Monday, April 27, 2015

What can I do...?

As a teacher, I love my content, and that is most likely true for most teachers. I am an English nerd. I love a good story, a well written sentence, a gorgeously chosen word. I think it is important for my students to have an understanding of how to communicate effectively both through speaking and writing. I hope to help my students learn to, if not love, at the very least enjoy reading. But more than any of that, I hope to help my students build character and broaden their view of society and the world.

We're starting The Crucible this week. For the past month or so I've been mulling over how I want to approach this play and make it interesting and relevant for my students. I decided that I would approach it as a mirror for high school, social groups, reputations, bullying etc. To start us off, today I had my students write a journal response about reputations and then we had a class discussion.

From the get-go, my students surprised me with their thoughts about reputations and social groups. I had predicted that students would care a lot about what their peers thought of them and about their reputations at school. To my surprise, almost everyone said they worried more about what their teachers thought of them than how their peers viewed them. It was a reminder to me that even the most stubborn and difficult of students still wants their teacher to think well of them. Now, of course, this will not apply to every single teenager that crosses my path, but it was a good reminder to me the majority want to do well.

My 4th period blew me away. In the course of our discussion on reputations, a student made the observation that there is a double standard when it comes to girls and boys. Up until this point I'd been mostly moderating the discussion, but letting the students take it where they wanted. As the class continued to talk about reputations and gender, I noticed it was, with one exception, the boys talking about the girls' collective experience. I found it interesting that the female students in my class had, in essence, surrendered their voice. They were allowing their male peers to describe their female experience. I let it continue for a few moments before I stopped the conversation and asked them two questions.

  • Who was doing all the talking? (the boys)
  • What/who were they talking about? (the girls' experience)
The class was silent for a few moments before the boys started chiming in and explaining why girls don't speak up. The most vocal of my female students continued to attempt to share her thoughts, but her voice was drowned out by her male peers.

Again, I stopped the class. I told the boys that for the next five minutes they weren't allowed to talk. I wanted to hear from the ladies in the class. Even at that point only two-three girls spoke up out of 10. One girl said she doesn't speak up because people don't take her seriously. She said a guy can make the same comment that was dismissed when she makes it, but is praised or considered when a boy makes it She continued to say that boys often don't let girls finish their thought or will shut them down right away. 

Up until this point, my male students were seriously struggling to not speak. They were raising their hands and I had to remind them multiple times that it wasn't their turn to talk. One student stood and faced the wall to prevent himself from talking. When my female student made the comment about getting shut down, a male student couldn't contain himself anymore and interjected "We do not!" quite vehemently. While that got a few chuckles from the class, I was so impressed by my students' willingness to discuss these issues AND to honestly consider their complicity in the accepted sexism of our culture. I think some of my male students were truly disturbed and they wanted to know how to fix it How can they change it? That lead to an interesting (student-led) discussion on privilege. 

Sometimes the weight of the responsibility I have to these young men and women presses down on me. At the end of class one student, a young man, looked at me and asked (expecting an answer), "What can I do?" 

I'm not sure what I told him is the right answer. I mean, what is the fix to the gendered bias and sexism of our culture? I told him to be aware of privilege in all its forms and to stop and think about those who are silent. Why are they silent? Can you encourage them to to speak? I told all of them - male and female - don't let people take away your voice. Don't let anyone take away your truth.

And lest anyone think that we didn't talk about the content, I was able to  nicely tie the entire conversation back to The Crucible. We talked briefly about the Madonna/whore dichotomy and they got a crash course in feminist literary theory. We didn't talk about the historical and contemporary context of the play - but I think it was an hour well spent. 


Feisty Harriet said...

This is the best thing I've read in ages. I love that this happened in your class and how you handled the conversation.

Also, I wish it could happen every day. For you, for them, and for all of us.