Editor's Note: Teaching Tolerance launched a new series of lessons about Gender Expression for early grades. This week's featured lesson can be found here.
In my eighth-grade language arts classroom, we use discussion as a vehicle for learning, thinking, writing, posing and defending arguments, questioning and reviewing—just about everything. And as can be expected, we sometimes digress from the topic at hand.
One day as students walked into class, they laughed about a TV commercial selling a brand of soda. They noted how ridiculous and unbelievable it was, especially when a narrator boldly stated that the soda was for men. I was so proud of their discussion and the critical view. They saw the problem of assigning gender to a neutral product.
I then shared my own experience of being a student in a class for teachers. We were exploring young adult literature. I had a disagreement with the professor because he referred to certain books as “girl” books and “boy” books.
A student quickly interrupted me. "Why would you disagree with your teacher? That's true. There are girl books and boy books."
Most of the class joined in and boisterously agreed with the student saying things like, "Dudes don't read books about princesses!" and "Girls won't read about guns and stuff." It was interesting that those same students, who moments before were offended by gender stereotypes in a soda commercial, had no problem labeling books they read by gender.
I told them that I understood there might be books mostly read by boys and others mostly read by girls. However, I didn't think it would be fair to recommend books to students based on their gender.
"When I recommend books to you, I think about you as a person, what you're interested in, what your hobbies are,” I explained. “I think about what you've read in the past, what you've hated, what you've loved. I think about what kind of mood you're in, or that you're probably tired from basketball practice or your music performance that went late last night. I don't want to put you into some category. I don't want to put you into a box that means more about labeling than it means about knowing you.”
I asked students if they wanted me to just arrange our books into two piles, one for boys and one for girls. I reminded them that it’s important to think about people as more than their gender.
My students quietly looked at me. Then, a student said, "Let's not do that box thing."
I’m reminded of why I need to give my students opportunities to talk and think critically. And I must show them that I believe in the necessity of it myself.
Timm is a middle school language arts teacher and creative workshop instructor in Iowa.