One of the books on our recommended “inclusive” reading list is a lovely little story about two penguins at the New York Zoo in Central Park, who – with the help of an observant and open-minded zoo-keeper – create a most unusual family.
Last year, when I read “And Tango Makes Three”, I struggled with how best to frame it in a way that would honour the increasingly common type of family that Roy, Silo and Tango (the book’s main characters) represent, while still addressing the emotional and social needs of the students in my class for whom this type of family would embody a new and unusual concept. Giving the latter room to explore their prejudices and perhaps grow in empathy and open-mindedness was, in my opinion, as important as creating an inclusive, safe space for the children in my class who may live with or have friends who live with same sex parents.
I was not very successful with that endeavour last year, and ended up having a long correspondence both in person and via multi-page letter with a “concerned” (read “homophobic” parent) whose child was "disgusted" by the dirty gay penguins, as the book's main characters came to be referred to by me and my colleagues whenever we joked nervously abour the incident in the months that followed.
This year I had a better idea.
Rather than introduce the book in a “social justice and equity” context, I decided to talk about “Love” in general, since it was, after all, Valentine’s Day today, and therefore Love was a relevant theme!
First, I showed a bunch of sample pieces that the students in my colleague’s class had made, and asked my own students to think about which emotion was portrayed in the artwork. Many of them guessed “love” or “happiness” or “security”.
Next, we talked about what love means, what it might look like, i.e. that it is not always between two grown up people, but could sometimes refer to love amongst family members, and that many people really love their babies/children, and their mommies, daddies, aunties, uncles, grandparents, etc.
This led to a discussion of different types of families, and we shared what our own nuclear families looked like, and how much we loved them, no matter how big or small, or what configuration.
And then I read the book.
Although I did hear one or two suppressed “ewwws!” at one point in the story, I chose to ignore that and continue reading, stopping at parts that were less related to the same sex penguin couple and more related to families, feelings and baby penguins. In general, the students were quite intrigued with the story, especially when I read them the author’s note at the end, about how the book was based on true events that actually happened at the Central Park Zoo in New York City not that long ago.
As could be expected, there were many questions at the end. Surprisingly, very few of them were “gay”-related queries.
After we read the book, I invited students to create their own Penguin Family scene, using either Roy, Silo and Baby Tango as inspiration, or their own familes, or simply their imagination.
As you can see, the results were quite charming.