I was in my car, pulling into the driveway after picking up some takeout. The radio was tuned to NPR, but I wasn’t paying that close of attention. I was exhausted after a long day of teaching and meetings.

The next day’s lesson was ready to go.

I wanted to clear my mind of school. I wanted to go home, see my family, and relax for the evening.

But, as I was reaching for the keys, I heard breaking news about the new way Facebook users would be able to classify their gender on their profile. I was then confronted with a choice. We have all been there. Do I ignore the information being offered to me so that I can continue on my way, or do I take the time to listen, knowing that I might hear something that compels me to rethink the plans for my next class?

My 9th grade honors English class is well into second semester now, so the routines for the class are established. We read multigenre texts and write for different purposes and audiences, always seeking to further complicate the big ideas we are studying. In addition, because there is an emphasis on student centeredness in my class, each student decides the topic, audience, and the genre of many of his or her assessments. I find that because students are comfortable reading multigenre texts, they are motivated to compose creative projects — demonstrating their understanding of course objectives — that address the unit’s essential question(s). A main goal of mine has been for students to engage a topic that allows them to connect course content to other contexts that are meaningful to them while still meeting the objectives of an assignment. The Facebook news presented me with an opportunity to model this kind of learning for my students.

Currently, we are reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and working on the skills of analytic reading and writing for academic audiences. Essentially, on any given day, this manifests in students having to read closely to find evidence for what Achebe’s novel is revealing about a variety of thematic issues, from relationships between fathers and sons, to what makes a society civilized, to how gender is portrayed. Our work is building toward an assessment where students will write an insightful response to the unit’s essential question. This particular essential question asks us to consider how the “cultural fabric of a community [might] be stretched or altered when it encounters new ideas and members.”

I knew my next lesson was about the culturally perceived gender differences between men and women in the novel.

So, I turned up the volume, allowed the food resting on my front seat to grow colder, and listened to the update.

This is the curse of being a conscientious teacher. I can’t turn my brain off. I’m constantly synthesizing information, brainstorming ways to “try something new” that will benefit my students.

Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier to make the other choice. To carry on as usual. To not upset the status quo.  For example, I remember talking with a social studies colleague in 2011 who was unwilling to discuss Egypt’s revolution in class because it “wasn’t in the curriculum.” At the time, I didn’t understand how a teacher could justify this. In hindsight, I understand. This was an untenured teacher working from a brand new curriculum.  In this time of high stakes testing and the standards movement, many teachers are concerned that if they are perceived as veering from the curriculum their career may be in jeopardy.

The truth is that we should jump at opportunities to connect content to other contexts. In fact, Grant Wiggins, an educational expert who continues to set the standard for K-12 curriculum integration and a co-author of Understanding by Design, claims in his article, “Transfer as the Point of Education” that “[students] have not really learned something well unless [they] can extend or apply in a new context… what [they] learned in one context.”

But, even though I agree with Wiggins, in this particular situation, because I knew that Facebook’s decision to allow users to choose their gender would be — unfortunately — controversial to some, I have to be honest about the fact that I almost made the choice to continue on with my original lesson plan about gender roles in Things Fall Apart and ignore the kairos of the Facebook news.

I had fear narratives running laps in my head. What if a parent calls? What if a student says something in class that offends another student? Is this actually in the curriculum? Do I want to take this risk?

My own stories of friends and family telling my wife and I that our 4 year old son shouldn’t wear dresses like his 2 year old sister or have his toenails painted, even though he can see how much fun his sister is having when Mommy paints hers, were weighing on me. From the few conversations I have had with friends and family about this, it seems to me that their concern comes from a place of misunderstanding, a fear of raising culturally atypical children. Some even, unfortunately, equate one’s gender with one’s sexual orientation. They believe boys who act like boys will grow up to be attracted to girls. End of story. So, to them, my wife and I are somehow reducing our son’s future attraction to the opposite sex by letting him play princess. By the way, these are the same friends and family who think it is adorable when my daughter plays Batman and Joker with my son. Absurd, I know. But, I was fearful that, undoubtedly, there would be a student or students in class who believe the same things as some of my friends and family, and bringing up the topic might just be too risky.

