Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Paul Vicinus and other administrators provided the West Hartford Board of Education with an overview Tuesday night of the Social and Emotional Learning curriculum.
By Ronni Newton
Social and emotional learning (SEL) – in particular the inclusion of lessons on gender identity and stereotypes – has recently become a flashpoint nationally as well as in West Hartford, where at most Board of Education meetings over the past six months parents have broached the topic during public comment, with some concerned that the information is inappropriate for young children and others asking to be able to opt out, along with others expressing their support for the curriculum.
In November, an article in the conservative editorial publication National Review stated that parents in West Hartford have raised concerns that students in the district’s elementary schools were being taught “‘full on gender theory’ which is teaching students that the sex you’re assigned at birth is ‘wrong,'” and referencing mentor texts listed on the district’s website.
The concepts of gender identity and stereotypes as part of the SEL curriculum, West Hartford’s Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Paul Vicinus said, are completely separate from any investigation into a study of hormonal development. And while mentor texts are used, he said the district is constantly evaluating their appropriateness.
Vicinus, along with Director for Equity Advancement Roszena Haskins, and Director of Elementary Education Kerry Jones, provided an update to the Board on Tuesday night that included an in-depth description of the gender identity and gender stereotype lessons that are part of the SEL/Civics curriculum for elementary school students. A complete copy of the written report can be found as a PDF below.
A presentation on the SEL took place on Oct. 14, 2021, and while an update on the overall SEL curriculum to the Board had been planned all along, Vicinus said it was critical to clarify what appear to be some misunderstandings about “what is included in our lessons on gender identity and what is not,” since that particular topic seems to be of greatest concern.
SEL is a core part of the district’s approach to education, in combination with high quality pedagogy, cultural competency, and family partnership. “We see equity as something that lives at the intersection of all those things,” Vicinus said.
“SEL has always been a part of our curriculum,” he said, even included in report card indicators which reference respect, decision-making, and other behaviors. “What’s important, given the pandemic … and all the isolation we’ve had in the past few years, social and emotional learning have taken on greater weight,” Vicinus said Tuesday.
The state of Connecticut has adopted the CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) framework, which provides a progression for students at various grade levels as they develop social, emotional, and intellectual habits, and focuses on five broad and interrelated areas of competence. CASEL defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults achieve emotional intelligence through the competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.”
The framework, Vicinus said, includes a variety of skills and lessons to develop a positive self-concept, emotions, communities, and positive interpersonal relationships. SEL is connected to and part of the civics curriculum as it provides the foundation for future engagement in the community, an understanding of diversity, and roles and responsibilities within the community. Currently, the district primarily utilizes “Second Step” as a core resource, and it’s a program that has been in use in West Hartford in some form for decades.
SEL includes 50 to 75 lessons associated with four major theme units. Lessons on identity, diversity, justice, and action include different grade level specifics, and “the mentor texts play a specific role,” Vicinus said. Each classroom may not have a uniform distribution of the overall diversity which exists in the district, and utilizing the mentor texts on various topics provide a third party character and framework, so that a particular child doesn’t feel they are being used as an example.
“The theme of identity, it’s a very wide theme,” Vicinus said. “We recognize that gender is the one that’s getting a lot of the attention.” Gender identity and gender stereotypes are just two lessons within the overall SEL curriculum.
Children are being taught, Vicinus said, “to be able to identify gender stereotypes and … to identify who they are and to be able to show respect to others.” Learning standards from kindergarten through grade 3 include progression of lessons provided by the state Department of Education.
Approximately 2% of students – estimated in West Hartford based on an anonymous student survey of middle and high school students, as well as nationally – are gender non-conforming, Vicinus said. He cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that indicate 27% of transgender students feel unsafe at school, 35% report being bullied, 53% report feelings of loss and hopelessness, and 35% report an actual attempt at suicide.
“We know that we do have students that are gender non-conforming or gender-questioning,” Vicinus said, “and our job is to help them have this positive self-concept … to feel welcome in our schools.”
Vicinus said in comments to the Board, as well as in emails to Board members and to the administration, parents have made claims such as: “Elementary students are too young to understand topics relating to gender”; “Lessons will create gender confusion among children”; “Gender identity is biased against basic math and science.”
Vicinus said that according to the American Pediatric Association, children are aware of physical difference between boys and girls as early as age 2. Also according to the APA, “the internal sense of being a girl, boy, in between or something else (i.e. gender identity) cannot be changed,” he said. “That’s not influenced by a character in a singular text or lesson.”
In addition, Vicinus added, “SEL as a concept is not in conflict with math or science. … These are not conversations we are entertaining in our elementary school sessions.” The health curriculum that is introduced for students in grades 6 – which has a provision for parents to opt out their children – does discuss the differences between gender identity, gender expression, physical anatomy, and sexual orientation. That middle school curriculum is aligned with state standards for those grade levels, he said.
What is being taught at the elementary school level is “confidence in self expression and to respect other’s self-expression,” Vicinus said, and is not any attempt to confuse children but rather to avoid the development of negative bias which can form due to lack of exposure to differences. “The goal is to create awareness and appreciation of the diverseness that exists here within our community,” he said.
Vicinus said he, Haskins, and Jones have all reviewed the lessons and read all of the mentor texts “to ensure that the material we have put out to our teachers” is coordinated with the intended objectives. When they receive comments from parents, they review the texts again.
“In response to that review have made changes,” he said.
“We know there’s books that folks have had problems with,” he said. And if they find a book that is better they will replace it, “but not because anything we have is in any way, shape, or form inappropriate,” Vicinus said. He said dialogue is important and the process of selecting the mentor texts is “very well-informed” and based on research as well as comments form the community and from instructional leaders.
