Monday, December 9, 2013

Complex Media Concepts on Gender and Kindies

Aviva, I'm so sorry! Early this school year, (August 20, 2013, to be precise) I promised Aviva Dunsiger, a great teacher that I met online (and a recent winner of the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence) that I would share with her what I have done in the past when teaching Media Literacy to kindergarten students as part of prep coverage. We were having a discussion about how, despite having a very few media expectations in the kindergarten curriculum, it was possible to generate an entire year's worth of lessons and activities. I never got around to sharing some of my past lesson plans, and Aviva no longer has to do kindergarten prep coverage at her school, but that's okay because I tried some different things this year and this blog post will highlight some of the changes and some of the observations I've had with this altered approach.

Overall expectation #5 in the language section of the kindergarten curriculum states that students will "demonstrate a beginning understanding and critical awareness of media texts". The specific expectations related to this expectation are that students "begin to respond critically to animated works" (5.1) and "communicate their ideas verbally and non-verbally about a variety of media materials" (5.2).

In the past, I tackled these expectations much more "organically", through the use of the video game Webkinz. My kindergarten students learned the definition of media (which I also use for the primary division classes - we made videos to share the definition) and learned about ads. When the floating objects popped up on screen while we were playing games or designing our rooms in Webkinz, we would click on the advertisements in disguise and discuss how the colours and actions made us pay attention to it. We took virtual walks around the neighbourhood using Google Streetview, and identify the media texts we saw, capture and circle them on the interactive white board, and classify them as ads or non-ads.

This year, I thought I'd steer the conversation a bit more, while still honouring student inquiry. Halloween was a big deal for the kindergarten students and so during media class, we talked about whether or not costumes were media. We played with my costume bin during media time and virtually dressed our Webkinz toy in costumes. As the ECEs and I listened in on the conversations, we noted, especially in one particular class, some very strongly held opinions about gender and costumes - for example, "You can't wear that - you're a boy."

Is it too early to examine gender roles and stereotypes with 4- and 5-year olds? We (the ECEs and I) decided to try some lessons to foster that "beginning understanding and critical awareness of media texts". We had conversations about the costumes students chose to wear, and the message they imparted. I was amazed when one kindergarten student proclaimed that boys like to wear superhero costumes like Spiderman and Ironman because boys want to be powerful, not pretty. Students drew a costume of their choice and in follow-up interviews, identified the target audience. The most recent, and challenging, activity was for students to draw three costumes - one that a boy would probably like to wear, one that a girl would probably like to wear, and a costume that either a boy or a girl would like to wear. Here are some of the results. I've blocked out the names to protect the students' privacy.

This student chose to create Spiderman for the boy, Barbie for the girl, and rock star for the "anyone". It's interesting that certain media brands appear for the gender-specific costumes.

In this example, a prince is the "boy costume", a princess is the "girl costume" and a baby works for both. This reminds me of an activity someone did in one of my university English courses - does it matter if it's a boy baby or a girl baby? Do we treat it differently once we know the gender?

For this sheet, the boy costume is a vampire, the girl costume was going to be a princess but the artist admitted it was Spiderman, then changed it to be Spider Girl, and the gender-neutral option is a pumpkin.

Despite the similar colours, the artist specified that the boy costume was Green Lantern, the girl costume was an Indian girl (interesting cultural ideas), and the third choice was a vampire. It's interesting to compare this piece with the one above, which stated that a vampire was a boy outfit. Can you infer the gender of the creators based on their choices? The first two were drawn by girls; the latter two were drawn by boys.

The four above examples were completed samples. Many students struggled with that third costume and had no idea what to sketch. One child drew what she claimed to be a knight but wore long eyelashes, long hair and jewelry. This piece below was quite fascinating.

The boy costume is Spiderman. The girl costume is a princess. The "anyone" costume is "cut in half to be a boy and a girl". 

This particular class is quite taken with the external markers for gender. They've told me that girls must have long hair - despite the fact that I have short hair. "You cut your hair like a boy." they told me. They learned about Terry Fox and when I told them that some medicine they use to fight cancer makes your hair fall out, I asked them if a girl stopped being a girl if she lost her hair. This question made them pause, but they still cling to their own ideas. This perspective colours their other inquiries - they are interested in their classroom on learning about dogs and they have strong preconceived notions about how you can tell a girl dog from a boy dog - a girl dog wears bows and ribbons and has long hair. It will be interesting to poke and prod at these ideas and bring more examples that clash with their mental models.

I should say that not every kindergarten class is the same. When I showed the outline for the single costume task, another class shouted that this was a gingerbread or a person - completely leaving out the idea the other class proposed that the shape was obviously "a gingerbread boy". 

I'm pleasantly surprised with how well this more complex approach to kindergarten media has been progressing. I'll let you know how it goes. 


  1. The student made costumes were fascinating. I'm amazed at how soon media and gender expectations are made at such a young age. I can't wait to learn more!

  2. I'm looking forward to seeing my Grade 1-4 students actually *make* their costumes (their major media project for the term) - we just had a lesson on the significance of colour from - I agree with you that it's astonishing how firm they are in their gender role convictions. I'll tell you more. (Miss you Rum!)