Archive | October, 2011

Halloween: a time to take our masks off?

31 Oct

I dread Halloween. To say that I am not great with costumes is a gross understatement (one year, I even failed to pull off a black cat: I had the store-bought black pointy ears and tail, the drawn-on whiskers, and the black turtleneck over pants. Still, I was mistaken for a mouse. Repeatedly.) This is not my holiday.

Throw in the standard option for women: “Sexy [insert occupation/fictional character/animal,” and I’m ready for November 1st. I am tired of the costumes that go down to there and up to here, all of which go well with the fishnets and stilettos in your closet from last year.

And I’m not alone: I regularly have conversations with women and girls who also sigh, rant and roll their eyes at the risqué choices in costumery among our kind. We commiserate in our exasperation, feel generally superior to our bare sisters and proceed to either boycott the holiday or spend it dressed as a dinosaur (and not a sexy one–think papier-mâché with no easy way to go to the bathroom once you’re committed). 

Of course, what this means is that I do get dressed up every year for Halloween, in what has turned out to be a very convincing outfit: I’m Alison the Fed Up Feminist! Perhaps it’s not a “costume” in the traditional sense of transforming me into something or someone fantastical or totally different, but it is scary to some people. Boo.

But perhaps what I wear might more accurately be called an anti-costume. Rather than disguising me, it may actually reveal me, or at least a part of me that I don’t allow to be seen most other days of the year.

In her 2010 editorial, “Saying Yes to Slutty Costumes” (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/10/28/sexy-halloween-costumes-why-women-should-wear-what-they-want.html), Erin Bradley wonders, “Why do people who normally defend a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants suddenly label her a bimbo when she opts for the naughty nurse costume on Halloween?” I had to read on. It seemed that by “people,” she meant, “Alison Park.”

Citing the usual complaints about “sexy” costumes (lack of creativity, using Halloween as an “excuse” to look like a slut, bad modelling for children), Bradley digs a little deeper into what she calls The Shaming of the Sexy Halloween Costume, a fine and smug tradition among many self-professed liberals and feminists:

“I wonder whether it’s not about contempt for the costumes themselves, but the women who choose to wear them that’s driving this. While it’s uncool in most educated circles to point to a woman in a miniskirt and label her trashy, during the month of October that social more gets put on hold. Are we only masquerading as enlightened when it comes to women’s sexuality?”

Ouch. Something in Bradley’s musings really resonates for me, or rather, a bunch of somethings: the judgment (perhaps withheld but still tacitly understood) of “educated” folks, the selective application of freedom and rights (only when I say so) and the fact of a contempt. While I do think there’s cause to be concerned about social messages and persistent sexual exploitation, how do we get to contempt? What is our contempt–well-dressed though it may be–about? I think that our culture of discourse almost requires that we escalate any disagreement to the level of contempt in order to be taken seriously. However, it’s easy to lose sight of the issues when all we see is red.

When I step back and let my eyes refocus, my qualms with Halloween are part of a larger unease I have with the rules around expression of sexuality in our culture: I’d like to see us shift towards an ability and acceptance for people to express their sexuality in a mutually respectful way every day–not just in hyperbole one day out the year.

All hail the queen!

29 Oct

It’s the post you’ve all been waiting for… Prince William and Duchess Catherine’s first-born is eligible to assume the British throne, regardless of sex (http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/28/world/europe/uk-monarchy/?hpt=wo_c2)!

And that’s not all: future British monarchs will also be allowed to marry Catholics!

Anyone else feeling a little underwhelmed by the news? Even irritated (thinking, seriously? What took so long?)

Well, let’s not break out the celebratory champagne just yet: according to CNN, while “the leaders of the 16 Commonwealth countries that have the queen as head of state approved the changes unanimously at a Commonwealth of Nations summit in Australia… [t]he individual governments of those 16 countries still must agree to the changes for them to take effect.”

But I wonder just how much suspense we can really be expected to muster. After all, the leadership vote was unanimous.

And that unanimity makes me wonder… how many times were these changes to the laws of succession put to a vote? How long (or recently) ago did a voice within the British Empire first pipe up about the antiquated laws? Was the equal rights for female heirs issue moot a generation ago because Princess Diana had boys (so the empire didn’t have to bother with the issue)? What was it about this moment in history that gave leadership the permission and momentum to vote yes to girls and Catholic spouses?

