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A kindergarten teacher noticed that the block corner in her classroom was completely boy-dominated, and decided to do something to bring girls to the space. She took a bunch of blocks and painted them pink and purple. The results were both good and bad. The good news: girls came to the block corner to play with pink and purple blocks. The bad news: girls came to the block corner to play with pink and purple blocks.

This story, recounted by my colleague and friend Dr. Chaya Gorsetman in the first session of our telecourse, “Ready for school? Gender Issues in Jewish Education”, brings up some of the huge challenges and dilemmas that educators face in trying to create equal gender opportunity in schools. Mountains of research

Dr Chaya Gorsetman

demonstrate the negative impact of sex-role socialization on girls from the earliest ages.  Girls – and boys – receive the message in direct and indirect ways that boys are supposed to be aggressive, assertive, physical, competitive leaders while girls are supposed to be sweet, dainty, helpful, obedient, small, and nice. These ubiquitous messages come through books, school décor, classroom structures, teachers’ commentary, and of course Hollywood and Toys R Us. Peggy Orenstein’s crucial book, “Cinderella Ate my Daughter” describes in painful detail the pink-and-sparkly takeover of girls’ lives from the time they are born. Girls, especially, are bombarded with these messages from every angle.

But sometimes, if you can’t beat them, join them. If turning the block corner pink – or turning the science lab, or the computer lab metaphorically “girls” – brings more girls into the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), then some teachers are working to use that to girls’ advantage. Such an approach may make some of us cringe (or anyone who has read Peggy Orenstein’s book). But, as the panelists in this telecourses debated, perhaps the end-goal of advancing women and girls in high-status studies and careers is more important than fighting the pink-sparkly wars. Maybe. We all have to choose our battles, right?

Amy Newman

Maybe there is another way. Amy Newman, a fabulous feminist teacher at the Gann Academy in Boston, who also spoke on this first telecourses panel, shared some interesting insights about the ways in which gender socialization happens in schools, and what her school is doing to change it. She reflected on the crossover between expectations of “extrovertness” and gender hierarchies. Teacher expectations about student assertiveness in the classroom invariably reward boys, she said, by cheering on boys who jump in, take over, or initiate – sometimes inadvertently punishing the girls who show a preference for being an introvert.  She also shared insights about how body commentary shames girls.

In both of these areas, Amy said that her school has been engaged in school-wide discussions and consciousness-raising, and has made some remarkable changes in these areas. For example, teachers are now more conscious about favoritism towards extroverts, and today are not allowed to write on report cards comments such as, “I wish she would participate more.”  Following another school-wide discussion that focused on shaming girls around clothing choices, teachers are now not allowed to publicly comment on girls’ clothing, and are only allowed to send private notices to students which avoid blaming the girl and instead simply describe the clothing.

Amy’s descriptions were encouraging. Still, the question of how to create environments that encourage success in a world that continues to reward boys and men is tricky. Felicia Epstein, a teacher educator in London who has been running gender-awareness seminars for Jewish educators, also described the dilemmas of making change. Like the practice of painting blocks pink and purple, she described practices of changing the language of graduate science programs to bring more women into engineering. The good news is that these practices work. But the question remains: do they change the way society perceives women and girls – or the way men and boys perceive women and girls?

Felicia Epstein

One of the take-aways from this telecourse session was that it is not enough to educate children who aren’t sexist, but rather all children need to be encouraged to be actively anti-sexist. Also, providing equal access to all is not enough to create gender equity. We need to be creating spaces where everyone can equally thrive.

Still, as Shimona Hirchberg, one of the course participants, wrote on her Facebook wall during the session: “We should be talking about doing this for adults rather than kids, since where are kids learning this unfairness/sexism/racism from?”

Indeed, I fully agree. When we talk about education, we tend to run into a chicken-egg scenario. We want to create a gender-fair society, which means creating adults who teach children who become adults who socialize children…. Where to start?

Schools are undoubtedly an arm of the broader culture. But can schools also be places that challenge the dominant culture?

These are great questions, asked most famously by Paulo Freire, the founder of the education approach of critical pedagogy – the world view that suggests that schools can be places of deconstructing culture, even of revolution. As bell hooks writes in her invaluable book, Teaching to Transgress, about a critical pedagogy aimed at deconstructing the dominant societal constructs around race, “We learned early that our devotion to learning, to a life of the mind was a counter-hegemonic act… Though they did not define or articulate these practices in theoretical terms, my teachers were enacting a revolutionary pedagogy of resistance.”

Amy’s experience, in the spirit of bell hooks, shows us that it IS possible for schools to lead the change. Educators engaged in consciousness-raising have the ability to empower an entire generation of change agents, deconstructing the way gender is practiced in Jewish society.

I think that’s why we are running this telecourse now, and why Chaya and I wrote our book, Educating in the Divine Image on gender in Jewish education. The goal of this telecourse, and of all our writing on gender in Jewish education, is to empower educators to lead the gender revolution. Because when schools become locations that challenge the predominant culture rather than blindly transmitting it, then anything is possible. Teachers may just be the most powerful change agents in the world.

You can still join the telecourse! All sessions are recorded and can be viewed live or later on at your convenience. Sign up here

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