The mentor texts are for guidance, so that when an issue comes up such as on the playground or during morning meeting, the teachers have them available as support.
Regarding the purpose of the lessons, Vicinus said, “There is an absolute validity that our intentions are never for students to feel anything but affirmation to who they are as individuals.”
“We truly want all children to feel safe and bring their authentic selves to school,” Haskins said.
“Family school partnership is an essential component of equity model,” she said, and diverse perspectives related to not just what is taught but how it is taught have been incorporated into curriculum review and revision and reflected in shifts that have been made this year.
“We have truly honored all of our stakeholders’ requests for discussions,” Haskins said, and also provided comprehensive responses to emails. At the same time, she said, “We have seen a surge of climate emergencies, and they signal an urgent need for greater school and family partnership.”
Jones said questions and comments have focused on why these lessons are being taught, as well as clarifications about the lesson on gender identity.
Responding to a request for more communication about the topic, during the next school year, likely late next fall, she said there will be the opportunity for parents and caregivers of elementary school children to participate in small workshops related to the SEL curriculum. The workshops, which will be held at the schools, will share lesson targets, model lessons and resources, and provide time for questions and answers. Parents who participate will be expected to have read the texts, a current listing of which is provided on the West Hartford Public Schools website. A list of the most current mentor texts is also attached as a PDF below.
“We’re hoping that hosting these resources at school sites will bring clarity and trust … about exactly what these gender identity lessons are, and what they are not,” Jones said.
Board members asked a variety of questions, including one from Republican Gayle Harris about why gender identity was chosen as a topic since it represents such a small percentage (2%) of the community, rather than other more common situations like being part of a family where drug abuse is present.
“The why of the inclusion really is based on need,” Vicinus said. It started with one call from parents asking for help and support, “indicating that their child was perhaps planning to come to school wearing gender non-conforming clothing.” It came up in one school, and then there was a second, and then there was a third, he said, noting that it’s a small but not insignificant number.
The initial approach was intervention, he said, but the incidence continued to increase. “The goal is not to create an emphasis or awareness on gender identity solely,” he said, but rather an “all still friends on the playground kind of thing,” with the premise being acceptance. The list of mentor texts – which has changed even since a presentation to the Board last fall – has been adapted to be more developmentally appropriate based on input. In order to avoid positioning the student as the representation, a series of mentor texts touch on all the different components of gender and other many facets of identity without having to go into depth, he said.
“Identity” is separate from “circumstances,” Haskins added, such as a family dealing with drug or alcohol abuse.
Democrat Ari Steinberg said Tuesday’s presentation offered comprehensive insight into what the curriculum looks like, and noted there are students in the district experiencing distress and suicidality. Exposure to these lessons earlier can be a key element in saving lives, she said.
“The problem is everyone wants what’s best for the kid, but how we get there,” Republican Ethan Goldstein said. “There’s not that feeling of shared mission and my question is how do we get there.” He said he appreciates that there are adjustments being made, and said it’s important to admit when proven wrong.
Vicinus agreed and said, “I would hope that concept of what we have heard from parents and what we have learned comes through.”
Where people seem to get thrown off is by their perception of what is being taught, Vicinus said. “It’s really an instruction that’s in and around exposure,” he said, like showing different type of families making breakfast and their traditions that may be the same or different. He emphasized that when questions come up about the mentor texts, they go back and re-read them.
Democrat Clare Taylor Neseralla, a former elementary school teacher in West Hartford who is now a curriculum coach at CREC school, said she obtained and read several of the mentor texts that were being questioned, such as the kindergarten text “Introducing Teddy,” where a bear wants to wear a bow in its hair not around its neck. In fifth grade – the most recent grade she taught in West Hartford – they talk about body parts, but she “found books that I read developmentally appropriate,” with no mention of sex or organs.
Harris also questioned what she called a lack of scientific research that backed the curriculum.
Vicinus said one member of the public who addressed the Board expressed concern about sudden onset gender dysphoria resulting from the lessons on gender identity. “If there is a character in a book that is gender non-conforming … that doesn’t mean that if I read that book that I am automatically going to want to do the same,” he said. “Curriculum is about students being able to demonstrate respect for individuals.” He said his understanding and interpretation of the research is that when gender is understood, there is a decrease in levels of depression.
Harris read a few passages from mentor texts with which she expressed concern, including “I Am Jazz” and “It Feels Good to Be Yourself,” both of which are included on the fifth grade list. A passage she read from the latter states, “…. When you were born people couldn’t tell who you were or how you felt. They looked at you and made a guess. Maybe they got it right, maybe they got it wrong.” Harris, who is an OB/GYN, said, “I have delivered 3,000 babies and I do not feel like I am making a guess.”
Vicinus said while just reading that statement is out of context, “It Feels Good to Be Yourself” is a book that would be replaced if a better option was found. The other book mentioned, “I am Jazz,” conforms to state guidance and mandates that public schools must respect the wishes of any child that chooses to change pronouns or use any bathrooms.
”We need to have some education for our students so that bullying doesn’t happen,” he said. “Our objective with this is solely about respect and acknowledgement,” he said, and to improve the CDC statistics regarding transgender students.
Steinberg, a psychologist and clinical supervisor at the Institute for Living, said there is clear data about gender non-conforming students attempting suicide. “And home is not always a safe space,” she added.
For many growing up these are not issues that were discussed, Vicinus said, and “lack of exposure … and this is what research tells us, breeds unintended bias and generally it’s negative.”
Gender identity lessons focus on a group of people who are different from the majority, and Haskins said it’s a very difficult topic, “and one we’re trying to get through by listening.”
Jones said people express they have felt marginalized in the district and they need to be able to respond. “This is starting point to the reset of the conversation, and I hope a good starting point,” she said.
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