Because certainly, these laws are well-outdated (again, as demonstrated by the unanimous vote). So why now? Is it because the world is in love with Will, Kate and–by association–the offspring they are compelled to have? Is it because after the birth of a son, the empire would lose its chance to push for more progressive laws… until that son was himself on the verge of becoming a father? There is a reality to it: in the US, we tend to get outraged over the electoral college every four years (if even that often). And then as soon as the presidential election is over, we forget about it… until the next contested vote.

The timing of Britain’s unanimous vote makes me wonder about how and when societies agree to change: when will the US vote unanimously (or just as a majority) in favor of gay marriage? What will it take? What heroes, history and unique circumstances will make a “yes” vote for gay marriage a no-brainer?

Whatever the journey over in Britain and no matter how overdue their reforms seem to be, it’s good news. Now what if Will and Kate’s kid is transgender?

Saturday quote

29 Oct

“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”

–Anaïs Nin

What a school is

28 Oct

Yesterday’s The San Francisco Chronicle announced: “Oakland Board Votes to Close 5 Schools” (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/10/27/MN5I1LM81S.DTL).

In this first round (up to 30 schools could be merged or closed by the end of the 2013-14 school year), Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park and Santa Fe elementary schools will close at the end of this school year.

The arguments to close the schools hinge on fiscal constraints (“Having too many underfunded schools is not a good strategy,” reasons Superintendent Tony Smith) and assessing efficient school to student ratios (according to The Chronicle, Oakland Unified has almost twice the number of schools that San Jose Unified does–101 to 52–to serve 38,000 and 32,000 students, respectively. The article does not address how well SJU’s schools serve its equivalent population). 

The arguments to keep the schools open are perhaps best represented in the words of Sincere Robinson, a Lakeview fourth grader: “Lakeview is my family, and it’s a great school. They help us be smart.”

When I read Sincere’s plea, I couldn’t help but think of the open letter from Windrush School’s Board of Trustee’s, regarding the emergency campaign they launched this fall (http://www.windrush.org/emergency-campaign). Windrush is an independent school in El Cerrito that was facing mid-year closure (which, as I understand, they have managed to stave off until the end of the year). While closure appears to be a certainty, Windrush fought to stay open for the rest of this year. Why? What difference does that really make? As the trustees explain, “A school is not simply a collection of buildings and playgrounds. A school is the embodiment of dreams and aspirations, of girls and boys learning to become their authentic selves, of preparations for high school and college.”

Just like Sincere said.

I’ll be honest, I don’t have nearly the understanding, expertise or miracle-working power to discern and effect what’s right for the students in Oakland and El Cerrito. But I do wonder. I wonder if and how we can cross the line between public and private to pool our wisdom, resources and creativity for these soon to be displaced students. While I’m aware of connections between the public and private sectors at many schools, I wonder whether we think about being colleagues not only through well-considered partnership programs, but also in times of emergency. I don’t know what communication, support, resource-sharing and collaboration has happened between public and private schools around this and other instances of crisis, but it seems like this is a great opportunity to come together and rethink not just possibilities for the kids, but our relationships as educators, one to another.

You say “interracial,” I say “who?”

28 Oct

“Record-High 86% Approve of Black-White Marriages” the Gallup Organization enthused in September (http://www.gallup.com/poll/149390/Record-High-Approve-Black-White-Marriages.aspx). As I read about how US Americans are “approaching unanimity in their views of marriages between blacks and whites,” my attention went immediately to the lingering 14%.

Really? Still? Isn’t it exhausting, people, to actively disapprove of interracial and gay marriage? How about freeing up that emotional bandwidth to disapprove of something more insidious and destructive than a commitment between two people?

After my knee jerked in reaction, I found myself wondering more about the 14%…

While the poll tracked responses by age, region, education, sex, political orientation/affiliation and race (more on that in a moment), it didn’t identify respondents by marital status–or, even more specifically, racial marital status (whether they are in an inter- or intraracial union). This might sound funny, but I’m curious:

  • how many people who aren’t married/don’t believe in marriage disapprove of other people’s marital choices?
  • how many of the disapproving 14% are in an intraracial v. interracial marriage?

While I would expect that the 14% are largely in the intraracially married (or intending to be intraracially married) category, I hesitate to assume.

