Sunday, October 12, 2014

Going Aboveground

As I read chapter 6 of Understanding Youth, I was able to really make meaning of some of my observations of my own seventh grade students (and myself in their world). This chapter really provided me with the ability to put words to what I've never been able to fully express. As I read, my brain jumped from one seemingly small observation to the next. What I now realize is that these small observations are actually part of a much larger picture that I can now see a little bit clearer. Because my thought process was all over the place as I read and took notes, I decided that the best way to share my connections to my own teaching practice (and my own life) is to share several short glimpses into my thinking and learning. This is a long post with lots of different thoughts crammed in. I didn't realize until I was done writing that my favorite, most meaningful blurb is at the end. If you must read the post quickly, skip to the end!

"Going Underground"

One of the math teachers I work with always ask "why are girls always so good and boys always the ones who get in trouble?" - I now have an answer to this question...This has to do with identity and gender development. Girls go "underground" and become quiet because being seen as loud or intelligent is not what they are taught to value. Our society STILL teaches girls that they should be reserved, supportive and in the background. Standing out is not a good thing. Boys are taught (through various societal channels) that they need to proclaim their masculinity and defend it at all times. This results in louder, more assertive behavior.  So boys are more often sent to the office, or assigned after school detentions. Although this is an oversimplification of what Nakkula is talking about, this pattern can be seen over and over again, especially as students transition into high school.

On being weird and awkward:

I said to a group of students the other day "you guys are stuck with the weird teacher" (referring to myself) and a girl responded "that's OK..." It amazed me to hear her say this, because I know it's OK, but I was shocked for her to say aloud (in front of the class) that weirdness is OK. I now understand that my shock most likely stemmed from the fact that to most kids being seen as weird is not a good thing, especially for girls who are beginning to conceal anything about themselves that may seem "weird."I think I understood this before reading chapter six, but my feeling of surprise was validated. I think I'll continue to point out (as I usually do) that I am weird or awkward at times, and that it's OK.

Laughing at the Boys:  

Another thought bubble that bloomed as I read relates specifically to my seventh grade boys. Over the course of my few years teaching seventh grade, I've realized the need to remove all sarcasm directed at students, especially boys. Any good teacher can tell you that sarcasm has a very limited and specific space within the classroom, most will tell you that sarcasm shouldn't be used at all. In my own experience I have seen that humor can be valuable, but humor directed at individual students will make them feel that they are not in a safe space. Nakkula mentions that one of men's greatest fears is that of being laughed at. I have seen this play out in a number of scenarios. Boys and men don't do well with sarcasm (especially sarcasm coming from females). The research that Nakkula cites is further evidence that teachers who use sarcasm are really creating unsafe spaces for students.

On Wanting to Be Taller: 

This is another observation that I think I was sensitive to even before reading chapter six, but I think it's worth mentioning. One consistent theme I've seen with male students throughout the years has been that of wanting to be taller. I've seen this in their writing (journal entries), overheard them joking with each other in the hallway, and it's something that comes up every year. I knew that this was a sensitive topic, but I didn't realize just how much it might be affecting social dynamics. Taller boys are often more popular and more domineering. They command their classmate's respect and are literally looked up to. Tallness is associated with masculinity, and boys who are tall are almost always well liked by peers.

Brave Boys Banning Together:

On page112 Nakkula quotes a sociologist named Michael Kimmel. Kimmel argues that one part of boys' gender identity development is the emphasis on doing everything in one's power to "not (be) like a woman."  This is something that we see play out again and again and it's a notion that is being continually challenged- What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? 

I have a group of boys who have chosen to stick together to challenge this tough dilemma. This particular group of boys joined chorus. The boys are well liked, even considered popular. In joining chorus (at 12 years old) they have taken a great risk. Even more of a risk then I think I realized. It is amazing to see and I absolutely love that they feel confident enough to join. I wonder how they got to a point where they felt confident enough to join without the fear of peer scrutiny?

Taking the Risk of Sensitivity:

One final observation that I now feel that I'm able to describe in a more meaningful way relates to an entire class that continues to impress me. This is not my class with the highest achieving students. It is not my easiest class. It is actually a class with a few male students who I was warned about. The sixth grade teachers labeled these students as troublesome and sneaky. I was told they shouldn't be in inclusion classes, they bullied special education students in sixth grade. 

On the first day of school I came to realize that I would also be having a few students from The Learning Center (a substantially separate program, also called TLC) come into this class. I was upset that these students would be placed together with the "bad" kids, and had no idea how things would work out. I chose to have the boys labeled as "bullies" sit next to the TLC students. I thought that with the correct attitude I could draw some sensitivity and good citizenship out of these "tough" students.

The three TLC students come to class with a teachers assistant (we'll call her Sheila), a woman who really cares about kids and their well being. Both her and I have worked together to make sure that this is a positive learning experience for everyone involved. Although I can say that we have worked hard, it is safe to say that the students (both special ed. and regular ed.) have worked exponentially harder. The students in this class work together so well, it's amazing. Both Sheila and have had moments where we are nearly in tears as we have witnessed tremendous acts of patience and kindness. We have repeatedly expressed how proud we are of this class and really commended them for stepping up to the plate. I think that part of the reason this has been so moving for both of us is because the kids who have taken on leadership responsibilities are the ones who had been previously labeled as "bad."

On page 113, Nakkula states that "learning-fully engaged learning-requires vulnerability. It requires the capacity to leave oneself open to criticism and to willingly seek and provide support." I think that out of all of my classes, this is the class where I have felt most vulnerable. It is also the class with some of the most vulnerable students. The fact that we are able to see each others' vulnerability and learn from it, has created such an amazing classroom culture. I am really proud of this class and my hope is that we continue to grow together. Up until this point, I don't think I understood how profound it is to see some of the most masculine and rough-around-the-edges boys take such a risk in being sensitive to these students who have been labeled as "other." These boys are taking the risk of having the entire class challenge their masculinity, and I am now able to recognize just how profound of a risk that is. 


  1. Brittany, you sure did go off on this chapter, and I am glad that you did. As I read your post was reminded of similar thought s and feelings that I had when I first read it. I agree that so much of the posturing that goes on in our classrooms can stem from the way that students fit themselves into their culture as females or males. Perhaps this is why I tend to hear myself saying that individual students are mostly great, but certain groups of students can be awful. Or, that one student can dramatically influence the dynamic of the class (as can be observed when said student is absent). They are all so cued into what each other is potentially thinking about them and how those thoughts might make them look that they do cater their personalities to each other and that makes all the difference in their behavior - as individuals or in groups.

  2. Hi Brittany,
    I did skip to the last part, but I will be going back and reading your whole post before class on Wednesday. I am so happy that you, your students, and your aide in the TLC class have been able to be vulnerable together. You are helping to combat the gender stereotypes that generally follow kids to high school, and I think that that is amazing. Clearly, your students have found a homespace through your caring and compassion. Sounds like you are going to have a magical year! I loved reading this and I can't wait to read the rest. I was smiling when I breezed past the weirdness paragraph, and I love seeing you so vulnerable too. That's why I love you!

  3. I never heard that of boys wanting to be taller but it makes sense. Although, I have seen very short kids create a presence in my classroom. I think of one student particular who came in my classroom with a T'shirt that said "Short People have more fun". For a boy to bring to attention what is considered not the norm is a very courageous thing to do.