Oakland elementary school explores gender norms, teaches acceptance

A lesson about gender

Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland is teaching kids this week that boys and girls don’t all fit into neat gender norms, and that they shouldn’t laugh at or tease someone if they do (or wear) something different or unusual.

Two parent leaders whom I interviewed for a story about the issue said they knew of no controversy about the training — until today.

A few weeks ago, Redwood Heights invited parents to a staff training by Gender Spectrum and held an information session afterward, said Michelle Hatchell, the school’s PTA president. Principal Sara Stone included the information in several editions of a weekly memo to parents. (The training is about gender identity, not sexual orientation or attraction; it was funded by a grant from the California Teachers Association.)

But the chief counsel of the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal organization, said he learned of seven families who didn’t know until recently that the lessons were about to happen.

After getting wind of the upcoming training from a parent, the institute sent out a news alert. It was picked up over the weekend by bloggers who didn’t like the idea, either.

Kevin Snider, the institute’s chief counsel, said he felt the children were too young to be exposed to such things as a boy wearing a tiara or the notion that some children aren’t clearly one gender or another. He said such topics are for families to discuss. He accused the school of using children as proxies in a culture war.

From what I’ve seen and heard today, it sounds like most of the people who might agree with Snider don’t have a connection to the school.

“I hadn’t heard too many concerns, up until today,” Hatchell said. She added, “I am a heterosexual African-American female with three kids, and I didn’t have any major concerns.”

This morning, reporters from Fox News and USA Today visited Redwood Heights to observe a class, district spokesman Troy Flint said.

I did, too. The lessons I saw, in kindergarten and first grade, were mostly about being nice to each other and being yourself. Not that it was 100 percent comfortable. The kindergartners were visibly (and audibly) surprised by storybook illustrations of a boy in a dress. Some of them laughed when they saw the pictures, or shouted out in disbelief.

The first graders across the hall, meanwhile, listened quietly and later answered emphatically that they would not laugh at a “princess boy.”

Stone said there are a few children in the school who don’t fall into traditional gender molds. She said the lessons were just one of many things the school was doing to make everyone feel welcome — much like the black-and-white family portraits in the hallway that celebrate the various family structures present in the school.

“What is wrong about teaching kids to be caring and kind?” she asked.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Turanga_teach

    I’ve taught kindergarten for three years. In a truly non-shaming classroom, kids have already seen, dealt with, and moved on from the concept of a boy with a tiara. It’s called the dress up box, and it freaks the parents out a good deal more than it impacts the children.

    Kudos to Redwood Heights for recognizing that kids, in all their diversity, deserve a place at the table.

  • http://girlsmovingforward.com Lacy Asbill

    Oakland schools and kids are really lucky to have Joel Baum and Gender Spectrum here to support developmentally appropriate learning about gender. Joel is an amazing facilitator and educator, who has long advocated for the educational success of ALL OUSD students. His organization creates spaces for all kids to be comfortable with who they are and to be kind to others, even to those they don’t understand. This is cutting-edge work, and I’m proud it’s happening here in Oakland. Thanks go to the Redwood Heights administration and school community for doing what they can to make the school welcoming for all students.

  • Nextset

    There is a price to pay for offending the families of the students and potential students as well as the taxpayers.

    Many families take the position that it’s their job to deal with these issues at this point in the student’s development and the school is not to be usurping their parental decisions in this area.

    Likewise sexuality and birth control and some political and religious issues are not to rammed down the throats of the families of younger children. We do not have a “state religion” to be forced on the people in grade school.

    This is a primary school. The libs think it’s fun to hijack the kids and play dictator to the families. Don’t be surprise when you earn the undying emnity of voters.

    These events are part of why good families avoid OUSD and such in favor of Public Ivys and private schools.

  • Robthom

    Have to agree with Nextset.

    Its a parents job and especially their right to impart social values about the world to their own children.

    This kind of agenda should be offered in a private school where a parent that wants it could send their kid.

    Just like a religion is a families own business and shouldn’t be taught in a public school.

    I dont have anything against gays.
    But thats my decision.

    I dont want you pushing your personal opinions and decisions on mine or the communities kids.

    Teach them math, science, reading, and history.

    But just the useful facts.

