“I applaud each of you for your courage to write me and for also embracing what we must all do to respect and care for each other. How can we do that? One way is doing just what you did—learn about the wide spectrum of gender as well as the facts about sex and sexual health, and also embrace diversity and inclusion.” Robie Harris, author of It’s Perfectly Normal
How did our sixth grade students come to receive such a thoughtful letter from author Robie Harris? Their dialogue with Harris, and this story, began last spring just prior to their annual puberty unit in science class when their teachers asked the students to think about the language used to explore gender in It’s Perfectly Normal, Harris’ well known and oft used text about changes to the body associated with puberty.
The students quickly noticed that while some acknowledgment of gender diversity was present, the anatomy pictures referred solely to cisgender girls and boys bodies. And while these images provided a reflection of their own bodies for students, they acknowledged that these depictions may not be true for people with transgender bodies or gender non-conforming bodies. Further, using empathy they were able to reflect that reading this book and studying these drawings that didn’t show the wide variety of students’ gender experiences might feel bad at a time when things already feel awkward and uncomfortable for everyone.
As students continued to read with this eye for inclusivity, they also noticed a fairly limited variety of sexual orientations reflected. While the text did mention the sexual orientations lesbian, gay, and bisexual, they saw no mention of other identities that exist and that are important to many students such as pansexual and asexual identities.
Struck by their observations, they worked with their teachers to determine a course of action and thought about how they could affect change. They were offered the option of constructing a letter to the author with their suggestions for how to make the book more inclusive and began thinking about how they would approach Harris with their thoughts.
Working in groups, their first step was to study the book very closely and highlight areas where changes could be made. Each group then crafted a letter to Harris that acknowledged the challenges of writing this book, recognized the work put into the book, and honored how much Harris had already pushed the envelope in terms of puberty education. They then offered specific suggestions to improve gender and sexual orientation inclusivity. Over the summer teachers consolidated the letters into one letter that included all major points, including photocopies of page edits, edits to copy and images, a chart to organize suggestions, and sent it off to Harris in August.
Students received a response this fall, and were thrilled to hear that many of their suggested changes were already set to appear in the book’s next edition. Harris expressed much appreciation for the students’ suggestions and feedback and understood the importance of updating the book to be much more inclusive. She writes:
“Most every suggestion you made regarding the most recent text are revisions that I have already made in the text for what will be the 25th anniversary edition of It’s Perfectly Normal before I received your letter. But I still found your letter and chart with all of your specific suggestions extremely helpful in checking against what I had already revised. That is something I always do. Double-checking, triple-checking one’s facts and writing is important to do. Facts and evidence matter. In some places, I may have chosen different ways to talk about gender and other information that you suggested I add or change. I may have made different choices, but I hope and believe it is as inclusive and respectful as your suggestions.”
Students were surprised they received a response and felt validated and hopeful about the forthcoming changes to the book. Published in 1994, this book and it’s author provide a great model of lifelong learning and all that’s possible when one continues to think critically and remain open to change. Our students practice these same skills – from inquiry to critical thinking to empathy – in all of their subjects and will take these skills with them when they leave Prospect Sierra and make their mark on the world.