ERIC Identifier: ED426409
Publication Date: 1998-00-00
Author: Singh, Manjari
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Gender Issues in the Language Arts Classroom. ERIC Digest.
A growing volume of literature suggests that gender issues underlie numerous
classroom activities. For example, McAuliffe (1994) and Kamler (1993) found that
the portrayal of characters in children's writing often reflects gender
stereotypes. In addition, individual beliefs about the dominance or
subordination of particular genders frequently determine whose ideas are heard
or ignored in student discussions (Evans, 1996), and unfacilitated group
discussions may therefore reinforce gender stereotypes among students (Alvermann
et al., 1996a). Thus, without some intervention, unstructured language-learning
situations may actually encourage children to reproduce gender stereotypes
What is the role of the teacher in addressing such problems? The literature
suggests that teachers have differing views of the position they should take in
this matter. The different positions reflect individual beliefs about gender
roles and about the role that teachers should play in children's lives. This
Digest provides an overview of various perspectives on the teacher's role in
addressing gender-related issues in the classroom.
ISSUES RELATED TO THE TEACHER'S ROLE
Teachers differ in
their perceptions of the foundations of human gender differences. Some teachers
believe these differences are rooted in purely biological factors; others
attribute gender differences to processes of socialization; and many believe
they result from a combination of both the above factors. Opinions held on this
pivotal issue usually determine the extent to which teachers believe they can
and should attempt to impact gender roles in their classrooms.
Grossman and Grossman (1994) outline four positions among educators about the
role they should play in the development of their students' gender roles:
1. Educators should prepare the genders to fulfill
different roles because there are underlying physiological differences between
Educators should prepare students for androgynous (gender-neutral) roles.
Educators should decide if they want to prepare students for different gender
roles or not.
Educators should help students decide for themselves whether they wish to
conform to any particular gender roles or prefer to be androgynous.
There is much controversy regarding these various standpoints. The first
viewpoint is frequently criticized for its suggestion that students should be
socialized to fulfill traditional gender roles, as this implies a limitation to
individual freedom to make choices. However, proponents of that viewpoint
believe that individual choices are often governed by innate differences between
the genders. Individuals promoting androgynous behavior, on the other hand,
believe educators and schools should work towards making society less sexist by
discouraging gender-stereotypical behavior among students. Detractors of this
position state that some gendered behavior may be the result of personality
features. They also question the legitimacy of actively promoting androgynous
behavior when students come from backgrounds where this may not be supported.
The other two positions debate the extent to which teachers should play a
role in shaping students' decisions about the gender roles the students to
adopt. Some individuals believe teachers who are uncomfortable dealing with
gender issues have the right to not address this issue in their classroom
(Alvermann et al., 1996b). Others say teachers should address gender issues
because students who are never encouraged to question assumptions behind gender
portrayals may accept traditional gender roles as fait accompli (Mitchell,
1996). Some educators believe gender role socialization is chiefly a function of
the home, and that schools should maintain a neutral stance. According to these
individuals, schools should treat all children equally while empowering them to
make their own gender role choices. Others believe schools should encourage both
genders to adopt forms of behavior that reflect the values of the local school
Among teachers who believe that gender inequalities should be actively dealt
with, there is much debate about whether we should try to achieve gender equity
or gender equality. Teachers promoting gender equality believe all students
should receive the same opportunities to access classroom resources and
participate in activities. Those who promote equity advocate extending unequal
and greater levels of support to the group perceived to be "at risk" or "less
advantaged," thereby enhancing this group's chances of finishing at the same
level as the more socially privileged students (Streitmatter, 1994). Each of
these positions is fraught with drawbacks. While many teachers feel
uncomfortable about treating students unequally, they also feel uncomfortable
treating unequal groups in the same manner for the sake of achieving equity. A
number of individuals believe the cause of gender equity is best served through
a combination of both approaches-by extending equal opportunities to all
students, and being particularly sensitive to the special needs of groups
perceived to be "at risk."
