Organized Choas: introducing identity and gender

“That’s not true! Being gay is not a choice!” Jaden shouts, confidently exasperated.

“Nuh uh!” Faith retorts. “It is a choice! I had a friend who was straight once but now she chose to be gay!” They have been much louder and harder to keep on task than usual today –undoubtedly because they have a substitute, but now the class is suddenly focused. Naomi is at a teacher training session, meaning I am launching the identity unit solo. The sub, a tall, bespectacled woman with frizzy gray hair, sits silently in the back of the classroom for most of my lesson, nodding and occasionally smiling to herself as I struggle to keep the students’ attention.

The debate over whether or not sexuality is a choice began when I added “straight” to the giant list of identities the class had been composing together on chart paper under the “identities we don’t choose” section. In composing the intro lesson for the entire identity unit, I struggled with how to make both the concept and the term “socially constructed identity” accessible for sixth graders. I was confident they would be able to grasp the idea of a social construction insofar as the messages or rules, as we came to call them, which society sends us about certain identities, but I suspected the term “socially constructed” would confuse them more than anything. Unfortunately, talking about identities as socially constructed is also an extremely useful way of conceptually separating race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. from personality traits.

In grappling with how to accessibly make these identities distinct for students, I eventually realized that in talking about various identities, students would see the differences and offer their own language to differentiate between them. As we listed off different identities as a class to put on our chart paper, I began subtly separating students’ answers. On the left side of the paper were things like “Latino,” “male,” “black,” and on the right I recorded “outspoken,” “hyper,” “shy,” “sports fan.” When the students could not think of any more identity traits, I asked them to look at the chart and group different types of identity. This proved difficult, so I prompted further. “For example, what do ‘male’ and ‘black’ have in common? What do all the identities on this side have in common?” An inquisitive and sincere white student named Will suddenly thrusts his hand in the air, his furrowed brow rising over widened eyes.

“Those other ones are like, things you do, but these ones are like, who you are!

Alisha, a sharp, self-described outspoken black student with a knowledge of daytime soap operas far beyond her years, corrected him. “But those are all who you are… those things are like….like things that are… things that are really who you are…” She trailed off and frowned, realizing she had fallen into the same trap as Will.

The class was silent for a moment as they contemplated the list of identities. Alisha let out a frustrated sigh and slumped onto her desk. Eventually, Faith raised her hand. “Okay, I think maybe those identities are like, things you can get discriminated against for?”

She was onto something. A murmur of agreement swept through the class. Suddenly, Will exclaimed, “Ohhh!” Those are things that other people can use to discriminate against you, so those really are like… the parts you don’t have control over! You don’t choose them.” I wrote the word “choice” at the top of the chart paper and asked the class if they could think of other aspects of our identities we cannot choose. When no suggestions were forthcoming, I added “straight” to the to the left hand column under “Latino” and the current argument exploded. 

By now, some of the students are standing, and most of them are yelling. I spend the remainder of the class trying to facilitate a debate between the students who think sexuality is a choice and those who do not. It is the second time today there has been contention over the subject matter. When we first began listing identities, several students had objected to the idea that white was a racial group, “Because white people come from all over!” In both disputes, I refrained from giving them “the answer,” so to speak, but rather, encouraged students to argue their opinions. Tomorrow, I think to myself, tomorrow I will offer them answers. Today they need to explore this for themselves.

The lesson ends as soon as students realize its 12:06, one minute into their recess period. No resolution had been reached on either debate. As the students grab their coats and pile out the door, the lesson feels raw, fragmented, unfinished. I’m not sure the class even understands the difference between personality traits and socially salient identities – a main goal of this introductory day. While I am glad I allowed students to debate organically, the lack of conclusion leaves me disheartened, and I exit the classroom exhausted and extremely anxious about the next three weeks.

Over the next few days, most of my anxieties will be quelled. Naomi returns on Tuesday, the unit’s second day, in which we begin writing about our identities. Her presence completely transforms the classroom. (The difference in student behavior with their usual teacher as opposed to a substitute is frightening, to say the least.) She informs me that instead of having students remain at their desks during our lessons, we ought to have them sit in a circle on the carpet, as the class sometimes meets there for writing anyway. During Tuesday’s lesson, I learn that some of the students do actually understand the difference between socially constructed identities and personality traits, but that it definitely needs reviewing. I also attempt to close the two debates from yesterday, informing the class that white is indeed a racial group that refers to people of European descent and is typically marked by light colored skin. They accept this information with minimal objection.

