Tales from the Field: Anecdotes and Reflections on Gender in Early Childhood Education

Sat, 10/13/2012 - 11:41am -- JOFA

By Chaya R. Gorsetman and Amy T. Ament

Reprinted from the Summer 2011 Jofa Journal 

“One of the long term goals of early education is to strengthen and support children’s inborn tendencies to be curious and deeply engaged in making the best sense they can of their experiences.”1 

Life in our modern Orthodox communities is changing. What might have been true about the role of women only a generation ago can no longer be taken for granted. Women are learning, consulting on halakha, taking active leadership roles sitting on shul boards, and taking on more mitzvot, such as insisting on hearing the shofar and sitting in a sukkah.

However, the social reality is not necessarily in concert with the messages being transmitted in day schools. This problem should be of utmost concern to educators, particularly in light of the abundant research demonstrating the ways in which children acquire knowledge by making connections between what they are learning and what they have already experienced.2 The central question, therefore, is: What happens when a child experiences something in school that contradicts his or her social context or personal experience? The reality for most boys and girls attending modern Orthodox day schools includes men and women who are educated professionals—successful doctors, lawyers, scientists and professors who take an active role in public life. Often, however, the subtle messages they receive in school, specifically in the context of Jewish life, conflict with the social context with which they are familiar. Children 
experience a disparity between the home and school, and schools have thus far been ill equipped to address the impact of this disparity on the development of young children.

The following stories from the field illustrate these ideas in very poignant ways. All interactions described occurred between teachers and students within modern Orthodox day school settings. each highlights important questions and challenges the reader to imagine how it might have gone differently.

Tzizit1. Some boys in a kindergarten class were not consistently wearing tzitzit to school. The teacher invited the school rabbi to help the boys understand why they should wear tzitzit. The rabbi, speaking to the entire coed class, was so 
effective in his speech that a young girl commented, “If this mitzvah comes from the Torah and it is so important, I want to wear 
tzitzit, too.”  The Rabbi then gave the explanation of kevod bat melekh penimah—because girls 
are innately more spiritual, they don’t need reminders such as 
kippah and tzitzit. As a result of this conversation, the director fielded several calls from parents the following day, reporting that their sons came home under the 
impression that girls are more special than boys.

Emerging questions include:
• What was the teacher’s intention in inviting the rabbi to speak to the class?
• What was the rabbi’s goal?
• Why did the (female) teacher not feel she had the authority to address this issue with her own class? What does that say to the children?
• Did the teacher consider the girls in the class?  (The rabbi later reported that he felt bad that he hadn’t thought about the girls while he was giving his speech and felt compelled to give a traditional response when the question arose.)
• How does a girl feel when a boy takes a tangible, concrete object and recites a berakhah while she has nothing to hold? 
• How do we have the conversation with girls (and boys) about why boys wear kippot/tzitzit and girls don’t? 

If a girl asks to wear tzitzit, what are the possible responses? Does a girl wearing tzitzit, like a girl who plays dress-up in her father’s tie and carries a briefcase, become identified as “trying to be a boy”? Why do we treat tzitzit any differently from the mitzvah of lulav, in which children of both genders are often encouraged to take them in school, even though their mothers might not? 

2. The practice in many modern Orthodox schools is for boys to say the berakhah over the tzitzit, and then, lest they feel left out, girls say the berakhah she-asani kirtzono (who has made me according to His will, the traditional 
morning blessing for the female). In one school, the boys sing a few introductory lines about wearing
 tzitizit. The girls then sing the following introduction to she-asani kirtzono: 
“Ani yaldah gedolah (I am a big girl)
Ani yaldah yafah (I am a pretty girl)
Ani omeret todah la-Shem (I say thank you to Hashem)
Shehu bara oti (that He created me).”

• Why do we parallel tzitzit and she-asani kirtzono? Are these two berakhot equivalent?
• Why is there a need to insert a berakhah for girls here?
• Why, when introducing the berakhah, does the song emphasize girls’ physical attributes? The boys’ song focuses on the importance of the mitzvah.

• If we explain what the berakhot mean, how do we justify to boys that they are not saying she-asani kirtzono
• What do we imagine girls are feeling when they witness boys taking a tangible object they are wearing, and then kissing it whenever it is mentioned intefillah
• What do we imagine girls are thinking/feeling when we teach about brit milah (covenant of circumcision)?
• What do we imagine boys think when we teach about tzniut (modesty; in many traditional settings these lessons are explicitly linked to girls’ behavior and mode of dress)?

