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The Importance of Purple Penguins

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By Becky “Duck” Dudley

purple-penguin-hiRecently, a school in Nebraska hit headlines after it made the decision to stop using gender exclusive language, such as ‘girls and boys’. Instead, they’ve opted to use a ‘classroom name’- a term decided by the teacher and/or class to describe the class as a whole. In this case, they used ‘purple penguins’.

It’s an idea that many have ridiculed – particularly due to the term ‘purple penguins’, which is seen as being weird and/or unnecessary. Ho
wever, speaking as a swimming teacher, I think it’s a great idea, and one I am going to implement in my lessons.

It’s not the first gender-related inclusive teaching strategy I have adopted. I do what I would hope is standard in all lessons, and refuse to let the children in my care use gender as an excuse or insult- there are no cries of ‘you’re only a girl!’ or ‘man up!’ in my lessons, not from me and not from the kids. I am trying my best not even to say ‘good girl’ or ‘good boy’.

A few months ago, I went a step further. In the lesson I was teaching at the time, I chose to split the group into two, to play a team game. We had equal numbers of girls and boys, so the children asked to be split into gendered teams. After a moment’s thought, I said no. It’s a principle I’ve continued with ever since – as far as possible, if we are playing a team game, the teams will have mixed genders.

Why these measures? The ‘obvious’ reason is to provide inclusion for any children who already feel that, for whatever reason, they don’t fit into the binary categories gender presents us with. That is, indeed, one of the main reasons for my choices. It would genuinely break my heart if any one of the children I teach felt the language I used excluded them, or if my language choices were adding to their confusion over their own identity.

However, being gender inclusive does not just benefit those who don’t fit into the binary presented to us by society. It benefits all of the children I teach. For example, having such a separation of genders, as summed up by ‘girls and boys’, enforces the idea of irremovable gender-roles. We have the ‘girls’, with their babies and make up and cooking; then we have the ‘boys’, with their cars, sports and DIY. These roles cannot be separated – girls cannot be strong, boys cannot display emotions. This is really harmful, as it prevents people from being who they are, and pigeon-holes them into an identity based around their genitals.

Moreover, all the children I teach are aged between 4-12. In our society, this is a really important age. This is generally the age range where children are socialised to see and conform to the gender split, going from playing indiscriminately to often (though not always) playing in gender split groups. I don’t see this as being a positive at all. In later life, this early isolation leads to the idea of ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’, where men and women are seen almost as two separate species. This causes all sorts of problems due to a perceived lack of understanding and empathy between genders. If there had been less separation earlier on, later life – and later relationships – could be far easier to navigate.

As a result, I feel that the schools in Nebraska have a valid point. More than that, I feel that non-gendered language and teaching strategies should be implemented in each and every teaching instance. It’s not going to happen overnight – there will be trial and error. But as anyone who teaches will know, the act of teaching itself is a learning curve. We learn with our children, and if we want the best for them then we must constantly be adapting.

In addition, adopting such an approach is not going to have a massive effect straightaway. However, in the short-term it will make sure that we are including all students, and in the long term it may well help them in later life. Both of these benefits are far too big not to consider, especially when the path to such outcomes is, really, pretty easy. Join me, Nebraska, and plenty of other individuals as we say: ‘Purple penguins, you’ve worked well today. Let’s have a purple penguin high five.’

 

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