Meeting women's needs in mixed-gender
Meeting women's needs in mixed-gender classes is an ongoing challenge. The recognition that everyone in the class has the right to be heard is tempered by the need to find the balance that somehow enables a facilitator to assist more quiet voices in being heard. People, often women, who have long been silent and/or silenced, cannot be coerced into speaking because we think it would be good for them. It has often been the case, though, that as learners continue to participate in a class and begin to feel trust among group members, they do find ways to speak about important things.
In order to facilitate this preparation for speaking, we make our classrooms safe places and ourselves available listeners. A woman who does not feel safe speaking out loud uses the dialogue journal as a place where she can discuss worries about her husband. Others bring concerns about work, money and families.
We work through actions, through creating a non-threatening and comfortable classroom environment. We work to help learners feel a sense of community by demonstrating our own interest in what they have to say and in encouraging them to share their stories, to help one another, to work together in learning to read and write. We value learners' contributions, recognize their strengths and make these actions explicit. We help women see that their knowledge is important and valuable.
When someone asks how to spell a word, I re-direct the question to the group. When someone asks me a question, I ask if I can send that question to the group. What do I think about the grade 1 teacher? What do the others think, I ask? What do we know about her? What do we want to know? How can we get more information? We work from the outside, from questions people are first most willing to ask, building trust, using questions to create sentences, grammar reviews for those who want them, reading practice and writing practice. The "what" of what we're doing isn't so complicated. The "how" of it is recognizable: A typed-up story. A discussion round, where each person responds to a question, or speaks about anything she pleases. A paired-interview session where partners report back and we come to know and trust one another more. The substance and content of these activities reflect more and more the deeper concerns of the people in the circle.
Letting learners determine content requires hard work; it is teaching in a collaborative manner. Listening to their questions, helping them see where the answers lie and how to get the answers, and finding appropriate information to add to the existing knowledge of the group is part of the job. Developing grammar, writing or reading work from this content is part of the job. Helping learners cross the bridge from their own writing to that of others, in other contexts, (newspapers, textbooks, flyers, letters to the editor) is part of the job. Helping learners see what they've learned, name their questions and realize their progress is part of the job.
Where we take their work, where we allow it to go, depends on the learners. Some courses carry constraints and restrictions, where outcomes are established externally and learners are expected to achieve certain things, like finish a GED or pass a particular exam. Even within those parameters there is room to listen, to find out always what learners already know and then to find appropriate ways to link their knowledge to new information, to help them learn to find their own ways toward the information they need.
In my experience, when women learners are at the centre of the curriculum, when they build curriculum, when they participate in discussions, when they see their words written and read by others, when they recognize the value of their words while realistically acknowledging the challenges ahead of them beyond the classroom walls - when these things occur, women are strengthened in ways that are hard to measure but that nonetheless serve them well.