Today we will begin a new thematic unit studying gender, with the overarching questions of: What is the impact of the gender roles that society creates and enforces? When do gender roles become stereotypes of what it means to be a woman or man? What forces define gender roles? How does the setting and context of growing up effect gender identity and decision-making?
This can be, of course, a somewhat touchy subject for a teenager just recognizing how gender effects them, so today I want to provide a theoretical framework for them with the use of activities outlined in the book Helping Teens Stop Violence by Allan Crieghton and Paul Kivel. This is an amazing resource for addressing social issues with teens, as it contains workshops and activities for addressing race, gender, social class, etc. For today, I will use a small portion of the section on gender that helps kids recognize just how strong gender roles can be on all of us.
Because the activity is a bit sensitive in nature, I will first get them thinking about the overarching questions for the unit by reading the introductory page in the textbook The Language of Composition 2e out loud and having students write a ten-minute free-write addressing the questions (reading out loud allows me to place emphasis where I want to, add clarifications, etc.). Having done this activity many times in the past, both in English classes and in teen leadership workshops, my expectation is that students will, to some extent, downplay the effect of gender codes on themselves in their free-write and our initial discussion. After the writing is done, we will have a short sharing time to get some of their thoughts out on the table. While the students of this class are very comfortable with each other, they are still teens and self-conscious, so I still want to spend some time letting them vocalize their thoughts on this topic on their terms, with a more casual discussion. My expectation is that there will be a couple jokes concerning their observations, as well as some down-play of the effect. This will lead well into the next activity, which is meant to disavow that notion.
I love this activity, as it allows students to share things about themselves, or share their ideas, in a safe manner because they don’t have to vocalize them. It also works as a great visual display about the power of gender, as you will see in the description.
While this group is very conscientious and mature, I nevertheless will start with a set of “agreements” that will include confidentiality, no put-downs, and a couple others (these are on the first slide of the powerpoint; I show the rest of the powerpoint after the silent stand-up). With classes that aren’t quite as cohesive, I will spend a great deal of time with these, define each, and talk about why they are important, to set a tone and emphasize the expectation of maturity. With this class, I think simply listing them and saying why they are important when doing something like this will suffice (some are student leaders, so this is also good modeling for them).
From here, I will explain the exercise—we will start with the male “stand-up.” I will read a series of statements. For each, I will ask the men to stand up if the statement applies to them. I ask the women (when speaking gender terms, I make sure to use equitable ones—men and women, boys and girls, etc., as a model) to think of a male that is important to them (brother, boyfriend, father, uncle, etc.) and to raise their hand if the statement applies to them. Then we start. While I can’t list them all here due to the fact they are from a published book, some examples include:
-Please stand up silently if you have every worried you were not tough enough
-Please stand up silently if you were ever told not to cry
-Please stand up silently if you have ever been told to act like a man
-Please stand up silently if you have ever been hit by an older man
There are over twenty in the book, though I use about a dozen or so (some are too personal for this context). After I’ve finished, I will ask for general observations, surprises, etc., from the students. I don’t push too much at this point, because generally the girls are anxious to do the female stand-up.
The procedures are the same for the girls, with them standing and the boys thinking about a female they know and raising their hands. Some of statements for this one include:
-Please stand up silently if you’ve ever worn uncomfortable, restrictive clothing—clothes that felt too tight or too revealing.
-Please stand up silently if you have ever been afraid you were not pretty enough.
-Please stand up silently if you have ever been afraid of a man’s anger.
As with the male stand-up, I will ask for general responses and surprises. One particular thing I want them to realize is the fact that in both cases, the situations they respond to are influenced by men. Also, I will make sure to note that in fact most people stood up for most of the statements, demonstrating how strong gender codes are in our society. The conversation at this point can sometimes take off, or sometimes the students will simply make some observations (or I will, to model and open the conversation), because they are still processing. I don't force, though, because the learning is really in the listening, observing, and standing up, and the realizations that come from these actions.
I will transition to a short power point that defines what these codes are—the Act Like a Man “box” and the Act Like a Lady “Flower” (both concepts from the Helping Teens Stop Violence book). I walk through the slides in the following video: gender powerpoint.mp4
Next Steps: Students will begin reading a series of pieces around the issue of gender, with an emphasis on the study of narrative as evidence. This conceptual framework will provide students with a lens to look through.