I have noticed something very peculiar over the past year while undergoing my teaching practicum at IslandWood. Whether we are wading through the muddy waters near the marsh or flipping over barnacle-encrusted rocks down at the harbor, children primarily use male pronouns when addressing all the critters we encounter. This bothers me, and not because I believe the animals must be referred to by their proper pronouns (non-human animals have no conceptual understanding of what gender is and couldn’t care less about the words coming from our mouths). This bothers me because this type of gendering of the natural world is a result of toxic patriarchal attitudes, particularly males being seeing as the standard and default form of humanity.
Now you may be thinking, “WOAH, don’t you think it’s kind of extreme to attribute a child calling a slug “he” to toxic patriarchy.” To which I would respond, “No.” It may be true that there are no immediate negative consequences that emerge from a group of 4th graders using male pronouns to describe the slug they just found, but the long term effects can be much more detrimental. When the idea that male is the standard gender is reinforced, it can cause an inflation of ego in young boys and a decrease in the self-esteem of young girls. It can lead to boys thinking they are the stronger/better of the sexes and to develop negative attitudes toward anything that is feminized by our culture. It can lead to girls feeling like they are limited in what they are able to achieve within our society. I believe it is my job as a queer, gender-nonconforming educator to do my part to dismantle the preconceived notions that my students have about gender. And the outdoors is a great place for this to occur.
Below are some strategies that I employ in order to get my kids thinking about gender while outside.
- Pronouns- While performing introductions to new students, I express what gender pronouns I use. I usually say something like, “My name is Criqui and I use he/him pronouns.” Some students may not understand why this is necessary, but just explain that sometimes you cannot tell a person’s gender just by looking at them. Even if you think your gender pronouns are obvious, you opening up about gender may make a child exploring their gender feel more secure in your presence. Have students share their gender pronouns as too.
- Use “She”- When I use he to talk about animals I find in nature, kids don’t typically make a peep about its sex. But when I use she, the first question is usually, “How can you tell it’s a she?” I like to point this fact out to students and ask them to think about why they so readily accepted male pronouns but feel the need to clarify when I use female pronouns. With animals that I can’t tell the sex, I’ll just say something along the lines of “I’m not sure, but there’s a 50% chance that I’m right.”
- Challenge Gendered Anthropomorphization- Giving human characteristics to non-human animals is probably something people have been doing since language was first invented. Anthropomorphizing can be helpful for allowing young people to better understand the natural world around them. But it can also constrain their learning when they can’t view animals outside of human framework. When discussing the sex of animals with students, make sure to challenge any assertions that rely on socially constructed understanding of gender. For example, “I think that squirrel is male because it’s gathering food for its family. The mommy squirrel is at home taking care of the kids.” In this situation I would praise the student for thinking creatively, but then ask questions that challenged this train of thought. “Do only mother squirrels take care of their young? Are we sure this squirrel has a mate? What if this squirrel is too young to have kids?”
- Teach Sexual Dimorphism- You might want to call this something different depending on the age of your students, but sexual dimorphism is a great concept to get kids thinking critically about how sex shows up in nature. Sexual Dimorphism is the condition where different sexes in the same species have notably varying physical traits. Many birds, such as mallards or red-winged blackbirds have different colorations depending on their sex. When students are aware that of this distinction in certain species, they are more likely to remember that not all animals are male.
- Slugs- I have encouraged my fair share of kids to kiss a banana slug. It is extremely common for kids to circle around the first slug spotted in the week and gawk at its slow moving body and wriggling tentacula. Slugs are also a GREAT opportunity to talk about gender. Slugs don’t have a sex that can be classified as male or female. When they’re born, they’ve got all the parts to get pregnant and all the parts to impregnate others. This concept usually blows kids’ minds, and last week I had a kid repeat throughout the week, “They don’t have a gender, that’s so weird.” With those sorts of remarks I always to try to respond by expressing that’s actually really natural and happens in so many species that we’ve already seen so far (barnacles, seas anemones, worms). Sometimes I like to say how lucky the slug it since it doesn’t have to worry about gender. “This slug is my role model, but it never has to worry if something it’s doing is too girly or if it is looking too much like a boy. I do my best to be like this slug!”
I’ve found these techniques to have varying effectiveness depending on the group of students. These conversations can often lead into important discussions related to gender in humans, which are invaluable to have in the classroom setting. As issues related to transgender rights and gender non-conformity become more prevalent in our culture, we must prepare our students to live in a world with all types of people. When we engage with our students about these types of topics, we are readying them for a diverse world full of all kinds of people. Keep having these conversations and push your students to think outside of the gender box that’s been placed upon us!