Boys, girls, and curricula

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Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

— Walter Dean Myers

Cross-posted at cassondrapuls.com.

A few weeks ago, the time came to select textbooks, workbooks, and readers for the upcoming year. My working group had already held several meetings to discuss books for the students in our grade level. It’s a torturous process complicated by the need to identify books that are at the same time thematically and linguistically appropriate for our students’ age and their English level. It’s also complicated by the fact that many wonderful English young adult books, which would be appropriate for our purposes, are simply not available for distribution in Turkey.

On each occasion, I have made an observation and a request: Most of our books this year had boy protagonists and male themes. For the upcoming year, can we include some books with girls as the main characters? And I suggested a few possibilities. Each time I got the same answer: That’s a nice idea, but imagine how the boys would take it! If we did that, we would need to provide another choice for the boys, and that would be unwieldy.

In this situation, I find myself torn.

On the one hand, girls are measurably more successful in school while boys are less engaged and more at-risk for low achievement, low attendance, behavioral problems, and dropping out. Christina Hoff Summers wrote that this is because the “scales are tipped…against boys” in schools in terms of institutional social pressure and that school policies are “hostile” to boys. Schools, as Summers insists and as my colleagues intuit from years of experience, are  challenging places for boys because they “punish the distinctive, assertive sociability of boys” such as competition and heroic play. Boys’ alienation leads to misbehavior in the classroom, in turn degrading the teaching and learning experience for everyone, both boy and girls. Catering to them, my colleagues presume, reduces classroom conflicts–improving the educational experience for boys and girls alike–and raises their achievement, while the girls will still do well.

On the other hand, we don’t want our curricula to perpetuate biases and social injustices. Why should it be acceptable for girls to tolerate boys’ themes, and boys’ perspectives, and boys’ experiences, but boys cannot do the same those of girls? We criticize society for privileging male narratives, and male characters, and assigning men the status of “default” human while women are considered supporting actors in the drama of men’s lives. We criticize this, but how can we change it if that’s how children even experience it in school? And anyway, what kind of standard are we setting for boys–that we believe they are not capable of empathizing with perspectives different than their own?

Part of the problem is systemic: most English-language young-adult books available for distribution in Turkey are about boys, and the ones I indicated with prominent female leads are not available. Thus the market gives society what it wants, society takes it, and two create a mutually reinforcing cycle of privilege. And it is privilege–as author Walter Dean Myers wrote recently, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

Of course, this is not an either-or–either use boyish books or girlish ones, either have a girl-friendly school environment or a boy-friendly one–and some of the most progressive schools in the world such as those in Sweden even downplay and reject the terms “boy” and “girl.”  In the near future many other factors will play in, such as the expansion of e-reading platforms which will extensively expand the readers a school has access to and obviate the challenges of hard-copy book distribution. But the debate in my mind showed me the current challenges of sustaining a gender-balanced curriculum and the many factors. How do you maintain “balance” on the scale when the weights you are working with are irregular and misshapen, or when you can’t even agree on the relative weight of one thing to another? The scale will tilt to one side or another according to someone.

In the end, my working group submitted almost exactly the same book list, still dominated by books about boys, soccer, and fighting.

Photo: Readers and books in the English Department in the Primary School.

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