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Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Neverending Student

What I'm reading (or trying to) right now!
"Why is it so hard being a guy?"

I don't know, Ms. Gerla. It just IS.


My head is spinning. There is so much I want to learn, or relearn, or refresh in my mind.

Over the last few years, the work we do with kids and parents has taken a much more concrete shape now that this thing called "Digital Citizenship" has rooted itself in our community. But as Sam and I have noted before, the digital part of it is only one element. Technically there is much to learn and understand about the world that is so rapidly changing around us. Ethically, however, this is about the choices we make and the kind of people we want to be, and in that regard, many lessons we hope to impart remain constant. I have found that my own professional and personal experience is just not enough in order for me to really dig deep with kids. I have blind spots, biases of my own, and a perspective of the world that is shaped by my identity, my gender, my race, my family, my politics, my everything. How do I make sure that I expose myself to viewpoints different than my own? How do I prevent my own "filter bubble," a concept I discuss with my students, and really listen to the variety of voices around me? How do I make sure I present not just information that I personally think is important and interesting, but actually represents a variety of perspectives and opens the door to discussion? Professionally, how do I stay current in my field?

Lifelong learning, that's how.

The photo above shows 4 in the stack of 11 books currently on my nightstand or my Kindle. My list:
  1. Rosalind Wiseman, Masterminds & Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World
  2. danah boyd, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens
  3. Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do
  4. Emily Bazelon, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy
  5. Jennifer Pozner, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV
  6. Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century
  7. Jo Langford, The Sex EDcylopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to Healthy Sexuality, For the Modern, Male Teen
  8. Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D. and Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys
  9. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (book club!)
  10. Chris Colfer, The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell (book 1 in a series my daughter is reading and she wants me to read it too)
  11. Rick Riordan, House of Hades (I'm behind in the Heroes of Olympus series, gotta keep up)
Quite a collection. So far the only one I've completely finished is #1 (don't tell my book club).

Masterminds & Wingmen was the must-read at the top of my list. Why? Let me introduce you to my 9th grade Digital Citizenship class. In the first trimester this year, a brief glance at my class list showed that a group would soon be coming into my room over 80% male. Not a big deal, really, but I knew we had big plans on deck to discuss gender stereotypes in the media, and I wanted to be prepared for what an imbalance of that magnitude would do to the atmosphere of our classroom, and what influence it might have on group discussions. I was very up front with the kids... I'm female. I am one of 5 girls in my family. I am raising two daughters. I have read lots of parenting books, and I've been a teacher for many years, of students in preschool through graduate school. But I have no idea what it's like to raise a boy in my daily life, nor am I a man, nor did I grow up with any brothers in my home.  I felt the need to prepare myself more, be careful with my words, try to create a climate where the girls felt comfortable sharing too, and present the idea of gender stereotypes in a way that didn't perpetuate a "battle of the sexes" where we try to figure out who has it worse in our society. I'm not sure how well I succeeded on this front, but the motivation has stayed with me as the year has progressed, and I have actively looked for resources that I hope will both better educate me AND make me a better educator.

So, book #1: Ms. Wiseman's name might ring a bell as the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, the book upon which the film "Mean Girls" was based. (I added that book to my list for a refresher after finishing this current one.) Boy world isn't my world, so I badly needed this resource (and 7 and 8 on the list above). There are several chapters that I think ALL parents should read, not just parents of boys. If you're taking notes, those are Chapter 5 ("Breaking Down the Wall"), Chapter 8 ("Your Parenting Profile"), and Chapters 14, 17, and 18. Who am I kidding? READ THE WHOLE THING!! Chapters 9 and 10 on social networking and video games are worth it alone.

Wiseman is brilliant, and there are far too many "just perfect" quotes for me to share here. At the heart of every chapter, however, is the foundational family principle that all people deserve to be treated with dignity. If you are the type of person who is never quite sure what to say in certain situations, like when your kid is caught lying, or you find out it's your precious child that is the one being mean to others, there's a script in here for you! If you would like to read an excerpt from the book, she has published the Why Doesn't Batman Ever Smile? chapter in three parts at the Good Men Project (another excellent web source added to my list of daily reads).

