About the Author: Brandy is a 30 (owning it!) year old elementary school teacher who loves Sunday afternoons, office supplies, margaritas and her bulldog, Macy. She feels powerful when she listens to her students discuss the accomplishments of women, history has sometimes forgotten. She is grateful that Miss Representation opened her eyes, and changed her classroom. She can be found on twitter @brandyismagic and has a blog that she loves more than peanut butter: www.brainyjane22.wordpress.com
I work in a school of over 600 students. I teach a wonderful class of grade five student. Each day that I’m walking down the school hall, by a classroom door or (sadly) sitting in the teachers lounge, I am bombarded with comments that encourage gender stereotypes, steal personal freedom and promote dangerous beliefs that we should have long ago abandoned.
“Cleaning the classroom is the girls job.””Get one of the boys to move the table, they are stronger.””We always have boys be the captains because they are the fastest.”
“Give the male teachers another week to hand it in. You know how disorganized they are.”
“She’s the best at handwriting because she’s a girl.”
“The boys won’t let us play.”
It goes on and on and on. As someone who feels strongly about the idea of equality both in and outside of school, I take issue with every single one of those above quoted statements. And you should too.
When I began focusing on how to readjust my teaching to address the serious issue of gender bias and discrimination, I was overwhelmed. There are so many instances where history is laced with gender discrimination and bias, where the progress and discoveries by one gender were outshone by the other that it was difficult to find a balance. How can I teach the students of my classroom that women can be anything they want when we discuss famous scientists and our textbooks show only men? Add to the fact that history did not give women as many opportunities to perform in the fields of Science, Medicine and Exploration and it became even harder to promote the equality that I was explaining to my students was essential in our classroom.
Of course, here is when you say- Marie Curie! She was a famous scientist- and yes, I am happy to recognize that she was- and she was honored for her contributions in her field. But the issue I struggle with, is when introducing the name to my class- the three students who recognized her name, recognized her accomplishment as “being a women scientist” and had no further information regarding the amazing breakthroughs she was responsible for (pioneering research on radioactivity, in case you were curious). When you say “Isaac Newton”- no one champions him as being a male mathematician- they tout his accomplishments.
How could I make a change?
The answer, ended up being quite obvious. I sat my class down one day and told them what was bothering me. The idea that- history had long since given one gender more benefits than another and how now, when we learned about the past, it was hard to see the accomplishments of everyone who contributed to advancements in any field, when one gender was given more opportunities. We made a note to realize- that finding accomplishments of females in history did not belittle or take away from the males who made history with their discoveries. Rather that, when you include everyone, the tapestry of the past becomes more rich and gives students a better experience and understanding of what we are learning.
And because my class is filled with thoughtful, sensitive, inspiring learners- they took this as a challenge. For every famous male politician who became a Canadian Prime Minister, my students searched for a female who contributed to his success- or who contributed just as meaningfully to society at that time. It’s not easy. And we are not always successful. But they- and I- try daily to find a balance. For every biography in our class library on Isaac Newton or John F Kennedy, I have bought a biography on Maria Tallchief or Eleanor Roosevelt. In every Social Studies lecture discussing the importance of racial equality the importance of Martin Luther King Jr, we discuss the bravery and actions of Rosa Parks. We talk about Columbus and Sacajawea, John A McDonald and Cleopatra. My students know about Neil Armstrong but they also know about Sally K. Ride. We excitedly discuss Winston Churchill but also talk about Anne Frank. Picasso is countered with Frida Kahlo. The adventures and extraordinary lives of Henry Hudson, Charles Darwin, Dr. Seuss, Galileo, and Muhammad Ali are bounced off the walls of our classroom and met with the same vigor and excitement when we discuss Annie Oakley, Mary Francis Winston Newton, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, Susan B Anthony and Harriet Tubman.
Yes, each day I go to work and I hear comments about girls being left out or boys only being good at sports. I hear offhand remarks by the water cooler about the male staff members being disorganized and the women teachers the ones to go to for gossip. I hear which gender is good at sports and which gender is good at cleaning. I hear these comments every day. But never in my classroom.
And that’s a start.