Gender, Sexuality, and Education...HELP!
April 26, 2010 11:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm planning a training for elementary and middle school educators on sexuality and gender in education. What do YOU wish your teachers/educators would have known/talked about/done/etc?

Background demographics: I'm a 24 year old, queer, white woman, with a degree in Gender Studies, and also working in education. However...I was homeschooled K-12 and thus find myself a little lacking when thinking about my own experiences growing up with teachers and the school system! :)

The educators that I'm training work with urban students in K-9.
posted by gleea to Education (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if this is the sort of thing you're looking for, but one thing my fifth grade teacher did that I LOVED was any kid could play any character in a play, regardless of whether they were the correct gender or not. They just cross-dressed if they weren't. She explained to us that in Shakespeare's day, men played all the women's parts because women couldn't be in the plays, and that we don't do that anymore so anyone can play any part they want. I don't know why, but we all bought it with no questions.

I got to play King Claudius in Hamlet. It ruled. I didn't even realize back when I was 9 that I was bisexual, or that I lean a bit toward masculinity in personality, and I still appreciated the opportunity immensely. In fact, I think one reason I never had to sit down and think about whether or not I was more masculine than other girls was precisely because none of my teachers ever made it seem like an unusual thing, so I never had any stress over it. Later in high school, my choir teacher had no qualms about letting the alto 2s sing tenor to pick up the slack of not having enough guys, either.

I'm not sure if the take away from this is limited to theater stuff or what, but having teachers that didn't look at situations in a gendered way was really helpful; most of the time there's no real reason why a boy can't do something that traditionally is a girl's role and vice versa, so having teachers be relaxed about those things even in situations you wouldn't normally think about (playing a character in a play, reading a character aloud at reading time, etc) is helpful. You might ask the educators to think of situations like plays where we tend to enforce gender roles without even thinking about it, and if we can't do it differently; since we don't think about it when we do it it's hard to recognize, but maybe the example of the play will help focus their thoughts.
posted by Nattie at 11:26 PM on April 26, 2010 [10 favorites]

Some important things I would tell teachers: kids need to be able to see all kinds of different people portrayed in a positive light. They need to see positive role models of all ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, classes, abilities--this is a way to provide kids with an experience of seeing people who are different from themselves in an inclusive way, rather than simply absorbing external attitudes and biases, or absorbing the "everyone's the same!" deletion/minimization of the experience of oppression.

It's also an important way to validate the experiences of kids and the ways that they self-identify--a gay kid who is shown that gay people have made important contributions to history, just like straight people have, has so much more of a chance at self-acceptance and general emotional health. Teachers can do so much in this area to introduce and expose kids to positive ideas, acceptance, tolerance, celebration and understanding of "difference". Teachers can talk about or help kids access information about important historical figures who aren't hetero white males! Imagine the possibilities!
posted by so_gracefully at 12:20 AM on April 27, 2010

I don't remember much about what we learned in elementary level sex ed, just that it was really stressful. The vibe was "This is something we have to discuss, AND WE'RE ALL GOING TO BE MATURE ABOUT IT RIGHT, but this isn't something we talk about again."
The result was that nobody asked questions. I realize that part of that is natural since we were about 10 yrs old when the first sex ed classroom presentations came around. I wish there had been an effort to lighten the mood and get kids involved in discussion. I don't know, maybe play catch with a stuffed set of ovaries or something. Maybe that's too glib for kids. I'm not a psychologist.
posted by Iggley at 12:25 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

darn, missed the point of the post again. We never had any sort of discussions about sexuality and gender in school. Taboo or something I guess.
posted by Iggley at 12:28 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kudos to you for taking on the job of informing the young-ins!
posted by Iggley at 12:30 AM on April 27, 2010

There was an article recently talking about observing people interacting with boy and girl toddlers on a playground. They'd watch how people would interact with a boy, and then swap his clothes for "girl" clothes and vice versa. "Boys' would be told what good sportsmen they were if they kicked a ball "you're a little Pele", "girls" would be told that they had the same color dress as the ball.