I have shared extensively my thoughts on the gender front (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 times) and I have continued to teach these lessons to new students this year. But in the context of a high school class on social media and technology, where the news is filled with stories of all the things teenagers do wrong, I wanted to explore this more deeply. I truly believe that the language of stereotypes and social constructions (and misunderstandings) makes up a vast majority of the bad behavior we see online, and I really wanted to challenge my students to think differently about the messages they are sending and receiving on a regular basis. Pushing boundaries, trying to fit in, attempting to be funny, "getting" the jokes, and figuring out who you are in a group of other people are all part of growing up, whether it happens online or off. Where does the hurtful language come from? Why do we use it?

As I got into several lessons with my 9th graders, and frankly as we followed current events, the issue of language kept coming back, and it became obvious once more that our words really matter. By the end of that first trimester, as the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin story neatly summarized a whole pile of related topics we had been discussing throughout the term (bullying, racism, language, Twitter, social media, gender stereotypes, privacy), I saw my boy-heavy class grappling with these very real issues (well, maybe I was grappling more, to be honest), and I threw my hands up and simply asked, "Why is it so hard being a guy?"

I don't know, Ms. Gerla. It just IS.

(cue my reading of Masterminds & Wingmen)
After twenty years of teaching and working with teens, I realize that we often make the mistake of believing that if a boy doesn’t come to us with problems, then he doesn’t have them. We believe this for various reasons. Boys don’t demand our attention in the same ways that girls do. We don’t give them a language for talking about their worries and experiences like we do with girls. And we really don’t think enough about what our culture—and ourselves by extension—demands and expects of boys and how it frames their emotional lives, decision-making, self-esteem, and social competence. When we do notice boys, it’s usually because they’re somehow failing or they’re acting out in ways that appear thoughtless, reckless, disrespectful, threatening, or frightening. (Wiseman)

Frequently, when schools do workshops or classes on sex ed, puberty, or general social skills, we separate our students by sex. While in many cases that makes for a safer environment in which kids can ask honest questions without fear of embarrassment (which is a good thing), I worry sometimes that it removes boys and girls from the experience of really trying to understand each other (which is a HARD thing). That's why I would recommend ALL parents read books, like Wiseman's, that outwardly appear to be for just one group, but can very powerfully teach us more about ourselves in the process, and help us teach our kids about things they don't necessarily experience all the time. Wouldn't conflicts be easier to resolve if we simply took the time to understand each other better?

My teaching partner, Jane Riches, and I use a couple of sections from the educational DVD version of Miss Representation in our class (the "Media Literacy" and "Behind the Scenes" clips for the high school curriculum). We clearly discuss with our students the perspective that shapes the documentary and ask them to see how it relates to all people, not just women in the media. This trimester, Jane has a class that is the exact opposite of what I experienced in the first round...she has 92% girls. As they watched last week, one girl actually expressed her wish out loud that she would like to see the film with boys in the room so she could see how they react to it and talk about it with them. Brilliant. Our class demographics have purely been a circumstance of scheduling, but they have unwittingly provided us with our own "case studies" in gender dynamics. And the more we explore stereotypes, bias, our assumptions, and the social constructions within which we live and act, the more impressed I am at the honesty and maturity of our kids. We have had students research and write about a whole variety of topics related to Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy. And though I wish my own bias didn't make me react with such astonishment, because I just expect girls to care about some of these issues, I have been deeply impressed with our boys who have chosen to write about rape culture, the impact of ideal beauty standards on men, and the culture of gaming for women.

Though I am an educator, I am also the neverending student. I don't think there will ever be a time when I'm "done" learning. Thankfully, in my job, I have a wide variety of teachers.

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