Jessi Worde is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at Van Buren Middle School in Albuquerque, NM In a conversation I was recently party to about UFOs, we were discussing classification, and how classification is a sign of life. This prompted me to revisit an issue which has plagued me through my academic and professional career: the arbitrary nature of classification. Last year, after researching cognitive structures (of which classification is one), I developed an extension activity for students in which they were asked to classify objects in the classroom based on color. If they completed this, they were asked to reclassify the objects based on their type, and if they finished this, they reclassified objects based on their purpose. In the same way that you can classify objects based on a variety of factors, you can do so with people. People belong to a variety of classifications—some self-identified and many that are assigned to them.
I want to talk about the first classification we’re assigned in life and how it relates to teaching middle schoolers: gender. My campus director last year dubbed me “GSM,” short for Gender Studies Major, since I began many a rant with, “As a gender studies major…” Coming from a radical academic background and insulated queer communities in Austin, Texas, stepping into middle school education was a bit of a culture shock. It pained me then and it pains me now to hear adults titter, “Oh he’s just being a boy!” or, “Well, you know girls at this age.” What does that mean? Can one’s actions and emotions ever be attributed to any one thing? And what if attributing these behaviors to gender is almost as arbitrary as classifying desks as “rectangular” or a pencil as “a writing instrument?” A college professor asked my Philosophy of Science class whether we should treat boy/girl twins differently because of their gender despite their preponderance of shared DNA. “No,” I answered, “You should treat them differently because they’re different people.”
Although gender may be a socially constructed category, it has a very real impact on most people. Society at large continues to struggle with gender expectations and middle school students are not untouched by this flux. Furthermore, they are also in many ways agents of this flux, which is pretty cool to see.
None of the girls in our program wear skirts. (Perhaps ironically, I almost never wear pants, but part of the luxury of subverting the dominant gender paradigm is getting to pick and choose which pieces of gender you want to partake in). We have a crochet apprenticeship which is comprised of about 50% boys. When I facilitated a lesson on gender, 100% of all 4 classes I taught believed that it was “ok for boys and men to cry” and “ok for girls and women to express their anger.” Students were also obviously (if not latently) aware of stereotypes; one girl cautioned that “If you wear men’s clothes and you’re a girl, people can say some nasty stuff about you.” Boys expressed their dismay (okay, more like outrage) that girls could hit boys but boys couldn’t hit girls. We discussed the dangerous implications of this double standard.
When I was walking an upset student around the track one day, she noticed her friend (a girl) playing football, and told me about a debate they were having in their English class. “I was assigned the ‘con’ side,” she sighed, “I have to argue that sports should be separate—men’s and women’s, not everyone playing together. But I don’t believe that. Women can do anything men can!” Last year, walking to our classroom, I had 3 girls profess to me, “I wish I was a 27 year old gay man!” I was taken aback by this sudden outbreak of gender dysphoria on my team until they all said it was because then they could date Adam Lambert. During a Math League lesson wherein students had to create a yes/no question and then gather data on the class I had to intervene when a self-identified bisexual student was asking her classmates “Do you like girls?”
In conclusion, as a Gender Studies Major, I have nothing definitive to say about gender and middle school. My best advice is to keep an open avenue of communication about such matters. I for one, feel fortunate (if not deeply uncomfortable, at times) to be a part of and witness to this transformative time in gender history in the strange microcosm that is middle school.