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.