“I do not need magic to change the world; I carry all the power I need inside myself already: I have the power to imagine better.” – J. K. Rowling
When I accepted a job as a sixth grade world history teacher, I knew that I was entering territory that had been occupied by many critical educators before me. I knew of the possibilities of education when it was melded with critical consciousness, and I was eager to partake in those possibilities, possibly extending them further.
I entered the education field with many tools at my disposal: an education from Florida A&M University, the full support of my family, my lifelong commitment to the field, and a true love for the subject that I was teaching. But, I knew that the goal that I had in mind for education would require something else, and that I would have to call upon my critical imagination to make that goal a reality. Spells would not be needed for the work that I was undertaking, but I did know that my critical imagination would serve me well in this endeavor, and, so, I entered the classroom with a commitment to feminist principles. I would as bell hooks says, educate out of a love for male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other.
I have witnessed the opening of many doors on my journey as a feminist educator. Early on, I was given the opportunity to teach an elective class along with the content area course that I was required to teach. I conversed with many friends about the nature of the elective course, and what I wanted it to be, and with the encouragement of fellow feminist educator, Darnell Moore, I decided that I would teach a course on Media Studies as my elective. I truly felt that by interrogating the media, I would be able to bring a feminist ethics into the classroom in ways that are both interesting and liberating.
My journey as a feminist educator began on August 22, 2011. I’ll admit that I was a little nervous upon entering the classroom, and choosing to do the work that I was setting out to do. There are many people in the field of education, many of whom love it dearly, but there are few people educating for critical consciousness, and thus I knew that the work that I was about to undertake would be both risky and dangerous. For one thing, we are a society that deeply mistrusts and undervalues the critical capabilities of our students. We shield our students away from thinking critically about race, gender, and class, in the hopes that their ignorance of these issues will somehow make them more capable of confronting them. So, I dealt with the nagging insecurity that I would be misunderstood and misjudged for believing in the critical capabilities of sixth graders, for thinking that the 11 and 12 year old mind was as, or more, capable of confronting the deep questions plaguing our world today. Would sixth graders appreciate bell hooks? Would an 11 year old understand Toni Morrison? These were questions on my mind, and ones that I have been able to answer as the months have gone on.
It’s impossible for me to recount all the classroom experiences I have had over the past few months, but there have been many occasions of joy and reverie in my feminist classroom. I wasted no time in getting my students to think critically about gender, race, and class. After an initial breakdown of the five categories of the media, I had my students’ list terms and phrases that they felt were associated with each category: film, TV, movies, radio, and newspapers. These categories generated many responses, and thus began our journey.
One of the first things I did was a feminist educator was to train my students to be critical consumers of the media. I utilized Channel One news, to teach my students how to analyze, and not just be entertained by, the media. I had to model this behavior for my students, and, so, I showed them what kinds of things to look for. Was their racial diversity among the anchors? Were the anchors dressed in stereotypical colors or clothing to go along with their gender? How was class inserted into the shows? My students are now very adept at analyzing the news, and all aspects of media.
In one particular incident, Channel One news anchors repeatedly referred to the viewing audience by using the supposedly gender neutral greeting “Hey guys.” I asked my students whether or not they felt that “hey guys” was a gender neutral greeting, and while some of them thought it was, many other challenged the notion. Male and female students were quick to point out that one gender should not have to accept being ignored. One female student noted that she is not a guy, and didn’t want to be called one, either. I sent an email to Channel One news producer Dr. Paul Falkner letting him know that while my students and I enjoyed the newscast, we did not appreciate the privilege of one gender over the other. I shared the email with my students, and showed them the follow up response that I got from Channel One news. We were excited to see the show change its language, if only momentarily. Current broadcasts continue to struggle with using gender inclusive language, but my students remain critical of each occurrence, and always make note when an anchor refers to men and women as “guys.”
I and my students have tackled many issues in our Media Studies class. We have discussed the JC Penny’s T-shirt incidents, Occupy Wall Street, the death of Libyan dictator Gadhafi, the use and misuse of power, violence, homecoming queens, school bullying, media stereotypes, and much, much more. All of these issues have been better illuminated by the foregrounding of race, gender, and class consciousness into the classroom. We have been able to do more than scratch the surface of issues, but to truly interrogate them with a critical eye.
Most recently, I have been guiding my students through film, and allowing them to critically dissect the way that race, gender, and class are communicated in films directed toward children. PG films like The Incredibles aren’t usually thought to message our children about race, gender, and class, but they do. My students noted that Frozone’s wife had a stereotypical Black woman’s voice. My students noted that Helen aka “Elastigirl” spent the majority of the film doing housework. My students noted that there was a lack of racial diversity in the film, and that all of the cops were men. Their findings could go on and on. I want to note that these are critical discoveries they are making with their 11 and 12 year old eyes. Their young minds are keenly aware of the way that gender, race, and class are being messaged to them.
As a feminist educator, it is not enough for me to focus solely on gender. I strongly believe that systems of domination work in accordance with each other to marginalize our lives. My focus, as a feminist educator, has to be on race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, and disability. I have to make critical interventions in the classroom concerning a number of issues, and the work is never done.
Just recently, I had a student remark that she was going to paint her dog’s nails, but then thought otherwise because it is a male dog. I encouraged my student to consider that a female dog wouldn’t necessarily be any more interested in having its nails painted either. The student came to understand that we can’t make assumptions about gender that not all boys and girls like the same things, and that is why gender stereotypes are so dangerous.
I’m sure many are wondering how my student’s parents feel about the work that I am doing in their students educational lives. I am pleased to say that I have received support and affirmation from my student’s parents. One of my coworkers, who have a son in my class, awarded me for the school’s “academic achievement” award, given to an outstanding classroom teacher who shows passion for the subject, and encourages students to make real-world connections with what is being learned. She noted the work that I am doing in the media studies class as one of the main reasons for giving me this award. I have had parents tease me about their homes becoming locations where all sorts of stereotypes are recognized, named, and challenged.
I feel very fortunate to be doing the work that I am doing. I know that some people search an entire lifetime looking to do the passionate work they were put on this earth to perform, and I am glad to say that I am performing my work at the age of twenty-three. I trusted in my imagination, I listened deeply to my critical voice, and I made a commitment to education. I never once doubted that my sixth graders wouldn’t be able to grasp the concepts we discuss, or that they wouldn’t be interested in the work that we do in our class. In my opinion, the mind is more fecund at their age, and, thus, more open to interrogating topics of race, gender, and class. I think we truly do ourselves, and our nation, a disservice by making students wait until college to discuss the topics that they are more than capable of discussing in middle school. My students have shown that they are capable, and countless other students around the country have as well. I am proud to be among the ranks of the world’s feminist educators, and I hope to continue to doing the powerful and necessary work of feminist education. New narratives are being written in education, and I intended to continue being one of the writers.