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Gender Learning at Hillbrook—A Parent Learning Event Follow-Up

Ilsa Dohmen, Director of Teaching & Learning
“A model that includes most but not all children is not enough.” The week of January 6, two experts in gender and education spent time with Hillbrook employees and families. On Wednesday, January 8, Joel Baum of the Bay Area organization Gender Spectrum led our weekly all-employee professional learning time, helping teachers and staff to grow their understanding of gender-related terms and gender dimensions, like “body,” “gender identity,” and the “social dimension of gender.” Thursday and Friday, Jennifer Bryan of Team Finch Consulting visited campus to meet with teaching teams and to lead a parent learning event. 

Jennifer began Friday’s JK-8 parent workshop by asking each attendee, on our own, to write out the definitions of “sex,” “gender,” and “sexuality.” Before revealing the answers, or asking us to share our work, Jennifer turned our attention to one another’s feelings about the task. “Let’s get eight feelings about how that felt just now. Who will share?” Responses included, “pressured,” “empathic,” “good,” “confusing,” “vulnerable,” and more. Jennifer shared that she sees something similar in her work with schools and businesses around the country. “So this is where we are. We know children need to learn about gender, that they are having the conversation. And at the same time, adults are having all sorts of feelings about our own understandings.” Then she turned our attention to short videos of children and parents speaking about their own experiences of gender in their day-to-day lives at school and home. Many of these stories felt familiar—adolescent males talking about what it means to “be a man,” young children sharing frustration about wanting to dress or play a certain way and being ashamed of it, all ages of children and parents talking about the pressures they feel to fit in and to help their children do the same. Some of the videos seemed less familiar—young children talking about getting “beyond male / female boxes,” parents sharing the story of their child’s gender transition. After each video, attendees found someone they did not know to tell their curiosities and responses, then volunteers shared with the whole group.

Participants on Friday asked great questions, like whether children seem to have more or less trouble learning about gender diversity than adults, or when children’s sense of gender identity tends to solidify. Another theme in questions centered around how the school can make space for everyone’s identity. In both the employee and the family workshops, Jennifer and Joel echoed a similar message about how school programs can honor both the students whose gender identity falls along more stereotypical lines, as well as students whose gender identity does not. “This isn’t about getting rid of ‘boys and girls.’ It’s about extending legitimacy to all other gender identities as well… Patterns are not a problem. The problem is when we make a pattern into rules that box people in or out.” This key idea undergirds Hillbrook’s instructional approach to all diversity education, including gender, which strives to achieve both the teaching of confidence in one’s own identity as well as the teaching of capacity to honor all others’ identities. By attending to this balance for all children, we move ever closer to our Vision 2020 goal of being an increasingly diverse and inclusive community where all members are known, respected, and valued as individuals.

What does this balance look like? Hillbrook’s DEI learning is about honoring who all children are in their hearts. For gender learning, this means honoring all children’s gender identities (which this healthychildren.org resource, endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, shares is established for most children by around age 4). This ensures that each child feels understood and seen in class, whatever their identity is; it also ensures that children are learning to respect the identities of others, including when others’ identities are different from their own. Our teachers know that one best practice for achieving this is to represent all categories of identity at our school in positive and age-appropriate ways. This looks like reading a wide range of stories, engaging in play and theater that asks us to consider others’ perspectives, and making safe space for children to speak with their peers about how identity shapes all of our experiences. In lower school, children might share their names, hobbies, and pronouns, or share photos of their favorite toys, in order to more closely observe how we are the same and different. In middle school, during January Reach Beyond Block, 5-8th graders are currently exploring a range of changemakers’ stories through film, guest speaker, journaling, and group discussions about “bias and privilege.” We also know that responding in the moment when children are curious, or using language that asserts belonging for some but not all of their community members, offers a just-right “teachable moment.” Around campus, you might hear teachers saying to our youngest learners things like, “Some boys like to play kickball; some boys don’t. Games are for everyone!” Or, “People have a gender but crayons don’t, anyone can use green.” With our seventh and eighth graders, this might sound more like “No one is an expert in someone else’s experience. What would be a good question, if you wanted to find out more?” 

Following Friday’s learning workshop, we invited families who wanted to stay and talk specifically about what gender learning looks like in junior kindergarten and kindergarten to circle up and share. It was clear in this conversation, as it has been in prior small group and one-on-one conversations with families, that we have made some mistakes this year. Specifically, we have offered inadequate insight into what this aspect of our program looks like and inadequate communication to partner successfully with families in their child’s experience. 

At Hillbrook we believe in the essential partnership between home and school. Our community is our greatest asset. We were grateful for the opportunity to learn more about diversity and inclusion with parents, to engage in thinking critically about what it means to be the place where all children are known, respected and valued as individuals, together, and to hear directly from parents what their questions or concerns are. There remains a lot to do as we grow our diversity, equity and inclusion curriculum, including how to better share Hillbrook’s diversity learning in all its forms (link to the identifiers NAIS outlines), and how to better articulate why this learning benefits each child. We continue to be grateful for your partnership in shaping a school environment where all children, with the love and skill of the adults around them, are given the support they need to be all of who they are. If you were unable to attend this event, we encourage you to take a look at these recommended resources for further learning We also look forward to connecting with you directly anytime you would like to discuss your child’s experience.
An independent Junior Kindergarten -8th grade school in Los Gatos since 1935

300 Marchmont Drive
Los Gatos, CA 95032
(408) 356-6116 | info@hillbrook.org