    Stories about little boys wearing tiaras and painting their toenails is not a useful tool for surviving in the world.

    I’d take my kids out of there personally.

    I find this violation of a parents authority rude and offensive.

  • Former OUSD Middle School Teacher

    I am so pleased to be hearing about this, and happy to report that it’s gotten national news–a teacher friend in North Carolina posted the link on her Facebook page. As a middle school educator (now in a new school district) I see so much gender-based bullying, teasing, and even violence. Maybe some education for everyone at an earlier age will help decrease that. It is important for us to teach acceptance and tolerance in our schools–just as we should not condone other types of prejudices, we should not condone gender expression prejudice.

    And to be clear, kids expressing their gender in certain ways (and adults talking about it) has NOTHING to do with being gay or lesbian. Yes, sometimes it feels like you can tell about a kid from a young age–and you may be right, or you may be totally wrong.

    If this is driving certain families out the district, then maybe they’re not contributing positively to our schools anyways. I think Redwood Heights is going to be just fine.

  • Oakland Teacher

    Children’s reactions to other children who are “different” can disrupt education, result in bullying, and set a tone in schools that is non-inclusive. These differences can be in appearance, learning profiles, family make-up, disabilities, gender identification, etc…

    I have heard that this group does a great job helping to created a learning environment that is safe for all children. As a parent and a teacher, that is important to me. Yes, I am the primary developer of my children’s values and belief systems; I take that role very seriously. I am also happy with having that fostered at school as well. Unfortunately, many families do not teach those same lessons at home, and school may be the only place children will have the opportunity to learn them.

    These kinds of lessons are not “rammed down children’s throats”. That is right wing propaganda. They are carefully developed and carefully taught. Kudos to Redwood Heights for bringing it in and CTA for offering grants to schools.

  • Turanga_teach

    Exactly, Oakland Teacher.

    And a genuine question for those who would agree with Snider that children are “too young” to be exposed to even the concept of a boy wearing a tiara: aren’t intersex children, then, not also “too young” to have a gender chosen and at times surgically assigned to them so that they can avoid the kind of mocking and shaming that these trainings are meant to avoid?

    Because historically, we’ve tried to skirt the topic. And the documentation on what that’s done to the kids caught in the crossfire–from the intersex kid who was surgically assigned the wrong gender and committed suicide as a young adult because she couldn’t handle the mismatch, to the thousands of non-binary kids today who are ostracized or labeled as “gay” because they don’t fit the Procrustean bed of mass-culture gender expectations–should give people pause about what to do next.

    It can seem like just politics, until it’s YOUR KID. Not YOUR KID subjected, oh my God, to a horrible horrible children’s book about a boy who likes pink, but your kid walking the halls with an intersex condition. Your kid called a “fag” because he plays the violin. Your kid conforming on the outside, hiding herself. Disengaging from lessons because she’s afraid of the recess yard.

    I’d argue that Redwood Heights becomes a safer, kinder, and yes, more learning-conducive place for everyone’s kid when it realizes the need for lessons like this.

  • Nextset

    Oakland Teacher – You are not qualified to have an opinion on this.

    While you may have a point on “how to raise the children” – and you may even be largely right – you are in no position to set policy. They’re not your children. I know that’s a hard concept. Work with it.

    You don’t own them.

    If you don’t run a school that inspires enough confidence in the families you serve, you won’t have a school, it will be empty. For the moment you may think everything is peachy keen, the slaves are in their seats and you are in the driver’s seat. The USSR Commissars thought so too. You can’t get away with your Soviet-Style bullying in a free society and a free market. See those Charters? See those voters? See those angry families? See the economy turning up? (satire…)

    Educrats like you are why my friends and relatives pay as much as $20k a year per primary/middle/high school child for private schools. Poorer families send their kids to Charters and Church Schools. We don’t need you and we don’t need OUSD and Los Angeles USD.

    You don’t get to make these decisions for our kids – only the welfare kids. Have at them, poor things.

    in the meantime, we will defund you.

  • http://www.movingforwardeducation.com Lacy Asbill

    OUSD just released a new strategic plan that recognizes all of the many things that schools will need to do for their students beyond reading, writing, and math in order to help them be successful in life. It talks about serving students’ emotional needs, offering them mentoring, making their schools feel safe, building communities in neighborhoods, etc.

