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How Legos in the Classroom Started a Controversy

After an off-the-cuff remark about encouraging girls to play with Legos and barring boys for a short period, one Washington kindergarten teacher is facing some backlash.

(TNS) -- Blakely Elementary kindergarten teacher Karen Keller says an offhand comment about boys, girls and Legos she made to a reporter with a weekly publication was taken out of context and misrepresents her position on gender equity.

Keller, in the Oct. 30 Bainbridge Review article, describes her efforts to encourage girls to play with Legos. She is quoted as saying she tells the boys they can have their turn, “... and I’m like, ‘Yeah, when hell freezes over’ in my head.”

In a recent statement issued through the district’s administrative office, Keller said she instituted a girls-only Lego time during the first month of the 2015-16 school year during free play “to get them interested” in trial-and-error building and math.

Keller received the Lego set in the spring through a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) grant from the Bainbridge Schools Foundation. She found the boys typically dominated the Legos during free play time and wanted the girls to get comfortable with them unencumbered. Other building materials were available during the girls’ Lego time, and the arrangement was temporary, she said.

Keller said her “casual, off-record aside” was meant to convey her frustration with marketing to girls in society. She apologized for any problems stemming from the article.

“Anyone who has worked with me is aware of how I treat all my students with equal respect and kindness,” Keller said. “I make every effort to foster a thriving environment for all my students and invite anyone into my classroom to observe and confirm this.”

Blakely Principal Reese Ande didn’t know about the girls’ Lego group until the article.

“As soon as I found out about it, we made sure all students had access to all curricular material,” Ande said. “As a school system, it’s our responsibility to provide opportunities and access for all kids.”

Asked whether Keller was disciplined, Ande said he can’t discuss personnel issues.

“Ms. Keller and I have had very honest conversations about the situation,” said Ande, who praised Keller as “a passionate teacher who cares deeply for each and every one of her students.”

Ande said the school is constantly analyzing data to identify achievement gaps among its kindergarten through fourth-grade students. This year the district has hired a STEM specialist for each elementary school, which is helping all students, Ande said.

Catherine Hill, vice president for research at the American Association of University Women, supports in concept Keller’s attempts to give girls in her class exposure to nontraditional toys.

“I think we’re all in agreement that needs to happen,” Hill said. “There are different interspatial skills that can emerge in fairly young children. So encouraging girls to play with Legos and other types of building materials can be a good thing. That doesn’t mean you don’t encourage boys to play with building materials and other materials as well.”

Clearly girls need a boost in STEM studies, experts say. Although women hold close to half the jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, according to a study cited by Washington STEM and Women’s Alliance Funding. The two organizations have been hosting panel forums around the state on how to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers, which typically pay better than most jobs traditionally held by women.

While the role of nature in gender differences in play is not fully understood, Hill said, a study by the AAUW, based in Washington, D.C., cites research that shows the push for exposure to STEM educational materials and experiences is having an impact.

The study tracked “mathematically precocious youth,” students who score above 700 on math SATs, and found girls making significant inroads. In the early 1980s, boys in this category outnumbered girls 13 to one; now the ratio is three to one.

Blakely parents who took part in a lengthy, private Facebook discussion on the Lego issue largely came to Keller’s defense.

Shannon Pringle said her son — in Keller’s class this year — hasn’t been affected one way or another. “Whether he gets to play with them at school or not doesn’t seem to phase him,” she said. “He’s never mentioned it either way.”

“Ms. Keller knows what she’s doing, and she is an amazing teacher,” said Samantha Everett, whose twin girls were in Keller’s class last year. “They are only 6, but we already feel like we are fighting a losing battle when they see ‘girl Legos’ and pink and purple and princesses in the ‘girl’ section of the store.”

Temre Jenkins, whose daughter was in the class last year, said Keller encouraged girls to try the Legos, but “I did not see boys being excluded.”

Jenkins said the classroom was full of opportunities for children of both sexes to try nontraditional roles. Boys could be seen wearing aprons in the play kitchen and playing with dolls.

“Honestly, the article didn’t describe accurately what happened in the classroom,” Jenkins said. “A great message got lost.”

But some on the Facebook thread, including Matthew Miller, questioned any attempt to give preferential treatment to one group over another.

“From what I have seen on Bainbridge, there are not many repressed girls on the island,” Miller said. “I am pretty sure the girls on the island have the same access to opportunity as boys. At least mine did.”

Hall of the AAUW said public schools must be careful to be inclusive. There is nothing wrong, however, with giving girls (or boys) a boost through after-school clubs and community organizations, she said, citing a boys book club at a library in her hometown in Maryland.

The AAUW, a women’s advocacy organization founded in 1881, annually publishes a holiday gift guide of toys “for empowering girls.” This year’s selections include the Super Lottie action figure with a shiny pink and gold cape, the “Dream Big! More than a Princess” coloring book, and Nancy B’s Science Club Microscope and Activity Journal. Jewelbots, “more than just pretty pieces of wrist jewelry,” allow wearers to program the friendship bracelets to light up and send messages to nearby friends similarly equipped.

©2015 the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.