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Gender Stereotypes and Disney’s Frozen

13 Apr

Teachers are used to using touchstone texts to teach children–books they go back to over and over again to teach reading skills and strategies.  The benefit is that once children know a story very well, they can stop reading (or listening) just for plot, and start to do some deeper thinking work.  The same can be true of films.  Once a child has seen a film once (or 10 times, since kids like repetition) they can start to go beyond their first impressions.

Previously I talked about using Frozen to introduce children to the idea that characters are complicated–how they are on the inside doesn’t necessarily match what they do, say, or look like.  We can also use Frozen to introduce children to the idea of gender stereotypes.

Much has been made of the role of the two main characters, Princess Elsa and Princess Anna.  Some laud Disney for finally breaking out of the traditional helpless-princess-waiting-for-her-prince stereotype, whereas others blast the film for teaching children (girls in particular) that heroines are always beautiful, helpless without a man, and mostly just out to find their prince.

The controversy makes this a great film to both look at how women are stereotyped (or not) and for children to form and defend their own opinions based on evidence.  Both are important skills for students in the new Common Core State Standards.

How can we help children begin to think about the role of women using Frozen? We might start by using a story they know very well with a clear gender disparity–say, Cinderella.  Cinderella suggests some pretty crazy ideas about women, such as:

  • women’s role is domestic–cleaning, cooking, caring for the house
  • the goal of a woman is to marry well (a prince if you can!)
  • it takes an enchanted dress to catch said prince
  • ugly on the outside = ugly on the inside (stepsisters and stepmother) and vice versa

Cinderella is about as anti-feminist a fairy tale as you can get.  Then we look at a film that is one of the most feminist of the cartoons Disney has made–Mulan.  Here we have a heroine who:

  • fights a war in disguise to save her father
  • saves the hero, and leads the fight to take back the palace and save the emperor
  • rejects the traditional role of subservient daughter whose main goal is to make a match

(Some will disagree with me that Mulan is a feminist film, which is fine.  If you don’t like Mulan as an example, you can always go with The Paperbag Princess, where the prince needs rescuing from a dragon and the plucky princess saves the day, turning the traditional princess tale on its head).

After using these two tales as models, we could then look at Frozen.  We could show some clips from the film and have the children discuss if they promoted gender stereotypes or subverted them.

Clips that  promote stereotypes could be:

  • where Elsa sings “Let it Go and changes from a buttoned up, repressed princess to a sexy siren.  Seriously–why does “letting go” involved sashaying hips, whipping free your long blond hair, and a slit up to the thigh on a sexy sparkling dress?

  • Anna and Kristoff’s meeting and first song about true love.  Sure, this is ultimately sort of a parody on Disney princess and love at first sight, but it doesn’t negate the fact that one of Anna’s main goals in life is to meet a man and get married.

Clips that might support the idea that Frozen is a feminist film:

  • when Anna goes in search of her sister alone, leaving the male (Hans) to watch the castle
  • When Anna chooses to save her sister rather than run to her man (Kristoff) ultimately saving herself.
  •  Elsa saves Anna with true love’s kiss-the love of a sister, not a man, being the important distinction.

Students could also discuss elements that run through the whole movie–how this is a film where the two main characters are both female (pro-feminist) or how those female characters are both drawn in exaggerated proportions, where there eyes are bigger than their wrists and the fact that they’re tiny compared to the men (pro-stereotype.)

by Amanda Marcotte in Slate, Anna in Frozen: Her Eyes are Bigger Than Her Wrists,

Whole class discussion, complete with t-charts and partner conversation, could lead to class debates and finally individual essays where students argue and support their opinion about the film.  The important idea isn’t whether or not Frozen is actually a feminist movie or promoting stereotypes, it’s the idea that children can be noticing how the sexes are portrayed in films and then forming (and defending) their opinion.