I wonder how many people who are themselves in an interracial marriage disapprove of the idea in general. As someone who is in an interracial marriage herself, let me say: it’s not easy. I love my partner, I choose to be in this relationship, and race sometimes throws us into a tailspin. I don’t kid myself that being in an intraracial marriage would simplify everything and create harmony on all fronts: I’m just saying that it’s a source of some additional challenge and growth for us (just like being a woman and a man, an educator and an engineer, a younger and middle child, and a planner and an impulse-actor pose their own hurdles, laughs and revelations for us). All of the diversity in my marriage is part of our attraction, our synergy and our disconnection. So while I happen to agree with the majority on this one, I can see how someone who is an interracial marriage could take a different stance for the general public. Or for one’s own children. The point being: we can’t assume who approves, who disapproves and why.

Now regarding the racial breakdown of respondents, Gallup noted that they included “an oversample of blacks.” (The statement, “Blacks have always been more approving than whites of interracial marriage, going back to 1968 when Gallup first was able to report reliable estimates on each group’s opinions” seems to suggest that Gallup loaded its response pool to ensure its “record-high” results. Interesting.) Notice that there’s no mention of the overall racial diversity of the pool: while whites are explicitly called out, it is not clear how many or even if Asians, Latinos, multiracial and/or Native Americans were included (although we may reasonably conclude these groups were not “oversampled.”) All we have is the following graphic:

Notice that the title of this graph is “Approval of Marriage Between Blacks and Whites, by Race [emphasis added].” Right. I’d forgotten. The poll was not inclusively about interracial marriage: it was specifically about black-white marriage. How could I have forgotten? Because by the second sentence, Gallup generalizes its findings about black-white marriage to all interracial marriage. (The other explanation is that the organization really does define “interracial” as just black-white). Gallup again makes this leap when it purports to illustrate approval “by race”… and only shows the responses of black and white people. Again, I have no idea whether Gallup polled black and white people exclusively, or just decided that the responses of “other” racially identified people were peripheral to the real news.

It seems an odd sloppiness in this polling, given that we know not just how many Democrats and Republicans, but how many Independents approve of “interracial” marriage (88%, 77% and 89%, respectively). After all, this is a poll about race. Isn’t the diversity of racial groups’ attitudes inherently interesting? And not just attitudes about black-white marriage: as an Asian-American, I’m curious about this large demographic’s attitudes about Asian-white, Asian-black, Asian-Latino, Asian-Native American and Asian-multiracial marriages. And yes, about intermarriage among other groups. I suspect that for my and other racial groups, there’s a different response to “interracial marriage,” depending on which races are intermarrying, and I’d love to know if there’s any basis for my belief.

But that’s now what this poll was about. And while I’d like to see a little more precision in naming from Gallup*, it’s not just about this one poll. What Gallup did in its analysis is reflective of a cultural tendency: to choose ambiguity over clarity, in order to avoid offense, discomfort or a troubling truth. I see this happen in schools sometimes when a group of well-intended educators is discussing “students at risk” without naming that this particular group is even more specifically black boys, adolescents questioning their sexuality or second language students with a single parent. What happens when we name the group we’re talking about? We can see them. We can ask questions, consider how identity shapes experience, confront our biases, grapple with real stereotypes and discrimination, and learn about their particular hurdles, needs and strengths. In these cases, being precise in our language helps us to be more human and effective.

Gallup’s languaging is also consistent with a cultural tendency to reduce the complexity and diversity of identity into an either-or. Black or white, female or male, gay or heterosexual. Approve or disapprove. And that’s another question: did respondents have a “Don’t care” option? Or did they have to take a stand, one way or the other?

* Thanks to Gallup for sharing the precise language of this poll from 1958, and 1968-78, when “blacks” were “colored” and then “non-white.” For more on how race language has changed in the US, check out: http://racebox.org/ (a compilation of the US Census’ race categories from 1790 to 2010, posted by Josh Begley).

Girl, boy, girl, boy… boy?

27 Oct
  • Boys on one side and girls on the other.
  • Please line up: boy, girl, boy, girl…
  • For class representatives, we’ll elect one boy and one girl per grade.

It’s a go-to method of dividing the students into groups. It’s a no-brainer, right?

Not so fast.

While the majority of children seem to identify “girl” or “boy” with as little hesitation as we identify them, is it really so black and white? Consider what research on child identity development tells us:

  • Around 18 months, children develop their core sense of gender identity: what we call masculinity or femininity (Blumenfeld, 1998).
  • Around 2 years, children are often actively noticing and asking questions about people’s differences (Bisson et al.) and differentiating between women and men (Huston, 1987).
  • Around 2-3 years, children express their core gender identity (Ghosh, 2009), which may not match social gender expectations for them.
  • Around 3 years, transgender children may already feel something is “wrong” between their minds and bodies (Act for Youth, 2008).
  • At 3-4 years, children tend to believe sex is changeable: ex. “If I cut my hair, I can be a boy” (Kohlberg, 1966; Wright, 1998).
  • Around 4-7 years, children usually achieve “gender constancy”*: a recognition that they’re either a boy or a girl for good (Wright; Kohlberg).

