Changing the Narrative
The video clip depicts two young men hiding, recently having escaped abduction by a rebel army. They have lost everything, their home, their parents, and their older brother. Their heads in their hands, they cry.
The victims’ suffering fills the classroom. I am careful to give my students time to process what they’ve seen before turning on the light and initiating a discussion.
“What did you see? How are you feeling about what you saw?”
The students move from their internal dialogues and begin publicly sharing their thoughts.
“It’s really sad. I feel bad for those boys,” one student begins.
“Something should be done, no one should have to live like that,” another student adds.
“I feel embarrassed,” one young man shares. An uncertain silence follows his statement.
“What do you mean, ‘embarrassed’,” I inquire.
“Well, they were crying. I mean, they were crying a lot. I think it was weird to see guys cry like that. It’s embarrassing.”
As a seasoned teacher, this is not the first time I have encountered students, male or female, who are uncomfortable with “guys” exhibiting human emotions that are often culturally ascribed to females.
In this case, a fellow young man interjects, “No. This crying is okay, because their parents and brother died. It’s not girly crying.”
Standing in front of this group of students I am struck by how limiting life will be for them if they persist in believing that the full range of human emotions should not be shared and expressed across genders. Even worse, by assigning crying as a “girly” quality, both the emotion and females are denigrated in a single shot.
This conversation reflects what I experience daily in my high school classroom. It demonstrates how fragile young men and women are in their relationship to gender. By the time teens reach my classroom there is often a very narrow and entrenched idea of what it means to be male and what it means to be female. If not addressed, these ideas can lead to a lifelong struggle with one’s identity.
Books are one of the greatest tools available to teachers in the fight against this type of constricted thinking. In my ten years working with teens, I have seen the transformative power of novels. Books provide a safe and distanced space for adolescents to engage with characters, settings, and events that challenge their confining views of maleness and femaleness.
Just this month my students have been discussing how power is negotiated and navigated in novels like Speak, Thirteen Reasons Why, Rapunzel’s Revenge, Goose Girl, The Power of One, American Born Chinese, and Maus (just to name a few). Students are given choice to select books that appeal to them, but during their reading the class pauses and discusses in small groups how the characters, settings, and events in the novels reflect existing gender norms and how they push against them. Further, through critical thinking we develop personal opinions about what that means in our lives.
Here are a few notes I have saved from student book discussions.
A freshmen male student wrote: “I’m stuck. In [Speak] the girl gets raped. But she was drunk. Before I read this book I would have said that if a girl is drinking and gets raped, it’s all her fault. But now I am not sure. I mean, she was stupid for drinking. But Andy shouldn’t have done that, no matter what.”
A junior female student wrote: “I am reading American Born Chinese. Ms. R asked me if being Asian changes the way Danny feels about fitting in with the other guys at school. I never thought about that. I guess it’s like if you are small, people think you aren’t strong or maybe you feel self-conscious for being weak. Maybe some people think this about Chinese people, but I don’t.”
These are just two examples from students who felt safe allowing me to share their work. What they demonstrate is the powerful capacity books possess to get students to think outside of the social bubbles they inhabit. In turn, readers begin to expand their understanding of self as it relates to the world around them.
A book provides a vast landscape of exploration. Copious studies demonstrate how one positive interaction with a perceived “other” can change racist, sexist, and dangerously closed thinking. A single novel provides individuals with hundreds of these types of interactions. Consequently, further research suggests that avid readers have greater empathy and a superior capacity to deal with nuanced thinking. In short, navigating stories in which characters both reflect and defy one’s world develops stronger thinking.
Studying to be a Language Arts teacher, I was required to take instructional reading courses. In more than one of the classes I was given a list of Boy’s Books and a list of Girl’s Books. The intention of the lists was to help teachers get reluctant readers into a book. The thinking: people will like reading about what they know and students will engage better with the familiar.
While there may be some initial truth to this thinking, the unfortunate reality is that in the long run, prescribed gender-reading limits, rather than expands, readers. Students stop reading once they have exhausted all the novels where they see themselves as the character. Worse, all that remarkable cognitive development gets lost.
I am tasked with developing students’ critical thinking skills, analysis skills, and their capacity to evaluate the world around them. This is not possible when students are allowed to persist in dogma that leads them to believe that a crying boy is embarrassing and crying girl is a reflection of her innate weakness. That’s why in my classroom we read across gender, across culture, and across genre. We read to understand the “other”, to build empathy, to appreciate nuance, and to actively participate in the greater world. There is no single book, for a single gender, that can do all that heavy lifting.
Rebecca Richardson teaches Language Arts in the English Department at East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah to both native and non-native English speakers. She has served as ESL Department Chair for four years, has created and runs several after-school college-readiness and community programs. She received a Masters in Education from Westminster College and was named the 2014 University of Utah Outstanding Public School Teacher. None of these details can remotely convey the passion she has for education, the love she has for her students, and the work she puts into helping her students have a voice and recognize their own greatness.