The same actions got different results from unaware observers depending on the gender cloths the kids wore. I can't find the article right now, but that might be enough to go on.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:31 AM on April 27, 2010

The sex ed we got in K-6 was an hour-long video about puberty and a brief demonstration on how to put in a pad. My parents are the kind of people who won't say 'sex' out loud, so I was even embarrassed to take home the material they gave us in class and just threw it away before I got home without reading it. I think I found the way they wrote the pamphlet--"It's Great Being a Girl!" kind of stuff--just came off as obscene to me. And overly aggressive about how normal it is to go through puberty. So in the conventional sex education sense I guess I wish my teachers had talked about the topic after that seminar. They held it in a dark isolated classroom at the edge of campus, so it seemed all the more secret. Anything they didn't want to answer was left to playground rule. I definitely did not know what was going on until I read it straight out of a Biology textbook.

It's kind of iffy reaching out to parents/telling people how to raise their children, but I wish someone had told my mom she should talk to me about this stuff early on. It would've been awkward and confusing if she did it when I was 10, but when I got my period in the 8th grade I knew plenty by then about what I should do but the moment bewildered me nevertheless. I'm 18 now and still don't talk to her about this stuff, mostly because she doesn't like to, and I because I can get more reliable advice from the MayoClinic's website.
posted by mmmleaf at 12:52 AM on April 27, 2010

I wish that my teachers had known how to say, "So what?"

Yes, it would have been nice if they had talked about different kinds of sexuality; it would have been great if they had even known there are more than two genders in the world, but I wouldn't have asked for that much.

I just wish that when Sally complained because Billy took one of the girl's pictures to color, the one with the flowers, instead of the boy picture of the football player, one of the teachers would have said, "So what?"

Or when Jimmy laughed because Adam said he made his family's dessert last night, or Greg said his favorite color was yellow, that some adult had said, "So what?"

But they didn't. It is really the little things that pile up, that tell a child they are different, outcast, everyday.

There are children that hate getting into lines, just because the lines are a declaration of gender, and that may be an uncomfortable declaration or it might even seem like a lie. That wasn't me, but there a lot of things I didn't enjoy and of course I wasn't very good at them, and there were some boys (and girls) that would have ostracize me for that alone. But to also be excluded because one does the "wrong" things well, is worse.
posted by Some1 at 12:52 AM on April 27, 2010 [9 favorites]

I really wish that there had been a concerted effort to remove stigma from being called gay or lesbian. I know it's basically the whole point to this sort of education, but I'm talking about simply the word "lesbian" being considered rude. It's probably a little different now, but when I was in grade school, I was labeled "lesbian" because, horror of horrors, kids were trying to insult me, I had some rainbow decorations on my pants, and my best friend and I were very close. We were labeled a lesbian couple, in 6th grade!

Even though my reaction was to tell everyone that there was nothing wrong with being a lesbian and that they hadn't insulted me, I understood that the connotation was demeaning and cruel, and my best friend had to deal with the insults despite not being the weird kid at all. There are so many other things they could have insulted me about, things that were true, but the first thing they went for was a derisive comment about sexuality. When teachers overheard this, their reaction wasn't to remove the negative meaning of the word, but to tell people to stop calling me that, because it was mean. Well, the intent was mean, but the word really shouldn't have been!

I wish teachers had been able to explain the distinction between the intent behind words and their actual meaning, and somehow get the point across to the kids. As it was, the fact that I didn't immediately reject the label of lesbian eradicated my social life until the end of highschool. It was either burn the insult with fire and embrace heteronormativity, which I didn't do, or condemn myself to never ending rumors about my homosexual status. Having a crush on every boy that knew my name didn't help a thing.
posted by Mizu at 12:58 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I was a child, nobody said to me: OK you have this problem, so how would you go about solving it yourself? Nobody told me when I was upset: get over it, stop crying and get on and solve the problem.

