Anne Namuth and Ashley Calhoun,
Westlake Middle School, Colorado
I was catching up on some professional reading and found in the middle of my to read sometime this year pile a copy of the WILLA journal the call for papers for the themed issue: Gender, Teaching and Learning: The Journey. Being a first year language arts teacher I find myself as both a teacher and learner. I began to wonder. Where I was in the journey as a teacher and as learner?
I was sure of where I was in the journey as a learner. I was very fortunate to have had professors in college that made me aware of gender issues-as they applied to both men and women. The textbooks I read offered realistic and applicable information, which also helped me to understand my place in the journey. Yet I wondered, what am I doing as a teacher to help my own students-both male and female-to begin their own journey of discovering the gender role they are choosing? Do I actually model what I believe? What kind of text do provide for them? Do I give them realistic and applicable information like the type that helped me in my own journey?
I was not able to come to a quick or easy answer. Instead, I began to think about the different students in my classes. I mentally reviewed who was reading what, what kind of questions usually came up during discussion, what books were most often checked out, and what topics students chose to write about. One particular student came to mind--Ashley. Ashley gave me a lot to think about because she often had a lot to write about. When I asked for three paragraphs, she wrote five. When I assigned a page, she wrote two. Her writing was well developed with sensory details and memorable characters.
Back at school, my questions returned as I read through the student's assignments. I decided to write Ashley a note about what I noticed in her writing on this particular day. That letter prompted a convers-ation between Ashley and me that helped us both to observe her writing, my teaching, our language arts class, the new literature book, and even the books in our school library and local book stores with a new awareness towards gender. The following exchange of letters is where we found ourselves on the journey.
I was looking back over some of the writing you have turned in--I wanted to select some entries for an upcoming local writing competition. I was looking for that piece you wrote about the boy who really enjoyed the hot air balloon ride. It was a very descriptive piece. In looking for it, I noticed that every character you've created has been a boy. That got me to thinking about the kind of characters in our new literature book. I looked back through our lit. book and saw both boy and girl characters, but mostly boys, though. I hadn't noticed that before. Tomorrow during class, would you please take a minute to jot down where it is you get ideas for the characters you create? Also, I am going to give you a copy of an article to read--I think you will find it interesting. Read it sometime this week. You may want to ask one of your parents to read it with you--there are some parts that are a bit technical because it was written for an adult audience. Make some notes in the margins as you go and pass it back to me. I am curious to know what you think of it.
[The article I gave Ashley is "Men Who Weep, Boys Who Dance: The Gender Agenda Between the Lines in Children's Literature," by Mem Fox, Language Arts, 70, February 1993, p. 84-86.]
Dear Mrs. N.,
I have read the article you gave me the other night and I noticed a lot of interesting things. I was surprised to read that 85% of the main characters are males. That's when I noticed that all the stories I write have main characters that are males. I am going to make sure the next story I write has the main character as a girl.
I read this book once and the dad thought his son was nuts because his son's two best friends were girls and he did not like sports but loved writing, which I thought was just crazy. I also noticed that my brother acts differently around my family than with his friends. When he's around the family he dresses up, plays with dolls and colors. When he is with his friends it's trees, bikes, water, mud and being a dare devil. Everybody thinks girls are sugar and spice and everything nice, and boys are messy clothes, mud and noise. We need to put a stop to this because it's not true. One person I know, my sister, did not listen to this, which is cool. She loves sports and messing around outside with her family and friends. Girls can act tough and boys can be soft and sweet I hope some day everyone will understand. I think one way we can change this is through literature. Books need to show that girls can like boy things and boys can like girl things. I also think that if we start when they're little, K-3rd grade, then when they are my age they will feel like they can do or be whatever they want without anyone telling them they are wrong.
What a passionate response you had to that article! I think you pointed out something very important -that it is important for us to give young boys permission to like girl things and young girls permission to like boy things. I agree with you because I have noticed that by the time most students are your--age-sixth grade---they have started to learn how to behave one way and talk to adults another. For example, one day during reading, Lucus did not have his book and needed something to read. I put Avi's True Confessions of Charlotte Do-We in his hands. I thought he would enjoy it because it is a fast-paced adventure on the high seas. The next day I asked him how he was enjoying the book. He told me it was okay-but he did not really want to finish it because it was about a girl. I was very surprised! Have you read that book? If I had to pick the best introductory sentence of a novel-it would be the one from that book. Not every twelve--year-old girl has been convicted of murder on the high seas. When he said he didn't want to read about a girl he seemed nervous and immediately changed his response to something about being in the middle of another book and perhaps Avi's is one he will read later. He knew that it was not really appropriate to say he did not want to read about a girl-but I also knew he never would pick up the Avi book again. The way in which he reacted to the book was much different than the way in which he was willing to talk to me about it. Younger children though, like your brother, are willing to be more honest about their feelings toward the things they read. Take a minute think about the books your brother reads. It does: matter if it is one he picked out for himself, or one was given by his teacher. What do you think he would say about the books? The main characters? T things that the main characters do? Do you think would put a book down because the main character was a girl? Or because the book had a main character that was a boy who liked girl things? Books (and '1 and movies) create permission for people to certain ways. Remember the article you read---talked about this. Those permissions have the most powerful influence on children who are young. They have not yet learned to behave one way and talk another--like Lucus. I do think there are some good books out there that have created the kind of permissions we have been talking about--permission for boys to be a bit of sugar and spice and for girls be a bit adventurous and rough. I wonder, though what books young children are picking out for themselves. I wonder if it is different from what adults are picking out for their young children. If you children are sensitive to understanding the permissions we want them to, but the adults are not putting new permissions in their hands--then how we go about changing the stereotypes? Do you think you would be able to spend a couple of hours at the bookstore this weekend? Talk to your parents about it. We could watch the people in there and take guess at some of the questions we are coming up with. If you have a minute, talk to your brother about the things he is reading. I am interested to know what he has to say. Sincerely, Mrs. N.
