Ask an Educator, vol. 1
We received a few great questions this week and are excited to feature one in particular from a middle school teacher on the West Side. Feel free to chime in below and add any suggestions or resources, and keep those questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!
I am a middle school teacher on the West Side of Chicago. I teach an all-boys 7th grade advisory as well as mixed-gender ELA courses from grades 6 through 8. I am writing because I am finding that the sexism and gender-bias propagated by the boys in my classes is becoming more and more problematic. So many of my male students enter my door with some deeply ingrained preconceived notions about women. All of the discriminatory archetypes of women have materialized in my classroom in the form of jokes, casual remarks, imagery, etc. The spinster. The whore. The pure virgin. Derogatory speech has been directed not only to my female students but to me as well. I want to address these notions in a genuine and compassionate manner while encouraging the boys to challenge the sexism that has pervaded the homes they live in and the media the consume. Looking for an organic and compassionate way to dismantle the patriarchy, and I am kind of in disbelief at how present misogyny is in my middle school classroom!
Wading Through Misogyny
First off, thanks so much for reaching out. We're gonna pass this along to one of our counselors and see what she has to say!
Kudos to you for addressing this pervasive and difficult issue! This definitely warrants not only intervention in the moment but ongoing conversation and education. Your eventual goal is to establish a common vocabulary so all students know what your expectations are, starting with naming the behavior "misogynistic language" or "bullying based on gender" or whatever fits your situation best, and ending with concrete expectations about what kind of talk is acceptable vs. unacceptable in your classroom.
I had a similar issue at my school, revolving around the 6th grade boys' persistent verbal assault of the girls, calling them B's and other sexually suggestive names and inundating them with sexual comments. I was supposed to be facilitating a mixed-gender group but the girls refused to go to and I had a few meetings with just the boys to talk about what's been happening.Here are some things we covered:
-Self-esteem: I feel like they had no idea the impact their words and actions would have on the girls' self-esteem, so we dissected: what is self-esteem, where does it come from (how we feel about ourselves; comes from the messages we're inundated w/ all day, from family to peers to MEDIA...)
-MEDIA - segue! You hit the nail on the head... the messages these young men are inundated with have definite repercussions in how they view young women. This was the best convo I had with them: I asked them a lot about what kind of messages they receive about gender via media (particularly social media, and music videos. in their case). I asked them to describe gender roles as best they could, and the overall message they picked out: men get clout for having a ton of half-naked women around them, (and money, cars, other material things); women are just objects, purely for male pleasure, hyper-sexualized and objectified.
After that we talked a lot about double standards; one example that always resonates is asking them to imagine themselves as a father of a 13 yr. old boy and a 13 yr. old girl. Then, inquire how different behaviors would be interpreted ("they have a significant other"; "they are sexually active"; "they contract an STI"; etc.) depending on their gender and make them discuss WHY the expectations are different for young men and women (full circle.) Also- another thing that really helped create a light bulb moment with the young men was using specific comments they've made and asking them what they'd do if someone said that to their sister, or mother, and then pointing out that hypocrisy. This is often a good place to tie-in conversations about empowerment and esteem.
-Bullying: highlight the power imbalance inherent (gender), and there are a ton of stats about negative outcomes for bullies and victims. Even though they're young data still speaks volumes and I think it's often powerful to use some of the negative outcomes of both bullying and being bullied, and tie this in to self-esteem and possible repercussions of being the victim of persistent, degrading language and behavior.
In general, in a lot of cases there are literally no humans telling them it's not appropriate to sexualize women or even pointing out what that means, so doing that is a great first step. It might be cool to get anonymous testimonials (poetry?!) from your gals and make the boys read it, and connect with times they felt in similar ways (sad, insecure, etc.) It's often easy to overlook the intense stigmas in some of our communities against young men expressing any type of emotion whatsoever so trying to find examples of times when they felt degraded/demonized and make as many connections as possible between their own behavior is always a good place to start.
Now, to reiterate, this is coming from a counselor's perspective. So a lot of these interventions would depend upon your relationship w/ your advisory and your comfort level with facilitating some of these conversations/lessons. Is there another adult at your school who has expressed similar concerns or frustrations? Maybe there's an opportunity to partner with other teachers or advisories. I'm imagining if this is happening in your advisory you aren't alone, so it also sounds like there's room for universal programming around some of these ideas. To whom can you advocate? Maybe a counselor, social worker, dean, admin? The timing is tough because the school year is winding down but it sounds like it could be important for all adults in your building to start the next school year equipped with the language to address this behavior as well as consistent, concrete (restorative!) consequences for students who continue to exhibit this behavior.
And of course, the world wide web is FULL of resources for educators in similar situations, but two that stand out in this scenario:
1. Teaching Tolerance - a wealth of resources around gender, stereotypes, media and more.
2. Media Smarts - Exposing Gender Stereotypes lesson (Canada's Centre for Digital and Media Literacy)
Good luck and keep us posted!