Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fairies have superpowers too, dammit!

During snack time a few weeks back, a table of my students and I got into a discussion about superpowers (meaning superhuman abilities, not countries with international world influence). One of my students was celebrating her fifth birthday and had kindly brought pudding cups for everyone, and each chocolaty treat was accompanied by a Tinkerbell napkin.

courtesy of Disney via Easy Art
One of the boys at my table (while devouring his way through the pudding cup) said, "I hate Tinkerbell. She’s stupid. Superman's so much cooler." There were mumbles of agreement from the other boys at the table and general silence, but wide-eyed attention, from the girls. Six pairs of eyes turned to me. Waiting. I said something along the lines of, "I bet Tinkerbell and Superman know each other. I mean, they both have superpowers, and how many people do you know who can fly? I bet they hang out." (And in case the truth is in question: yes, I’m that teacher; you know, the one that says stuff like this on purpose with the intention of making kids think. Though sometimes it just makes them think I’m crazy…)

courtesy of DC Comics via Comic Book Collectors
For a short moment everything stopped. Everyone was quiet. But, you could see the kids’ minds kick into high gear, imaginations at work, processing and weighing the possibilities. It was as if each was asking him- or herself the question, "Is that possible? Could Superman and Tinkerbell actually know one another?! How would that work?!"

Then one boy (the one who had already declared his fairy-hate) said rather defiantly, "No way! They aren't even in the same show!" (Ah, media culture...)

I pushed my real point – "But they have the same superpower." There was a mumbling of discordant commentary. Finally I said, "Well, Tinkerbell flies, right? I mean flying is a superpower, right? So she has superpowers. The same superpower as Superman." My words were followed by a few seconds of tense, thoughtful silence. Then one of the girls responded, using the ‘sometimes we have to remind silly adults things that everybody knows’ voice. She said, "Fairies have 'special talents.'" She didn’t overtly add “And ‘special talents’ are NOT the same as superpowers” but that was the clear message. There were nods of agreement around the table. Another boy said, “And she doesn’t even have a real cape. Superman has a real cape. She doesn’t.” I replied, “She doesn’t have a cape at all. She has wings. And she flies.”

One of my students recently attached this image of herself
as a superhero to her Valentine to the class.  Yippee!
The intention of this back and forth conversation wasn’t (necessarily) about who was going to ‘win,’ but rather about trying to push the kids to think about language in a different way. I wanted them to notice the words that they take for granted, and – without overly naming it with fancy jargon – moving them to see the gendered connotations of the words they use and the consequences of those connotations. All of the children could agree that Superman and Tinkerbell can both fly. In this situation, being able to fly is gender neutral; the kids accept examples of both males and females who can absolutely, without question, fly (at least in their imaginations and in stories). But, because of the gender socialization they have received and continue to be taught, when I say that Tinkerbell has ‘superpowers’ (a word socially marked as strongly masculine), the children have a feeling of disjuncture that they seek to alleviate – which they do by pushing back – by denying Tinkerbell’s possession of ‘superpowers’ and/or renaming her abilities as ‘special talents,’ words socially marked with a feminine connotation.

On the surface, this may seem like an innocuous, passing conversation, but to dismiss its implications so casually would be a mistake. Let me offer two similarly ‘innocent’ examples from the past few weeks:

First, a student and I were reading a children’s book about visiting other countries. The characters in the story travel by plane. We had a conversation that went like this:
Me: Would you ever like to be an airplane pilot, to fly a plane?
Her: No. [A perfectly acceptable answer.]
Me: Why?
Her: Girls can’t fly airplanes.
Me: Why not?
Her: Only boys can fly planes.
Through further conversation, it became clear that there was nothing I could say to convince her that women can, and do, indeed fly planes.  She was firm in her belief that this was not an option open to her.  (In the moment, I was so frustrated that I didn’t have a photograph or illustration showing a female pilot, but you never have those things when you need them.)