Regardless of their beliefs in the matter of equality versus equity,
teachers' levels of comfort in actively dealing with gender issues in their
classrooms greatly influence their decisions about what strategies they will be
willing to use. In a recent survey of 1519 K-12 teachers' positions on gender
issues in literacy education, Commeyras et al. (1997) found that 86% of the
teachers reported feeling most comfortable (i) monitoring equal participation by
males and females in discussions, and (ii) including in the curriculum men and
women's works that are generally considered non-mainstream. Most teachers did
not feel comfortable having class discussions on the use of sexist language and
the portrayal of males and females in a non-traditional school texts, or asking
boys and girls to identify with characters of their own sex. It is possible that
they perceived these options as potentially controversial, while the other
scenarios did not seem as likely to lead to divisive discussions.
The study by Commeyras et al. (1997) reflects a situation of teachers
agreeing, generally, on the need for implementing gender-fair strategies, yet
feeling uncomfortable actively addressing gender issues in their classrooms.
Even when teachers do address gender issues, they are often faced with the
difficulty of assessing how much authority they should exert in determining the
content and direction of students' talk during classroom discussions. This is
because by intervening in certain gendered discursive practices, teachers may
inadvertently reinforce them. At the same time, it is possible that by trying to
be neutral in a discussion, teachers may constrain students from expressing
their actual viewpoints (Alvermann et al., 1996b).
In general, educators find they need to maintain a balance between playing an
active role in student discussions on gender issues by introducing alternative
viewpoints to ingrained ways of thinking about gender (Alvermann et al., 1996b),
and not becoming oppressive themselves through their active involvement in
student discourse (Evans, 1996). While promoting sensitivity to gender-specific
behaviors, teachers also need to realize that there are often more differences
within each gender group than between them.
As the issues explored above reveal, there are
multiple positions on the role teachers can and should play in addressing gender
issues. While they are all valid, the legitimacy of each philosophical position
can also be questioned. Educators need to come to terms with these thorny issues
and decide upon the philosophical position with which they are personally most
comfortable. It is impossible to consistently implement gender -sensitive
strategies in the classroom without congruency between beliefs and actions. It
is also clear that educators will need to regularly reexamine their position in
response to evolving understanding and heightened awareness of educator roles in
shaping gender perceptions among learners. On the individual level, teachers
need to reflect upon the strategies they have been using to address gender
issues in their classrooms, and to explore the validity of other perspectives.
At the school level, sensitivity to gender issues can be facilitated through
discussions and collaborative action between teachers.
Alvermann, D., Commeyras, M., Young, J., Hinson,
D., & Randall, S. (1996a). The gendered language of texts and classrooms:
Teachers and students exploring multiple perspectives and interpretations.
(Instructional Resource No. 23). College Park, MD; Athens, Georgia: National
Reading Research Center. [ED 393 107]
Alvermann, D., Commeyras, M., Young, J., Randall, S., & Hinson, D.
(1996b). Interrupting gendered discursive practices in classroom talk about
texts: Easy to think about, difficult to do. Athens, Georgia: National Reading
Research Center. [ED 396 256]
Commeyras, M., Alvermann, D., DeGroff, L., Stanulis, R., & Hankins, K.
(1997). Educators' stances toward gender issues in literacy. Paper presented at
the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (March
1997). [ED 407 669]
Evans, K. (1996). Creating spaces for equity? The role of positioning in peer
led literature discussions. Language Arts 73(3), 194-202. [EJ 527 380]. Grossman
H., & Grossman, S.H. (1994). Gender issues in education. Needham Heights,
Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon.
Kamler, B. (1993). Constructing gender in the process writing classroom.
Language Arts, 70(2), 95-103. [EJ 457 109].
McAuliffe, S. (1994). Toward understanding one another: Second graders' use
of gendered language and story styles. The Reading Teacher, 47(4), 302-310. [EJ
Mitchell, D. (1996). Approaching race and gender issues in the context of the
Language Arts classroom. English Journal, 85(8), 77-81. [EJ 535 586].
Purcell-Gates, V. (1993). Focus on research: Complexity and gender. Language
Arts, 70(2), 124-127.
Streitmatter, J. (1994). Toward gender equity in the classroom: Everyday
teachers' beliefs and practices. Albany, NY: SUNY. [ED 367 739].