Gender, class, race: aren't we all the same?

This is a slightly longer version of an article which appears in The Change Agent , Issue 6, February, 1998.

Maybe there isn't any problem, and maybe there is. We aren't all the same. When educators work to build community in and beyond classrooms we need to acknowledge -- and not erase -- difference. Difference can be a dynamic vehicle through which we can work towards some sort of understanding and collective action. We don't pretend our differences don't exist, nor do we focus entirely upon them. We try to learn through one another (our experience, histories, world views), and see what common threads can draw us together.

In order for learning to occur, barriers to learning need to be lowered (and, ideally, eliminated). Barriers to learning include distractions in the classroom (noise, clutter), worries about family and money, fear of abusive others, fear of not being able to 'perform' well as a student. Some of the things that cause these barriers are beyond our control as teachers. Other barriers do involve our actions directly; the way we use and abuse our power, the way we facilitate classes and the assumptions we make about learning all contribute to the sense of ease or discomfort that develops in our classrooms. If we believe that education has the potential to be transforming, and that thought and discussion can lead to positive action, we need to be particularly aware of the fact that each learner is an individual with whom we ultimately hope to forge connections and a collective learning community. We need to avoid the common traps of imposing our world views and assumptions upon learners while encouraging them (and allowing ourselves) to freely and respectfully express opinions and exchange ideas.

Why is a clear sense of self an important consideration in an adult learning context? Knowing about our learners, knowing that there are many things we can't know, but can be aware of, is critical to the way we work to facilitate the development of a community in the classroom. I can't know everything there is to know about each of the learners with whom I interact, but I can understand that I need to aware of all the things I don't know, -- religious background, country of origin, martial status, sexual orientation, political viewpoint -- in order not silence or frighten them. I must understand that I have the power to silence and frighten, and to impede learning. If I believe that the content of the grammar, language, vocabulary that my students will learn should be elicited from their direct experiences, then I must be aware of the fact that some of those experiences will be more difficult than others for learners to share. I can't assume that we all want to have careers or that we all want to be parents. I can't assume that progressive causes will be popular with my students, or that as immigrants they will share the same views about immigration. If I can remember this, and remember the complex sets of factors which form and inform each individual in my class, I can attempt to proceed in an open way, leaving room for a range of opinions and participation, making the classroom as inclusive as possible.

I need to be aware of power dynamics in the classroom, even if I believe that I haven't any power. I don't give grades, my students are adults, not children, I'm not tremendously well paid. What I might not see, however, is that even with my own sense of limited/no power, my learners perceive that I do possess it. This power may be invisible to us as teachers. Though we may choose not to 'exert' control, we do control what happens in our classrooms in subtle and overt ways. This control can be devastating to students whose opinions might differ from ours; they are silenced, and barriers to participation and learning increase. We need to be aware of the ways in which gender, race, class, nationality and sexual orientation impact on a learner's sense of self. We need to realize that a person1s sense of self sharply defines the way that person interacts with the world around her/him. When one feels relatively secure in one's identity, that particular barrier to learning is lowered. When that sense of self is threatened or challenged in frightening ways, learning becomes difficult.

For example, when we encourage a woman who discloses abuse to leave her abuser and express frustration if she stays in an abusive situation, we silence her. When we challenge a woman who does all the cooking, cleaning and childcare for her family to tell her husband to do that work, we ignore the contexts in which she has and hasn't choices to make. The line between supporting and listening attentively to learners, and effectively silencing opinions and world views that differ from ours is a thin one at best. We need to remember that there is not one monolithic model of who a woman is or should be. We may bring issues of gender (or other sites of difference) to the table for our learners to discuss and problematize, but not so that we impose a world view upon them.

If I'm a woman whose country of origin sees education for women as a useless endeavor, maybe I can't understand why you1re so interested in me as a learner now. Am I only in this class because I have to get a job outside the home, something I've never had to think about before coming to this country? I1m frightened, and yet, if I express doubts about working and my teacher tells me, "of course you can do it!" I'm more frightened still. What if I can't do it? What if I believe I don't know how? Will my teacher actually tell me how she sees me being able to do it? If I see myself as someone who's been told she's stupid all her life, and you, as my teacher, tell me I'm smart, maybe I'm not sure I can believe you, if you can't show me exactly how and why, you think that.