And second, on one of the recent days it was too cold to go outside to play, my student were watching a video adaption of the book Antarctic Antics: A Book of Penguin Poems by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey. In one of the first poems a baby emperor penguin hatches and says, "I'm really hatched./ At last I'm free./ Hey, Dad, it's me!" My students immediately said, “That’s not the baby’s dad. That’s it’s mom,” to which I explained that male emperor penguins sit on the eggs to keep them warm 'til they hatch, so the ‘Dad’ would be the first parent a baby would see, not the ‘Mom.’ The kids were confused and somewhat resistant. As the video continued the children started seeing each penguin and shouting out, “That’s a boy. That’s a girl” – trying to identify the gender of each bird, even though the illustrations depict all of the birds as nearly identical. My students would say things like, “It’s a girl. Hear the voice?” To them it was like a playful game. To me they seemed almost frenetic in their determination to assign gender to the characters on the screen before them. It seemed intolerable and unacceptable to just not know someone's gender identity.

In all three of these examples – Superman vs. Tinkerbell, the gender of airplane pilots, and penguin genders – my students, who are four and five, have very clear ideas about acceptable gender categories and strategies for categorizing people and animals into those divisions based on appearance, other physical markers (like voice), and/or behavior. But even more so, they have concrete concepts of power attached to those gender divisions. On the whole, my students believe that Tinkerbell can’t have superpowers because she’s a girl. Only men can be airplane pilots. And it is important to be able to ‘read’ what gender category any given person or character falls into (and to my students there are only two viable categories – boy or girl). The implications of this are frightening to me. In addition to telling girls that they can only look and behave certain ways and only take on certain interests or work, the boys are being given equally clear messages, which seem to have quite a lot to do with aggression, domination, superiority, and entitlement. At the end of the day, everyone is screwed. And no one is truly free.

When I ask parents what they want or hope for their child(ren), they typically say (especially if they’re white and generally middle class or above) that they want their children to be happy and that they want their children to believe that they can be anyone or anything that they want to be. There is nothing wrong with those hopes. But, when everything about our culture – from media to books and from our schools to the socialization that takes place in our own homes – teaches kids from birth (and often before) that they can be whoever or whatever they want but only as long as they abide by very specific gender-based rules and norms, how does that make the world a more equitable place for children of all genders? How does that foster an environment where girls truly can be anything or anyone and an atmosphere where boys don’t have to be super-masculine to get their gender 'right'?

This figurine is in our classroom's
collection of pirate/castle gear.  I adore
the unshaven, pink polka-dot look!
I don’t have my own children – which is probably a good thing because I think I would be the insane parent who no other parents would want to be around and no child would want to claim.  I would likely go on tirades against pretty, pink princesses, I’d tell boys its okay to cry, and I’d be totally intolerable about all the research that talks about the ways we do our kids major disservices. But even without kids of my own, I do spend a lot of time with other peoples’ children. (Often, more time than they do.)  And it’s fairly certain that I can’t singlehandedly change the course of how those kids think about (or don’t think about) gender and power issues related to gender. But I am in the position to push buttons, to instigate dialogue, and to challenge preconceived ideas. I’m able to ask my students, “Why do girls have 'talents' and boys have 'superpowers'?” And with adults I can offer a similar challenge: “Why are extraordinary abilities for female characters considered magical and used for things like making dewdrops and flowers and flitting daintily from blossom to blossom and being careful to stay out of the path of frightening humans? And why are extra-human capabilities for male characters considered outside the realm of magic (and more often contained in the realm of science) and such characters are fierce adventurers (as well as generally violent and destructive) who engage in battle, seek revenge, and expect admiration from the poor, weak populace? No, really, help a girl out. Why is it this way? I don't understand.  And is this what we want our kids to learn about gender?”

At the end of the day, I want the world to look different. I want my students to believe that they can be airplane pilots, even the girls. And I want my students to believe that fathers are fully qualified and capable of being nurturing primary caregivers. I want me students to believe that gender is complicated and putting people in boxes can be limiting to everyone. If we feel free to be merely who we are, that’s more than enough.

And I want my students to know that fairies have superpowers.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Me and Gus

I was wandering the internet this afternoon, as I am often wont to do when I am avoiding something else on the agenda.  (Today’s avoidance was my taxes, which are now complete and filed.)  In my YouTube perusing, I wandered into a clip from Me and Gus, the “interactive educational music video for children ages 0-6” I did back in 2006.  Here’s the clip (and yes, it cuts off in the middle of a verse):

There are over 10,300 hits for this video, which is crazy (especially being that I had no idea the video was posted on YouTube).  We also have a website (where you can see a bunch more clips) and a Facebook page (which I also didn’t know existed until today – where have I been?!).

