is your name? Are you deaf? Where do you live? On Tuesday in the library, a new high school student was working on the computer when one of my students walked up and tapped her on the shoulder.

Are you a boy or a girl? 
I’m a girl.
Why do you have boy hair?
I like it short.
Why do you have boy clothes?

I intervened. We’ve spent a lot of time breaking the pinkgirls/blueboys habit (because colors are for everyone). But I also know that kids using all the colors is a far cry from kids breaking free from gender stereotypes and gender roles. My students have a friend in the department who is a non-conformist, as far as gender is concerned. They are used to that. They accept her and love her for who she is. But a new person coming into their world who doesn’t fit their idea of “boy” and “girl” proved to be a little jarring. The high school student was pleasant and friendly, and she didn’t seem to mind the questions, but it’s not her job to educate my students about gender expression. She should not have to defend her choice of clothing, hairstyle, or footwear to anyone. She should just get to be.

So I intervened.

Hey, Elsa. Did you ask her name?
Um…No.
Do you know where she lives? Or how old she is?
Nooo…?
What do yo
u think would be a polite way to start a conversation?
Oooopssss.
It’s alright. Why don’t you introduce yourself?
(she does)
And hair is hair, kiddo. My hair is really short, but it’s not boy hair or girl hair. It’s my hair. New Student’s hair is her hair. Hair isn’t boy or girl. It’s just hair.
Oh, ok! I like it!
And clothes are just clothes. This is my favorite sweater, and I got it from the men’s department at Kohl’s. That doesn’t make it boy sweater. I just like how it fits better.
(Elsa looked at me, looked at the new student, nodded, and said) Nice to meet you!

The next morning, the first thing Elsa asked me was Why do girls like boy clothes?? It was clear she’d been thinking about it. I asked her to explain; I wanted to know if her thinking had progressed, or evolved, or otherwise changed. She referred to the high school student, and then asked about her friend in the elementary department. She made the connection between the two. So we sat down and had a little chat, no pressure, no lecture, just a chat: Stores divide clothes into boy and girl sections, but clothes are clothes. I bought this cardigan from the men’s department because it’s not too tight and it has real pockets and real buttons. Women’s cardigans usually don’t have pockets, and I like to carry sticky notes and paperclips. But these pants are from the women’s department because I have hips. Clothes are clothes and people like what they like.

She seemed content. We’ll keep having conversations. I have some revisions to what I might say next time, but it’ll ultimately depend on what my kids ask. Because it’s not always about what I know, but it’s always about what they ask.

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