Honestly, one of the scary responsibilities of teaching is that we shouldn’t try and teach with a certain persona that is somehow uninfluenced by the other roles and experiences that make us who we are. Even when beliefs are unpopular, perceived as controversial, or frowned upon, if an opportunity exists for learning to happen, we can’t be afraid to bring it into the classroom. This is easier said than done. Sometimes it is much easier to dehumanize ourselves and work to just get through an agenda for the day. But, finding ways to be real with students about who we are as people can inspire and model for them how education should lead to open dialogue and not closed doors.

In preparing to write this article, I was thrilled to discover that the topic of gender has been taught in other schools. Although, as in the case linked to here, there has been some pushback by parents and other stakeholders, but the experience has ultimately been positive. This is comforting to me because I know I’m not alone, as I and so many other educators often feel.

I’m pleased to say that I decided to incorporate the news into my lesson, and my classes were engaging and thought provoking. Sure, we covered the cultural perception of gender in the novel, but then students took that concept and applied it in a new context, as Wiggins suggests about transference, “parlay[ing] what [they] learned [from studying the novel]…in other learning.” Moreover, as a result, we were well on our way to explaining the unit’s essential question: How might the cultural fabric of a community be stretched or altered when it encounters new ideas and members?

I love this question because it comes after students spent an entire unit responding to an essential question about how culture is defined. Students reasoned that culture consists of many factors like ethnicity, race, family life, education, how we spend our free time, the values we have, religious beliefs, etc., but ultimately gains its significance when we understand that culture is a product of individual identities. My students added to this definition that many subcultures may exist within a culture, but the culture should still be representative of the individuals that comprise it.

I was thrilled that my students came to this definition of culture. Although they may not have realized it at the time, implicit in their definition shows an understanding that culture is socially constructed. Sure, it is supposed to be a representation of the collective whole, but voices are sometimes silenced or ignored. After the lesson, one student voiced her frustration to me stating that “kids get confused on how they are supposed to look and what their identity is. What are they supposed to act like, wear, say? Who are they supposed to like?”

Our current essential question offers students a chance to examine this point. How/why is it that some aspects of a culture’s fabric are privileged over others? And, specifically, is the status quo of a culture stretched or altered when the voices who have been silenced in a culture find their way into the mainstream?

Because we are reading a novel about a culture that is different in many ways from our own, students are able to talk more candidly about what they are seeing — almost like scientists recording observations. I would expect they find that the two cultures share a lot of commonalities.

For example, students just finished a project for Things Fall Apart where they researched an aspect of the Igbo nation, the protagonist’s ethnic group. This project was mostly informational, but, after viewing the videos, students were asked to respond to how their culture is similar to the seemingly different culture they researched, an exercise suggested by Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story,” to learn more about what makes us all human.

To begin my lesson on gender, I asked students to supply evidence for how men and women are represented in Things Fall Apart. They worked in groups to skim the novel and identify specific references. I then asked students to make a list of adjectives that the evidence reveals about men and women. After we discussed the adjectives, each student wrote a quick response about how the adjectives manifest themselves in our own culture.

Lists of male/female characteristics in our society and the one from class text. Comment that gender is a social construct.
Contents of whiteboard after class discussion

This is where things got interesting. Students noticed that males and females are categorized in our culture in many of the same ways as Things Fall Apart. Students then had some time to read about women warriors of the Dahomey Kingdom, which was located just outside of Nigeria, near the setting of Things Fall Apart. How is it that women living in virtually the same location are believed to embody such different characteristics? This served to reinforce students’ understanding that culture is socially constructed

We then returned our attention to the lists of adjectives we generated to define men and women. I took the example of women being labeled as weak and asked students what our society calls a girl who plays sports with the boys on the block. They, of course, responded with tomboy.

Something clicked.

My students and I turned our attention to a semiotic square that breaks apart the gender binary. We proceeded to map the term “tomboy” and many other scenarios. “Females” who act “not female” are cast as “male.” “Males” who act “not male” are cast as “female.” Students actively engaged the conversation, recognizing that gender is fluid. This became clear when the star softball player said she will play sports after school and then go and get “dressed up” to go see a movie.

We wrapped up our conversation by watching a video about Facebook’s recent news to offer new options for how users communicate their gender. My students were fascinated because they were able to transfer the skill of literary analysis to a new context they had previously not understood. By being in a class that attempts to tackle big ideas and respond to essential questions, while reading a literary novel like Things Fall Apart, they saw that a culture’s fabric can be stretched and altered. Students learned that even as freshmen in high school they have a responsibility to know how what they are learning connects with issues outside of the book and classroom and impacts their understandings about the world and how they treat others within it.