Equity & Diversity Opinion

How to Talk About Sexism in the Classroom

By Ariel Sacks — January 24, 2017 10 min read
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Recently, I found myself in unfamiliar territory as a teacher. This was sparked when I found myself in an argument with some students during an unplanned whole class discussion. Though I was out of my comfort zone, the conversation seemed deeply important—to me and the students. Eager to make the most of the learning opportunity, that evening I turned to my community on Facebook of all places. What followed was more learning and still more questions! As I plan my next steps, I want to share the conversation here.

Here’s what I posted to my community on Facebook:

“Educators and others who think about social issues— I can use some help: I got into a conversation with students in English class today about sexism, brought up by a pattern (out of the classroom, but among our students) of middle schools boys making critical comments about girls’ bodies.

In the course of an energized, basically positive conversation, some boys brought up that girls can be sexist, too. In a moment that I could have handled better, I argued against this, instead of probing further.

I explained (“teacher-splained”?) that sexism is a system that gives males power and undermines women and that is bigger than any one person’s actions; that individual girls or women can stereotype men, be prejudiced toward them and can be oppressive toward individual men, but that men don’t experience sexism, because it’s a system that by definition gives them privilege. Many girls expressed agreement with this idea, but many vocal boys had a very hard time with the idea, and shared some examples of what they perceive as sexism by females in their lives.

We didn’t get to finish, so we will continue the discussion tomorrow, but this pushed some buttons and I’ll need to be thoughtful when I approach it tomorrow.

As I reflect, I’m wondering... doesn’t this same system confine men to narrow, sometimes harmful definitions of masculinity? Is that sexism or heterosexism or just stereotyped gender roles? Is it a matter of degree? Do the -"isms” on some level affect everyone in a negative way, though power is totally uneven? Does the argument rely on looking at the history? Is violence a key factor?

Any help would be great because we will pick the conversation right back where we left off tomorrow.”

What I got back in the form of comments from my assortment of friends and colleagues, not only helped me to think through a complex issue, but it showed me the great value of a diverse online community that includes teachers and non educators.

Here is the discussion that followed:

Molly, a filmmaker and author of the amazing new book Gamechangers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History (English and History teachers take note!) wrote: “You could do a writing exercise where all students list the past 10 tv shows they have seen and 10 movies. From there have them list the main characters and describe the roles they played.......They might be surprised.”

Jenna, a literacy program director said, “I feel like this could be an entire research and debate mini-unit. Could also be a great opportunity to read a bit from what other sources/writers/bloggers are saying about the topic and examine author bias. So great that you’ve opened this up for discussion. Good luck!”

This got me thinking. I replied, “I know! It would take us “off track"—I mean, my curriculum is a track I created so I do have the power to change course... I could actually turn it into a writing thread concurrent with our reading plan which will deal with stereotypes as well as racism (Sherman Alexie next).”

Bill, a teacher leader at a girls’ school adds: “Two good film resources if you want are “Miss Representation” (on how patriarchy affects girls and women) and “The Mask You Live In” (on how patriarchy affects boys and men). I’ve done the first with my kids, and it’s amazing. They’re both from the same people.

I also find that patriarchy is often a useful term as it focuses on the system and not the individuals within it. I also tend to use the terms gender bias and gender stereotypes when talking at the individual level. My school being a feminist girls school, these kinds of issues tend to come up. “

Adam, ELA instructional leader in NYC, adds, “Lots of thoughts. Among them, different words have different meanings to different people. There could be an inquiry into whether power impacts whether “ism” applies, as we both would argue. That’s an interesting intellectual exercise but could distract from issue of IMPACT, which seems most relevant here, along with causes of behavior in terms of where we get messages about what behavior is acceptable and how we decide to act - or just succumb to behaviors without making a conscious choice or perhaps because of felt social pressure... Also, it could be interesting to consider with respect to loved ones, and how people would feel about comments being directed towards mom or sister (and if different if directed towards dad or brother). I could go on but will leave it there for now.”

I replied: “Yeah, the boys felt up in arms when I said they don’t experience sexism. But it bothered me not so much that they felt this way, but that their reaction was so string, it completely overshadowed or distracted them from reflecting further about their own actions; meanwhile girls were nodding at what I was saying, in a relieved way, not a gloating way at all. The response couldn’t have been more contrasting. The male students’ responses reminded me a bit of how “white fragility” is being used in the issue of race conversations. Except that in this case, I do think gender stereotypes are quite damaging to adolescent boys. That’s the part that is tripping me up. Anyway, understanding the impact is a good place to focus. And I think we will do much better if I step off the podium and let them investigate.”

Amanda replied: “So curious to hear how it goes today. Will you update us Ariel?! I think it’s a good practice to step back and see where the students take the discussion, as long as it remains a safe space for dialogue.”

Brielle, a math teacher in NJ writes, “I agree with your explanation as it is consistent with how I frame racism and who is racist versus prejudiced. But when we talk about racism, there’s an opportunity for people to be anti-racist. Do the boys in your class see themselves in a way that could be considered anti-sexist? Or what would that mean to them?”