I notice a lot in a subset of adult women that when there is a problem that they don't know how to solve, or that upsets them, they just stop and give up. I feel like I've had to teach myself the skill of "sorting out my own shit" as an adult - and I was a tomboy! What must it be like for the more girly of girls?
posted by emilyw at 1:06 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wish my school had created an environment where gay teachers felt safe to be out, particularly in the classroom. I had several great teachers who seemed to me very obviously Queer. Sometimes other students would give them a hard time. When the rowdy straight kids asked "Miss, are you a lesbian?" or "Sir, was that your booooyfriend?", I desperately wanted to hear my teachers respond with "Yes, I'm gay. It's absolutely none of your business, but I'm not ashamed of who I am, so shush. Now, onto algebra." Instead, their silence gave me the message that being Queer was something to be ashamed of, and it took me a really long time to realise that wasn't the case. I don't blame the teachers, but I do blame the school. The administrators put zero work into making it a safe place to be Queer - for teachers or for students.
posted by embrangled at 5:53 AM on April 27, 2010

I wish the teachers had said nothing. My parents were fine. I resented them (some teachers) trying to force their beliefs on us in something that should be very personal. I wish the school had been a reflection of the community in which I was raised, rather than some externally mandated content. I wish education didn't have an agenda one way or another.

I know this is not what you want to hear, but it is what I wish they had done.
posted by chinabound at 5:55 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think one of the things that helped in terms of gender and sexuality was that in 9th grade my super progressive English teacher had us read a bunch of short stories on the gay experience (and various other minority experiences). Those really helped later in my angry about being gay phase because even though the emotional side of my brain was losing it, the intellectual side of my brain was able to remember that that’s sort of a phase most gay people went through and that it would probably not be as big a deal in a few years. So absolutely tell them that Alan Turing one of the founders of computer science was gay and gay/trans people are awesome contributing members of society. But don’t hide the struggle part. It’s good to know it sucked for other people and that eventually your brain stops freaking out and life turns out to be awesome.

I should write that English teacher a letter.
posted by edbles at 6:15 AM on April 27, 2010

Read through this thread and favorited several comments.. but I want to echo a similar opinion as Chinabound's.. but with a slightly different slant. I definitely don't think teachers should avoid topics of equality, race and gender... I just wish they would cover them in ways that don't accentuate the differences. (IE = focus more on "unconditional equality" and less (or zero) on race/gender. )

The reason I say that is because during my schooling, the classes on sexuality and gender ended up further entrenching pre-existing stereotypes (in the same way that Drug Education classes did nothing but make kids more curious about drugs). For many decades afterwards I found myself instinctively looking for differences in people before I could apply my mental model of equality... until I eventually de-programmed myself from those bad habits and simply approached people with equality from the moment I met them.

I guess what I'm saying here is that if you are going to attempt teaching kids about equality,..teach it simply because "all people deserve it" and not because "Timmy is black (and here's what that means) and Lisa is gay (so here's what that means),etc..spending hours accentuating/reinforcing differences only in the end to say "OK, Lets all be equal!!!".. It's like going to a fast foot place and ordering the worst meal.....w/ a Diet Coke. .. it doesnt really accomplish anything.
posted by jmnugent at 6:35 AM on April 27, 2010

In my middle school classes on sexuality, we saw a birth video at the local hospital. And we were taught that if we have sex with a boy, we could get pregnant.

But you know what wasn't covered? Pregnancy itself. Completely missing from sexuality classes, but it is an integral part of heterosexual sexuality in that it always could happen, even with two methods of birth control at the most infertile time of the month. The details of the female menstrual cycle beyond "An egg is released two weeks after your period, and two weeks later you have period. And two weeks after your period is around the time you're most likely to get pregnant," and of pregnancy beyond "Have a baby in a nine months!" was completely missing. It would be, in my opinion, a really good thing if girls could be educated on pregnancy beyond how not to get pregnant and what we see in the media.
posted by zizzle at 7:03 AM on April 27, 2010

If you could have some way for kids to write down questions and submit them anonymously, that would be awesome.