    We have got to get out of the mindset that school is place for just the basics and learn that school needs to become a place for students to explore and find their place in the world. In this new era, schools and parents will need to work together (as, apparently, they did at Redwood Heights in order to bring this program to their school) to identify and serve ALL of the needs of their students.

  • Yet Another Oakland Teacher

    To those of you offended by gender education, and think that this is some liberal ploy. Let me know how you feel when your glitter loving, fingernail painting (cause he loves the colors), empathetic, intelligent son is bullied to the point of wanting to die in first grade by children who think that is “gay”. Tell me when your child can no longer write because of harassment at the writing group table, and then 4 years later is still having writing issues because of the abuse and the connection to writing….This curriculum is necessary because some parents are not teaching their children how to be accepting of differences, or at least how to be polite about it. And yes the above experience was my families, and the school in question (not Oakland) allowed the bullying to go on for months, and I only found out when another parent called me. We have been dealing with the repercussions ever since.

    This type of curriculum is necessary for the on going safety of all children.

    Schools need to teach this for the safety of

  • J.R.

    Teaching acceptance and tolerance of differences is one thing(and it’s a good thing), but any remotely sexual subjects should be left to the parents(at a more appropriate age of course). Kids have no business at this age being exposed to sexually charged subjects, either by irresponsible parents or by taxpayer supported schools(real differences such as racial or cognitive disorders should be taught to be respected and tolerated). Kids giving birth to kids, single motherhood all running rampant, and nobody can figure it out. The groundwork for this is all laid early on, and the kids whose parents are not paying attention are becoming grandparents. Most people live knowingly or unknowingly by the motto “do as thou wilt” and this is the direct cause of all the heartaches we have,

  • Hills Neighborhood Parent

    I applaud the good intentions of this program and I’m sure that it can help children accept others who are different. While some may argue that this type of thing should be left to their parents, too often parents are teaching their children to be close-minded and even to dislike or hate others who are different.
    This could mean not accepting of children/people of different races, different family structures, different sexual orientations or whatever.

    Meanwhile, the children all need to get along in class and be respectful of one another. So, yes, there should be room to teach things like this because it will lead to a classroom where people aren’t singled out, teased or bullied because they are different. And that will make for a better environment in which to learn.

  • Nextset

    I do agree with Yet Another Oakland Teacher about the bullying problem.

    The only time students should be beaten, yelled at or intimidated is by the teachers and staff. Other students don’t get to do it. It’s up to the Teachers and Staff to use whatever violence, intimidation and force it takes to put down any bullying by the students. In a good school this really isn’t much of a problem. A good school uses intimidation and force up to expulsion to control attitude and behavior of students.

    Liberals tend to let things go to pot because they won’t use high control methods early and often. It’s part of why they tend to lose control and uptimately lose supporters and followers. You just can’t depend on them. In time people get tire of supporting what doesn’t work. Ditto depending on “nice” people to be your protection or security. That doesn’t work very well either.

    At least this is what I learned from Catholic Grade School. Try being one of few blacks in 1960 in a blue collar predominately irish/italian school during the race riots and the civil rights movement. Older Siblings were in El Cerrito High and St Mary’s High, friends and relatives were in white public schools all over the East Bay they managed just fine.

    No we weren’t loved by all to put it mildly. There was conflict with complete strangers. But there was no doubt that the faculty and administration would expel anybody that created problems at the school – and they’d do any number of unpleasant things to anybody who even looked at someone else aggressively. (and that worked both ways).

    So bullying was kept in check long enough for normal relationships to take over. Everybody graduated on the same stage. Everybody went to the same school functions.

    The only reason we are having this bullying problem today is weak liberal faculty, staff and administration who don’t know how to run a school. Maybe they want to be loved, maybe they want to get along, maybe they are afraid to crush an annoying student and their parent.

    That’s the real reason we are having these problems, not because of homophobia or ethnic conflict or puberty problems. If the East Bay Schools public and private could control these problems in 1960-1965 there’s no reason we should have notable bullying in 2011. We just don’t have the WWII vets (male. female and Rosie the Riveter) around to crack skulls and crack the whip.

