School Wants to Call Students 'Purple Penguins' Instead of 'Boys & Girls' -- Seriously

Chances are, when you were a student in school, your teacher told you to form two lines at dismissal -- boys on one side; girls on the other. Perhaps you separated into different gender groups for gym or formed gender-specific groups when playing Jeopardy (not that you probably objected since the girls always kicked the boys' butts).

Times have changed, especially at one middle school in Nebraska in particular, where teachers have recently received a handout called "12 easy steps on the way to gender inclusiveness." The actual training document is chock-full of thoughtful tips that apply to any situation, whether you're talking about gender or not. But most people are finding it really hard to get past tips 1 & 2, which basically suggest never referring to boys and girls as "boys and girls" if it can be helped. Need another term you can use? The district suggests "purple penguins."

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According to Lincoln school district Superintendent Steve Joel, the purpose of these tips is to help all children -- including the growing number who don't identify with any one gender -- to feel included at school. Joel also believes that if educators use more thoughtful language, it will help address bullying and show that schools won't tolerate it.

So, here are a few "steps" the district outlines:

1. Avoid asking kids to line up as boys or girls or separating them by gender. Instead use things like 'odd and even birth date,' or 'Which would you choose: skateboards or bikes/milk or juice/dogs or cats ...'

2. Don't use phrases such as 'boys & girls,' 'you guys,' 'ladies and gentlemen' ... Instead say things like 'calling all readers,' or 'hey campers' or 'could all of the athletes come here.' Create classroom names and then ask all of the 'purple penguins' to meet at the rug.

3. At the beginning of the year or at Back-to-School Night, invite students and parents to let you know if they have a preferred name and/or pronoun by which they wish to be referred.

4. When you find it necessary to reference gender, say 'Boy, girl, both, or neither.' When asked why, use this as a teachable moment. Emphasize to students that your classroom recognizes and celebrates the gender diversity of all students.

First the good -- and I feel there is some good here, even if I don't agree with the overall message: separate kids all you want by something other than gender. It encourages them to socialize more with members of the opposite sex and see what they have in common rather than what differentiates them from one another. I don’t think the school district is trying to eradicate gender altogether; it is trying to address a problem (bullying) that no one seems to be able to have under control.

In a perfect world, boys and girls would be brought up by their parents to respect all people, regardless of their sexual orientation. But that isn’t happening. If a school sees the need to teach empathy by using inclusive language, I don’t believe there is anything evil about that. I see a school that, like many public schools, has no idea how to stop bullying and is trying something. I'm overwhelmed by the number of parents who are irate over this. I would never knock the district for having good intentions -- despite its silly suggestion to call kids "purple penguins."
 
At the same time, I HATE the idea that we are treating our kids in a way that is vastly different from how they will be regarded in the real world. Most people in the world identify gender as man/woman, and despite how far we've come, we are treated differently because of our genders. Women are still paid less and have fewer opportunities to become leaders. Our identities are shaped in part because of our gender. Some of the most successful women have accomplished their goals because of the drive they have as women to fight a more difficult battle than most men would have in their position. It’s not right, but it is what it is.
 
I guess what I’m saying is: the idea behind this is wonderful. The intention is commendable. But why isn’t it enough to teach basic respect for other human beings without complicating language? 

Students who are transgendered should be able to identify with whatever gender they feel they are -- and accommodations should be made for them to use whichever restroom they feel comfortable using, etc. (As you can see above, the original docs encourage students to let teachers know if they want to be referred to as “he” or “she,” something that was unheard of 20 years ago.) But let’s get the point across to students, not by calling them “purple penguins,” but by referring to them by the gender with which they identify.
 
Teachers should weave lessons into the curriculum about gender equality and sexuality. Most kids these days are savvy enough to get the point and too savvy not to know something's up when they aren't being called a "girl" or "boy."

What's your take on this school's effort to use more gender inclusive language? How would you feel if your child went to this school?

 

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