Are Tights for Girls or Boys?

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from AP images

Our fifth graders performed an excellent version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV today. It’s always impressive to see what students are capable of and how their teachers bring out the best in them.

When you think of Shakespeare, or at least look at the picture to the right, do you immediately conjure up images of masculinity? I don’t know if wearing tights, putting on make-up, or dressing in frills would be considered so today, but it certainly was a while ago. Even Marueen Dowd of the New York Times chimed in about masculinity in an opinion piece this past weekend.

Studies in gender differences, for many reasons can be quite controversial. These days, a lot is written and discussed about how best to teach boys or girls in schools. The more we learn about the brain, the more we are finding that there are measurable neurological differences between the genders. Many experts such as Dr. Larry Cahill who spoke to local teachers a few years ago have been working to understand these differences. Here’s a link to a 2005 Scientific American article Dr. Cahill wrote.

Some of the controversy lies in the potential to be sexist, to stereotype, and to forget that not all boys (nor their brains) are the same. Clearly, from looking at portraits of historical figures, the way we dress is influenced by society. What about the sports we enjoy or how we learn? I become wary when book titles generalize and make either/or statements or over-interpret results. As the information becomes more readily available, how it informs how we teach is incredibly important, however, we can’t just lump kids into one category or another. Each child is unique and the most important thing for an educator is to build a relationship with their student and learn how to serve each one best.

Recently, at edcampis, Rosetta Lee from the Seattle Girls’ School shared a great web tool called ‘gender remixer‘ that takes commercials of ‘boy’ toys and ‘girl’ toys and lets you mix the audio with the video. It’s actually quite fun (and disturbing).

Below is an example of one of the mash-ups. The question remains about gender differences: how much is neurological, and how much is environmental? 

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Hope

Last night I had to fortune to listen to Jane Goodall speak. It’s interesting how one can make someone’s life seem very linear and predictable (just read any famous person’s wikipedia article) as you put together their experiences and achievements together, but in fact, sometimes opportunities lie everywhere. It’s whether we are able to notice them and somehow be supported through the process.

There were several things that struck me about her life story. One major one was the seemingly unending support of her mother. Jane had a mother that recognized her potential and always fostered and nurtured it. Jane recalled a story about when her mother found her in bed when she was less than two years old hanging on to some earthworms under her bedcovers. Instead of dismissing it, Jane’s mother told her that the worms needed the earth to live and that they should go put the worms back where they belong.

Even though she didn’t have enough money to go to college, she worked and saved and ended up taking a boat to what was known then as “The Dark Continent” after a friend said that she could stay on that friends farm. No one believed anything good would come of it. They gave her lots of reasons not to go. She was a woman, she didn’t have a college degree, Africa was dangerous, and the list goes on.  All except her mother who went with Jane to Africa. While in Africa, she was advised to call a Kenyan archeologist named Louis Leaky who gave her a job and 6 months to observe chimps. She went, camped, observed and after surviving the chimps aggressive initial behaviors, she discovered that they used tools. That discovery led to National Geographic getting involved and of course, funding.

Through Leaky, Goodall also received a letter from Cambridge University offering her a place in a Ph.D. program. I love the way Jane mentions that they thought they (or Leaky) didn’t have time to waste on a B.A. Well, all her professors told her she had done everything wrong, but that didn’t stop her.

Later, at a conference, she heard about too many chimps being held captive in tiny cages for the duration of their entire lives for the purpose of experimentation and at that moment became an activist. From that, she thought of the power of hope that lies with our children and founded a program called Roots and Shoots (you can click here for the educator’s page).

If there were a few key ideas I got from this lecture, it’s that we need to find the passion in our lives and just one person needs to support and nourish it. The other thing was hope in our future. If we didn’t believe we could make this planet a better one, one that is sustainable, one of peace, one that recognizes differences as opportunities, collaborates to solve problems, etc. and pass that hope and optimism to the children we teach, why bother.