    We need tougher staff and expulsions. We don’t need political correctness instruction. We don’t need to pretend we can teach people to love each other, that’s way optional. We do need to teach people how to behave at school – or else.

  • http://charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com/ Sharon

    Maybe someone could start a charter school for kids who fall on one end of the gender spectrum, and someone else could start a charter school for kids who are on the opposite end. Then none of them will ever have to cross paths, nor be challenged to learn about (or deal with) anyone other than people who are just like they are.

  • J.R.

    The bullying problem is a result of the fear of lawsuits and lawyers which in effect tie the hands of admin and staff as far as punishment. People who reproduce but don’t know how to parent(but nevertheless have the attitude of entitlement), are a big reason schools are scared to enforce order and decency. The so-called no tolerance for bullies programs are mostly window dressing. We continue to placate the animals, and hope they stay manageable long enough to go through the system(we want the tax money for these little darlings and not their problems). I agree with nextset that some type of segregation at rigidly structured schools is necessary, and re-admittance to regular schools must be earned. No exceptions!

  • Joeshmoe

    Yet another eason why USA is getting tails whooped in performance copared to other countries! Wow-just when I thought things could not get worse in local schools- this?!

    What if my church teaches that homosexuality is evil? What if I believe this and teach it to my son and so he states that in school? Guess what, he then gets attacked and bullied by the teachers and officlas who are all so far left leaning in this city, that I am surprised they dont tip over. He no longer wishes to attend school due to this attack.

    You know what I think, USA schools are doomed! Soon charter schools will be required to do this nonsense as well.

    Destruction happens slow ……..


  • J.R.

    Discipline, Rigor?

    This lady knows how it’s done.


  • http://www.movingforwardeducation.com Lacy Asbill

    I am really shocked at the number of adults who do not understand the difference between GENDER and SEXUAL ORIENTATION. These are two different concepts. Gender is absolutely developmentally appropriate to be taught in class. Look at the graphic above, folks. “Colors are colors.” Are we really this threatened about a lesson that teaches kids that pink is not just for girls, and blue is not just for boys??

  • J.R.

    I am shocked that after decades of erosion, that you still think that no one notices the small incremental steps that have been taken(much like the proverbial frog that gets boiled). We’ve had decades of this and change to a better direction(financially driven) is going to come finally. We need to take a detour from this status-quo road to hell that we have been on. Status quo is not working, and hasn’t for a long time.

  • maestra

    Lacy is right. It’s amazing that any of you are offended by lessons about colors.

    As for the comments that say that schools shouldn’t teach any social values, are you serious? A HUGE part of teachers’ job is to help children learn how to socialize with each other. If you want teachers to ask bullies to leave your kids alone because they are tall, short, fat, thin, nerdy, noisy, not atheletic, low performing, or because of their clothing choices, how can you be mad at them for asking kids not to bully boys who like pink or girls who like sports and trucks?

  • Nextset

    Maestra: We all want the schools to teach deportment.

    We will not tolerate schools crossing the line and teaching leftist propaganda (at least not without teaching rightist propaganda at the same time).

    We will not tolerate schools invading parental perrogatives. We don’t have to. We have feet and we have other options. It’s still a “free” country.

    We will see your schools defunded. Not only that, before they are defunded and the Charters given public education for their own, we will see your schools reduced to dumping grounds for students no one else wants.

    All this because the urban public schools deliberately set themselves uyp as adversaries to the parents of the good students.

    Here’s your segregation then. Good people didn’t weant it this way but here it is. We once used the public schools to teach the middle class and the lower class – and provide a common civic foundation for society at large. No more. Because of the actions of the democratic party and the acceptance of it by the republicians.

    There is a price to pay for antagonizing the middle class.

    Brave New World.

  • Nextset

    lot of typos sorry – I catch the blog on the way out…

  • J.R.

    As for the comments that say that schools shouldn’t teach any social values, are you serious?

    For clarity…….. I said, when it comes to sexual issues, that should be the parents responsibility. Kids are beginning to organize and come to grips with their identities(contrary to the lies being disseminated, physical and emotional are tied together). If confused children get the idea that they are not strictly male or female, and there is no normal then they can accept any falsehood. We need the kids socialized, and what we don’t need is social engineering.

  • Nextset

    JR: I very much think the public schools especially OUSD fail and neglect to teach the CA Penal Code.

