Sunday, February 7, 2021

Supporting Trans and Non-Binary Students

In 2012, I wrote an article for Teaching Tolerance (now called Learning for Justice) entitled When Boys Love Barbie. It told of a young boy in my preschool class who loved to wear a shimmery wedding gown. He also wanted a Barbie doll for Christmas. This caused some conflict within his family because he was not conforming to societal expectations of what was appropriate behavior for little boys. 

I like to think that in the intervening years there has been a shift in understanding and acceptance of gender non-conforming students. I'm not sure that this is generally true, but there are certainly more resources (websites, children's books, workbooks, etc.) available to address the topic of gender expression. 

One is a reflective workbook by D. M. Maynard for teachers and support staff designed to help them "navigate supporting the gender journeys of their transgender, non-binary, and/or gender questioning students." It's an area many of us are unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable with for myriad reasons - the unknowns, the sensitivities, the fear of saying or doing something that is unintentionally hurtful or offensive. 

This workbook educates through games, exercises, and vignettes. It leaves us no room to close the door and pretend that issues surrounding gender do not exist because this workbook takes away the power of our excuses. It leads educators gently through the labyrinth of unknowns. These issues exist. Shouldn't we all be equipped to provide the support, guidance, and respect our students deserve. It may not be easy for us, but it's not easy for them either.

Of course, near and dear to my heart are children's books and D. M. Maynard even includes several titles in the Resources section, such as It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn and Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr. 

I also have some other children's books that can help open up a discussion with students about their own attitudes and viewpoints on issues of gender expression. 

They include Julián is a Mermaid and Julián at the Wedding by Jessica Love. They are exceptional in showcasing unconditional acceptance and support in the face of nontraditional expressions of gender. 

Sparkle Boy by Lesléa Newman and Annie's Plaid Shirt by Stacey B. Davids are both great for breaking gender stereotypes around clothing and what it means to be a "boy" or "girl". They allow us to see that gender identity is what you feel and not what you present.

Finally, check out Bunnybear by Andrea J. Loney. Bunnybear was born a bear but feels more like a bunny inside. He is misunderstood by the bears and the bunnies. He must try to find a way to fit in, while also staying true to who he is on the inside. 

As a student, Tiana, in my children's literature course wrote last semester about the book, "It is a great introduction to discussions on gender and identity because it allows for the initial conversation about feeling different than others without having to explain or go into depth about specific gender identities and terms. It brings up interesting questions like 'How do I stay true to myself' and 'How do I make friends with people who aren't like me' for students to think about and discuss before diving deeper."

Kudos to D. M. Maynard on her three-book series for partners, parents, and teachers of transgender and non-binary individuals. You can learn more about her books, workshops, retreats, and speaking engagements by contacting her at  

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Taking the Plunge with Mary Testa

Testing the Broadway Books First Class virtual waters with Mary Testa

Mary Testa inspired me to set aside my reservations about altering the structure of the guest artist visits. I was initially reluctant to accommodate for the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. I figured we'd pause things and pick back up again when this mess was behind us. However, it was already a year since Tony Award winning director Kenny Leon visited in January 2020. I'd either have to compromise the in-person visits for something virtual, as the rest of the world has had to do, or place the program on an extended hiatus.

As I was grappling with this decision, I watched Mary Testa and Jonathan Freeman conduct a live signing on Instagram to raise money for Broadway Cares. They were charming. They also had some nice words to say about Broadway Books First Class. It was heartening to see that virtual events could emulate some of the warmth and connection of a face-to-face interaction. So, I decided to "take the plunge" (that phrase is a nod to Mary Testa's tour de force performance in Queen of the Mist). 

Mary (a three-time Tony Award nominee) immediately accepted my invitation. We selected the children's book Firenze's Light by Jessica Collaco for her reading. 

Firenze's Light encourages the reader to SHINE ON! It is a message we both embraced and were eager to share with my students. One advantage of the Zoom platform is that I was able to record the reading to share with a larger audience. Now, others can enjoy the story told so expertly by Mary with her funny voices (my favorite is Kirie, the beetle), her humor, and her empathy. 

I worked with the students for a month to prepare for Mary's visit. We studied all 12 of her Broadway shows, from her debut in Barnum to the recent, celebrated revival of Oklahoma! The discussions about the shows led to inquires into mythology and voodoo (Xanadu and Marie Christine), characters who are mean vs misunderstood (Chicago, Xanadu, and Wicked), history, humor, and the impact of costumes, wigs, and make-up. In fact, as very visual children they were captivated by Mary's hair across the spectrum of her performances. 

As we went along, I wrote down their questions. In the final days before her visit we selected three main ones. You can listen to Mary's answers below (videos have ASL interpretation and captions are enabled).

Question #1 - Why did you want to be on Broadway? 

Question #2 - What was your favorite show and why?

Question #3 - What do you do now that Broadway is closed?

Things went so well that I've already scheduled other guest artists for February and March. I know I am taking a leap of faith by planning ahead because our school schedule has changed every single month this year. But, I am determined to make it work somehow. And with my brilliant students, their supportive parents, and talented guest artists we will undoubtedly succeed. 


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