 

Is Alice in Wonderland appropriate for a second grader?

I think every family has a different belief of what is appropriate or inappropriate for their children to watch (or read). One of the best things to do is vet it yourself. Sometimes that’s difficult to do, but websites like commonsensemedia.org are great resources. They itemize items like violence, sexual content, use of alcohol consumption and to what degree. Parents or teachers can then make an informed choice. They review books, video games, and other media sources.

Last night I went to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. I have been a Tim Burton fan since Edward Scissorhands and thought this adaptation was great. It also had some great positive messages: believe in yourself, don’t believe anything is impossible, have faith in the ones you trust, only the weak use fear to rule. It also doesn’t play to the usual female hero stereotypes and had a great female protagonist. Still, with amazing 3-D effects, in 6 story IMAX, and an intense soundtrack, this movie might just be a little too dark for the average 8 year old. That would be my judgement, but it doesn’t mean that someone else has a different sense of what ‘appropriate’ looks like.  For example, the caterpillar is smoking from a hookah. That wouldn’t bother me at all as I feel I could easily have that conversation with someone who’s 8. Another person might find that character trait too offensive. Because of that, short of previewing the movie, video game, or book itself, websites like commonsensemedia.org are a great tool to make an informed decision.  For me, it’s never about censorship, it’s about being informed. Oh, and if you’re a purist to Carroll’s work, don’t see this movie. It’s an adaptation. Great for older kids to discuss, compare, and contrast.

Update on Gender Stereotyping

Possibly because one of my sessions (see Straightlaced post) focused on gender stereotypes, this ad campaign from Dockers seemed to jump out at me. When leaving the conference this weekend to head home, I noticed ads all over the BART station using societal gender stereotypes to sell pants to men. Here is a photo I took from the Powell BART station platform. Visit their website. Offended?

Straightlaced

Update:

Upon leaving San Francisco after the conference, this ad campaign was splattered all over the Powell BART station. See my post.

It’s been a great start to the conference so far. Despite our flight being delayed over an hour and then flying at very low speed so SFO could catch up on landing all the planes, we made it to the registration table, greeted by our head of school with food and snacks only a few minutes late.

The workshop I attended was called Straightlaced, How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up. You can click to read more about the film or see the trailer. The facilitators of the group were Wanda M. Holland Greene Head of The Hamlin School and Amy Scharf from Groundspark – Respect for All Project. We saw clips of Debra Chasnoff’s new documentary, Straightaced and discussed the effects of gender role stereotypes, cultural expectations, and homophobia. Two clips stood out to me. One featured a high school boy who said that he felt like he had to give up choir even though he was enjoying it so he could fit in with his friends. He even admitted that he thought he would have enjoyed it for a couple more years. Another clip featured another high schooler who was a dancer. He mentioned the reality of teasing but said he chose to dance, because that was what he loved to do.

What was different about these two boys’ experience? Could educators affect the mindset of students in such a way that our students can choose to do what they wanted to do?

I came away with several things from this workshop.

  1. Even though we naturally want to categorize things into boxes we can check off: Male/Female; Gay/Straight; Abled/Disabled; White/Black and so on, there is a spectrum that exists and if we want to see people as individuals, we have to give them their own box.
  2. It’s not just ourselves or our students that need to discuss and grow in our understanding of these issues, but also other faculty and parents too. We need to get over the discomfort and really seize upon teachable moments. If a 6 year old boy says to another boy, “Only girls like pink, you’re not a girl, are you?” Will we respond with letting that happen, or will we find a way to have a conversation with both boys so they all feel safe?

The film features kids in middle and high schools, but gender stereotypes start early on and is still pervasive in media. I also hope we remember that when we look at reports about brain research and its findings about how male brains differ from female brains, we don’t forget that a significant number of brains don’t fall into those boxes like the others.

From our discussions with other educators, it was energizing to hear the stories of how so many of their kids feel safe to be who they want to be.