Hope for children

Rooting out sexism one school at a time

Teacher Erin Vogel engages her second-grade class at Crestwood Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, on empathy and inclusion - part of a nationwide push to root out sexism before it takes hold.
Teacher Erin Vogel engages her second-grade class at Crestwood Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, on empathy and inclusion - part of a nationwide push to root out sexism before it takes hold.PHOTO: JESSICA MENDOZA

UNITED STATES • On a frigid morning in Madison, Wisconsin, Ms Erin Vogel reads aloud to her second-grade class at Crestwood Elementary School.

The story is about Red, a confused crayon whose name does not match his real colour: Everything he draws comes out blue.

"He was red," Ms Vogel reads, "but he wasn't very good at it."

She turns to her pupils, and asks what they think the story is about.

"It's about... it doesn't matter who you are on the outside," one child, Kate, volunteers. "If they see he's red, and he actually comes out blue, then they just have to say, 'It's OK, he's different'."

It is a standard exchange here, part of a broader push by the Madison Metropolitan School District to combat bullying and harassment by fostering empathy and inclusion.

 

And it is not the only one. Madison is part of a patchwork of efforts in schools around the United States to root out sexism before it takes hold and expresses itself in the workplace, and prevent the abuse or domestic violence at the centre of the global #MeToo movement.

There is increasing evidence that formal lessons, in which teachers are trained to recognise and counteract old patterns of thinking, can help change how a new generation of young people treat each other.

"These kids are growing up with an awareness that there is an imbalance of power in our society, and they are being challenged to unpack that and break it down," said Mr Joshua Forehand, principal of Nuestro Mundo Community School.

Across the country, schools are increasingly incorporating gender-equality teaching at the elementary school level, to give pupils the chance to think about inclusion and diversity as they are learning to read and write.

Central to the Madison school district's work is Welcoming Schools, a programme of the non-profit Human Rights Campaign Foundation. It began as a response to the needs of transgender students and students who do not identify as exclusively either male or female. Now, it aims to address broader themes, such as equality and tolerance.

Some programmes, like Expect Respect, in Austin, Texas, started as support groups for students who had experienced either violence at home or abusive dating and peer relationships. Others focus on raising compassionate boys and redefining masculinity.

Educators say the programmes are having an effect. "We are raising a generation of boys who see girls as equals," said Ms Vogel. "And we are hoping they will grow into men who understand that women have the same rights and deserve the same respect they do."

Ultimately, teaching prevention is not about protecting a victim or punishing a perpetrator, but empowering society to recognise the flaw.

"Students in intervention groups felt more empowered to do something about sexual harassment," said social worker Barri Rosenbluth, who had carried out research on harassment prevention. "That's the real change factor: courageous bystanders."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2018, with the headline 'Rooting out sexism one school at a time'. Print Edition | Subscribe