Home > Publications > The New Teacher Book

The New Teacher Book

Talking about families to teach about difference

By Loret Peterson

Anyone who has spent time on a playground knows that teasing, name-calling and bullying are everyday fare, and that kids can turn differences of all kinds into the substance of ridicule. So I welcome materials that I can use to counteract stereotypes in my elementary classrooms.

To introduce lessons about family diversity into my classroom, I've used a video and curriculum called That's a Family! , produced by the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization Women's Educational Media, which also produced It's Elementary.

The video and curriculum guide are full of strategies that invite discussion and honor children's natural curiosity. They are a gentle starting point to reach elementary age children with a message of respect for all differences before biases become entrenched and the pressures of middle school set in.

The video contains six segments that feature different kinds of families: parents of mixed races, divorced parents, single parents, gay and lesbian parents, grandparents who are the guardians of grandchildren, and families with adopted children. Each segment features real kids speaking candidly about their family lives. Animated graphics introduce vocabulary words such as guardian , mixed race, and adoption .

The childrens' feelings, insights, and advice drive the narrative of That's a Family! For example, Montana explains how she felt when her parents decided to divorce. Breauna, who is being raised by her gay father and his partner, wishes there was more understanding and less fear of gay people. Brittany tells how she and her siblings came to live with their grandmother after their mom got involved with drugs.

Much of the film consists of scenes where children such as Montana, Breauna, and Brittany are engaged in activities familiar to every child such as baking a birthday cake, playing soccer, or buying groceries. Differences between families are presented matter-of-factly and children are shown within their home environments surrounded by loving families.

I felt it was important to prepare my students for the conversations That's a Family! might inspire. I was especially concerned that they might react to some of the issues or vocabulary with silliness or derogatory comments. I wanted to minimize this possibility and avoid giggles.

So, first we discussed our own families. I asked students to draw portraits of their families. Many live with grandparents as well as parents, so we talked about extended families. Immigration has affected many of my students' families, so some wrestled with ways to portray the influence of geography. As an extension of the portrait exercise, I asked them to take photographs at home that would help the class understand something about their families. They returned with carefully composed shots of goldfish, stuffed animals, dinners they had helped prepare, and treasured items from China. Then they wrote text to explain the photographs. These snapshots added intimacy and context to our exploration of family life, and affirmed that every family is different and special.

Talking About Gay and Lesbian Parents

That's a Family! has sparked controversy in some communities. Fundamentalist Christians have tried to prevent some schools from showing the video. Some educators might shy away from teaching about gay and lesbian families for fear that the discussion will lead to questions about sex. In my experience, talking about gay parents does not mean talking about sex any more than talking about heterosexual parents does. Questions may arise, but I have found it easier to focus on the concept of families. Talking about trust and mutual support between grown-ups and the children they love makes it easier for children to grasp concepts of sexual identity.

Through much of their school careers, my students will consistently be exposed to stereotypes. We have the opportunity to take an active, moral approach to deflating the power of stereotypes by addressing them in the classroom.

The silliness and giggles I had feared never erupted in my classroom. My fourth- and fifth-graders have taught me that they are ready and able to reject stereotypes in favor of a more complex understanding of real people. That's a Family! helped them move in that direction.

Loret Peterson (loretpeterson@hotmail.com) teaches fourth and fifth grade at Jefferson Elementary School in San Francisco.

To order a copy of That's a Family!, visit www.womedia.org.

Last Updated Fall 2004