If I'm a lesbian in a culture that vilifies homosexuality, I'm not sure that I can imagine coming out, even in a safe or supportive classroom. If I'm a mother of four and my teacher tells me that women have the right to choose whether or not to have children and I find abortion abhorrent, my views are effectively silenced. If the learning context in which I find myself is one that builds on life experience and uses that experience to build language work, what I can contribute? Is it enough for me to learn language through the experiences of others when my own experience is effectively erased?

And if I'm a man in this group, I could have any of a very wide range of responses to the issues that the majority of the class (women) seem able to discuss. How do I learn in this context?

So. Do we sit mute and complete workbook pages or do we see opporutnities to increase our sensitivity to these issues while working to assist learners in developing connections to one another and to the contexts in which they study and live? How do we move within and from classroom to community?

We work with concrete things, initially. We invite learners in our groups to tell us about their day. What happened before they came to school? Learners can tell as much or as little as they like. Inevitably connections are drawn. Through the context in which this important content is shared, language work develops. Learners can control the flow of the conversation, shifting to or staying with particular topics of interest to them. We listen, maybe take notes as we hear errors being made, so that later we can use this content to frame the language work we need to do. Maybe we focus on the simple past tense.

We've learned about another woman's morning in four simple sentences. Many of us can relate to what's happened at her house, and might also talk about what has to happen for us to get out of ours every morning. The process of telling stories is powerful. It takes time. As trust grows amongst a group, so will the stories expand, both in terms of language, and more importantly, in terms of shared content and connection.

Sometimes the stories we tell one another connect to stories we can read, stories written by people outside our community. Sometimes we can write our own stories. We can identify problems and issues that emerge through our conversations, and decide which of these important things to take on. Maybe we need pamphlets about available child care to research possibilities for someone who's about to go to work and needs help with that. Maybe there's a problem with someone's landlord and we need to learn about the housing code.

Maybe one learner's problem seems simple, or not to be a problem at all. As a teacher I need to learn to listen closely to see why and how that problem affects that learner and to work with her, and with the group, (if it1s a problem she can share), to see how together we can build solutions, find options, make informed choices. We need to be aware of the myriad ways in which people1s individual identities shape their repsonses to what happens in the world and the ways in which they respond to these events - locally and globally. 1

Specifically, classroom work that seems to facilitate discussion and learning in an open-ended way includes use of picture stories and visual images as catalysts for discussion. Such images can be examined on a surface level (I see the woman, she has three children), and also more deeply. A problem-posing methodology may be useful here (see Wallerstein, Language and Culture in Conflict). Language experience writing can emerge; grammar points can be addressed as needed. (If learners consistently seem to have trouble using the past tense, constructing questions or pronouncing certain sounds, those things can be utilized as the focus of contextualized questions/ exercises to accompany whatever content is generated). Transformative possibilities emerge.

World news, newspaper headlines, photos, video tapes can also provide impetus for discussion. US news media may illustrate uniquely American values and forms of bias; learners have their own responses to current events. Beginning with events outside the classroom (but of interest to learners) enables learners to reveal/disclose as much or as little as is comfortable, and to determine for themselves the way they want the conversations to go. Our role as facilitators of those conversations is to maintain an awareness of the multitude of points of view and experience and to never assume that we all share the same values. Without constantly walking on eggshells we do need to remember that the man sitting there may himself have been a victim of violence, the woman next to him may have suffered physical abuse because of her political beliefs, the woman next to her might hold radically different politcal ideas from yours, and the woman next to her might be thinking more about what she needs to do before she goes home to change clothes for work than about the seemingly engaging lesson you've laid out.

And how does this lead all of us towards collective civic participation and positive social change? Slowly, steadily. Over time.

1 In a recent posting (11/11/97) to the NIFL-ESL listserv, Loren McGrail notes that "it is useful ... to know as much as you can about how individual learners make meaning out of their experience so that you can best meet their learning needs [and] it is also important because if they have knowledge about how they best learn inside the classroom they might be able to learn and take action outside the classroom."

note: In Focus on Basics, Volume 1, Issue C, Lenore Balliro speaks to the notion of difference, and Eileen Barry examines one particular take on multicultural/ multigenerational learning. This particular example highlights ways in which difference may serve as a catalyst for learning within the context of a classroom where learners' identities differ, interests converge and learning is shared.

Janet Isserlis, with thanks to Heather Flewelling and Hal Adams for feedback on earlier drafts.

back to Writing from the Field