Moving on to the other point of contention, I tell the class that while there is some ongoing debate about choice and sexuality, I do not believe that sexuality is a choice (“Yes! I knew I was right!” Jaden exclaims). I hastily add that the debate over sexuality and choice is largely irrelevant; the point is that research shows that someone’s sexuality cannot be changed externally. As soon as I say this, Faith, who was the most vocal proponent of sexuality being a choice in yesterday’s debate, crosses her arms and fixes me with a cold, dark stare. She looks absolutely mutinous. For the remainder of the lesson, she withdraws –quite literally – removing herself from our circle and refusing my assistance with her writing assignment.

Faith is a tall, extremely intelligent student with long, braided hair, colorful braces, and from what I observed, a generally more developed sense of identity than her peers. She identifies specifically as black, not African-American (“I’m American – why do people have to put ‘African’ in front of it? Nobody says ‘European-American’ for white people.”) She is also from a strongly Christian background. Noticing her behavior during the lesson, Naomi tells me she will be calling home to check in with Faith’s parents, both about Faith’s behavior and the lesson’s subject matter.

As a teacher striving to stay true to critical pedagogy’s commitments to both respecting student voices and opinions as well as fighting oppression in all its forms, the situation with Faith raises an interesting contradiction for me. How can I teach against oppression – including labeling homophobic arguments as such – without invalidating a student’s religious background? How can I encourage self-determination in these students without legitimizing homophobic attitudes?

Obviously, Faith’s isolation during the workshop is unproductive –but so is leaving the issue of sexuality and choice untouched. Today, I tried to move beyond the choice debate, referring to it as “irrelevant” and informing students what research has told us about efforts to change someone’s sexuality. (Though this also has the potential for the same pedagogical contradictions, as the vast majority of “conversion therapy” programs are carried out by religious organizations.) Naomi later informs me that I had been unclear in my ultimate point, and that neither she nor the class had understood what I meant. When Naomi calls Faith’s mother later Tuesday evening, I am told to make sure that “Fact is labeled as fact, and opinion is labeled as opinion.” Fair enough.

*      *      *

The next two lessons seem much more useful for students, and are definitely a lot more fun for me. On Wednesday and Thursday, the class discusses gender roles, stereotypes, and media messages, and eventually, writes stories relating to these issues. Unlike the previous two days, these lessons involve one specific identity, which makes it much easier for students to engage. Some students are already familiar with discussing gender. Alexis, a precocious and often apathetic white girl, offers the terms masculinity and femininity when we discuss gendered traits.

I begin by writing the words sex and gender on the board and asking students to define them. Shocked faces and giggles soon subside as students realize I’m not talking about that kind of sex. Through a series of questions, the class eventually teases out the difference. “Well, I guess that gender is like being a man or woman or whatever but that like…” Smirking, Alisha casts a sideways glance at Faith and brings her voice down to a whisper. “…That like sex is your… your body parts.” She gestures toward her lap and continues to suppress a laugh.

When the class seems clear on the difference, we move on to gender. “What makes someone a boy or a girl?” I compose a list of their answers on the board. At first, many students are stumped, so I read an excerpt from my piece about my father being uncomfortable when I played with a Barbie doll as a child. This helps get the class thinking about the “rules” of gender and how they’ve experienced them. It concretizes a previously abstract concept, and for many students, demonstrates that they too have received messages about gender from their parents or peers. Students are now more prepared to speak to these messages. For boys – later titled masculinity after Alexis’ comment – students offer traits like “strong,” “tough,” and “manly,” which we unpack together. We talk about how boys are encouraged not to cry or show feelings of any kind. For girls/femininity, students say “delicate,” “weak,” and “pretty.”

As we transition from listing gendered qualities to analyzing the magazine ads students were asked to bring in as part of yesterday’s homework, Mary Beth timidly approaches me. “Can I tell you something?” She whispers. It is not the first time she has come to me like this. “I hate playing with girl toys. My sister always tries to make me play with her Polly Pockets and other dolls but I never want to.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” She nods her head earnestly, “Even when I was little –I never, ever wanted to. I think I should be able to play with whatever I want.”

“Well that’s good! I do too.” I tell her. Mary Beth smiles in a satisfied sort of way, and then sits down with the rest of the group. Naomi and I each take half of the class and begin to analyze the magazine ads with the students. With only minimal prompting, many students are able to point out how the images of people are gendered. “Think about what the people are – or are not – doing in the pictures. What products are they selling with the ads? Whom are they selling them to?”

The major revelation that comes out of my group is that men are typically pictured actively doing things – especially manual labor or office work, while the women in the ads “just stand there and look pretty,” as Mary Beth says. Students also point out how the majority of ads – with both males and females – feature only white people.

