Lindsay returns to her alma mater, reveals her love of manatees.

“8 boys are having a craft night. If each boy knits 2 baby hats, how many baby hats will the boys knit in all?”

For D.C. teacher Jessica Hall’s second graders, this is an average, everyday math problem. “As teachers, we get to create what is normal,” she says. “And I want them to see that [boys knitting baby hats] is totally normal.”

This weekend, I attended a workshop that Hall and fellow D.C. teacher Julia Hainer-Voiland lead as a part of the 11th annual Visions in Feminism conference at American University, my and Mia’s beloved alma mater. We spent the day attending panels on activist filmmaking and the racial issues surrounding reproductive rights, as well as wandering the grounds to revisit as many of our favorite campus bathrooms – an experience we found weirdly and profoundly evocative of college’s long-forgotten mundanities. Upon entering a particular bathroom next to the site of a business class I once hated, I felt the back of my neck prickle with a familiar dread at having to spend another hour and fifteen minutes discussing the success of Dunkin Donuts’ branding campaign. But there was something different about the bathroom where I used to flee for a brief moment of respite from my senior thesis seminar: the ViF organizers had turned it into a gender neutral facility. For that afternoon anyway, we feminists were taking over.

Hall and Hainer-Voiland’s talk was called “Teaching from the Margins: Feminist Theory in the Classroom” and it explored the challenges and triumphs they’ve experienced in trying to get elementary school aged students to think critically about gender, race and class. Now, I’m not a teacher myself, but that made the workshop all the more fascinating to me; they brought up a lot of questions about feminist theory and pedagogy that I’d never explicitly thought about before. How do you instill in young children an understanding that history is multivalent rather than one-sided? How can you “run a tight ship” in the classroom without succumbing to traditional models of hierarchy? And, perhaps the trickiest question of all: what are the most effective ways to get young students thinking critically about the gender binaries that pervade our culture? As Hall and Hainer-Voiland demonstrated, it’s not easy. It’s not like you can make a fifth grader to do a book report on Gender Trouble or something.

Instead, they emphasized the importance of thinking critically about the role of the teacher. Not just a neutral figurehead bound to tradition, the feminist teacher understands that s/he is a “transmitter of knowledge, cultural expectations and strategies to gain or access knowledge.” Discussion, they stressed, is one of the most important components of the feminist classroom. Inspired by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings that “to listen is to love,” Hainer-Voiland explains to her students the importance of what she calls “brain listening” – being mentally present while other people are talking. She also encourages her students not only to speak up, but to be aware of how often they’re speaking – and who in the room they’re silencing when they exert too much control over the conversation. It might sound like a theory overload, but trust me, it works! Hainer-Voiland showed us a great video of her kids role playing as a group of union workers on strike. They each took turns speaking and listening, and before one of the group leaders spoke, he handed the designated “talking bean bag” to another student, explaining, “He hasn’t spoken yet.”

One of my favorite of Hainer-Voiland’s feminist classroom practices involved – yes – manatees. When the kids were going to learn about those cuddly cows of the sea (and, if you couldn’t already tell, one of my top 3 favorite animals when I was a fifth grader), she did an interesting thought experiment.  “As a teacher, it’s not just my role to decide what we learn,” she says, “but also how we learn it and from what perspective.” She gave the kids a list of options  of what they’d like to learn about manatees, among them a fact-based approach (“How long can manatees hold their breath underwater?”) and an “emotion”-based approach (“How do manatees care for their young?”). She polled the students on what they’d like to know about manatees, and then she asked them to predict how they thought their male and female peers would answer. Almost unanimously, the class predicted that the boys would vote for the fact-based approach and that the girls would want to know facts about child-rearing and families. In reality, it was the opposite. Interactive exercises like this allow teachers to effectively demonstrate kids the gap between gender roles and reality without beating it over their heads – because no matter what they’re still learning some awesome facts about manatees, too.

At the end of the workshop, Hall and Hainer-Voiland asked us all a question: “If all classrooms were grounded in feminism, what would our future look like?” It’s certainly an inspiring scenario to consider. As they showed us, small changes in traditional classroom dynamics can make great, tangible impact on the way children think about and formulate gender. It’s hard to imagine all teachers exhibiting such a laudable commitment to bringing feminist theory into the classroom, but of this part I’m sure: at this workshop and all the others, Visions in Feminism 2011 provided a space for discussion, community and a whole lot of brain listening.

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