Sunday, October 24, 2010

Androgynous history? Another way school systems fail our kids

As a linguist, I was thrilled when my middle-school aged child came home from school one recent afternoon and explained that the Language Arts and History teacher discussed root words with the class that day.

The ability to identify root words along with understanding how to read contextual clues is – after all – the next best way to find word meaning when a child is not asked to perform the extraordinary effort of flipping open a dictionary.

“There’s something about my teacher that some people are kind of annoyed by and that some people just think is funny,” said my child. “But once in a while my teacher gets off on a tangent about a topic and forgets what we were supposed to be doing!”

On that day, according to my child, after discussing with the class the root word andro- (meaning, man), my child explained that the teacher ended up on a tangent discussing androgyny. I stood up a little straighter at this revelation.

Not that there’s anything wrong with androgyny. I hold no opinions or prejudices whatsoever regarding men or women who may be androgynous, whether their androgyny comes by way of social identity, fashion expression, sexual or social proclivity or even as a result of biology.

“It was funny. He got so sidetracked talking about androgyny that we didn’t have enough time to finish class. We had to skip history!” my child added.

“What did he say about androgyny?” I asked, sitting down across the kitchen table from my child.

“He said it’s when a person looks and acts like both a boy and a girl at the same time or they’re part girl and part boy,” my child said, pointing to the lower part of the body. “You know, like down there. He said it’s actually becoming more common. And then he said he knows a lot of people who are androgynous. It was kind of weird and funny at the same time.”

I asked my child to elaborate some more.

“The weirdest thing was that after class I realized it was kind of ironic that we were talking about androgyny, because there’s actually someone in my class who’s androgynous.”

“What do you mean?” I was sure to steady my voice and appear calm.

“There’s a person in my class who I know is a girl, but she always looks like a boy.”

“Sweetheart,” I told my child. “The term androgyny might refer to a person’s ability to represent themselves as both feminine and masculine – or neither one nor the other. But in terms of a middle-school aged child, I’m not sure the word androgyny is the best choice. Most twelve-year olds are still figuring out who they are, experimenting with their identity."

I then asked if the teacher had discussed what the word “hermaphrodite” means.

When my child said, “no,” I explained that that the part of the teacher’s definition of androgyny that indicated androgynous people have both male and female sex organs  - not just appearance - has a medical description separate from androgyny.

I also asked if the teacher had discussed the root word gynous – the other half of the word androgynous.

My child said “no.”

Always looking for the positive, I decided that it’s good my child felt comfortable speaking openly about the topic with me. Because of my child's openness, I was able to provide information that the teacher omitted, regardless of the fact that a casual conversation about androgyny is wholly inappropriate for seventh-grade history class. Other parents I asked said their children had not yet discussed the in-class conversation on androgyny at home.

There's a pretty good chance that the Rise of the Roman Empire will be on the seventh-grade standardized test. Perhaps they ought to add androgyny to the packet so some seventh graders at one local school can show what they learned in history class. Then, our school district (which sits in the top 5% of California schools) can publicize the diverse education it offers its student.

And we wonder why even the best schools are failing our children.



Mark said...

You seized a teachable moment and turned what was an inappropriate classroom lesson into a very appropriate lesson at home. Great job!
Our schools are failing in so many ways.

Cameron said...

Thanks Mark. Unfortunately, I have too many more stories like this one, of teachable moments used for reteaching what was inappropriately taught the first time around. I'm grateful for 'teachable' kids who are open enough to learning that they talk, and ask.