Gus (looking like a shark in this shot) was played
by the talented Lee Tosca who is used to being
an art director, not a puppeteer.
For me, participating in this project was one of those, “What am I doing?!  Is this really real?!  Is this my life, or perhaps it’s just a crazy dream?!” experiences.  At the time I was working at Boston Children’s Museum running their Music Department (which sounds super fancy, but really I was a one-woman department responsible for making sure my programs, staffing, calendar, and marketing didn’t collapse into a big ball of chaos around each and every corner).  One of my favorite, and longest running, programs was a weekly group called “Sing-a-Story.”  It was a literacy-based music and movement program for zero to three year olds and their families.  We used our voices and bodies, puppets, books, and all sorts of other props (or none at all) to sing stories.  (I mean, at the end of the day, what is music anyway, other than a form of storytelling?)  One particular day, after a regular Sing-a-Story program, a woman approached me saying she was working on developing a children’s video that centered on learning through music and movement, and she wondered if I was interested in participating.  I must admit I was skeptical; it was an odd request – both unexpected and surreal.  But how sketchy could this woman, Kim, really be if she’s come to find me (with her kids in tow) while I was singing with a bunch of toddlers?

Long and short, I eventually signed on to do the pilot episode of Me and Gus.  Kim had been looking for videos for her children that were educational and entertaining for kids, not annoying-as-all-holy-hell for adults, and sought to connect with children in a low-tech, simple kind of way.  And she wasn’t finding any.  So she decided to create her own.  She called up her friend Fitz, who’s been doing awesome stuff in television and film for several decades, and they got to work.

By the time I came on board, the show was well under way.  The script had been through a bajillion revisions and the songs were on their way to their finished form.  I was able to offer my input from the position of a professional educator who regularly uses music to connect with kids, and I worked really hard to learn my lines and the songs.  That said, I have to admit, I am a horrible actor.  Always have been.  So I was experiencing a growing concern that I wasn’t going to be able to pull this off.  Performing music has always been easy.  I can sing myself into tears or laughter, no problem.  But delivering dialogue and having it sound natural and spontaneous is a skill I have never mastered.  And I suck at memorizing anything.  I can remember the plot points and story arch without issue and can make up dialogue that gets us where we need to be (I do it everyday in the classroom), but delivering word-for-word dialogue is a real challenge.  Thus, the title of actor is not one I apply to myself.  So, being asked to ‘act’ on film was a scary, scary, yet desirably challenging concept.

We were swimming. 
Aren't my shoes cool?
As rehearsals and finally filming day came, I became increasingly anxious.  I felt like the stakes were really high.  And I wanted to meet the expectations being set for me.  Plus, I was in a whole new world – a fast-paced world filled with very few familiar things to latch onto for support.  I was “the talent” who had my own hair and make-up person, who could ask for anything I wanted and it would happen, who had someone drive me to and from set – all this crazy stuff.  I was wired for sound (meaning I had to remember to turn off my mic pack when I went to the bathroom), I had to remember not to put my hair behind my shoulders because it would throw off consistency between shots, and I had to pretend that the sweat dripping down my back and soaking into my jeans wasn’t feeling like an extra ten pounds of water weight.  It was crazy.  And exciting.  And hard.  But I did the very best I possibly could – pushing to give everything I had to offer and to be successful at something I found intimidating. 

I still have no idea if I lived up to the expectations of the creators, producers, and director.  I hope so.  I certainly learned a lot.  And I think that if I ever had the opportunity to do something like it again I would be able to approach it with less anxiety, more grace, and a faster learning curve. 

In the meantime, this was an opportunity to try on a different kind of life for a brief time.  And an opportunity to really see and appreciate the immense talent, patience, and hard work that is part of working in the film industry day in and day out.  They are amazing.  And awe-inspiring.  And for a short time I was able to witness their intense drive, determination, and passion.  How lucky am I?!

Once the video was edited and put into circulation for the world to accept or throw off as it saw fit, I think I only watched the whole thing through once from beginning to end.  (It’s hard to watch yourself on film.)  But, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a few families here and there who own the video and hear the ways it has been a valuable resource for their families.  A few years ago I was in Michigan visiting a dear friend of mine.  He had given the video as a gift to his niece and nephew the Christmas before, and when I got there the kids kind of hung back a bit.  Eventually the older, who was maybe four at the time, said, “Are you Kelly?  From my video?  Do you really know Gus?”  I said yes and we spent the rest of the weekend playing and singing and laughing together.  I was honored and truly humbled that this small project I had participated in meant something special and valuable to these young children and their family.  Seriously, how cool is that?!

