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Seventh Graders and Sexism

By Lisa Espinosa

Problems that arose in the beginning of this school year in my seventh grade class prompted me to focus specifically on gender and sexism sooner than I had anticipated. Rivalries among girls seemed to be constantly erupting, girls accused boys of touching them inappropriately, and students used the the terms "gay" or "faggot" frequently when boys engaged in any activity that deviated from accepted male behavior.

 
  One of the collages students designed for the unit on stereotypes in the media.
-photo: David Kamba

I had also become worried when, in answer to a question about their future hopes and dreams, several girls had responded, "to find a guy to take care of me," or "to get married," while nearly all the boys had mentioned either an educational or professional goal. Although I tried to deal with these issues and incidents as they came up, I felt that exploring issues of gender in a more sustained way might be useful.

I planned a language-arts gender unit for my homeroom class. My homeroom students are the students with whom I spend most of the day and with whom I establish the strongest connections with. (I also teach science to the three seventh grade classes in my school.) One of my first goals was for my students to understand that sexism is still a problem, since many of them, I found, thought gender equality had been achieved. I planned for them to reflect on some common gender biases and to critically analyze the media's role in reaffirming these stereotypes. I wanted them to gain a deeper understanding of feminism and move beyond the common notion that feminists are a bunch of angry, bitter women who hate men. Finally, I hoped that both my boys and girls would incorporate the ideas and ideals of gender equity in their lives.

To facilitate this, I tried to help them make connections. For example, I wanted my female students to begin questioning why most of them continued to let the boys do most of the talking in class discussions, why many of them tied so much of their identity to their appearance, and why there was so much jealousy and competition among the girls instead of a sense of unity. I wanted my male students to explore this as well, and to begin asking themselves why many of them felt threatened to show emotions such as caring and empathy, why many of them used such homophobic language, and to reflect on how they related to the girls in our class both verbally and physically. In addition, I wanted both the boys and girls to challenge their expectations of what they could strive for in life.

We started the unit by reading An Island Like You by Judith Ortiz Cofer. I also used the Spanish version, entitled, Una Isla Como Tu. The stories in the novel deal with such issues as body image, peer pressure, and gender expectations — all told from the perspective of Latino teenagers.

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