And make sure that if you are answering them, or if not whoever IS answering them is frank, open and matter-of-fact about the answers, no matter what the question. Just very, "Oh, this isn't a big deal," about it all.
posted by misha at 7:54 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here are two things I think my daughter's school district did right:

1) When they were gearing up for the annual sex ed unit in health class, they held several evening presentations for the parents, going over the exact same materials their children would be getting. The school nurse and various teachers and administrators were on hand to answer parents' questions, and provide examples of typical kid questions (and how they handle them). This was awesome because the parents knew exactly what would be covered and what would not, which served to allay the fears in the FUD-OMG-SEX crowd, and also helped the rest know where they needed to fill in any gaps.

2) They moved the first sex ed unit to the end of fifth grade, instead of halfway through sixth grade, based on their observations of the kids' physical development and behavior. I thought that was really progressive of this district to be willing to change things around based on the current generation's needs, rather than just doing what they had always done.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:10 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't do this:

I really like the idea of having evening presentations for the parents. I realize you said these trainings were for the teachers, but part of that might very well be how the teachers can pitch the program to the administrators (who may be skittish) and set them up with the greatest chance for success - and for protecting the teachers from backlash, depending on the area. Particularly once you start any discussion of homosexuality, you want to be sure the administrators are aware and will back up the teachers.

I only vaguely remember sex ed as being in a darkened classroom where the boys (only) watched a something on human reproduction - in that very clinical way that gave us very little actual information about sex, but plenty of images of the sperm going up the fallopian tube.

It should be pitched to the appropriate level of detail for the grade level. It should be presented in a far more casual setting, with an open demeanor that encourages questions.
Teachers should be educated on ways to shut down homophobia and keep things moving - if they are nervous or uncomfortable, the kids will know.
posted by canine epigram at 10:19 AM on April 27, 2010

Nattie, your fifth grade teacher was awesome! I really like that they did that; and that you got to play King Claudius!

Some1: I think you're dead on. "So what?"

It's not awareness of differences that need to be emphasized, but acceptance and normalcy. I look forward to the day when gay tolerance isn't taught in schools, because it's an already accepted part of human civility.

I wish my teachers had consistently and repeatedly opened up as a resource, letting us know that we could ask questions; that in fact we should be encouraged to ask questions about everything. I never knew that I could just talk to my teacher and ask the things I wanted to know about sexuality and gender.

Teachers like you get me excited for the future of our kids.
posted by thatbrunette at 10:44 AM on April 27, 2010

We're not talking about education anymore here, but rather social engineering.
posted by chinabound at 7:43 PM on April 27, 2010

Trying to change other's beliefs and the way society is currently in a controlled school setting is social engineering no matter how you frame it. If you are trying to prevent bullying that is one thing needed for a safe educational environment and can be done by simply strictly enforcing rules on bullying. I was tortured for being a nerd and wearing glasses. Anti-bullying enforcement stopped it, not a lesson on how wearing glasses is ok. Encouraging general human respect is one thing (and something quite effective), specifically pushing your own agenda by trying to force your values on someone else is another. Which in some cases is passing the level of social engineering and almost becoming cultural genocide. Think this is extreme? If we were talking about "educating" aborigines of Australia or other groups to go against their beliefs and discontinue the passing on of them, it would be clearer. Just because other groups are not a small minority doesn't mean they should have their right of self-determination and preservation of culture infringed upon.

"It's not awareness of differences that need to be emphasized, but acceptance and normalcy."

Difference I guess I am alluding to here, is like the saying, I don't have to accept your opinion/view, but I respect you and your right to have it. Rather than "I reject your view and demand you accept mine." which I am seeing a lot of these days from a vocal minority of the world. (and people here)

I guess I believe that real inclusiveness includes including differences of values and beliefs--even if those beliefs are non-inclusive themselves! Hence the best answer is to leave it out of the schools completely, respect other's beliefs and enforce strictly anti-bullying measures to make sure people are treated with respect even if there is disagreement.

Pointless to argue this really.
posted by chinabound at 2:20 AM on April 28, 2010

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