Real Boys and Gender Dynamics in My Classroom

My vacation book from my education to-read list was William Pollack’s seminal work — Real Boys. I was familiar with his work around “the boy code” and his warning that while we have invested a great deal of effort in rethinking how we raise and treat girls and women, there has not been a similar revolution about what it means to be a man.

Real Boys was published in 1998 and I think it is just as relevant today as it was then. It certainly seems as though not much has changed — boys are still receiving the message that they must be tough, both physically and emotionally, and what it means to be a boy is still often determined by not engaging in those things that are considered feminine. Too often, boys and men are being taught to disconnect from their emotions and, as William Pollack writes, to put on the “mask” that they feel compelled to don while in the midst of the “gender straightjacket” that is masculinity.

Naturally, reading this book has gotten me thinking about the gender dynamics in my own classroom, which are pretty unique. I have had a bit of fluctuation in my class roster this year — with students coming and going, but the number of students in my class has always hovered around 14. Of these 14, however, at the most, only 4 have been boys, which lends itself to some interesting dynamics around gender in my classroom.

Despite my efforts to teach students about reflecting on stereotypes about gender, telling them stories about my own friendships with boys growing up, and their successful experiences working with one another on projects, I still cannot get the boys and girls in my room to choose to play together or to associate with one another outside of the room. And, I feel as though the barrier to those interactions lies mostly with the 3 or 4 boys.

It appears to me that with so few boys to associate with and a room clearly dominated by girls, the boys feel very threatened. Despite my conversations with them around this topic, I feel as though the boys feel that because there are so few of them, they must stick together and more fully embody all things masculine, or else “masculine” things will disappear from our classroom entirely. Because they are in second grade, I find that I can get them to open up when we engage in activities together and they do express their frustration and sadness with each other through crying and not violence from time to time. But I wonder if, over time, they will begin to shut themselves off from those emotions due to the societal conditioning they’ll experience as they grow as boys and a lack of opportunities to interact with a wide variety of boys and male role models.

For now, I plan to continue my discussions about stereotypes and gender, keep putting students into mixed-gender groups, and making an effort to find male role models to bring to class — either in books or in real-life. As someone deeply concerned about and desiring to interrupt the messages young people get about gender, the lack of change in gendered patterns in my classroom has been somewhat frustrating, but hopefully some of the lessons we are doing will sink in and my boys will not feel so compelled to need to wear the “mask of masculinity” as they grow and mature.

What do you do around gender in your classrooms? Have you found anything that helps to break down the barrier between boys and girls in the elementary classroom?


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