Tag Archives: common core

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.


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.

The Not-So-Surprising Similarity Between Propaganda, Advertising, and Statistics

23 Apr

Look up propaganda and one of the first definitions you’ll find is this:



1. Information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

This came up because I was teaching my students about propaganda used during WWII to increase patriotism, both through appeals to pride, such as the following:

photo 3

and appeals to fear, such as:

photo 4


I wanted the class to really understand how propaganda was a government’s attempt to influence the way people think, often in ways that might not be in their best interest, or in ways we don’t consider morally right.  But for fourth graders, this is a tough pill to swallow. They understood the injustice of the second posters, but propaganda is still a pretty big concept.  So I linked it to advertising.

Students readily understand that Hershey’s really wants to sell chocolate bars, and that the way they slant information tries to convince the consumer to think a way that’s not in his or her best interest.  Case in point: the  “Snickers stops the hunger” campaign.  Umm, yes.  If by, “stops the hunger,” you mean because you have an extra 50lbs of “snickers gut” hanging from your belt, then yes, yes it does.  Advertising isn’t propaganda because it doesn’t have a political base, but I’m letting that slide for now.

The class’s assignment was as follows.  Design a “propaganda” poster that convinces the reader that a particular fruit or vegetable was disgusting and dangerous.

photo 2


The most interesting thing about this assignment?  How many students struggled to come up with a fruit or vegetable they didn’t like.  Apparently I have a class full of children who adore brussels sprouts and broccoli.

The ins and outs of how to convince people that their fruit or vegetable was yucky was the interesting part.  We looked at a bunch of propaganda posters and advertisements, and realized that arguments were generally built on one of four platforms:

1) A compelling picture.  Cruel Japanese soldiers with a red background, a triumphant American soldier with a flag waving in the background, or a brown and moldy piece of fruit.  Something to draw your eye and make you feel a strong emotion.

2) The The false comparison.  This is where the “a mushy banana will lead to a mushy brain” comes in.  Propaganda and advertisers routinely make connections that aren’t real.

3) Impressive statistics.  “9 out of 10 dentists prefer Colgate.”  According to whom?  Kids used bar graphs, pie charts, and stats to explain why their vegetables were the worst.

4) Appeal to an expert.  My favorite on this one is Airborne’s, “Developed by a teacher!”  campaign.  Many of my students went the doctor route, such as, “Doctors warn that too much watermelon can be deadly!”  A surprising number also went with the political expert–Barack Obama is an anti-fruit spokesman on many of these posters.

Here are a few of the final products:

photo 2

photo 1

photo 1

The class had a lot of fun, and I think they not only learned some persuasive techniques of their own, but hopefully to have a more discerning eye when they look at advertisements or see their local news.

For those of you interested, it also addresses common core standards 4.3 and 4.6, which concern explaining ideas in a historical text and comparing different accounts of the same information, including point of view and focus.


Primary Source Analysis: Headlines and Quotes

12 Apr

The second time we analyzed primary resources, we looked at newspaper headlines and quotes.  The Internet is truly amazing when you get into more recent history.  There are a variety of website from reputable sources such as Stanford University, Digital History, and PBS that have gathered primary source materials from recent history, such as WWII.

I made two copies of all of my materials, and I glued the quotes on one large piece of butcher paper, and the newspaper headlines on another.  Since I had made copies of both, I ended up with four stations. I randomly separated the class into four groups, so there were seven students at each station.

2013-04-04 11.06.48 2013-04-04 11.06.59

I also provided them with a prompt sheet for what they could think and write about when at the chart paper.

2013-04-03 16.47.21

I asked them to take five minutes to silently read the headlines or quotes and respond to them, in writing, directly on the paper.  As students read the resources, they wrote reactions and questions such as “That’s terrible!”  “that’s not truthful,” “why did they say Lincoln would intern the Japanese if he wasn’t even alive?” and “it sounds like the camps were very crowded.”  I circulated amongst them and answered some questions on vocabulary words and confusing sentence structures.

I wanted students to look at it silently at first so that they had a chance to grapple with the material on their own.  It gave  children who needed more time (and more quiet to think) an opportunity to work through the analysis independently.

Then I gave the groups two minutes to talk to their group about what they were thinking.  The groups had a lively discussion, and I noticed them sorting out confusions during the conversation.  They clarified vocabulary for each other and re-interpreted headlines or quotes that had been confusing, as well as pointing to details that not all had noticed.