Teaching Character Analysis Through Disney’s “Frozen”

10 Apr

I finally watched Frozen last week.  After having my fourth grade students repeatedly sing and dance to Let it Go at every lunch, I had to see if it lived up to its hype.

It was pretty cute, I enjoyed it.  My husband, who usually hates musicals, won’t stop imitating Olaf (should I be worried that he identifies most with the talking snowman?) and he actually watched the Youtube version of Let it Go where singers from different countries are dubbing the song in their own language.

So it really has a broad appeal.   But enough of the free Disney advertising–how can we capitalize on Frozen‘s popularity to teach kids some complex literary analysis skills?

Frozen is practically shouting for us to do some character analysis.  So many of the character’s outsides (looks and actions) contradict their insides (thoughts and feelings).  Just read the character descriptions from Disney

  • Elsa – From the outside, Elsa looks poised, regal, and reserved, but in reality, she lives in fear as she wrestles with a mighty secret.
  • The Duke of Weselton – What he lacks in stature, he makes up for in arrogance and boasting.

Queen looks confident and mature, but she’s actually lonely and frightened.  The Duke of Weselton acts like he has power and influence, but there’s not much evidence he actually does in the film.  Plus his small physical presence makes his oversized ego all the more ridiculous. Not to mention Prince Hans, whose good looks and Prince Charming manners hide an inner villainy.

Students in upper elementary reading levels need to start recognizing that what a character says doesn’t always match what he or she is really thinking or feeling.  They need to be on the lookout for inconsistencies in what they know about a character, and then evaluate what they think the real truth is.  Frozen is a perfect opportunity to do some of this analysis using exaggerated characters and events, before students move on to more subtle literature.

How can we help them see the contrast? We could do a simple three column chart, with character appearance, actions, and thoughts/feelings in each column.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 8.10.50 PM

If your students need something more visually concrete, you can create “inside/outside” pictures, which contrast what a character looks like on the outside, with what they might look like if it reflected their inside.  Disney actually has the perfect model with Elsa.  Contrast her appearance in the beginning, when she’s feeling isolated and repressed

Elsa’s coronation [Frozen] by DarikaArt from Flickr

to how she’s portrayed when she decides to revel in her abilities. from Flickr from Flickr

I can imagine students coming up with amazing posters, like this (with adjectives at the bottom to help them use more specific, true words in their discussions and writing):


Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 8.29.40 PM

It could be a lot of fun, and it’s an accessible way to introduce students to some of the more complex character work we want them to dive into.

Advertising and Persuasion

24 Nov

The newest ad for Goldie Blox has been making quite a splash with the way it transformed the decidedly misogynistic Beastie Boys song, “Girls” into a tribute to girl power.

The commercial got me thinking about how advertisers attempt to persuade us to buy their product.  Usually it’s by convincing us to think a certain way.  For years, Barbie has been sharing a message that girls aspire to be beautiful, have accessories, and a boyfriend with a cool convertible.  Goldie Blox is trying to change the message, with a pretty clear “sayonara” kick to the old stereotype about girls only playing with dolls.

When we talk about visual literacy, being savvy viewers of advertising is one of the things I think of.  Educated consumers should be able to pick apart an advertisement, analyze what the company is claiming, and then decide if they agree.  For example, in the Goldie Blox commercial, there’s a clear pitch that girls want to be builders, innovators, and inventors.  But there’s a subtler message too–they want to do it while still being girls.  The colors of the product are pink, yellow, and purple.  Goldie Blox comes with a cute female heroine and a book about how she has to engineer different systems to save the day.  When I watch the commercial, I think it’s about girl power, but also about the fact that science, engineering, and math can be feminine.

Originally, I thought it would be fun to compare and contrast the version of “girls” in the video with the original, but after looking up the lyrics in the original, I changed my mind.  Maybe better to save that analysis for the adults in the room :).

