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The Writing on the Wall: Creating Greater Gender Equity through Classroom RE-Design Part I

Updated: Sep 2, 2019

The Classroom Decoration Industrial Complex

When I started working for the first time as an educational leader in a school with an elementary level program, I realized quickly that setting up and decorating these learning spaces was a BIG DEAL.

First week before school starts: “Will we have time to set our classrooms?”  “Will they be cleaned in time?” “ Do you know where they put the classroom rugs?”  “What’s our budget for materials and decorations?” “My throw pillows are worn out. Can I buy some more?” I wondered if I had walked into a school or an interior design class.

I would find teachers staying two or three days in a row before school even started, until 10pm at night, taping up charts, cutting cray paper, organizing shelves with pens, scratch paper, crayons. It was impressive what sweat and pride they were putting into these rooms, to make these spaces stimulating (perhaps over stimulating) and engaging for the students.

As I began touring the rooms after school began, I started taking photos of the classrooms. In fact every inch of every class. Over 500 photos. I then culled this down to 25 and at our next faculty meeting, I posted blown up versions of the photos around the room and I asked the teacher to take a tour, to gather information, and record it with the central question being:

“According to the walls of our classrooms, what do we teach at this school?”

I should also mention that all of the teachers in the elementary school were women. 22 faculty members and 11 assistants and not a man in sight, except for the Principal who happens to be a man, which is a statement in and of itself. As the teachers toured the room, slight smiles began breaking out among the staff. One teacher eventually put her head in her hand, realizing what she was witnessing. After we all sat down together, this is what the data gathering revealed. The school teaches 90% literacy and the arts, 4% history, 4% science and 2% math according to the walls of the school. Our classrooms reflected a very powerful message to our students, not about what should be taught, but what we thought and felt about what we were teaching.

“According to the walls of our classrooms, what do we teach at this school?”

If you asked any of the teachers what should be and actually was the actual balance of instruction, math would take a much more prominent percentage as would science and history. However, the teachers’ attitudes about teaching math in particular were literally on full display. And, the fact that all of our teachers were women made this reality neither shocking nor surprising. As role models, they are reinforcing their own poor and challenging experiences as math students, as many of them self selected out early from these learning experiences and then careers which necessitated advanced math.  Selecting into education meant that they brought much of their anxiety, fears and senses of their own failures with the subject into the classroom, where they are the greatest role models for guess whom? The young girls in their class. It represents a generational dilemma of inherited bias. The walls are telling the girls exactly what they should think is fun, interesting, and exciting to learn and it sure isn’t math.

And the boys? Well, guess what they learn? That to identify with literacy is going to threaten their sense of maleness, so stay away!  Rather take in all of the other gender triggers where men are accomplished in math and science, they are good at it, and that literacy is for girls, like my teacher, as duly noted on all the walls of the classroom she designed.

The walls are telling the girls exactly what they should think is fun, interesting, and exciting to learn and it sure isn’t math.

These types of biases not only show up, unintended, on the walls of classrooms but in Back To School Nights, where a teacher will launch into excited narration in front of their parents about the wonderful world of reading and writing and all of the exciting projects planned around these subjects and when the math slide on the powerpoint comes up, it is the cover of the workbook or explaining how parents should “handle” math homework. I have heard teacher tell parents: “We know what a struggle and how boring math is…” These are all powerful signals about what matters and what does not, based on gender.

And, the proof, again, is in the data. While some progress has been made around girls and math education, both in terms of access and perception, many women still report, who are accomplished at the highest levels of mathematics, that they feel inferior to men this arena. The more damning problem, one which we have largely ignored is how men are suffering under this gender paradigm as well. While men still post at the highest level of math testing and assessment they also occupy the lowest end of the bell curve. And the literacy picture is much more grave, with a significant amount of men graduating high school marginally to functionally illiterate. These numbers are no longer ignorable and the issues need to be addressed through the lens of gender. If we can make inroads with girls and math, we can do the same with men and literacy.

In part two of this blog we will examine a simple school process and tool to make us more intentional about classroom design and make the space represent the entire world of learning for our students. Check out a really straight foward method to tackle this issue in next week’s Educating Gender.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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