    There is one set of “social values” that if you are caught violating you can be put to death, fined, registered as a sex/firebug/dope fiend, locked up and many other collateral consequences including (hopefully) deportation, exclusion, and losing your driver’s license.

    I see plenty of people, especially the ones with the dusky hues, woefully ignorant of the social values enumerated in the Penal Code, the Vehicle Code and the other 29 codebooks CA has. So they do it in front of witnesses, cameras and admit to all kinds of things with no idea of the prohibitions.

    We don’t even teach this – much less which fork is the salad fork.

    Yes, we need to work this into the educational program. Especially for Prole students who don’t have good families to teach the basics – and then for everybody else to try and get it right.

    Sometimes CA seems to be full of people who barely know what a Red Traffic Light means. Actually – maybe they don’t since driver’s ed isn’t a requirement anymore (I have heard – it is true?).

    These concepts are far more important even in primary schools than telling kiddies it’s ok for a boy to adopt the mannerisms of a girl. Which it is not, by the way.

    And the educrats really don’t care. I say it’s because they really don’t care about the safety and well being of students, especially the black students.

    Just the way I see it.

    Save us from white liberals.

  • Nextset

    Beyond the CA Codes there’s a more interesting concept of Tort liability. And Contract Law. This we see all the time on Judge Judy.

    There are other “social values” that are far far more important than the topic of this thread, and are subjects utterly ignored by the primary and secondary schools as required instruction.

    I recently saw a statistic that 20% of all Juvenile offenders in a county are charged as adults. I’ve seen these kids in court. People have no concept of the double digit prison exposure for (even) first offenders which are commonly used in these cases for gang activity, sex cases, weapons/drug cases. You really need to watch young offenders (teens) with no criminal history getting sentenced to 50 years firm (no “to life”) at 80% on a plea bargain in a case where no one died and no one was shot or cut. I’ve seen it. Yes, they were black, yes the Mama was in the court crying. The 50 years was a big reduction on the minimum if they were convicted at trial – 100 years to life, which would have wiped out their life expectancy altogether.

    I’ve never forgot that scene. Would I have followed the law and imposed such a sentence, yes. Do I think these horrible cases could have been averted by education – yes, I think they could have been mitigated. The brats knew they’d be in trouble – they didn’t have a clue that what they were doing was (effectively) life without parole for all involved. Accomplice liability 101 wasn’t on the class schedule.

    I think of these memories when I read about the latest folly of forced political correctness instruction in the public schools. Educrats and their legislative pals don’t care about the black students (they’re the ones with the most criminal involvement) they only want to placate white liberals. So they teach this divisive nonsense and omit Vehicle Code and Penal Code training as well as the common law concepts such as criminal & civil liability in general.

    Let the kiddies learn it the hard way. Ken and Barbie are OK, why worry about Otis and Latifah or Juan and Juanita??

  • Pepe

    I can’t imagine why anyone would be speaking against an anti-bullying campaign. I hope those who do never have to experience the pain of a loved one taking their own life as a result of bullying for them to understand the implications of doing nothing. You are right, schools should not be teaching or making decisions based on a specific belief. Schools should encourage students to accept or at the very least tolerate those who are different.

    Stop trying to blame this on white liberals. I used to be just as guilty as you of overusing this accusation, but I have learned that anything that does not fit into a closed-minded and out of date worldview cannot always be blamed on white liberals.

    Believing that teaching the penal code will result in youth making better decisions shows a lack of understanding of the teenage mind.

  • maestra

    J.R. – Teaching children not to bully has nothing to do with teaching about sex.

    As for the wild comments about public schools in Oakland and what they are not doing – Nextset, you really need to get a better sense of what is going on in Oakland. We have a lot of great schools here, and they are getting better. I’ve worked in a few districts, but Oakland is by far the best I’ve seen in terms of dynamic, caring teachers. We have some work to do in the middle and high schools, but some of our public elementaries in low-income areas are out-performing charters and middle class schools in other districts. Oakland has a lot to be proud of.

  • Nextset

    Pepe – Good to hear from you again.

    You open with “I can’t imagine why…” which is the real problem. You cannot see thing from another’s prospective.

    From my prospective the schools are taking the noble concept of “anti-bullying” and using it for a little PC brainwashing of their own.