The next step was for groups to switch to the table that had the SAME resources.  They looked at what the other group had written and talked about similarities or differences.

After that, students switched to the butcher paper with the alternate resource (headlines or quotes) and followed the same routine.

We finished up our work by coming inside and doing a quick write about their response to what they learned.

2013-04-04 11.24.25

I provided students with some beginning frames to help them get started.

“The newspaper headlines and quotes from the internment camp period are mostly about _____.

They show ______.

For example, _____.

They also show _______.”

The frames helped them to begin and then to elaborate their thinking, and I was impressed at how many students went back to the resources so that they could quote accurately.  As usual, grammar, punctuation and spelling were emphasized.

The whole process took about an hour, but it felt like we got a lot done!  There were a few things I would do differently next time.  I would preload some of the more challenging vocabulary–I ended up just writing synonyms directly on some of the headlines and quotes.  I would also include more information about who said the quotes (name, age, place).  Many students asked where the quotes came from, which was an important question for historical thinking, and I didn’t have the answer.  It would have helped them to work on considering the author’s point of view, which is hinted at in common core standard 4.6, and is required more explicitly in fifth grade.

It was fun work, and challenging too.  Next up, letters from children in the camps!

Food For Thought

1 Apr

The Atlantic had an interesting article from E.D. Hirsch, reflecting on the Core Knowledge program, the Common Core, and close reading, titled, “How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement.”  The crux of the article is the idea that the single most important factor in comprehension is prior knowledge–deep seated background knowledge.  According to Hirsch, when researching effective writers, what he ended up discovering was what made an effective reader.  The answer, was 10% technique (strategies) and 90% background knowledge.

It’s an important reminder that even though the common core recommends students learn the skill of close reading, a strong background in “core knowledge” is necessary for students to succeed.  Struggling students typically have a much narrower band of prior knowledge in traditional educational areas.  In our rush to teach students how to analyze text, we need to be careful not to forget that everything we do is tied to our prior understandings, beliefs, and feelings.  Prioritizing the strategies and “process” of reading, over the content, could do students a grave disservice.

Persuasive Writing

13 Jan

The common core lists persuasive writing as one of the three main categories of writing which students should study.  Persuasive really should be one that kids have down pat.  It seems like they spend most of their day trying to persuade someone about something.  Recently my students have been spending a lot of time working on how to persuade Disney not to make future Star Wars movies that have an overabundance of pink or princesses in them.  Apparently, this is a big concern amongst the stars-wars-obsessed-fourth-grade-boy group.

This post, about the most persuasive words in the English language, made me chuckle.  It might also be useful to share with students when they’re writing.  I can imagine it persuading them to think about their word choice a little more carefully than they might otherwise have done :).

Lucy Calkins and TCRWP Teaching Videos

28 Dec

Lucky Calkins and the Reading and Writing Project just uploaded about 40 new videos on Vimeo.  The videos are clips of reading and writing instruction, appropriate for K-2, 3-5, or 6-8 classrooms, and vary from mini-lessons, to small-group instruction, to book clubs.  It’s always nice to see instruction in action–especially when it shows students’ responses and work as they grapple with the material.  I went through the majority of the 3-5 reading lessons and found them very helpful.  Lucy says that they’re not meant to be perfect lessons, just examples that can represent a pathway to the common core.  A few of my favorites from the 3-5 reading world:

Class Debate  – The class listens to “Stray” from Cynthia Rylants “Every Living Thing.”  They read the book, jotting notes on “is Doris strong or weak?” and then split into two debate teams and debate a partner.  There’s a protocol for finding evidence, working with your team, and debating.  Ends with both partners taking one position (A, B, or C (both strong and weak)).  Then they write some final thoughts.

Main Idea and Detail and Fluency in Non-Fiction – Readers read more fluently when they determine main ideas and details through a text first.  Readers can then re-read fluently, using pacing and intonation to make their “boxes and bullets” clear.

Non-Fiction Read Aloud – Kathleen Tolan demonstrates close reading and interactive read-aloud about gorillas.  She helps them to synthesize the text with graphic organizers, maps of Africa and a word bank.  They work on the skill of comparing and contrasting.

Book Club – Amazing small group conversation comparing Budd, Not Buddy and The Tiger Rising.

Each of these videos involves the students in the strategy of close reading.  Look closely, and you’ll notice that they show both how to push children to stay close to the text and how to go beyond it.

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