You can also look at different ads in a similar theme.  You can use one of the earlier ads for goldiblocks to again look at how they are dismantling the traditional stereotype of girls toys:

Or you can compare and contrast it with a typical barbie commercial.  Here’s the original commercial from 1959:

Notice the emphasis on “beauty,” “slim,” and the close up on the barbie dressed for her wedding when the song says, “I want to grow up exactly like you.”  Not exactly the same message is it?

Or this 2013 commercial starring Hilary Duff.  The motto is “be who you want to be,” which in Barbie world means pick the colored highlights and outfit you want.

Commercials like these are an engaging way for students to look at how people can use images and words to appeal and send a message.  I might use these to launch a reading unit on persuasion, and then mix and match in some print ads and billboard slogans before moving into some full textual pieces.

Don’t You Wish You Persevered Like This?

3 Nov

Mice have a long history of bravery and motivation in books (think The Tale of DesperauxRalph, the Motorcycle Mouse, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH). 

Maybe that stereotype comes from real life…

Think about the fun you could have brainstorming the character traits you could assign to this mouse: motivated, perseverant, strategic, determined.   My husband and I actually cheered out loud when the mouse made it.  Can you remember a time you worked this hard for something?

Making Envisioning Tangible

28 Sep

My in-laws came to visit this weekend, and we started talking about books.  My father-in-law doesn’t visualize when he reads.  At all.  “I don’t really understand what that means,” he said.  Although he’s highly educated and successful, he also doesn’t read for pleasure.  The two are probably connected.  It’s hard to get lost in the world of the story, to “become the character” if you’re not experiencing the sensory details of the world as you read.

How do you make something invisible, visible, to students who don’t naturally envision?  We do think-alouds to try to make our thought process more explicit, but that’s still asking children to turn words into pictures.

A few years ago, Jennifer Serravallo did a great session at Teacher’s College on using media to help engage students and teach them reading strategies.  She talked about using instrumental music to teach children plot–having them notice how music tended to start gentle, then reach a rising crescendo, and then gradually fade away.  Music has an amazing ability to make us feel strong emotions, and we can also connect it to images, Fantasia style.  So we kick-started our envisioning work this year by listening to soundtracks and painting what we envisioned.

We started off by listening to three diverse themes:  the soundtrack from Titanic, Psycho, and Amelie.

After listening to each one, students shared what colors, images, and actions it made them imagine.  I didn’t tell students where the music had come from (and none of them had seen those movies) and it was pretty amazing how similar their envisioning was to the film.

Titanic:  I envision calm water, a pond with fish lazily swimming.  I envision a forest with peaceful animals.  I see green and blue swirls floating in the sky.

Psycho:  I see someone being chased through a huge maze.  I see jagged lightening in a red and black sky.

Amelie:  I see a bread store in France with Eiffel tower behind it.  I see someone playing the accordion in Europe.  I see children playing.

Each student then got four small squares of white construction paper and a set of watercolors.  I played the next few themes multiple times, with the lights dimmed, while students painted what they were visualizing.  Some of the songs made you want to get up and move, but I asked them to keep all the action in their mind so they could focus on what they were imagining.  We listened to the theme song from Up (cheerful, upbeat), Jaws (menacing, danger), Last of the Mohicans (bravery, war, courage), and Harry Potter (curiosity, fantasy, magic.)  For better or for worse, they knew most of these themes.  They were excited to recognize the music, but it did tend to skew their visualizations towards scenes from the movies, so next time I might try to pick some more obscure (or older) films.

After they painted, we glued the squares on a large piece of construction paper and they wrote captions with what they imagined underneath.

photo 3  photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4 photo 5

We ended the lesson by talking about how the music never told them what to imagine.  They filled in all of the feelings, images, colors, and actions themselves.  Readers do the same thing–filling in the sounds, surrounding scenery, and mood when they’re reading.  As we work on visualizing, we’ll use this project as an anchor for understanding how readers build a picture/movie in their minds while they’re reading.

Using Goodreads to Create a Community of Readers

21 Sep

At the Google Apps for Education Summit last summer, Megan Ellis talked about how she uses Goodreads to create a community of readers and to help her keep track of what her students are reading and writing about.  I thought it was a fantastic idea, so I wanted to try it.