3. A kabbalat Shabbat celebration in a preschool class. The teacher turns to the young girl who has been chosen as the Imma and asks what the Imma does to prepare for Shabbat. The girl does not answer right away. The 
teacher tries to help and says, “You’re the 
Imma. The Imma prepares for Shabbat by shopping, cooking, and taking care of the children.” She then turns to the boy and says, “You’re the Abba. What do you do?” The boy 
responds, “I am a firefighter.” The teacher then remarks, “And when you come home, you help, right?”

• Is it fair for the teacher to assume that women stay home and get ready for Shabbat while men go out to work? Is that true in every family? Why was the girl not asked, “What’s your job?”
• Is the teacher aware that this characterization may not reflect these children’s experiences?
• What implicit assumptions was the teacher reinforcing or propagating in prompting the Abba to say he would help?
• In most modern Orthodox communities, becoming a firefighter is not a career path that is encouraged, yet the boy is allowed to take on this role and explore (it is developmentally appropriate for young children to try 
out roles, as it helps them formulate their ideas3). Do we allow girls the same freedom? 

How might it have looked if we offered children choices of roles in the kabbalat Shabbat celebration, just as we do in the dress-up area? Family roles could be expanded to include grandparents, reflecting the children’s 
growing reality, as people live longer and extended families get together often. When we plan, we need to be cognizant of children’s experiences. Are fathers active partners in their homes (not just the “assistants”)?  Have 
we ever considered changing the format of kabbalat Shabbat to be more inclusive? Could everyone participate in saying the berakhot?  What opportunities do girls have to practice saying kiddush (as they are obligated 
to if no male is present)?4  When do boys have a chance to practice saying the berakhah over the candles?

4. A veteran teacher was told that she would be involved in a project on gender. Before the project began, she was preparing a packet of handouts for her students about the upcoming High Holidays. Suddenly, she realized 
that all the pictures in the packets were of boys davening—there were no illustrations of girls actively engaged in meaningful observance of the holiday. She felt that she could no longer hand out the packets she had distributed to students for the previous ten-plus years. Her consciousness was raised just knowing that she would be participating in some capacity in a project on gender. 

We acknowledge that our discussion contains some assumptions and generalizations—and, in fact, some of these ideas are being implemented in schools already—but nonetheless, the problem illustrated is widespread enough to warrant serious examination. The intention here is not to offer directives, but rather to encourage teachers to be reflective about the gender messages that are being transmitted through religious instruction in our schools. 
Through the spirit of such reflection, good practice will emerge. This is important at every level, but it is vital for this reflection to begin in early childhood education. 

Chaya R. Gorsetman, Ed.D., is Assistant Professor and supervisor of the Early Childhood Education Track at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. She specializes in supervision of student teachers and curriculum studies. She served as the director and coauthor of the JOFA Gender and Orthodoxy Curriculum Project, Bereishit: A  new Beginning—A  differentiated Approach to Learning and Teaching.

Amy T. Ament is an Associate Program Consultant and Mentor at the Jewish New Teacher Project. She coauthored Bereishit: A new Beginning—A differentiated Approach to Learning and Teaching through the JOFA 
Gender and Orthodoxy Curriculum Project.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Jewish educational Leadership 6:3, published by The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education (Spring 2008).

1 Judy Harris Helm and Sallie Beneke, eds., The Power of Projects. New York: Teachers College Press, 2003, p. 11.
2“Information not connected with a learner’s prior experiences will be quickly forgotten. In short, the learner must actively construct new information into his or her existing mental framework for meaningful learning to occur.” www.answers.com/topic/learningtheory-constructivist-approach.

3 “In dramatic play, the child develops a concept of his or her own sex role. Numerous social roles are tried out and increase the depth of understanding of many other roles. The child begins integrating the rules of society. … A conscience is developing.” Verna Hildebrand, Introduction to Early Childhood Education. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986, pp. 371–372.
4 Editor’s note: For an analysis of the equal obligation of women and men in the mitzvah of kiddush, see JOFA’s Ta Shma Halakhic Study Guide (2008),Women’s Obligation in Kiddush of Shabbat by Rahel Berkovits

Read More

  • 2011 JOFA Journal 
  • Gender Sensitive Bereishit Curriculum 
  • 2 articles from our ADD LINK Online Library:
    • "Parents Speak - Shabbat and Gender in my Daughter's Gan", Sztokman, Jacob, Jewish Educational Leadership, 6:3, Spring, 2008.
      Synopsis: Jacob Sztokman describes his experiences and the gender roles in his daughter's kindergarten's Shabbat party. 
    • "Parenting as a Religious Jewish Feminist", Ner-David, Haviva, Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism, Danya Ruttenberg Ed, 2001, 31-43.
      Synopsis: This is a personal account by Haviva Ner-David of the how her day is structured in order to combine her role as a mother as well as a women and feminist. 


What kinds of experiences have you had with your children's schools?

If you are a teacher have you thought about gender in your lesson plans?

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