Deprogramming: How can I encourage change and reflection on gender issues in my classroom?

(Response to Romance in the Classroom: Inviting Discourse on Gender and Power

by Diane Waff)

I could not agree more with the need for discussing and responding to gender dynamics in the classroom. I’ve known for a long time about the disproportionate amount of time spent on male students due to classroom management issues. I understand how in this respect female students are losing out on attention from the teacher. This may lead to female students feeling less invested in school.

I also understand how the language and actions of teenage boys can make females feel harassed, inferior, objectified. I appreciated the journal-writing approach coupled with literature to open up discussion.

In my own classroom, we read House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. The Red Clowns vignette is particularly powerful. Some students do not even catch the rape, but when they do, the reactions are mixed. I remember one discussion quite well. We were talking about why more sexual assault victims were female vs. male. One boy, we will call him J, said something to the effect of boys always wanting sex so a girl wouldn’t have to rape him. I asked J questions like, “What if the person is too young to understand exactly what the abuser is doing? What if the victim doesn’t understand the ramifications of being forced to have intercourse? What if the victim was your sister?” All of these questions were responded to by J with something like, “At least, he’s getting some” or “It would never be against a boy’s will to have sex.” When I asked J if he ever thought of the abuser being male vs. female, he quickly changed his tune. He said, “That’s just wrong!” I responded, “Any time someone is forced to have sex without his or her consent and any time someone is too young to fully understand everything that goes along with having sex (consensual or not), that is wrong.” J continued to disagree. Everyone else in the group disagreed with J, but his persistence, his unyielding, his unwavering commitment to portraying teenage boys as being primarily motivated by sex was shocking. A girl in the group just looked at him with disdain. Some of the other boys laughed. Others looked surprised at his point of view. But, I wonder what the students took home with them that day? Do they find elements of truth in J’s beliefs? Do they understand what that means to them? To their peers? Are teenage boys at the mercy of their hormones? What does that mean for other teenage boys? What about to teenage girls? Unfortunately, I only had this group for a couple of weeks, and that was one of our last sessions.

Then, my next wondering is how to get my female students who have been surrounded by this type of behavior their whole lives to speak against it. Currently, if a boy whistles at a girl, and I ask them not to since it is disrespectful, I do get the occasional responses from some of my female students, “Miss, he is just showing he likes her. It’s a compliment.” How do I combat that? How do I speak against behavior they have witnessed their whole lives from friends, brothers, and maybe, even fathers? How can I get them to see this type of behavior should not be tolerated when it may still be welcomed by friends, sisters, and maybe, even mothers?

I’m imagining steps like those taken by the author of this article would help. I have always found journal writing to be cathartic. I’d like to include literature and articles to boost open discussion as well. Perhaps, guest speakers could shed light on the subject.

Still, I wonder. I don’t want to be disrespectful, yet I do not want female students to continue to feel objectified or powerless. I especially do not want male students to leave high school thinking it is okay to act as many of them do in the wider world.

Have any of you experienced the same sorts of reactions as I have? How did you address this behavior? What changes were you able to make, if any?