In my second grade classroom this year, we are weaving together our literacy goals of understanding character traits with our social emotional learning goals of understanding our own identity. Picture book characters are such a great vehicle for both! By learning about characters’ identities, we learn the language to help us describe our own. And we grow our vocabulary for accurately describing the identities of others.
One way we’ve been doing this this year is to regularly ask with each read aloud:
Who is this character on the outside?
Who is this character on the inside?
We’ve done this exercise with Lightning from Thunderboy Jr., Fauja Singh from Fauja Singh Keeps Going, and Yasmin from Saadia Faruqui’s Meet Yasmin! series. We’ve learned so much about these characters and their traits through our discussions. The outside/inside framework has also fostered important conversations about identity.
When we read Jessica Love’s first book, Julian Is a Mermaid, we discussed who Julian is on the outside – boy, brown skin, lives in the city, family speaks Spanish – and then who he is on the inside – imaginative, daydreamer, creative. When a student voiced that Julian likes to dress up as a girl, I had the opportunity to grow our language for talking about identities. We talked about how some people just like to dress in different ways and lots of heads nodded around the room. Then I introduced the term transgender in simple, kid-friendly language: “There are also some people who might have the body on the outside of a boy, but feel on the inside they are a girl. Or the body on the outside of a girl, but inside they feel like a boy. The word to describe that is transgender. Jessica Love doesn’t tell us whether Julian is transgender, so we’d have to ask Julian himself how he likes to describe his identity.”
Like many adults, I can sometimes get nervous when discussing topics of identity with students. I don’t want to say the wrong thing and I don’t always feel like I have all the answers to questions kids might ask. Two things I do to help tame that worry are to be sure I take the time to know the exact meaning and pronunciation of the words I use to describe others. A simple Google search can help me be sure I used the term transgender accurately or help me pronounce Sikh correctly when reading Fauja Singh Keeps Going. The second thing I do is regularly reinforce and model that the most correct word to describe someone is the one they themselves prefer. When describing someone, what really matters is that they feel seen and affirmed by the words I use. So helping my students understand that we’d need to ask a character to know for sure how they identify themselves teaches them to treat others with respect and kindness.
How lucky we were when Jessica Love’s new book, Julian at the Wedding, arrived at my door. The kids were excited to see what Julian would be up to next. And this book offered more opportunities to grow our concepts and vocabulary for identities. Julian and his grandmother have been invited to a wedding. When one of my students questioned, “Two women are getting married?” I nodded and offered, “Yes, two women can get married.”
At the wedding, Julian meets a young girl, Marisol. The two new friends scamper off to play while the wedding party gets started. As it turns out, Marisol isn’t so careful with her beautiful flower girl dress! Julian comes to the rescue, fashioning a fairy outfit for her out of willow tree leaves.
My second graders used what they already knew about Julian to predict that he’d be interested in those willow tree leaves – right away someone offered, “He’s going to make a dress out of them like he did the curtains!” All eyes opened wide when the two children were found by the stern-looking grandmothers, and surprised but relieved when neither child got in any trouble for ruining their clothes.
I think reading these two stories about Julian left some questions in my students’ minds – questions that they might not offer or be able to articulate just yet. I hope that it also left an opening in their minds for the many different possible identities they may encounter in others or in themselves. I’m so grateful for beautiful picture books like Julian at the Wedding that help me anchor important social emotional learning in the power of story.