Begin with Identity… Yes, Gender is Part of Me

At a NSTWP Professional Development Advanced Institute I was co-facilitating, there was much discussion on student culture and identity and using an asset model to best serve our students. My thoughts are this. If each individual being a part of a wider system, and many systems at once, is not aware of his or her identity, this causes potential problems within any network that he or she is a member. If a person’s identity is not recognized, affirmed, and responded to, this, too, can cause hiccups in that particular network completing its job and/or fulfilling its purpose.

On a separate project focused on Young Men, Writing and Literacy, I am working with other teachers across the country, the College Board, and National Writing Project to examine how to best serve our minority male students. We pondered the impact of gender in the literacy education: Is gender a significant issue to consider when teaching minority males? Here are my two cents… okay, maybe more than two.

Gender cannot be overlooked in an urban high school classroom, especially at the Freshman level. During the first week of school, students tend to separate each other by gender. There are the girls on one side and the boys on the other. Both genders taking a look at the other seeing who is cute, who isn’t. This is an act done by both genders.

At the beginning of the year, practically everyone tries. It’s a new year, and no one wants to disappoint. They see it as their opportunity to shine: to either continue their previous behavior or turn over a new leaf or figure out what is cool: smart or not. Unhappily, school smart does not win many prestige points on our campus.

As the year continues, it seems like a habit for the males to choose one student to represent their gender, one who will try and be the intelligent, well-behaved male student. I cannot understand this phenomenon. I know my girls are still very much teacher pleasers. If they don’t always have the right answers, most of them will try to out do each other on projects with artwork, colors, handwriting. But what happens to my male students?

I can say that as the year progresses, my newly arrived immigrant males become more aware of their financial duties to the family. They feel pressure to provide for their families either here or in their home countries. This leads to focus on work: more demands on time, shifts in priorities. In that respect, for most of my male students, their culture asks males to be the providers so many of them see education as secondary or tertiary or even further down the list of main concerns.

Coupled with the responsibility of being the provider, the question arises: when do my teenage boys get to be just that, teenage boys? When do they get to step away from the identity as provider and all of the responsibilities that go with that and be kids? For many, the response and the opportunity to be a teenager with fewer responsibilities and burdens is in school. Since, many of them are treated like children in the classrooms, it makes it that much easier for them to fall into seeing school as a social haven rather than a place of discipline and hard work. Besides, they have that already at their paying jobs.

We cannot overlook gender and its impact on teaching minority males or any student for that matter. If we do try to avoid how gender influences learners and learning, we might as well try to ignore culture. We might as well try to disregard identity altogether. That would be a disaster because teenagers are about finding their identity, about exploring, acknowledging, and respecting who they are. It is when people do not do this, when people discount, underestimate, disrespect, belittle, or even just ignore someone else’s identity that problems arise. If we want to reach all of our learners, identities must be the beginning. We need to understand who our students are, and gender plays a part in this discovery.

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