I went to a Catholic high school that had only become co-ed a few years before I attended. The boy to girl ratio was not yet balanced out, and the issue of gender bias became particularly evident in my 9th grade PE class when our teacher announced, “Boys will play football, girls can walk around the track and talk.” As a competitive gymnast, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be told not to exert myself, and there were several boys who warmed the bench for the entire quarter having been dubbed too “unathletic” to participate. But no one complained because, as 14-year-olds, it was easier to just remain in our gender enclaves where we didn’t have to deal with each other, or even worse, consider identity issues. For younger students, it’s routine that they clump themselves together on playgrounds like penguins in the arctic, but this is all the more reason for teachers to aim for a more integrated classroom, uniting students rather than dividing.
Here are some ideas for how teachers can integrate and unify classrooms no matter what the gender ratios may be:
Establishing a unified classroom
It often takes a bit of effort to encourage students to feel comfortable working with classmates of the opposite sex. Consider setting up a boy-girl icebreaker activity early in the year that requires students to interview each other. Give boys opportunities to act as leaders in reading groups; give girls the same treatment when it comes to math. Demystify the gender divide by reading chapter books that feature boy-girl friendships: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson is an excellent book, as is December Secrets by Patricia Giff.
Some teachers opt for a “girl-boy-girl” seating arrangement, but this again sends the message that there is something oddball about boys and girls naturally working together. Instead, consider seating students according to personality or interests. Introverted students can be supported by a nearby extrovert. Quiet students can offer appropriate reminders to a chatty neighbor. Seat sports fans near artists and gamers—everyone is sure to learn something new. Celebrating diversity can help facilitate conversation, cooperation, and friendship amongst many groups of students—not just boys and girls.
Pay attention to those areas in your classroom with single-sex groups tend to congregate. The art table, the fish tank, science materials, Bosu ball, computer and iPad stations, and makerspaces are all areas that have the potential to divide and conquer. Consider moving stations, and encouraging students to share and rotate groups. Jigsaw activities, where student-experts present information to another group, are a great way to pique new interests and integrate groups. Finally, consider setting up stations so that they include gender-neutral materials; art stations don’t have to be all glitter and heart stickers, and building stations can easily include blocks and sets that don’t discourage girls from handling them.
Consider your own attitude
How often do we hear teachers saying, “Good morning boys and girls”? A simple change to, “Good morning class” sets the tone for unity. Consider how you treat a sensitive boy. Do you comfort him when he’s upset, or do expect that he learn how to handle his emotions on his own? When working with a take-charge girl, do you discourage her? Expect that she learn how to stop being so “bossy”? Do you give more attention to a compliant girl than to an energetic boy? Finally, remember to use gender neutral language and avoid generalizations. Always encourage students to do the same, and they will begin to follow your lead.