Saturday, October 15, 2011

Language of Gender

This year I moved from fifth grade to fourth.  I’ve taught fourth before but it’s been about 6 years.  So I forgot that, for 8 and 9 year olds, gender issues crop up often.  They want a separation between boys and girls.  They don’t want to sit next to each other or partner with each other. But in my classroom, I work very hard to remove gender preferences.  No boys and girls lines in the hallway.  No ban on opposite gender partners.  And a careful focus on language. 

So when we had an opportunity for four students who had run our weekly meeting to choose the next week’s students, I told them each to choose someone of the opposite gender.  Boys pick girls, girls pick boys.   The first three students chose quickly but the last boy was quite hesitant.  He looked carefully around and said, “I don’t really want to choose a girl so I will choose the tomboy” and proceeded to name Mary (name changed).  Mary looked crestfallen, most of the other students gasped and looked at me, and the boy who chose was oblivious to it all. 

Never one to back away from a teachable moment, I took the opportunity to discuss his decision.  First, I pointed out that he had labeled Mary and had Mary talk about how that made her feel.  Next, I told him he insulted every other girl in the room and had the girls talk about how that felt.  Finally, we talked about the term tomboy.  Some children had never heard the term before and I said I was actually surprised anyone knew the term today.  We talked about how, when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, being called a tomboy was equivalent to saying you were a feminist.  And it wasn’t said as a compliment.  I also explained that, for me, it made me unhappy because it meant that, when I wanted to wear a dress or makeup, I felt uncomfortable because everyone expected me to only wear pants and not care about my looks.  When I announced my plans to be a teacher, everyone was surprised I would choose a typically female career.

Today, we don’t have to separate what girls can do from what boys can do.  Both men and women serve in the armed forces.  More men are becoming nurses and teachers.  More women are choosing to be mechanics and pilots.  We don’t have to be constricted by gender.  And calling a girl a tomboy just pushes us back to the past.

This led to a discussion about other language we use.  I am very careful to never call my students guys.  Why would I eliminate half my class?  Why would I tell my class that only one gender is important enough to focus on?  We’ve discussed history, as opposed to herstory, Mrs. (derived from Master’s), and manufacture.  We have so many words in our language that tell girls it is better to be male than female.  And while I am not proposing we change all the language (I am still called Mrs. Parisi), I am careful not to perpetuate those I can easily avoid.  So no guys, no tomboys, and no talk of something being only for girls or boys.  And I am helping my students to understand why.


pat said...

Now in our school here in Jersey that would be part of our new HIB (Harassment/Intimidation/Bullying) Law, and we would have to spend 30 min filling out a form, having our principal, guidance counselor and safety officer meet, both sets of parents contacted, and a letter put in a child's folder, with an appeal by either parent if they wanted! The way you handled it was great!

Lisa Parisi said...

Wow. Talk about overkill. Why don't we start with the assumption that this is "typical" language in our society and we need to change that?

Laurie said...

I appreciate your sensitivity to the gender issue because we all need to work with people who are different from a very early age.

However, I must disagree with the manufacture reference as one of "male" ness. Manufacture is from the Latin words manus (meaning hands) and facio (meaning to make; thus, something manufactured is made by someone's hands NOT by men. Sorry, the Latin Magistra (teacher) in me couldn't let that go.

Vale (Good bye)
Magistra Fowler
aka Dr. Laurie Fowler
former Latin Teacher and current
Technology Geek

Lisa Parisi said...

Thank you for that info, Laurie. Glad I don't have to worry about that word anymore.

Allanah King said...

That's part of the reason that I invite my class to call me Allanah. Not some name defined by my having a husband or not.

I find hierarchal structures difficult to work with and by use of first names puts us all on a similar learning level.

It also means that everyone learns how to pronounce my name how I would like it to be pronounced as everyone gets used to using it.

I know some people think that children lose respect for someone they call by their first name but I have not found it to be so.

Paula Lee Bright said...

Well, guess I'm an old hippy oddity! I call any group of people "guys."

"Hi, you guys!"

"Hey, what are you guys doing? COOL!"

Or maybe it's a St. Louis phraseology that works here but nowhere else?

I don't care so much about the actual details of language. I'm more into the intent. But I agree with the importance of establishing total equality and choice for the future.

We agree. We're just different. :)

Jennifer said...