    Oh, and Pepe – We disagree on the ability of information and to some extent scare information to save teens from trauma. We don’t have to save everybody, to some extent life is evolution in action. All we need to do is knock down the mortality rates which will reduce differently in different student populations.

    I can still remember the “safety” movies we had to watch at the beginning of Wood Shop. There was more blood and gore, screaming, tramautic amputations, eye skewering and violence in those than Hollywood Scream movies. It had a salutory effect on horseplay around the band saws and the table saws and all the power equipment. The military VD movies had some effect in some populations also.

    I am satisfied that training in how CA structures criminal liability and punishment and the extent of the penalties will have some effect on some male teens. And not so much on some others. It’s well worth doing even if we do not intend to save everyone.

    As I pointed out earlier – I have seen and heard of real bullying that was forcibly put down by good schools. Something the liberal educrat establishment seems to have a real hard time doing nowadays it seems.

    We aren’t talking about bullying here at all. We are talking about political indoctrination. Or so it seems.

    You’re just not going to get black folks who went to all white schools – integrating the schools and the neighborhoods – to buy into your “we’re doing it for the kiddies” BS. You may have a point in here but it’s seems to me this game that’s being played is about much more. So I’m not buying. Good luck with the families of non-prole students. I don’t think this will play in Peoria.

    But OUSD can go right ahead with this and all the other nonsense that delineates their schools from Piedmont & Orinda. It’s expected.

    Maesta: I’m getting a sense of what OUSD is doing from this blog. And from failed people I know who are it’s recent products. Please continue to post every shred of good news, especially about good news involving black teens and graduates.

    As far as the “it’s getting better” line, I’m afraid that is mainly about demographics changing and the schools taking credit for something they have little to do with. They’ll do that you know, claim their educational program is responsible for upticks in scoring that is actually a product of shifting demographics. My interest is the annual stats of the black students. Show me where that is improving. Some of the other ethnics will be fine regardless of the school.

    And I don’t think Oakland has much of anything to be proud of. It’s a failure compared to it’s glory days of the past. Oakland is living off the infrastructure built generations ago while sinking in crime and a ruined tax base. It’s Detroit West…

  • J.R.

    J.R. – Teaching children not to bully has nothing to do with teaching about sex.

    You would think that would be the case, wouldn’t you? Gender is by nature a sexual topic, BTW there are only two genders(male and female, there is no ?)Take notice because taxpayer/parents are watching.

  • Nextset

    Another thought on teaching teens, Pepe. The problem is not just that the chillun don’t know how many years they can get for, say, combining a burglary and rape, or drugs and a gun, or such – like learning the difference between a Cobra and a Garter Snake. The problems with refusing to teach the Penal Code (or the 10 Commandments?) is that the chillun really don’t get it that certain things are not only forbidden but they are crash landings you don’t walk away from. And that goes for the accomplices also.

    I’m not suggesting we test and grade on getting the sentencing Triads correct – I am saying they should know the definitions of common law crimes, which ones are the serious ones, and have a working knowledge of how bad bad can get. Ditto the basics of search and seizure, torts and contracts. I actually believe this is more important than “college prep” and maybe we should require this kind of a class rather than algebra. And I like algebra…

    I suppose where I’m coming from is that if I’m responsible for the education and well being of thousands and thousands of prole children I’m going to want them taught to read and write & count, school them in required deportment (including dress and speech), then see them coached in the things in life that are most likely to cripple/maim them. Then I’d cover algebra as an elective (strongly encouraged elective). And college prep for those that want it and do the pre-reqs.

  • Nextset

    I just remembered my public school required everybody to learn to swim – we were requiored to stay afloat for a period of time in the deep end of the large pool. Anybody who failed that one was dealt with with required lessons and retested. Or they’d fail PE. (Most of us were swimming since age 4) We also had Driver’s Ed required for graduation and Driver’s Training behind the wheel in the school training cars – if you waited for your assigned slot. I took private Driver’s Training because I wanted my license on the day of the 16th birthday.

    I know those days are gone… Too bad for taday’s kiddies.

  • Nextset

    That’s “today’s” kiddies.

    The students today really don’t know how much has been taken from them, and not just the cheap college tuitions, either.