Amber, former ESL teacher, shares this lesson plan on diagramming sexism from teaching tolerance. She adds, “Could be interesting to have them look up various definitions of sexism-for example the one in the lesson above states it is only against women, but the Merriam dictionary says ‘especially ' women but not necessarily.”

Liliana, ELA teacher in NYC writes: "...that it “confines men to narrow harmful definitions of masculinity” stands out to me and feels important. I once saw a TED talk that spoke beautifully about this... I’ll see if I can find it. Beautiful that you’re having these conversations. All the best tomorrow.”

Suzanne, ELA teacher in California, adds, “Maybe too late for tomorrow, but check out react-text: 1150 http://therepresentationproject.org/ /react-text . Misrepresentation is a good documentary about gender stereotypes and representation of females in media and how it can affect. More recently she made The Mask You Live In, a documentary about stereotypes and cultural norms around masculinity and how they affect teen boys. The Mask You Live In has been on my Netflix queue for over a year now, and I still haven’t watched it for no good reason. (Waiting to be pedagogically in that mind space?) I suspect both films would be fantastic to spend a lot of time on in class along with other readings.

Dalnirys, a guidance counselor in Dominican Republic, explained that she doesn’t the stereotypes and discrimination toward women and other groups of today doesn’t differ too much from that of the past. She also sees that feminism can sometimes be taken too far to seemingly promote inequality.

Marie, who teaches in Michigan offered, “I did a visual rhetoric unit this year with a focus on power structures/ roles. A quick look at children’s toys/ ads can establish both the message and the messenger that kids absorb at an early age... Mermaids in bikinis?”

“Another access point is Disney,” adds John, an art teacher and education professor in North Carolina.

Deanna, who teaches at a Jewish Day School in Chicago brings up an important point: “The first thing I thought about was the gender gap in education: that girls graduate HS, and enroll in and graduate college at higher rates than boys in the US. What is it about the system that could be behind this? This might be another area for your students to research. Here’s one article that quotes a relevant study: Boys vs. Girls: What’s behind the college grad gender gap?

Nat, a playwright, sparked my thinking with another excellent point: “Sexism against men is a form of misogyny. Toxic masculinity requires that anything deemed “feminine” must be cut away from male-bodied people. If boys say ‘But girls get to ____ and we don’t!’, ask them why they aren’t allowed to do those things. The answers will come down to “it’s girly/weak and therefore bad. Girls are actually permitted a much fuller range of gender expression because we have fought to gain masculine space and expression, while boys have it categorically denied. Think about how a mom is accused of child abuse if her son wears a dress, but making an analogous claim about a girl in pants is actually laughable. Masculinity is associated with freedom. A girl in pants can do more and move more. Femininity is associated with limitation. A boy in a dress = why? What can he do in it? He’s not allowed to be considered beautiful or to be objectified. Femininity is seen as taxing, so impossible to be employed for net gain.”

I chimed in, “I’d add... by patriarchy. There are many who can find power in their own sense of femininity, though it’s impossible to detangle from cultural constructs that influence us, there are authentic responses which can challenge power structures. I know you’re not denying this but still wanted to say it!

Jon shares, “As a mom who raised boys, i can see where your boys would make an objection to such a closed definition of the word sexism...”

Glenda suggested designing kind of simulation experience that could help students reflect on the issue. Shebah responded, “Yes, the “walk in my shoes” simulation would be highly effective in creating empathy and cementing comprehension on a visceral, and not simply theoretical/mental level...you could do this based on historical timelines, where boys experience the subjugation of not being able vote, for example.”

Sarah, a poet in Washington, hit on an important factor in the debate with students: “It’s also interesting that in their own daily lives boys often experience authority figures who are mostly women. So there’s some cognitive dissonance to see larger cultural dynamics at the same time.”

I responded, “This tension came up today. A male student shared a story of a teacher in elementary school who behaved in a way that’s hard not to view as sexist. She apparently didn’t teach the boys to tie their shoes because they “don’t care” to learn. And because, as the student recalls, she said the girls were smarter. 😠 hard to hear of this kind of thing coming from a fellow teacher.”

Bill added, “One point I didn’t bring up this morning but which your kids might have mentioned is how all of this relates to non-binary identities and gender non-conforming people. Both of those identities and ways of being are defined in opposition to something and not from within. What are the implications of that? What does society’s reaction to the expansion of the gender spectrum tell us about society? about patriarchy?”

This conversation totally opened up my thinking on these big, pressing questions of adolescence and adulthood!

I posted this update the next day:

“Quick update: we talked for a whole period and they did not want to stop. I mostly just facilitated. I promised we would continue, but probably dividing into small groups to look into different subtopics that came up and which were NOT resolved! There is so much interest and need to discuss these issues. I’ll try to update more specifically on some of the conversation later. Thank you for the discussion and ideas! It’s been so helpful and encouraged me to keep giving the students space. The participation by students has been overwhelming. I think even if we don’t arrive at some of the key understandings I want to see, they are getting a huge lesson about the value of a community/ democratic(?) forum, where they are able to speak and listen to a diverse group--not just their friends-- on a topic that matters.”

It’s been about a month and students have continued asking for more time to discuss this. So now I’m revisiting and planning how to do that. If you have any resources, comments or suggestions, please share!

Image by Flickr user arno_bxl licensed under Creative Commons

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