Karen Keller likely had her heart in the right place when she sought to fight gender discrimination in her kindergarten classroom at Captain Johnston Blakely Elementary School in Bainbridge Island, Washington. The teacher noticed that her students had a tendency to self-segregate during free playtime: Boys usually made a mad dash for the LEGO bricks, while the girls stuck to dolls.
She was dismayed by what she perceived as a missed chance for girls to develop the STEM skills that the boys were eating up, and that was when she decided to implement a classroom experiment that is, frankly, more than a little misguided and has been discontinued in the wake of parental outrage:
She banished boys from the LEGO station completely.
Back in October, she told Bainbridge Island Review, a local paper, that she won grant money to purchase new LEGO kits, citing a chance to give girls the opportunity to learn valuable STEM skills alongside their male peers. She did omit, however, that they wouldn't be learning alongside the boys so much as instead of them. The dishonesty of this rankles, but not as much as what she claims she tells the boys in her class:
“I always tell the boys, ‘You’re going to have a turn,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, when hell freezes over’ in my head... I tell them ‘you’ll have a turn’ because I don’t want them to feel bad.”
Oh. My. God.
This is wrong on multiple levels. There's the fact that this is free play, where kids should be able to engage in imaginative or spatial play if they want to — there's a real problem when we start acting like a kindergartner who wants to play with a doll to let off some steam is bad or wrong. It's not about being a "girl" thing or a "boy" thing, but while we're on the topic, it's possible to encourage girls to try new toys and activities without implying that the toys they already play with are stupid.
Second, 5- and 6-year-old boys don't deserve to bear the brunt of what is a real issue with the lack of women in tech. They definitely don't deserve to be told they'll get their turn any day now when the intention was that they never would. That's a little, well, heartbreaking.
Unsurprisingly Keller's classroom policies drew a lot of ire, and recently the school district responded to the controversy, saying the practice had been discontinued:
"In keeping with a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education grant, Ms. Keller gave girls a designated time to play with the building toys during a 30-minute 'free-choice' time block in September 2015. This isolated, short-term practice ended in October. All students in all classrooms have and will continue to have access to all instructional and non-instructional materials."
Gender equality doesn't need to be a zero-sum game. Yes, it's important for girls to be afforded the same opportunities as boys are, but there's no reason it needs to be at the expense of their peers. Why not start a girls' LEGO club, or implement a LEGO lesson or stick to using free play, but let the kids switch off?
We don't need to put boys down to lift girls up.
It's a recipe for resentment, and at the age we're talking about, kids just flat-out don't understand why they're being excluded. Plus, keeping any group of kids away, gender notwithstanding, from huge, enticing buckets of LEGO feels like pure torture to the kindergarten set.
You can argue that there's a problem with the way boys and girls are socialized to fit themselves into neat little pigeonholes, and you'd be right. You could argue that girls need an inroad to STEM, and you'd be right about that too. But telling one gender it's "not allowed" to do something that its peers are doing is pretty much the reason we're in that mess to begin with and more than a little counterproductive.
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