Dear Mrs. N.,
I re-read the article, "Men Who Weep Boys Who Dance" again and the author said it is important that we change this and I think so too. Kids my age need to be able to feel free, read what they want without feeling that they are different. We need to change this at a slow pace so no one really knows what's happening (sneaky!) Which is true, if no one knows, we can get to the little ones then when they get older that's how they will write and think. The spell (stereotype) will be broken! I hope my little brother will stay just as free thinking when he's my age. When he goes and picks out books he picks out what interests him. It does not matter if the main character is a boy or a girl. I asked him the other day what kind of books he likes to read and he told me. Truck books, monkey stories, mystery stories and sport books about girls or boys. Now kids my age would think that boy was crazy! So that proves to me when you're little you are free to read what you want and it doesn't matter. As you get older you start to care. The author in the article pointed this out. Sure, little kids don't care, but what about their parents who have grown up with this stereotype? They're the ones who buy the books and read to their kids. How are we going to change their minds? To change this way of writing and thinking if is going to take a lot of work. No one said changing years and years of a certain way of thinking was going to be easy, but it has to stop. Maybe slowly, one small kid at a time we can change their thinking and they can read what's interesting to them!
One small kid at a time--that sounds impossible, but when you think about it, that is how we got to where we are now. Let's meet up with each other at the bookstore this weekend. We can look at what kids are asking their parents to buy--versus what the parents say yes to. It will be interesting. We can take some notes and compare them to what Mem Fox says and to what we have been talking about.
Ashley and I did not expect that our 2 hours at the bookstore would give us an ingenious answer to all of our ponderings--but we did take some interesting notes. One of the first books that we picked up was Oliver Button is a Sissy by Tomie de Paola. In it, a young boy is teased because he does not like to do boy things. His parents encourage him to do boy things for the exercise. Oliver does get exercise, but he gets it by dancing, which only lead to more teasing. When Oliver enters a talent show and wins, he finds that his dancing is more acceptable to his family and peers.
We found a couple of new books by Todd Parr. They are written for preschool-aged children. One is called The Mommy Book and the other is The Daddy Book. Each one shows how different moms and dads can be. One mom drives a station wagon while the other rides a motorcycle. One dad works in the office while the other cooks dinner.
As we continued to wander around the children's section, we noticed that some books--and some sections of the store--were definitely packaged for either girls or boys. But, the most important shelf---the one at the eye level of children was made to attract both genders to a variety of books.
Books about trucks were placed next to books about Barbie. Craft books were next to science books. The variety of books available is encouraging-but what is it that children pick for themselves? More importantly, what is it parents are willing to buy for their children? We did see some of what we expected--young girls asking for Barbie and young boys asking for trucks. But, we also saw some of what we had hoped for--a young brother and sister sharing the Mommy Book and a mother buying her son his book of choice--Oliver Button.
Ashley, like most of my students, is just starting to find herself aware of the different roles men and women have in our society. She has just begun the journey. During this discussion with Ashley, I've begun to answer those questions about myself-the ones that I began to ask myself on a Monday in the tire shop. Yes, I model my beliefs-that boys can be sugar and spice and girls can be adventurous and rough. When Ashley wrote to me that stereotypes will be changed one small child at a time, I felt like I had been hurled back to the beginning of my own journey-to start all over again.
As a teacher, I am fortunate to come in contact with more than one small child at a time. I see 80 children everyday. I realize, thanks to Ashley, that I am starting a new journey. It is not enough to model what I believe. Being a model is important, yes--but now I need to take some of those written permissions that are in books and put them into the hands of my students. As a teacher, and a learner, I will join my students in discovering that we have the power to create and chose our roles as males and females. Even though my students are not as sensitive to those permissions as a preschooler might be, they are still reading many different things. Maybe Lucus will never read True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, but who's to say that the student next to him will not?
Reference Citation: Namuth, Anne, and Calhoun, Ashley. (2002) "Dear Ashley." WILLA, Volume 11, p. 15-17.