* While the research uses the terminology “gender constancy,” I believe it actually refers to sex constancy (the permanence of being a boy, as opposed to the permanence of being a tomboy).

So back to “Please line up, boys on the left and girls on the right.”

It turns out that for some of our children, this can prove to be quite a dilemma. And I don’t just mean transgender kids: sex fluidity is a normative part of identity development. Even children who feel quite consonant in mind and body have the capacity–and occasional desire–to see themselves in a different body. Furthermore, children may have an inclination to identify as both (unisex) or neither.

When we ask, then, for children to identify as either a girl or a boy, we may be contributing to one child’s sense of “wrongness” in their body, pressuring another child to grasp sex constancy before they’re ready and forcing yet another child to choose between identities that both resonate for her/him, all while justifying dichotomous categorization as a valid way of thinking about people for another generation. 

We can, of course, easily enough abolish this system of grouping (line up by first initial: A-L on this side and M-Z on the other), but what was “boy-girl” all about in the first place?

Developmentally, race and sex are the first aspects of identity and diversity that we notice (Bisson et al.) By “first” I mean that at about 6 months of age we’re noticing these particular aspects of phenotype. It seems logical, given the importance of survival of the species, that we are wired to discern sex (and race I would attach to the importance of recognizing and being recognized by “our” people). Focusing on sex identity here, children continue to notice and make meaning of sex differences, attaching and confusing it with gender identity, as they learn from the social norms and expectations expressed around them.

Parents and educators can verify this: boyness and girlness are matters of huge importance to kids in early childhood and beyond. And so it makes sense that we have integrated this aspect of identity and diversity into the structures of their education. Yet, if we do so with a forced choice of girl or boy, we may not be as supportive of their development as we may be enabling them to remain where they are.

As for requiring equality of the sexes in class elections and other student leadership opportunities, it again makes developmental sense. Starting in toddlerhood, children normatively acquire an awareness of sex stereotypes, biases and inequalities (ex. girls are better students than boys, but girls can’t do math) that, if unchallenged, tend to persist and influence their confidence, performance and choices (ex. girls may choose not to pursue high level math and science even though they’re capable of the work, and boys may give up trying to be a good student). 

But is enforced equal representation the cure-all for equality between the sexes? 

I wonder about the possibilities when a student senate is dominated by one group: it seems a relevant and practical opportunity to discuss fair representation and the need to diversify voices (why does diversity matter? how does it imact the senate and the whole student body to be goverened by an affinity group? how would greater diversity impact the process and outcomes of the senate? are affirmative action or quotas the best way to ensure diversity? are there other means to inclusion and equity?) While mandating equal numbers of boys and girls (and remember how this excludes the kids who identify as both or neither) is intended to engineer equity and inclusion, does that just encourage the students to assume all is well and good (based on appearances)? Do they learn how to practice and cultivate equity and inclusion, whatever the numbers or inequality of voice?

Ultimately, the ways we approach sex identity and equality say a lot about the assumptions we bring to this aspect of identity (we assume that it’s simple and obvious to us and to everyone else). Our handling of sex also poses questions about other aspects of identity: what about our assumption–actually, our reflex, which kicks in before we even notice we’re doing it–that we can read someone’s race? what about equal representation of diverse social classes in our student governments? how do we include minority sexualities, religious beliefs and political orientations (do we have to out students and compel them to represent?) and can we create practices, habits and protocols to ensure that our student reps, no matter how undiverse they are, do their best job to include and represent all of their peers?

What does tutoring tell us?

26 Oct

Disclaimer: I like research. Not because it tells us any absolute truth about the world, but because it gives us another point of reference for our own experiences and allows us to explore whether there’s a connection between my “I” statement and yours. All too often, I’ve observed students spiking their “I” statements into discussions, like so many fence posts that end up isolating one student from another, each the “I” emperor of their own intellectual domain. And when things get heated, they start hucking their “I” statements through the air like javelins, trying to impale their peers with their own sharp-pointed (and teacher-sanctioned) personal truths. Obviously, this common ground rule for communication has its limits. So I like to suggest that while speaking from the “I” is a useful tool, it’s also handy to learn how to refer to the “they” (cited outside sources) and listen from the “we.”

