When I taught ELL students in Texas, I frequently found myself in awe of the ideas and thoughts they expressed during informal conversations. But when I asked them to respond analytically to a text in writing or to use academic vocabulary when speaking, they struggled. Unless I coaxed them with sentence starters or prompts, students generally reverted to their native language. This was especially true of my female students.
Culture in our small town on the Texas-Mexico border encouraged “macho” men and submissive women. In personal conversations with both male and female Latino students, however, I noticed that they fell along a wide spectrum of gender roles, ranging from very quiet and easily swayed to spunky and incredibly confident. At the beginning of the year, however, the boys would readily interrupt the girls or discourage them from speaking by simply being louder and asking more questions.
I wanted to create a classroom culture in which all my students were heard and their experiences were validated.
First, I had to establish expectations around speaking. We came up with rules that would allow everyone an opportunity to speak uninterrupted in class. As an extension of that, I asked all students to reflect on ways we might be oppressed and ways we oppress others. All students were required to recognize and articulate an opinion about messages they had internalized about themselves and how those messages impacted their self-worth.
Next, we broadened our offering of books to include more female authors and lead female characters. The entire class read books with female protagonists (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson). I provided examples of written work by strong women like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. I asked all students to find similarities between themselves and female writers and characters. I appointed female students as group leaders and offered them ample opportunities to speak about their personal experiences. I also invited the girls to come to my class in the morning to hang posters, edit the lesson for the next day and suggest books to read in class.
At the end of the school year, many of my students defined confidence as the ability to lead in academic settings.
As a result of my quest to empower female students using literacy as a lens, all my students read hundreds of books that year, more than they ever had before. While it wasn’t my primary intent, the reading levels of all students improved on assessments. One student went from a sixth-grade to an 11th-grade reading level.
As the year progressed, I witnessed shy, insecure young women grow into eloquent, confident classroom leaders. I no longer had to use prompts and students did not stammer when analyzing texts. The results were positive for the entire class, including the boys who began to enjoy the discussions more and realize the value of including everyone’s opinion.
Sturdevant is a writer who teaches a media class with a social justice theme in South Dakota. She previously taught eighth-grade reading in Texas.