Learning to Look Without Judgment

“Are you a boy or a girl?”

The question comes up almost every time I encounter a group of students at the RISD Museum as a K–12 school programs museum educator who is trans and genderqueer. I see glances ranging from curious and excited to suspicious, I overhear whispers and the occasional slur, and I get barraged by bold elementary-aged kids.

Instead of fully introducing myself, I used to lean on my authority as the educator to deflect attention away from me and redirect it toward gathering coats, reviewing museum rules, or jumping right into a lesson by introducing a work of art. But recently I’ve started saying, “I’m actually a little different from most people. I’m kind of a girl and a boy.”

I notice that kids respond with more empathy when they hear the word different, as it opens their minds to the fact that there may be categories beyond girl and boy. “Some people are boys and girls. Some people who look like boys are actually girls, and some people who look like girls are actually boys,” I recently explained to a group of first graders. They are asked to categorize constantly and I hoped this simplification, while still using binary language, would help break the mold a bit.

“That’s like me!” a first grader said. “I look like a boy and I am a boy.”

“Yes!” I said, reveling in that proud moment of cisgender self-identification. Every child (and adult!) deserves to feel excited about their gender, particularly those of us who are trans, non-binary, or simply don’t always conform to stereotypical gender roles.

Below is a downloadable lesson plan and related activity worksheet for a one-hour classroom activity designed for upper-elementary-aged students (grades 4–6) and adaptable to other ages. After I taught this lesson to a fifth-grade class, one student remarked that he hadn’t thought about how gender roles had restricted him, and that this realization felt like something “was unlocking.” This lesson uses art as an entryway into discussions about racial, class, and gender-based assumptions and contains a reference to racialized police violence. Students will collaborate to identify and problematize things that society teaches us are “for girls” or “for boys,” and each student will draw a gender-stereotype-defying costume design inspired by artist Nick Cave’s Soundsuits.

Download Lesson Plan

MJ Robinson is an illustrator, author, community organizer, and educator who encourages creative play and art-making in movements for social justice.