Reading the gender binary

April 21st, 2011 | Filed under: teaching
Books for all children

Should we abandon the idea of boy- and girl-friendly texts?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of teaching to boys and teaching to girls. I even had my mom bring over my battered copy of Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys from the states. My worry is that through these ideas – of accentuating the gender binary in our pedagogical strategies – that we might be enforcing this binary and pushing kids that don’t fit into it further into the fringe. Photo by sleepyneko.

I’m not the most well-read when it comes to YA lit, which is one of the many reasons I adore and appreciate and never take for granted the wonders of librarians. I depend on them and seek them out when I need recommendations or ideas of how to engage a student. Maybe the librarian even knows this student and can give me some ideas about what he might like. I get that it is much easier to describe texts with terms like “boy-friendly” or “girl-friendly.” It’s important to get boys reading. I will never dispute that. But I wonder if it’s more important for us to frame this as getting children reading and abandon this binary.

Thanks to amazing programs and a society with more and more progressive leaders, children are feeling more empowered to come out as whoever they might be. Young girls are coming out as lesbians at an earlier age. Boys are coming out as gay. Children are self-identifying as genders other than the ones they were assigned at birth. And then there are those “tom-boys” and “sensitive guys” that don’t fit the ideas of what publishers deem “boy-friendly.” What about all of these kids?

As a woman I know I’m often offended at the assumption I love rom-coms and tear-jerker films…or that I love jokes about high heels and how “men just don’t get it.” I don’t, for the record. I like documentaries and funny movies and sci-fi. I like comic books. I love RPG video games, but don’t like first-person shooters and things like Call of Duty. I love computers and technology and reading about science. But then again I also love cooking and read food blogs. I love knitting and arts and crafts. I enjoy surrounding myself with artists and designers. I despise clothing and shoe shopping, but like going to the hardware store and DIY projects. I liked R.L. Stine books as a child, but could never get into The Babysitter’s Club, though I had been known to read a few Sweet Valley High books. So…what book might a publishing company recommend for me?

People are complex and children are even more complex as they explore their identities and try to pinpoint who they are and who they want to become. Labels are helpful and make parts of our jobs easier, but they can dehumanize and mask the personality nuances that could allow us to see the real child hiding underneath. The girl that loves to knit but watches sci-fi and likes weilding a handsaw. Or the boy that loves to read fashion magazines, watch Top Model, and is captain of his soccer team.

I attended an ALAN convention once and sought out an LGBT workshop. This is a passion of mine and has been since I started on this teaching journey. I want every child to feel welcome and comfortable in my classroom – not ashamed or afraid to be who he or she or ze wants to be. It was refreshing to hear that authors were moving from books with the expected LGBT themes of coming out to including characters who are amazing and complex and who just happen to be gay. We as educators also need to look for books like these. Consider titles that include diverse characters – diverse in race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. I’ve been thinking a great deal about these things as I have been charged with developing language arts curriculum and selecting books for the new international school I’m helping to open this fall. I feel a heavy weight of responsibility as I do this – not something I’m taking lightly – and something I’m seeking the help of others in doing because I know it’s dangerous to have one person make all of these choices. One person with biases, ideas, and perspectives.

So how do we do this? How does our language and how we label text effect the ways in which we help students (all students) learn and experience our classrooms?

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Shrugging off cynicism

April 19th, 2011 | Filed under: personal

Mama Worrell helping me see with new eyes.

I just returned from a trip to Paris with my mom (“Mama Worrell”) and my partner Thomas. It was amazing, frustrating, fun, exhausting…all of the things you’d imagine it to be. We saw amazing art, ate the best falafel of our lives (I’m still dreaming about it), and witnessed monstrosities like the Eiffel Tower. I had moments of wonder as I held my mother’s hand climbing stairs throughout this amazing city. And I had moments of despair as I tried to ignore four young African men trying to sell pieces of string as friendship bracelets. There is a lot of poverty every where I look, even when I’m not trying to see it. Seeing these sides of a touristy city make it hard for me to not feel ashamed of myself as I waltz around spending money in a place where so many struggle.

But then I remember the life I lived growing up with my mother working her ass off to support her children while my father was out of work. The mother who didn’t think twice about her pride when it came to seeking social assistance to feed her children. The mother who worked two full time jobs. The mother who got to go on one vacation to Florida with us when I was 11 years old. The mother who was probably still paying off the debt from that trip for years after.

Experiences are relative. I try to tell myself that when I feel guilty enjoying something I know many around the world wouldn’t dream of being able to. I sometimes envy those with thicker skin – the ones that can turn their empathy on and off when they want to really, hedonistically enjoy something without a hint of shame.

I made sure I brought a video camera with me to document all of my mama’s reactions and learning and amazement. I knew this was important and exciting. I’m still not sure how I’m going to compile the whole thing – maybe a few mini movies – but I just know I need to get this on record somewhere. So we can go back and see that from those humble and heart-wrenching beginnings, a family can still make it to the Eiffel Tower and read into that achievement however they wish. It can be nothing – just a trip – or it can be something inspiring. An event to give us happy memories and hope and pride and comfort that it was all worth it somehow. Mama is still pulling 60-hour weeks on nights as a nurse just to be able to fly over here and visit me. But she made it. While her 57-year-old body and achey knees struggled climbing and descending the many stairs of the Paris Metro (not even to begin talking about the stairs she climbed to the Sacré-Cœur), she would turn to me and say with pain still furrowed into her brow, “I can’t believe I’m here,” or put her arm around me and say “Can you believe we’re in Paris…together?”

This was my second time visiting Paris, but it felt new all over again seeing it alongside my mother – a person with whom I share a closeness that Hallmark cards and commemorative mugs can’t begin to explain. As I witnessed her wonder I couldn’t help but think about my work with students and bearing witness to their discoveries and amazements. I’m a bit of a cynical traveler when I visit cities like Paris, seeing the wealthy flaunt their money and my eyes turning instead to beggars and souvenir sellers and wondering about their stories and struggles. I couldn’t even bring myself to visit Versailles since I knew it would frustrate me – to wonder how much money is laid in every inch of that place that could have been used in more productive ways. I rarely see beauty in monuments, but rather waste and death of those used to create it. Traveling with me can be tiring, as you can probably tell.

I came from a low-income family that did a pretty good job of faking lower middle class status thanks to credit cards. It gives me perspectives I’m happy to have, but in some ways clouds my experience of other cultures and monuments and sites. I wouldn’t change anything, but I want to be more like my mother. Someone that can walk into a city wide-eyed, amazed, and not let the scars of her life taint her experience with cynicism. I am always learning from her and from the children I teach and hope to teach.

It’s never to late to shrug off the cynicism and see with new eyes. I’m trying.

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