Sunday, November 21, 2010

Musings on the Benefits of Waldorf Education for Young Women

My daughter wrote this paper for a class about gender and power at American University. I've posted it here because she notes that her experience of gender relations during her years at the Cincinnati Waldorf School were profoundly different to what she experienced after Waldorf. Enjoy!

Margaret Kran-Annexstein
Gender Expectations and Social Institutions Essay
October 8, 2010

When anyone asks me about my elementary school, the first thing I tell him or her is that every student at the Cincinnati Waldorf School learns how to bake bread, sew stuffed elephants, knit socks, crochet bags, carve wooden bowls, plant flowers, play the violin, build wooden bridges on forest paths, sing, dance, act, and play together regardless of gender. Looking back on my elementary school experience, I see that my teachers had us fighting gender norms since the first day of preschool. When I left Waldorf after seventh grade and moved on to middle and high school, I was shocked at the difference between my experience at Waldorf and my new environment at Walnut Hills High School where the institutions of gender and (hetero)sexuality began to interpellate me in a way I had not experienced at the Waldorf School. Due to this contrast in my educational environments I have been able to observe first-hand the effects of gendering and analyze many of them as I was experiencing them.

The first way I noticed this was through my relationships with boys. Many of my new girl friends in the eighth grade seemed to view boys only in the sense that they were potential boyfriends. Meanwhile, I was considered awkward and immature because I was friends with a lot of boys but never expressed interest in them in a romantic sense. My childhood and pre-teen years were spent playing with boys and so by the time I got to Walnut Hills in eighth grade I did not understand the juvenile, giggly, heterosexuality that was being pushed on me. In fact, unlike many people who simply assume their heterosexuality because “heterosexual behavior and language are integrated and normalized within school culture to such degree that they have become natural, and often considered the ‘neutral,’ school environment or culture” (Miceli 345), I was cognizant of the fact that I did not know for sure that I was heterosexual until my freshman year of college. This could also be largely due to the fact that my parents were open with me about sexuality and assured me that they would be completely supportive of any sexual preference I expressed.

The other way that the importance of boys as future boyfriends was emphasized in middle and high school was through the weight placed on looking pretty for them. Through this I was hailed by norms of gender in addition to norms of heterosexuality. Up until eighth grade, I never even thought about make up as something that I would wear when I got older because I did not see the utility, but when I got to Walnut Hills, I started to feel uncomfortable being the only girl who did not try to “better her appearance” by applying mascara and eyeliner and concealer. I began to spend hours sitting on my friends’ beds as they poked my face with brushes in preparation for a night of wandering around my neighborhood with the local “skater boys.” None of the boys were encouraged to dress up or “look pretty”, their worth was determined by their skateboard skills; and while I wished I could be valued for something like that too, it was a rare occasion that they would let any girl even try to skate with them. This taught me that the “key to proper femininity [is] … most importantly the acceptance of the compulsion to strive for a standard of feminine beauty set by what heterosexual men desire in women” (Miceli 346). This was especially strange to me because as a child I saw painting my toenails as simply a bonding experience for my Grandma and me and did not really understand its meaning as a “beautifying” technique. I even helped her paint my little brother’s toenails just because he wanted to be like me. However, despite this conditioning and training on how to “properly” do gender, as I matured I gained confidence in my rejection of societal gender norms, in some forms at least, and to this day refuse to wear makeup.

This difference in appearance expectations was not the only dividing factor I encountered for the first time when I left Waldorf. I came to realize that certain activities were designated as “boy” activities and “girl” activities. As I said before, at Waldorf all students were expected to knit and it just so happened that the best knitter in my class was a boy. While in high school I learned that not many boys knit, in elementary school this boy was praised by the entire class as well as the teachers for his speed and neat rows. Additionally, I was one of the best football and soccer players in my seventh grade class and often got picked first or second in our co-ed games during recess.

Naturally, male-dominated gym class came as a shock to me after experiencing a world where gender was not a separating factor in sports. I entered my first day of gym anticipating a tedious requirement but also hoping that I could enjoy myself during the scrimmages. Unfortunately, the gym teacher immediately separated the class into two sections: the boys plus two of the girls’ basketball teams’ star players, and the girls (it seemed that no un-athletic boy could be nearly as bad as the best of the recreationally athletic girls). This separation emphasized what I would have quickly realized anyway: that it was “uncool” for girls to try at sports unless they were especially gifted. Therefore, even though I remembered all the fun I had had playing sports during recess at Waldorf, I stood around with the rest of the girls’ section, talking and occasionally tapping a ball if it rolled within three feet of me. I realize now that this idea that girls do not want to play sports was only perpetuated by the teacher’s role in separating the boys from the girls, spending most of his time coaching the boys and ignoring the girls, and taking away the athletically involved girls who could have motivated the rest of us to at least try. Thus, with very little instruction and no motivation, I learned essentially nothing in gym class.

This is not to say that had there been the option for any girl to switch sections and play with the boys, any of us would have taken it. As Myra Sadker and David Sadker point out in “Missing in Interaction”, much of the separation that takes place between boys and girls is self-determined, but when teachers set the precedent of assuming none of the girls would be willing or able to play with the boys, girls tend to leave themselves out and take what is left over from the boys, whether that be a playing space or a teacher’s attention (Sadker and Sadker 336).

