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Ways of the Teacher-Feminist: Text, schema, and stereotypes, oh my!

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I could write hundreds of posts about what it means to be a feminist and why feminism is important. For the purpose of this series, consider yourself a feminist if you believe that the economic, social, and political choices women make should not be unduly influenced by existing gender norms. (Not convinced gender matters? Check out this amazing visualization from the New York Times called Why Is Her Paycheck Smaller? for more information about gender-based wage gaps across industries or check out the research links below). My goal is to write one post about this subject per week.

Text, schema, and stereotypes, oh my!

The diversity of characters and social situations in children’s literature has increased over time. Many books tackle issues of diversity in the plot. Other stories feature diverse characters in plots that are not about prejudice. I’ve realized reading these books to students and expecting them to soak up the social norms is not enough. Even in pre-school and Kindergarten, children have ideas about gender, race, class, language, ethnicity, and other things. In this article, I refer to these ideas as schema. Schema are the mental structures people use to organize information they have about the world and create a framework for processing future experiences. A child’s gender schema is the mental framework they use understand how gender works in the world around them – they assign character traits, social position, and other values to people based on this schema.

I see gender and race schemata in action everyday. When I co-taught a 2nd grade class, I had a calm, intellectual discussion with a diverse group of six students about race, language, and gender. A biography of Jackie Robinson sparked the conversation – one of the students asked “Ok….so….these people are white and we are white…..Are you black? What about ______? She’s from Mexico – what is she?”. Without answering, I turned and asked the other students “what do you think?”. From there, the students talked about how they think race changes over time and there are more races than white and black. I told them that I self-identify as a black person. One student asked “why do we have the military if all they do is kill people?”. The other students gave him their ideas and one student started talking about how her mom is in the military. From there, students discussed how gender works in the military (girls do x, boys do x). The conversation could have continued forever. My role in the conversation was asking students to explain their thinking and asking other students to respond. After this experience, I realized no students are blank slates, and that all information we give them about social norms is compared with the schemata they already have.

Yesterday, I ran across research that helped me understand my experiences. In a paper titled Gender Schema and Prejudicial Recall: How Children Misremember, Fabricate, and Distort Gendered Picture Book Information, Frawley writes about the results of a study about how a child’s gender schema influence their reading and retelling of storybooks. Here is a brief summary of the methods and findings:

Elementary school children were presented two Caldecott Award-winning picture books and asked to retell the stories and answer criterion-specific questions related to genderoconsistent/inconsistent information contained in each story. Responses were qualitatively examined and revealed patterns of spurious recall. Children tended to misremember or distort gender-inconsistent story information. Story retellings included wrongful stereotyped interpretation of main character(s) behaviors and emotions. Follow-up interview questions revealed rationales for any misremembrance and generated responses consistent with gender bias.

The researchers noticed children’s scheme has extraordinary power over their ability to recall stories. For example, when first and fourth graders retold Mirette on the Hire Wire, they were more likely to say that the character Bellini (male) did not want to take Mirette (female) on the high wire because of Mirette’s fear. In the story, Bellini has the fear and Mirette persuades him to go on the high wire.

What does this mean for teachers? Not only do teachers have to give students the opportunity to consume literature that gives students access to marginalized voices, and promotes positive norms, they have to teach children to be critical of themselves and the texts. This looks different at all levels but starts with us: we should preview the literature our children read both through our adult lens and their child lens. Then, we need to give students authentic opportunities to discuss these issues with their peers. Our goal is to provide them with experiences that challenge students’ existing schemata.

Suggestions:

  • I ask for predictions. If I hear a prediction that seems to be based on gender/race/class/etc schema, I ask the student to explain their thinking and invite other students to agree or disagree (verbally or with hand signals). Even if the conversation doesn’t melt away all of the stereotypes, I know what schema my students might use, and can plan appropriate educational experiences.
  • Missing narratives: I tell my students history is a story and try to make them aware of marginalized voices using authentic narratives, historical documents, and photographs. Howard Zinn has a history book series called A Young People’s History of the United States that tells history through the perspective of women, indigenous peoples, enslaved peoples, and other marginalized voices (his A People’s History of the United States is a must read). Have students write stories, journal entries, magazines, and newspaper articles from a traditionally marginalized perspective.

How are you a teacher-feminist? Have you noticed the impact of gender, race, and other social schemata in your classroom?

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Written by TeacherC

24 March 2009 at 3:05 pm

4 Responses

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  1. […] they encounter experiences that intrigue and challenge them”. Children form and challenge schema through […]

  2. Really interesting post. Thanks for linking to the article.

    Lauren

    30 March 2009 at 7:05 am

  3. As a person of color and a woman, I am keenly aware of race, class, and socio-economics in the classroom, far more than my White colleagues. It’s a way of life for me, a part of my being. Of course, there is no static definition of “White”, and my White students represent a spectrum of beliefs. I try and infuse a lot via film, in order to raise awareness.

    missprofe

    1 April 2009 at 1:35 pm

  4. It is essential to teach diversity. In Romania, there is such a strong backlash about Gypsies. Madonna was booed for saying we need to respect everyone… only in the school is a child given a chance of a balanced view.

    Peter Fogarty

    10 September 2009 at 11:45 am


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