When we reconvene the entire class to share what both groups found, we discuss how when women are only shown to be extremely skinny and inactive, it reinforces the message that women should be weak. Alisha scrunches her forehead over her oval glasses. “Well that makes sense, though. Girls with muscles look freaky!” The class begins to giggle. “No seriously! It looks weird!”

Faith agrees, a look of mild disgust creeping over her face. “Yeah, it just seems… I dunno, unhealthy.

“Why do you think it looks weird?” I ask them.

“I’m not sure… but it is weird!” Alisha insists.

“But why?

Alisha and Faith grow increasingly flustered as they repeat their previous answers. “Just because!” Alisha finally yells. I ask the class what people mean when they say something is “weird.” Eventually, we come to the conclusion that when someone says “weird,” they often mean that something is unusual.

“Hmmm, interesting,” I say, turning back to Faith and Alisha. “Because there is definitely nothing unhealthy about girls having muscles. I think that people think it’s weird when they see a muscular girl simply because they are not used to seeing it. It is unusual, because as we saw in those ads, women are rarely shown having muscles. They’re taught that they’re not supposed to.” Many students nod their heads, but Faith and Alisha seem less convinced.

Instead of arguing the point further, I decide that speaking more generally about societal expectations might be more useful. “So if we know these rules about gender aren’t real – that people aren’t born knowing them – and they have nothing to do with anatomy – with our sex – then why do people follow them? Where do they get these messages?”

“From the media.”

“From their parents.”

“Yeah, from other people,” Alexis says. “People see other people following the rules and acting a certain way so people get used to it. It just seems normal.”

I tell Alexis that she is absolutely right and restate her point for emphasis. “So what happens in society when people don’t follow these ‘rules?’ What happens in school?”

“They get teased,” a few students murmur. Recess is rapidly approaching, and I’m losing them. We’ve been sitting for a long time.

“So maybe people don’t want to break the rules because they know they’ll get made fun of?” I lead them. There are a few meek nods. Most eyes are on the clock now, or staring absentmindedly into the carpet. I realize that whether I think we’re finished or not, the lesson is over. I save the rest of my wrap-up spiel for after lunch, and Naomi dismisses them.

Mary Beth lingers as her classmates hastily throw on their coats and make for the door. “Can I tell you something?” she whispers.

“Of course.”

“I don’t feel good when I see those ads,” She tells me, with the air of revealing a protected secret. “Cause you wanna know what?” She waits until I nod. “I don’t consider myself pretty. I don’t think I look like the girls in those ads and it makes me feel bad.”

I am caught off guard. The honesty and pain her words reveal grab me. And I want to grab her. I want to hug her and tell her she is beautiful and to ignore those ads – to recognize them for the sexist, racist, oppressive trash they are. I want to tell her that “pretty” is just a social construct, and that maybe when she’s older it will be easier to understand, and that hopefully she won’t feel so bound to these images. I want to tell her that one day she might even recognize that as a petite white female, she comes a lot closer to mainstream beauty standards than most other women.

But I don’t.

Instead, being a male-assigned TA bound by all manner of social constraints, I simply say, in the most sympathetic voice I can muster, “Well, that’s why its so important that we talk about this stuff. ‘Pretty’ can mean a lot of different things – certainly a lot more than those images say. Most women do not look like those models… Everyone looks different, and if people realize that, than hopefully we won’t have to be as hurt by these images.”

Mary Beth nods and gives me a wide, dimply smile before calmly trotting towards the door. I take a deep breath, and for the first time, think that maybe what I’m doing here could actually mean something.

*      *      *

“Oh, those don’t count!” Jaden yells. It is Thursday, our day to write about gender. “Those are girl push-ups –you have to do real ones!” He orders Caleb. For whatever reason, some students have decided to spend their snack break having a push-up contest.

“What exactly is a ‘girl push-up?” I ask Jaden. He demonstrates by doing a push-up while leaning foreword from his knees. “They’re easier,” he tells me.

“Ah,” I reply, wondering how address this. “Why do you call them ‘girl push-ups?’”

Jaden roles his eyes. The other students, most of whom are milling about the room chatting, begin to take an interest in our conversation. “Because that’s just what they are called!” He is already frustrated; I think he knows what I am going to say.

“But aren’t you insulting girls by saying that?”

Jaden stares at me, indignant. “No I’m not!”

“Yeah, that’s just what they’re called.” Caleb repeats. There are several mutters of agreement from Alexis, Alisha, Marcus and others. Naomi and I exchange a look. Do you wanna take this or should I?

“Yes, but by saying that girls’ push-ups are easier or less than regular push-ups, you’re calling girls weak.” My words are met by a collective cry of protest.

“No! No one is saying that, it’s just what they are called!” Alisha insists.

“But what we call things always has a meaning,” I tell them.

