8 Effective Strategies for Teaching Boys about Gender. Part II: Beyond the Canary in the Coal Mine.
As I mentioned in Part I of this two-part post, the main approach to thinking about boys and getting them more engaged with school and their education has largely focused on work arounds. This idea comes from an essentialist argument: Boys are boys. School and learning institutions need to bend to their dispositions in order to reach them because they cannot help being who they are. Boys are prisoners to their biology.
The defeatist nature of this logic is also based on the very systems which reinforce these narrow and confining definitions of masculinity in the first place. In other words, we go around and around. Perpetuating attitudes, perpetuating cultural and social norms, and then we are surprised when boys continue to be disengaged with schools and the goals of learning. Therefore the “essentialism” of masculine identity and gender are not created by biology but actually by us. We nurture and sustain powerful implicit and explicit norms that push us in these directions. The “work around” theory, when we look at solutions for boys in schools, merely reaffirms all of this.
This idea comes from an essentialist argument: Boys are boys. School and learning institutions need to bend to their dispositions in order to reach them because they cannot help being who they are. Boys are prisoners to their biology.
What is also fascinating about this failed approach is that we did not think this way about making changes to the experience of education for women when we knew they needed greater access, fair treatment and therefore results in their formal education. In terms of addressing women’s attitudes toward school, we hammered home the idea that women were capable in any subject area and could be equal to or excel beyond their male counterparts. In other words, we outright rejected the essentialist argument for women. The results over the past sixty years in American education have been staggering. Seventy percent of valedictorians and salutatorians from high schools are women. Women enroll and complete college and advanced degree programs in almost every field at a higher rate than men. We were able to convince women that they are not some preconceived denigrating perception of a biological static self. Why should we not imagine that the solution for men and schools be the same?
...we outright rejected the essentialist argument for women...Why should we not imagine that the solution for men and schools be the same?
So here are eight approaches that both address how boys’ positive connections to school can be improved without supporting oppressive and suffocating constructions of masculinity.
In science classes, not health classes, teach about specific men’s health issues. A great example is testicular cancer. This is not to scare boys. The opposite. It is to normalize their bodies and their specific health struggles. It is to allow boys to see their vulnerabilities and potential empathy as a part of their human experience.
Deconstruct Descartes. Teach the cognitive neuroscience that dispels the myth of rational/emotional compartmentalization. Dispel the myth of a reasoning self and a separate emotional self. This understanding should be based on the study of how the brain works. It is not a matter of philosophy or opinion.
In history classes, teach specifically about men who led pacifist movements, particularly during times of war. Show how many men see war as the ultimate form of human failure. We already spend too much time glorifying war by making it a central pillar of teaching human history. Let history have more faces and not just by including more women into the curriculum.
Similarly, take a traditional textbook which addresses a particular subject through a highly patriarchal lens and have them do a research project where they rewrite the material through a feminist lens. Expose the bias and make them aware of how they are learning about these subjects. Have them submit their results to the publishers of their text book with a letter describing the assignment and its purpose.
As an exercise in statistics and math, share with them the data on students and learning in math and literacy. There is lots of data and many studies. The degree of sophistication and various pedagogical approaches of the math element of the lesson are endless. Then, ask them for their thoughts about why men are doing so poorly in literacy attainment and how they occupy the lower quadrant in math as well. Show them the statistical rise of women over the past sixty years in what were considered traditionally male subjects. Discuss essentialist beliefs. Open up the conversation about what is happening with their learning. Let them express themselves on the matter.
Have students read works of nonfiction that specifically address issues of masculinity but intersectional issues as well. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is an excellent choice. I have read this work in class as a student read aloud with 11th graders in an American Literature class and it is always a provocative hit. The fact that it is framed as a letter from the author as a father to his fourteen year old son creates an immediate emotional connection to Coates' words.
Take a work of traditional literature and teach it through a gender lens. Our instinct as educators is to choose works that explicitly address gender as a subject. I believe this has value but is not enough. Students need to actually see that ALL literature actually addresses gender (Yes, you can use Lord of the Flies). Have boys define how men are being portrayed in relationship to other men and to the women who occupy the narrative as well. Science fiction and science fantasy are excellent avenues for these choices as they tend to bend gender norms.
And finally, teach extensively about feminism and particularly the feminist movements of the last one hundred and fifty years. This should be a global study. Boys and young men need to understand that the impact of feminism and our awakening understanding of gender identity are the most monumental changes to human history over the past fifty thousand years. Nothing compares in the history of humanity in terms of revolutionary transformation in thinking and attitudes about the human condition.
While you’re at it, if you’re going to teach about feminism, make sure you also include lessons about the development of masculine culture, particularly in the United States. It is a fascinating and revealing history that speaks to much larger causes and effects which define us as a nation and a people today.