Note:  The photos in this post were taken by the talented (and busy) Debra A. Schneider who was one of the producers for Me and Gus.

Monday, February 7, 2011


I must confess.  I am rather infatuated with Darren Criss.  (Not in the "Yeah, we hang out and actually really like each other and frequently chat about the intricacies of our personal day-to-day lives" sorta way, but in the "I've never met you, probably never will, and yet I think you are truly delightful" kind of way.)

There are many reasons.  Here are a few:
  • 1.  He's crazy talented.  (I mean, have you SEEN him sing?!  Go watch this right now!)
  • 2.  He makes me laugh.  (Did you watch the Harry Potter Musical?  You should.)
  • 3.  He ROCKS the pink shades.
  • 4.  He knows and acknowledges his own roots and he's a man comfortable enough with his own sexuality to say what needs to be said.  And he does it explicitly and with kindness.  True ally.
  • 5.  He seems genuinely joy-filled.

Watch this:

Also, I have a favorite Darren Criss quotation.  It is this:
“Be nice to people because nobody likes an asshole.”

I'm looking forward to seeing what's next for this talented man.

UPDATE 5/28/11:  Hahaha.  Deliciously true.  

Saturday, February 5, 2011

40 by 40 Project: 40 Things to Accomplish Before 40

I’ve had this “Hopes & Dreams” Jar for something like eight years.  I think it was a gift from a friend, but I honestly don’t remember.  (Sarah, was it from you?)  It’s a lovely ceramic jar with a big ol’ cork lid, and somewhere along the way I actually decided to use it for the label already fired into the side.  So, scraps of paper holding sheepishly written goals and dreams got tossed in, and every once in a while – in a moment of inspiration – I pull down the jar and ruffle through the bits of paper, a process which generally results in my feeling unaccomplished, lazy, and/or ‘not trying hard enough.’  And yet, the idea of committing to the possibility of my dreams is pretty exciting.  So, having faith that I can actually accomplish a thing or two if I put my mind to it, I’m trying something a little different.  (And we shall see what becomes of this, being that the “Hopes & Dreams” Jar is perpetually covered in a thick layer of dust.) 

