Friday, October 26, 2007

Return to the Dark Ages in Elementary School

Education Week this week ran an article called "Teaching Chivalry in the Classroom" by Judith Costello, who comes from an organization called

The article tells the story of a school program that teaches 4th grade boys to be knights and 4th grade girls to be ladies-in-waiting as part of an anti-bullying program. You have to read this excerpt for yourself:

The image of knights and ladies came to mind. Ever since a group of medieval re-enactors had visited the area, my daughter had been interested in that time period. Mrs. Cavasos decided that this theme could be integrated easily into the anti-bullying program the school was using.
The boys would be given opportunities to be physical in the context of preparing themselves to be “defenders and protectors of all that is good, true, and right.” The girls would be given opportunities to seek out beauty and learn about healing. As ladies they would be the “nurturers and caretakers of all that is good, true and right.”

We used art activities, read stories about dragons, created costumes, studied new vocabulary words, and researched the medieval time period. We learned about the use of herbs for pharmacological needs.

Using their fine motor skills, the girls worked on creating headdresses and decorating their castle. The boys used large motor skills to create huge dragon posters that they helped to string up between trees.

The culmination of our efforts was an outdoor dramatization that students and teachers in other classrooms envied. Several other teachers opened their classroom doors to see what was happening as dragons passed through the hallways and out to the trees. Teachers looked outside to hear the dialogue as young knights went into battle. They were interested to see the knights use all their energy to slay those terrible dragons with beanbags. And when the knights fell to the ground, a group of beautiful young ladies rushed to their sides with healing herbs from the pouches they had created.

It's upsetting to me that Education Week would run this story of educational sexism and gender stereotyping without comment. What about allowing children to choose which part they want? What about girls who want to slay dragons or boys who want to heal and nurture (to say nothing about developing fine motor skills in boys or large motor skills in girls)? Or, goodness, what about encouraging both boys and girls to take both parts, learning to be both "defenders" and "nurturers and caregivers" -- for surely we all need to be both in adulthood? And I can't even begin to imagine how a gender variant child might have felt in this classroom.

As a mother of a son and a daughter, if this had happened when they were in elementary school, I would have spoken out against such rigid gender reinforcing in the classroom. Was there no outcry?

The purpose of the program was said to be to teach children to treat each other with respect. Surely this message could be given without resorting to the dark ages.


Toonhead said...

I would have been upset at not being able to slay the dragons and being forced to conform to gender stereotype. I hated "girly" stuff as a kid.

Why not talk about other aspects of medieval life - plague, short life span, etc.?

Karen Rayne, Ph.D. said...

Ha! I would have outright rebelled at the idea of using my knowledge and healing power for boys! The gender interactions in the class I was in at that age was still rigidly cooties-based, and I would have put my foot down at tending to the yucky boys.

But yes, this is wildly inappropriate gender-limiting curriculum.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't they have just taught all of the values to everyone, while stressing that they're important for everyone, no matter what your gender?

Allyson Dylan Robinson said...

I can tell you exactly how this gender-variant person would have felt as a child in this classroom. I would have felt that sick feeling in my stomach that was all too familiar--it happened every time I was forced to conform to stereotypically male roles within the classroom's social sphere. I would have felt shame at my apparent inadequacy as a male (and, implicitly, as a human being). I would have felt anger at not being allowed to participate in a more comfortable way, anger I would come to direct (passively) toward my female classmates in adolescence and toward myself in early adulthood.

Would you consider writing a letter to EdWeek on this article, Debra?

Debra W. Haffner said...

Ally, I wrote the letter BEFORE I wrote the blog...We'll see if they publish it? But, I think YOU should write them as is YOUR story that their readers and Ms. Costello need to hear.