Saturday, June 25, 2011

How Little Girls Learn...Just Like Big Girls Do

When I first started to teach fifth grade in a Seattle suburban school district I would go around the room and asked...." what each child wanted to be when they grow up?"  Since the school was close to the Boeing aircraft facility many of my boys wanted to be pilots or engineers or "build planes" like their dads.  A few of the guys wanted to go into the military in some way and only one ever wanted to be a doctor.  Most of the boys had some goal as to what they thought they wanted to be as they became adults.

Not so my girls.  When I ask the girls in my class what they wanted to be, a few said they wanted to be airline stewardesses, a good number wanted to be nurses and an equally number of girls said they were going to be mothers (like their mothers).  When I asked the to-be stewardesses why they didn't want to be pilots they looked at me in confusion. "Girls aren't pilots, Mr. Blackwell."  I got the same response from the nurses to-be when I confronted them as to why not a doctor?   I found this lack of goals in the girls disturbing and troubling. 

I then went down to the school library to seek a book that had a girl as the lead character and I found only one book in the entire library in which the girl is the hero. It is "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeline L'Eagle, published in 1962.   From that moment I started to look for books with girls in a leading role. "A Wrinkle" went on to win a number of publishing awards.

My next book that I read to my fifth grade class was about Elizabeth Blackwell, First Woman Doctor.  It was the perfect book for my needs (and my girls needs) as Elizabeth had to fight and struggle to become a doctor.  She was stubborn to a fault so I am sure she was part of my early family (subsequent research appears to show this to be correct).  I finally was beginning to see some results in the girls thinking of what they might become in later life.  This was in the early 1960s.

This was my first epiphany--that girls had different goals then boys.  I could understand that they might not want to play football but that women (they were becoming women) could still use their brains.  I loved all my kids in those fifth grades and I wanted ALL to be their very best in whatever they wanted to do.  I didn't want their lives controlled by societal norms whatever that might be.  

I still find it upsetting that the Hardy Boys stories were allowed in our elementary library but not the Nancy Drew stories.  Apparently it had been deemed that the Nancy Drew stories were not good enough literature.  We soon changed that policy.  In searching for that early science fiction book that I read to my class I queried Amazon and Google and find that today there are many more books for girls then when I first started to teach.  Thank heavens (for little girls--sorry, but that is a song in a movie--had to put it in.  "Gigi," I think).

Why this missive about books for girls?  What I found as I learned how to teach was that girls and boys learn differently.  Girls like to work together with other girls (and like to talk--oh my do they like to talk which is part of the process).  Boys like to work mostly on their own.  Many boys want to compete.

But for the past year I have been looking for an old book of min on how women learn.  I've written about it in these blogs from time to time.  But I could not identify it or the author.  It became an obsession.  Either where was my book or where could I buy another one?  I tried Google Scholar--no luck.  I tried out of print books and again no luck.  It was important to me when I was teaching so why couldn't I find it?

I did find Carol Gilligan's book on women, "In A Different Voice."  No, that was  not it although it was an instrumental book in my development.

It turns out that my memory is faulty--which is what I already knew.  However, I was sure I had the title correct.  Wrong.  Just recently I stumbled upon the book that i was looking for.  Women's Ways of Knowing:  The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind.  Published in 1986 AND in 1997.  Finally I found it!  Yeessss!  It was written by Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger and Jill Tarule.  No, I have never met these women--I wish I had.

My mistake was that I was looking for a book on how women learn.  The one I wanted was on how women know.  This is a big difference.  Learning is one thing but knowing is a damn site more important.  Boys want to "own" what they learn and girls want to "establish a communication with what they are trying to understand."

I can't remember where it was that I found what I was looking for.  I think I was perusing through an index of a book when I spotted it.  But the even better part of this finding is that I was able to buy the latest edition (with added information) for my Kindle.  I now have John Dewey's Democracy and Education next to Women's Ways of Knowing.  Important books for teachers.  It gives us a philosophical bases for our methods of teaching.

Thank you to the four authors for teaching me much.  I hope you've thanked a teacher in the past week.  They need it.

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