All this said, I have no research for this post. It is purely based on personal observation and wonderings. And while more vigorous googling might provide some relevant research to expand and stabilize the foundation for this musing on tutoring, maybe it is enough to note the absence of readily available research. I wonder what we don’t really want to know more about…

To our topic: tutoring. When I was teaching in the public and then private sectors, I had no idea how much tutoring was happening outside of school, during my students’ evenings, weekends and even breaks.

I still don’t really know. However, here are some anecdotal observations of tutoring in the SF Bay Area independent school community:

  • Many of the students and families who worked with me as a private tutor shared their tutoring experiences and resources with their friends, like they would share summer camp or soccer team information. When I was tutoring, I didn’t have to market my services or look for clients. It was all referral-generated, and not just by the parents. I believe I had middle schoolers recommend me directly to their friends (which generally led to very confusing texts from “iheartvb@gmail” or “fozzybear4005@gmail” in which the question “do u have time 2 meet?” would invariably pop up without any identifying or other contextual information.
  • Over half of the students with whom I worked saw other tutors as well. (If you throw in test prep as a form of tutoring, I would up that estimate to 90% of my students.) My bailiwick was writing, with a secondary focus in general organization and study skills. So in addition to an hour or more a week with me, many of my students would be putting time in with a math, science and/or world language tutor. For some of these students, tutoring was the equivalent of taking an additional class. If they could get academic credit for the hours they spent with tutors, they might just graduate from high school a year early.
  • Not all tutoring is private and for fee. Many schools have established relationships with community-based, non-profit programs (SMART, A Better Chance, Aim High, Breakthrough San Francisco, Making Waves) that provide academic support after school, on weekends and even over the summer for students whose families can’t afford or don’t know about private tutoring options. And then there is “tutorial,” which is the designated time built into many school schedules during which students can seek out their teachers for one-to-one assistance. While often not a formal or intensive relationship (although some teachers do ask particular students to check in regularly), this is another common form of tutoring. So when we talk about the volume of tutoring happening in independent schools, we need to consider the diversity of sources and forms that tutoring may take: whether a family pays for it or not, we’re talking about time outside of regular classroom hours that a student invests in working one-on-one or in small groups with an academic mentor.
  • Not surprisingly, many schools have or are discussing policies about private tutors working with students on campus (whether it can happen, and then if it’s approved, where and when tutors can meet students).

So while I have no formal data or research about the scale and scope of tutoring in the Bay Area to base this on, I have a hypothesis: tutoring is epidemic in SF Bay Area independent schools.

OK, maybe that wording is sensationalistic. Let me rephrase: there’s a lot of tutoring going on in Bay Area independent schools. This makes me wonder: what does tutoring tell us about what and how we’re teaching? Are we assuming kids already have some knowledge and skills, and not checking in with them individually to assess what they actually know? Are we not providing authentic means of feedback for students to tell us they actually don’t understand what we think we’ve just taught them? And even when we teach a skill like essay writing, are we expecting a level of performance beyond what a novice can reasonably demonstrate (thereby creating a “need” to get tutored)?

And let’s not assume it’s all about what teachers are doing in their classrooms: is the culture of academic competition and college admissions anxiety driving students and families to invest more and more time in tutoring in an attempt to guarantee academic excellence? (I have tutored students who were exceptionally strong writers, who very specifically wanted to get higher A’s on their assignments.) Has tutoring become a new norm, so that if you’re not getting tutored, you’re weird?

I think these are questions for schools to answer, starting with getting accurate snapshots of tutoring within their student bodies:

  • How many students are getting tutored?
  • How much time are students investing in tutoring? And what’s the ratio of tutored time compare with independent study/homework time?
  • Are there any trends in tutoring (ex. if you get tutored in one subject, you’re more likely to get tutored in many subjects; most students getting tutored are in “advanced” classes; or writing is the overwhelming tutoring investment for families, with more students getting tutoring for several years in this area than for any other skill or subject)?

With a sense of what kinds and how much tutoring is happening on and beyond campus, schools can ask exploratory questions about what they teach and how, and what they believe is best for kids (how much homework is helpful, how much free or play time they need and how critical diversified instruction is for effective learning and teaching). And I think the time has come to acknowledge the other faculty who work indirectly for and with schools. Because it does seem–even without the statistics to back this us–that tutoring is no longer the exception, but the K-12 norm.