Gym was not the only class in my high school that held different expectations for boys and girls. Sadker and Sadker argue that overall, boys get more attention in the classroom. This is because low-achieving or misbehaving boys get negative, reprimanding attention and high-achieving boys get positive, praising attention for being better students the boys who act out. Meanwhile, both low and high achieving girls get forgotten unless they demand attention, and even then they get reprimanded for calling out more often than boys do because teachers tend to expect better behavior of girls. As they get forgotten and scolded, they lose self-esteem, become less and less aggressive and therefore get forgotten even more often (Sadker and Sadker 333).

This phenomenon was clearly exemplified in my eleventh grade English class and my twelfth grade Calculus class. My English class had two groups of boys: the ones who sat in the back of the class and drew a collage of penises on the wall (yes, in eleventh grade), and those who tried and were quite excellent writers. My teacher for this class would often scold the boys in the back for talking during class and would sometimes send them out of the room, however, the group of girls who sat together and chatted through most days were rarely noticed. At the same time, this teacher was thrilled by two boys who were great students and consistently had them read their essays aloud for the class. It was an extremely rare occurrence that a hard-working girl was called upon to read her essays in class. As one of the girls who tried in this class but rarely received recognition (despite my frequently raised hand) I never really thought of myself as a “good writer.” Not just my teacher, but also many others have created environments where “girls are ‘Okay’d’ and boys gain clear feedback” (Sadker and Sadker). Perhaps I can attribute some of my current academic insecurities to being overlooked in eleventh grade English class as well as in other classes where teachers may have unknowingly ignored my abilities or neglected my weaknesses as a student.

As I began to realize that my presence was not really on my teacher’s radar I began to pay less attention in English and occasionally talk and call out with the boys in the corner. While the class (even the teacher sometimes) laughed at their jokes, my calling out was not deemed appropriate because, unfortunately and perhaps subconsciously on the teacher’s part, situations with shouting are “open invitation[s] for male dominance” (Sadker and Sadker 332). Interestingly, my comments were only noticed because they were in the context of the poorly behaved boys, the chatting group of girls were still ignored.

My twelfth grade Calculus class posed a different situation because of the stereotype that boys are better in math than girls. A group of three girls had the highest grades in the class, however, whenever the teacher called on someone to explain a concept to the rest of the students, it was consistently one of two boys. On the other hand, it was widely accepted for girls to ask questions in this class in order to have difficult subjects clarified, whereas boys, no matter how intelligent, were less often taken seriously. One boy in the class was a self-promoting “class clown”: he rarely did his homework and frequently told jokes. Unfortunately, if he ever had a question about the material, he would rarely ask it because of his “cool” appearance as a class clown that did not care about math. If he ever tried, the teacher would make a joke and brush off his questions, assuming he was not being sincere. This boy ended up failing the course. Thus, this teacher saw most boys as a dominating force in math and humor, causing girls to go unacknowledged and struggling boys, who already felt insecure and feared losing their sense of control, to go untaught.

The only time I can remember the boys in my class at Waldorf seeing themselves as more “macho” and powerful than the girls, as those in my segregated high school gym class or male-dominated calculus class must have (at least subconsciously), was an incident during the massive cicada arrival that happens every seventeen years. A boy intended to scare the girls by throwing a ball into a tree, causing the cicadas to swarm out of the tree in a huge cloud. I recall thinking, even as a sixth grader, that it was stupid for this boy to assume that girls would be upset by the insects. Other than that, I was relatively unaware of hegemonic gender roles and only experienced gender difference when a new girl in my class flaunted the fact that she wore a bra, which evoked teasing from the boys regarding her developing body and confusion from me because I, even as a seventh grader, had never anticipated wearing one myself.

Many of these differences between my childhood and adolescence and my understanding of them can be accounted for by my privileged status. First of all, the Waldorf School, which is a great institution for allowing me that freedom from tight, excessive gender norms as a child, is a private school. Thus, my classmates and I were privileged to be able to attend it and enjoy learning in ways we would not have been able to in most public schools due to standards and the different trainings teachers go through for Waldorf or mainstream schools. This privilege of a private school also speaks to my privilege in a family that wanted to spend their money on that education for me and that supported me through my own discoveries of gender and sexuality. I realize that as I moved on to high school and connected with students from all over Cincinnati who had attended less progressive elementary schools than mine, I began learning with girls who were used to being overlooked in the classroom, something I had never experienced and therefore did not accept. Although I may not have realized it then, every time I wildly waved my hand in the air to answer a question, I was defying the “passivity” (Sadker and Sadker 332) that is expected of young women in our society.

Works Cited
Miceli, Melinda S. "Schools and the Social Control of Sexuality." Ed. Tracy E. Ore. The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009. 344-353.
Sadker, Myra, and David Sadker. "Missing in Interaction." Ed. Tracy E. Ore. The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009. 331-342.


Abby Artemisia said...

Thanks so much Margaret (and Lori) for this stirring paper! It reminds me of my often painful days in elementary and high school. It brings me gratitude, once again, for my daughter's Waldorf education. Unfortunately, it also brings back the fear of what will happen after Waldorf. How do we continue to protect and nurture our children, remind them of their brilliance, and teach them that gender roles are culture created and something they don't have to conform to?

Thanks again for the heartfelt words and food for thought!

Ahmad said...
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Lisa said...

Oh I am happy to come across your blog! I shared it on my facebook page Waldorf Homeschool Network:

Thank you for some really good through and will provoking articles. I look forward to spending more time reading your posts.

Crafty Farmer said...

Fabulous! Thanks for sharing!

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