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.

From Trees to Webs: Transformation is About Changing How We think

I have been sitting in front of the computer for weeks and weeks now trying to get my thoughts down. How do I introduce my work on transformation? How do I communicate my motivation to change education for the better… to a more equitable system that gets quality work accomplished?

And I realized it’s difficult to begin talking about my work or any transformation efforts without understanding underlying root causes of problems or even of successes. Then, I happened upon this video from the wonderful folks at RSA Animate, The Power of Networks with Manuel Lima.

The video discusses how modern science mirrors our knowledge of how systems work. Lima discusses an article entitled Science and Complexity written by Warren Weaver (1948). Weaver states that in the 17th-19th Century, scientists solved problems of simplicity. At this stage, we relied on using tree metaphors to organize ecosystems, families, and even knowledge. Since then, we have come to understand that systems are not as linear. We have moved from viewing systems as being random and disorganized complexity to finding patterns that actually help to clarify and communicate interconnections between the most diverse elements of a system. We are currently living in a state of organized complexity.

For those of you who know systems thinking, this all sounds very familiar to you. I am thankful to my mentor, Dr. Leslie Patterson, for guiding me on a systems thinking journey via Human Systems Dynamics. Systems thinking is a way to validate, appreciate, and better understand individuals and their differences as well as how to work with rather than against differences to create generative learning that gets important work accomplished.

A mouthful? Yes. Crucial to understanding how transformation can happen in schools? Absolutely.

Let’s get back to the trees. How many of us work for organizations with a clearly set hierarchy or what is often referred to as an organizational chart? How many of us live day in and day out in a system with top-down directives? Look at that chart. Examine the flow of memos and directives. Resemble anything? A tree, perhaps? Many of our systems, especially in the workplace, are modeled after solving problems of simplicity. Problem? We are not asked to solve simple problems. How, then, can we expect this model of a system to succeed?

Now, think back on your most recent project where you feel you succeeded. It could be anything from developing a workshop to setting a menu for a dinner party. Let’s use the latter as an example. When confronted with the task of determining what one should have at a dinner party, it is not as simple as someone saying, “I want this” and it being served— unless you are a horrible host and want your guests to walk away very dissatisfied. No, more likely, suggestions are being taken—perhaps through an Evite or Facebook message. You consider dietary needs of your guests. You refer to Pinterest for recipes. You ask your frugal-minded friends if they know of any coupons or specials on any produce or other ingredients needed. And, you probably have other alternatives rather than one dish to serve. You might even ask guests to bring an item to make your party more interactive. Why? Because ensuring your guests get both a nutritious and delicious meal is a complex task that requires organized efforts of gaining information and input.

Rather than using a tree diagram to gain knowledge to complete this complex task, you used a vast web of resources ensuring you would have the best darn tootin’ dinner party ever. That’s organized complexity. That’s systems thinking.

So why pause and take a moment to talk about this? Why ask for a shift in thinking from trees to webs? I ask you, when serving our diverse students, when preparing them for an unknown future, is it a simple problem? Or, is it one that requires respect for diversity, collaboration with tough discourse, finding patterns that may help us to come up with simple rules to guide a discourse towards learning how to approach and solve problems—-and being willing to do it all again and again to best serve the dynamic nature of human systems?

Maybe, we, as educators, can learn a lesson from scientists. They have metamorphosed from the tree of life to the web of life. In education, we seem to be stuck in problems of simplicity mode; a by-product of using the education system to suit an industrialized society. But, as we make more demands on our graduates, education should be reformed to respond to the complex yet organized web of needs, resources, learners, and teachers.

And now, maybe, I can better communicate my work, my reasons, my motivation for what I try to do. Yes, I do realize this post was for me: a way to reflect on my beliefs as an educator, a way to make sense of why things don’t work and why things do. But maybe, just maybe, you will pause, consider, and remain curious on what changes can and should be made in education because it is not a question of whether or not transformation needs to come about; it is a question on how to proceed.

I believe systems thinking can frame those very profound, challenging, but necessary conversations.