Teachers' journeys to understanding gender issues with students in the elementary grades have just begun, and questions about how gender affects the quality of interactions in literature discussion groups had not been systematically addressed until recently. In two studies published this year teacher-researchers embarked on the journey by analyzing students' interactions in mixed gender groups for literature discussions.
According to data reported by Karen Evans (2002), gender composition in groups influenced how students "participated in and experienced their discussion groups" (p. 59). The fifth-grade students in Evans' study were asked to describe how well or how poorly their literature groups functioned and to identify factors that promoted or hindered discussion. Students consistently noted that they experienced more difficulties with literature discussion in mixed-gender than same-gender groups. The results from this year-long study revealed that both boys and girls took "us versus them" perspectives in mixed-gender groups. Girls and boys divided themselves into subgroups. Although they demonstrated a clear understanding of conditions necessary for discussions and explained how their absence blocked communications, students blamed the other gender rather than the whole group for failing to produce conditions conducive to effective literature discussions.
Evans found that the students cited several reasons for preferring same-gender groups. First, they said they felt more comfortable with their same-gender peers and were able to participate more in discussions. The students also indicated that their age was making gender a source of discomfort because boys and girls were beginning to "like" each other. They said they felt uncomfortable, shy, or embarrassed when they were supposed to talk about literature with gender-different group members. Finally, the students stated that boys and girls have different interests and want to talk about different things. These fifth graders reported that their efforts and ideas were limited rather than expanded by gender differences in discussion groups.
In an analysis of literature discussion groups with third graders, Beth Maloch (2002) found that teachers must provide supports that scaffold students' talk in literature discussion groups. She stated "when students move from a teacher-led format to a student-led one, they face multiple demands, including interpersonal, inte-r-actional, and response-related issues" (p. 109). She elaborated by saying that transitions to student--led discussion groups produced less than successful interactions because groups must overcome "inequities related to gender or social status, students who are marginalized, and student talk and discussion that is not purposeful or engaging" (p. 109).
These researchers suggest that the sources of problems in gender--different literature discussion groups cannot be eliminated by resorting to groups configured only with members of the same gender. Instead, Evans (2002) recommends that it is the teacher's responsibility to "step in when we see students engaging in behaviors that silence or marginalize other students" (p. 66). Maloch emphasizes the importance of teachers' scaffolding student-led talk in ways that promote interaction and tolerance by gradually releasing responsibility to students as they demonstrate tolerance and respect for both the other gender in literature discussion groups.
If members of society are to function together, then gender issues cannot be overlooked or avoided by educators. While students should be aware of gender differences, these differences should not hinder their ability to function in discussion groups. It becomes the teacher's responsibility to support and encourage discussion groups that facilitate mixed-gender inter-actions and help students become more understanding of each individual's unique identities, characteristics, and interpre-tations of literature-thus, the journey continues.
Evans, K.S. (2002). Fifth-grade students' perceptions of how they experience literature discussion groups. Reading Research Quarterly, 37 (1) , 46-69.
Maloch, B. (2002). Scaffolding student talk: One teacher's role in literature discussion groups. Reading Research Quarterly, 37(1), 94-111.
Note: Angela S. Raines is a doctoral student in Reading Education at Auburn University, a teacher at Beauregard High School, a member of NCTE, and a brand new member of WILLA.
Reference Citation: Raines, Angela S., and Brabham, Edna. (2002). "Journeys Toward Understanding the Role of Gender in Literature Discussions." WILLA, Volume 11, p. 18, 20.