“Yes,” Naomi jumps in, “Labels always say something. By labeling something that takes less physical strength than something else a ‘girl push-up,’ you are saying that girls are weaker than boys.”

“Why do you have to gender it?” I add, “Why not just call them ‘knee push-ups?’ It’s more informative that way, anyway.” Several students continue to argue, so Naomi and I use this as a segue into today’s identity lesson, in which students will be asked to write about gender.

Though it initially seems as though many students have forgotten everything from the previous lesson, most of the content gradually emerges as we review gendered expectations, media messages, and the difference between sex and gender. To reinforce the previous lesson and prepare students for the writing assignment, instead of going over gendered qualities again, we create lists of gender roles with the class. To help get students started, Naomi reads a short piece about being raised in a strictly gendered household, and being taught how to cook and clean for her future husband. After Naomi’s story, the class decides to put “cooking” and “housework” under girls’ gender roles. “What other roles does society tells us are for women or men? What did those ads from yesterday tell us?”

Over the course of discussion, students add “plays with dolls” and “cares for males” to the girls’ gender role list. Under boys,’ they put “plays with cars/active toys,” “yard work/hard work,” and “can fix things.” After the class considers some concrete examples of gender roles, Naomi and I ask students to write about their own experience with gender and societal expectations. “Has there ever been a time when you were told you could or could not do something because of your gender?” We prompt students with various other questions from the lesson plan, and soon about half the class is able to begin writing. The other half, however, requires individual attention. In retrospect, I should have asked those students who were able to begin writing to share their ideas with the group to help generate ideas for stuck students.

In giving help to individual to students, I tried to offer them concrete examples of how I saw their gender being displayed. “Think about your appearance,” I tell Stacy and Alisha. “Think about your hair. How do you style it? Why? Do you wear make-up? All of those things are gendered.” Alisha writes a story about asking her mom to buy her lip-gloss in second grade so she can fit in with her new girlfriends. Stacy writes about her mom styling her long hair each morning, though she has trouble musing on the why part of it.

I end up spending the most time working with a diffident Hispanic girl named Danielle. Her curly brown hair is always in a ponytail, her long bangs covering one eye. During our group conversations on the carpet, she regularly tries to sit just outside the circle, behind a desk or chair – anything, it seems, to remain invisible. I find this a somewhat ironic habit of hers, considering her insatiable interest in fashion and aesthetics. Sometimes during lessons, I notice Danielle slouching at her desk; her head slumped on her head, looking profoundly unhappy – or maybe apathetic. She is like that now. “I just don’t know what to write,” she sighs, as I crouch next to her chair and inquire about the blank page in front of her.

“Well, what are you interested in? ‘Cause often times our interests have a lot to do with our gender.”

“I really like fashion,” She tells me without hesitation.

“Right. Okay, do you think there are a lot of boys interested in fashion?”

“No, I guess not…”

“What do you like about fashion?” As Danielle details her fashion sensibilities to me, she begins to see the way her tastes and expressions are affected by gender.

“I also really like shoes – especially boys’ shoes. They’re usually really different… really…”

“They have a lot of different styles?”

“Yeah, a lot more than girls.’ And I usually like the boys’ styles better.”

“So do you wear boys’ shoes?”

“No… I mean, sometimes I want to, but… but other people would probably make fun of me…” She trails off, looking thoughtful.

“Ah, well it looks like you might have something to write about after all. Do you think you could write about your fashion and how it relates to gender?”

“Okay,” she says simply.

During the last ten minutes before lunch, Naomi and I take a few volunteers to share their stories and discuss their themes as a class. Faith shares a story about being the only girl during a flag football game, during which one of the boys declares that he will protect her. We then add “protect females” and “good at sports” to the list of boys’ gender roles. Mary Beth shares a story in which her friends at school tell her she has to like “girl colors.” To combat this, Mary Beth asks her father to wear his pink shirt when he picks her up from school the following day, to show her peers that “anyone can like any color.” Will shares a story about getting into Yu-Gi-Oh cards and realizing that there aren’t any girls at the card tournaments. “Probably because the cards have monsters and scary things on them and girls aren’t encouraged to like scary things,” he tells the class.

As the fourth day of the identity unit winds up, Mary Beth approaches me with her trademark whisper. “Can I tell you something?”


“I just wanted to let you know that I’m really glad we’re talking about all this stuff.” She is staring at the floor, almost awkwardly. “I’m really glad we’re talking about it because it makes me feel more okay about it. Like I don’t need to hurt ‘cause of all this stuff.” She looks up at me with a sheepish grin, and all I can do is smile back. You and me both, Mary Beth, you and me both.

3 thoughts on “Organized Choas: introducing identity and gender

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