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Teacher’s Lesson Plan: How to Avoid Discrimination in the Classroom

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Treating girls equally in schools isn’t just a matter of following the law, experts say. It also means avoiding subtle--often unconscious--discrimination in the classroom.

“A school district could be completely legal . . . and might not overall be doing as good a job for girls as for boys,” said Karen Humphrey, a gender-equity consultant for the state Department of Education.

For example, Humphrey said, it’s not illegal for a teacher to pay more attention to boys in the classroom. Nor is it illegal for a counselor to unintentionally steer girls and boys toward different occupations. But these actions are discriminatory all the same, she said.

Such scenarios are why people like Colleen Briner-Schmidt enter the picture. Briner-Schmidt, who teaches at Conejo Elementary School in Thousand Oaks, also conducts gender-equity workshops and classes throughout the state to show other teachers how to give girls a fair shake in the classroom.

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Even the best teachers, fully supportive of equal treatment for girls, fall into the trap of favoring boys in the classroom, she said.

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She wonders how difficult it must be for the average teacher if even she, a trainer of trainers for gender-equity classes, sometimes catches herself giving boys more attention.

“No one gets up and says, ‘I’m going to be unequal today,’ ” said Briner-Schmidt, whose classes are sponsored by the American Assn. of University Women. “No one says, ‘I’m only going to teach to white male boys today.’ . . . It’s just the way it’s done.”

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A common error is for teachers--men or women--to unconsciously call on boys in class more often than girls because boys may be more assertive in demanding attention, Briner-Schmidt and other gender-equity experts say.

Briner-Schmidt recalls one teacher leading a writing workshop for second-graders in a Thousand Oaks school, for example, who called on only two girls--along with many boys.

“She was a great teacher,” Briner-Schmidt said. But by favoring boys with more attention, “pretty soon the girls stop raising their hands. Then they quit paying attention. That’s the next step.”

Many teachers also are more likely to challenge boys to explain their answers but give short shrift to girls’ responses, experts also say.

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“We socialize boys from the time that they are practically born to assert themselves,” Humphrey said. “If you demand attention to yourself, you get paid attention to.”

In contrast, girls are often socialized to “be quiet and not demand attention,” Humphrey said. While there have been some strides, “we’re still socializing kids that way.”

Alicia Hetman, who monitors school compliance with gender-equity laws for the state Department of Education, also sees such mistakes, which are not necessarily discrimination in a legal sense.

At one school she visited recently, for example, Hetman was pleased to see a woman teaching physics--providing a good role model for girls, who traditionally do not enroll in advanced science classes at the same rate as boys.

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But the teacher typically chose boys to answer questions requiring deeper thought. And when she needed to illustrate a physics lesson about force for some of the boys who asked questions, she used two girls in a passive role, as props in the demonstration.

“I was so upset,” Hetman said. Of all the students in the class, the two who learned the least from the exercise were the girls, she said. “They were probably so embarrassed they lost the whole concept.”

Briner-Schmidt began her training sessions, which can last up to a week, four years ago after gaining financial support from the American Assn. of University Women. She has preliminary approval to teach a class at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks this summer.

The training began after the association published a widely reported study in 1992 that concluded public elementary and secondary schools were biased against girls. Research shows girls, on average, start elementary school performing better than boys, but their achievement--and self-esteem--declines by high school.

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In her own classroom, Briner-Schmidt tries to create an atmosphere that is as favorable for girls as for boys. Everything counts--including language, displays, books and attention time.

When she entered her classroom recently, one of the girls was chatting to a friend about Pippi Longstocking, the famous pigtailed girl in children’s books known as the “strongest person in the world.”

“Pippi Longstocking’s a great book because she’s really strong,” Briner-Schmidt said to the girl, while pointing to her own biceps.

She tries to get books that show girls being active. She’s not interested in the old “Dick and Jane” stories in which Dick did the jumping and Jane just watched. That, she said, just sent a message that the boys had the adventures and girls were passive.

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She shows proudly one book she does like. The pages show a female radiologist teaching a girl about her occupation.

Briner-Schmidt tells about a mother who volunteered during a demonstration about worms. Briner-Schmidt chose a female volunteer because she wanted the girls to learn it’s OK to touch and have fun with creepy crawlers.

“I told the mom, ‘I don’t want you to be squeamish,’ ” she said. When one of the boys saw the woman volunteer holding the worm, he said, “Girls don’t like worms,” Briner-Schmidt recalled. "[The volunteer] said, ‘I can like worms if I want to.’ ”

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During discussion time, Briner-Schmidt employs a variety of tactics to make sure girls are called on as much as boys. She said she knows she sometimes calls on the boys because they often raise their hands more quickly.

Sometimes she tells the students to think about the answer while she counts to 10 so she won’t just pick the first who raises his or her hand.

“And this is really hard for me because I’m not a good waiter,” Briner-Schmidt said.

Another method is to use cards, each bearing a student’s name, to help remember which students have spoken. Another is to hand each student a bunch of Popsicle sticks; each must hand in one stick after speaking and must remain silent when out of sticks.

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In the end, it’s important to give girls just as much attention or care as boys, because “students often don’t know how to ask for something they don’t know they’re not getting,” Humphrey said.

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Teaching Tips

The American Assn. of University Women offers these tips to teachers:

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* Call on girls and boys equally.

* Use leading questions and comments to encourage thinking skills of girls and boys alike.

* Encourage girls as well as boys to take advanced math and science courses.

* Arrange for math and science tutoring clubs.

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* Avoid describing subjects, daily-living tasks, job skills, careers, colors and group names by gender.

* Don’t talk down to girls--give them encouragement.

* Invite female scientists and mathematicians to your classroom.


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