Gender in Urban Education: Strategies for Student Achievement
reviewed by Maryann Dickar - 2005
Title: Gender in Urban Education: Strategies for Student Achievement
Author(s): Alice E. Ginsberg, Joan Poliner Shapiro, Shirley P. Brown
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 086709530X, Pages: 183, Year: 2004
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Gender in Urban Education: Strategies for Student Achievement explores gender in urban schools, largely through the observations, experiences, and interventions of urban teachers participating in a professional development program (Gender Awareness Through Education, or GATE) run by the authors. The authors sought, in writing the book, to raise awareness of the significance of gender in all aspects of education such as professional development, curriculum, and school reform. However, the book does much more. It is both very practical and deeply reflective regarding the ways gender affects educational experience. The heart of the book is organized around 38 strategies to more meaningfully address gender in the classroom. Each strategy is amplified through examples drawn from GATE participants experience or other research. The rich and thorough discussion of a wide range of strategies make Gender in Urban Education a very valuable text for teachers, teacher educators, and professional developers, as well as students of urban education.
The authors draw primarily on their work with GATE, a professional development program designed to make gender equity a central concern in schools and classrooms. The program brought together very diverse teams of teachers from four public schools in Philadelphia who met monthly to discuss gender in their schools. Out of these conversations grew a number of valuable projects that enabled teachers to probe gender in the classroom with their students or on their own as part of their reflection on their practice.
The 38 strategies are organized into four chapters: one each on raising awareness, curriculum development, addressing sexual harassment, and assessment and school reform. The strategies also are quite varied, some focusing on confronting ones own experiences and attitudes about gender and others addressing specific concerns in the classroom. Some are quite simple, like Strategy 7: Reading Texts through Critical Open Questions or Strategy 27: Journal Prompts. However, even these simple strategies offer useful ways to raise student awareness of the relationships of power that mediate their everyday lives. Some of the critical questions that the authors propose are Who has power? and Whose point of view is favored? Absent? These questions enable students to explore issues around gender, but also around class, race, and other hierarchies that oppress and privilege. Such questions problematize the status quo, a necessary step for any critical pedagogy, including a feminist one.
Other strategies offer ways to pose critical questions about gender. For example, Strategy 17: Gendered Geography and Mapping involves mapping safe spaces to address issues of sexual harassment. One middle school teacher had girls list the places they felt safe and with whom they felt safe exposing the role of sexual violence in their lives. A high school class created a map of the ways space was used in the school and noted spaces that were dominated by young men and were often dangerous spaces for women. These students shared their findings with their school administration, which took steps to prevent loitering in any one place. Such activities empower students to look at their lived experience and analyze it in a critical way. Further, in the second example just given, students used this work to bring about changes that would enable girls to feel safer at school.
Though many of the strategies may seem more readily implemented in language arts or social studies classrooms, many are more widely applicable, and some are targeted at math and science. These strategies help demonstrate how subjects that dont directly probe human experience can nonetheless be sites of critical reflection on society. For example, Strategy 22: What Do Female Scientists Look Like? asks students to draw scientists to begin a discussion about why students drew who they drew. (One could probe issues raised by the visual racial identity of these figures as well.) However, like many of the strategies examined in this book, it opens many rich directions for further exploration. In the discussion of this strategy, the authors describe a middle school teacher who asked students to select a male and female scientist and to write a report on each. Students had a hard time finding female scientists, and when the class discussed why, she was surprised by the assumptions that students voiced. Boys said things like Men must be smarter and Women are lazy. Girls emphasized the importance of womens taking care of men to explain why there were so few women scientists. Such an activity exposed student assumptions about gender for further exploration and also helped the teacher understand the powerful effect gender identity had on her students self-concepts and future aspirations.
In the books discussions of the strategies it presents, the reader is offered vignettes from a wide range of urban classrooms. We thus learn about how gender affects student achievement while we learn strategies for addressing issues surrounding the gender-achievement relationship. The great strength of this text is that it operates on several levelsoffering very practical how-to advice and sharing approaches to reflective teaching practice and eyewitness descriptions of how gender operates in classrooms and schools.
One issue the authors struggle with throughout this text, however, is what an emphasis on gender actually means. Having a feminist orientation, as this work clearly shows they do, the authors seem caught between wanting to maintain a focus on womens experiences and oppression and at the same time to reframe gender as an issue that concerns boys and girls, men and women. Much recent research has called significant attention to the unique needs of boys and young men (Dance, 2002; Ferguson, 2000; Lopez, 2003) and suggests that boys also suffer as a result of the imposition of gendered identities. Specifically, Ferguson, Dance, and Lopez document how Black and Hispanic boys and adolescents experience low expectations and high levels of policing because of their racialized gender identities. The authors attempt to address this research at the same time that they seek to focus on womens experiences. At times, this leads them to tack boys onto a discussion rather than integrating them into it. For example, after discussing some powerful questions to expose the experiences of girls, the authors add, Of course, these same questions could easily apply to male students (p. 57). Such asides occur too frequently, suggesting the authors dual desire to employ a broader notion of gender while maintaining girls and women at the center of the books discussions. Most of the strategies focus on the female experience, as the above discussion suggests. Some strategies, however, do focus specifically on the needs of boys. For example, Strategy 12: Boys and Language Arts discusses the need to increase boys participation in this subject.
Despite the authors difficulty in resolving these conflicting perspectives on gender, many of the strategies they present will meaningfully engage all learners in urban and nonurban classrooms. Their struggle with how to conceptualize gender does not prevent them from making useful contributions to the discussion of what gender means and how it operates. Further, many of the strategies they present will help teachers raise important critical questions about our world reaching beyond the discussion of our gendered experiences.
Ginsberg, Shapiro, and Brown have written a very useful and insightful text. Gender in Urban Education will be useful to feminist and critical educators as well as to those interested in learning about how gender operates in urban classrooms.
Dance, L. J. (2002). Tough fronts: The impact of street culture on schooling. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
Ferguson, A. A. (2000). Bad boys: Public schools in the making of Black masculinity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Lopez, N. (2003). Hopeful girls, troubled boys: Race and gender disparity in urban education. New York: Routledge.