I am introducing my “40 by 40 Project: 40 Things to Accomplish Before 40.”  I was inspired by an old friend from high school (Hey MABs!) who’s working on a similar project, and it seemed like a wonderful way to do a little dreaming, vision planning, and imagining for the possibilities of my life.  Drawing from my “Hopes & Dreams” Jar and the innumerable lists I’ve made for myself in other moments of inspiration over the recent years, here is my 40 by 40 List as it stands right now.  I’ve got 10 years.  Let’s see what I can accomplish!
  • 1.  Be a better communicator with friends.  Do a better and more concerted job of staying in contact with the people who are important to me.  Whether using phone, email, letters, or carrier pigeon, stay in touch and let them know how valuable they truly are.
  • 2.  Travel to at least five continents.  So far I have spent time in North America (Mexico, Canada, & U.S.), Europe (Italy), and Asia (Japan & India), though I would joyfully visit new nations on each continent (Ireland and England are pretty high on that list), but ‘To Do’ destinations could include Central or South America (Guatemala, Costa Rica, Chile, Peru), Africa (Ghana or Togo, perhaps), and/or Australia/New Zealand.  I’m saying right now that I have no desire whatsoever to visit Antarctica.  None. (Winter 2013)
  • 3.  Publish a piece of creative writing (poetry, short, essay, memoir, whatever) in a print publication worthy of being proud.  (To date:  short essay “Border Crossing” in the Fall 2008 edition of the WGS Newsletter.)
  • 4.  Publish an article on education in a reputable education/parenting publication.  This could be related to educational best practice, music integration in ECED classrooms, school community atmosphere and communication (students, families, and teachers), diversity issues in educational spaces, etc.  (To date:  CCM report “The State of Play in Chicago’s Communities” (pdf), Summer 2010)
  • 5.  Earn a Masters Degree.  Honestly, I thought this wouldn’t be so hard, but holy crap…  Just have to finish the thesis! (Fall 2011)
  • 6.  Publish some aspect of my thesis in a scholarly publication.  Make my thesis mean more than “that one project that qualified me for a piece of paper saying I’m a ‘Master.’”  Have more than three people read my thesis work.
  • 7.  Buy a new digital camera and learn to use it. (Winter 2013)
  • 8.  Have a photograph published in a publication worthy of being proud.  (To date:  the DePaul University Study Abroad 9/2008 – 12/2010 wall calendar (My photo represented Mexico City for the month of November 2009.); CCM report “The State of Play in Chicago’s Communities” (pdf), Summer 2010)
  • 9.  Get a full-time job with benefits.  Is it asking too much for a full-time job with benefits that I actually LOVE?! (Winter 2013)
  • 10.  Get insurance – minimally just health care, but ideally health, dental, and vision.  Imagine! (Winter 2013)
  • 11.  Pay off my student loans.
  • 12.  Set up a retirement account/fund/plan so that if maintained I could actually retire someday.
  • 13.  Open a saving account (again) and put 10% of my monthly income into it every month.
  • 14.  Take Spanish lessons for more than six months.  (Ideally, take Spanish lessons until I can consider myself a successful Beginning/Intermediate Spanish speaker.)  Really work on comprehension and production of written and spoken practical Spanish.
  • 15.  Learn more ASL, enough to understand and participate in basic, low-level conversation. (Winter 2013)
  • 16.  Buy a bicycle and a helmet.  And ride whenever possible.  (Especially if I move somewhere lacking quality public transportation.)
  • 17.  Be committed to having physical activity as a central component of life.  This can include running, yoga, pilates, biking, etc. on a regular basis (at least 3-4 times a week).
  • 18.  Take a dance class.  Ballet and/or bellydance sound awesome.
  • 19.  Learn to snorkel. 
  • 20.  Learn rock climbing on a rockwall and/or on real rocks.
  • 21.  Take a self-defense class. (Fall 2011)
  • 22.  Become a more confident and consistent cook.  This does not mean learning how to cook meat.  But it does mean expanding my knowledge and skills around making healthy, delicious food.  (Learning more about spices and seasoning would be great.)  This also means learning to make things that actually go IN the oven, rather than just on the stovetop. 
  • 23.  Learn to garden.  I’d like to have my own flowers/vegetable garden and learn to eat from it seasonally.
  • 24.  Join a CSA.
  • 25.  Play the piano regularly again.  It’d be great if I owned a piano, but playing someone else’s would be enough…
  • 26.  Join a regularly performing choral group that challenges me and brings me joy.
  • 27.  Take guitar lessons again with the goal of expanding my chord repertoire to more than five chords.  Be able to accompany myself in a passable way in the comfort of my own home.
  • 28.  Get actively involved in an organization benefiting women, girls, and/or advocating gender and sexuality justice issues.
  • 29.  Create a home with an inviting, joyous, comfortable, loving atmosphere.
  • 30.  Build a ‘real’ home library.  I have TONS of books, but I want real bookshelves and for my books to be organized on those bookshelves in a way that’s easy to reference and welcomes others to share in the literature that I find engaging.
  • 31.  Visit the Grand Canyon.
  • 32.  See the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in person.
  • 33.  Visit the Amazon Rainforest.
  • 34.  Teach on the college/university level.  Teach educational sociology, diversity studies in education, educational best practice, multicultural/anti-bias education, etc. 
  • 35.  Get a second Masters or a PhD.  But do this ONLY if it seems life-giving and comes from personal desire (not professional pressuring).
  • 36.  Enroll in continuing adult education courses or certificate programs.  (There are a few Parenting Education and Diversity Studies certification programs that look pretty enticing.) (Winter 2013)
  • 37.  Learn more about microfinance and support micro-loans.  (Kiva and Oikocredit may be good options.) 
  • 38.  Go WWOOFing.
  • 39.  Learn basic videography and video editing.
  • 40.  Learn how to use Photoshop.
(When compiling my list it was also helpful to read some of the suggestions offered by Marelisa at Abundance Blog.  If you search "bucket list" online, you can find hundreds of other suggestions.)

last updated 12/22/2011 
last updated 1/1/2013