Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Seventh Graders and Sexism: one teacher's attempt to analyze media stereotypes in class

In her article Seventh Graders and Sexism, Latino author and teacher Lisa Espinosa brings her own experiences of having grown up in a traditional Mexican family with ingrained gender stereotypes to the forefront of her classroom discussions with her seventh graders in Chicago's South Side.  Espinosa, who had her first child as a college freshman and a total of four children in the eight years it took her to complete schooling, noticed a trend among young Latino women like herself who become teen mothers.  She asserts that expectations in her community were different for boys and girls; boys were expected to be independent, strong, and heads of households while girls were expected to obey authority, cook, do chores, and be nice.  If in this scenario, "authoritative" figures were developing Mexican male teenagers, it is no wonder that so many young girls in Espinosa's community were becoming pregnant.  As a third year teacher, Espinosa noticed similar patterns unfolding with her own male students who used derogatory language like "gay" and "faggot" to display their masculinity, and her female students who aspired to "find a guy to take care of me" or "get married," as she writes. Subsequently, she decided to design a language arts unit around gender biases.

Espinosa began to create her own classroom text by gathering resources with the help of the bilingual teacher and through research of articles, many of which were complex and subsequently read during class time, with a set of vocabulary to augment the words for her mainly Spanish-speaking class of 31 students.   She found an excellent resource in a magazine called REP, which is published by Men Can Stop Rape. They engaged in activities like a mini-SCWAAMP where her students made and discussed posters defining how to "Be Ladylike" and "Act Like a Man."

When in-class discussions did not seem to provoke deep critical thinking and conversation from her seventh graders, Espinosa began to encourage ungraded "free writing" where she saw true reflection and analysis from her students take shape. Formally graded narratives began to reflect fictitious stories with graphic descriptions of hateful stereotypes, but with student-created resolutions to the problems at the end of their stories.  Some stories, "although fictionalized, seemed very autobiographical."  Espinosa's regret about her own teaching is that she didn't encourage more formal essays. 

Finally, Espinosa had her students collectively make collages to either counter or reaffirm gender stereotypes.  Using magazines that she could find and incorporating as many with people of color, groups of three to four kids worked feverishly to clip out images and words to fit the assignment they were given.  For example, one group portrayed men in untraditional gender roles.  If students found images to fit another group's assignment (say, women in traditionally subservient roles), they would eagerly share their cutouts with each other. 

The message of this article, for me, was to take Espinosa's ideas and shape them into my own way of targeting gender stereotypes among my predominately white middle class students at Norton High School.   As a relatively new teacher, Espinosa was able to help students who mirrored her younger self reflect more deeply on what drives them to follow or defy stereotypes.  I would be interested in a follow-up to this article:  What happened to those kids?

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