I started a goodreads account myself this summer, and the amount of reading I’ve done has skyrocketed.  I always get books based on recommendations by others.  When I was growing up, my dad filled the loft above my parent’s bedroom with rows and rows of books.  For 18 years, as soon as I said, “do you have a book for me to read?” he would come down with one, or two, or three recommendations.

Now I get recommendations from the rest of my family and friends, and I realize that I virtually never pick up a book that someone hasn’t told me about first.  It’s hard to choose a title from the thousands available without some guidance!  But a lot of the time, that’s what we ask students to do.  “Go the library and pick something interesting.”  No wonder some of them struggle.

Megan sent me instructions for how she sets up her class (thanks Megan!) so I was ready to go.  Goodreads lets you create private groups, so we now have a 4th grade reading group going.  Students can put book reviews on the home page, recommend books to each other, and comment on each other’s reviews.  A few books immediately jumped out as popular (The Lightening Thief, Origami Yoda) and as students wrote and read reviews, they also started organizing lists of who would read which would book in what order.  I think we have a 5-student waiting list for The Tale of Desperaux now.

I asked students to write a review with a 1-2 sentence summary, because in Goodreads you can click on the title of the book and get the publisher’s summary (so we another lengthy one isn’t necessary.)  Most of their review should be spent talking about what kind of reader would like the book, giving specific examples, and maybe recommending additional books that reader would like.  Some great reviews went up:

jkt_9780545334792.inddThis book is about a girl named Minty that finds a boy named Ramon living in a model house that was never finished. They have to figure out the secrets that were found in a tree to get Minty’s friend Paz to be friends with her again.This book is for people who like mysteries, action, and guessing what will come next. This book is so good, it’s hard to put down. Join Minty and Ramon on their adventure to get Paz to be friends with Minty again.



This book is about 4 kids climbing Mt. Everest.

You’ll like this book if you like cliff hanging moments.
While some are doing the climb, one is trying to get the others.
If you like this series, you’ll like Titanic.



It is one of the best books I have ever read!!! I absolutly loved it!!!

I love the part when Despereaux’s father thinks he is a ghost!!! If you enjoyed it then you will love Because Of Winn-Dixie, also by Kate Di Camillo!!!


These aren’t book reviews in the traditional sense.  The goal isn’t to gauge students’ comprehension of books, practice writing, or deeper thinking skills.  It’s to pump up enthusiasm and start a conversation between readers.  We teach kids to “buzz” about books whenever they can, sharing stories they love and passing titles around.  This way, they can do that whenever they want.

Goodreads also gives the kids personal book shelves, where they can track what they read, what they are currently reading, and what they want to read.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 1.36.58 PM

This is one of my favorite parts of the website–the ability to keep track of your reading present, past, and future.

I’d like to go back to the website once a month to update it and have students pick their favorite book from the month to write a review about and recommend to friends.  In the meantime, those that are excited by the site can go on at home and update whenever they like!

Streaming with Amazon Prime

18 Sep

A parent just let me in on the most amazing fact–if you have Amazon prime you can stream many shows and movies straight from your Amazon account.

In the short term, this is really going to get me bogged down with all the seasons of Downton Abbey that I’ve missed, but it’s also pretty good news for teachers.

Blue Planet

Nova Science

Ken Burns Documentaries

The list of educational videos that can be streamed isn’t huge…yet.  But the possibilities are exciting!  We watched a few minutes of Blue Planet, which tied in nicely with our environmental science unit.  Food chains, plankton, camouflage, it was all there.  I was surprised at how good the quality of streaming was.

The videos all have a high production value and are aimed at informing while engaging.  Comparing them to the 80’s-inspired singing-and-dancing-while-pollinating-flowers video that is included in my science kit, and I think I’ll be searching Amazon prime quite a bit in the future :).


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