BROOKLINE, MASS. — The students in Brian Poon’s social-studies class are engaged in heated discussion about backpacks. Tiny backpacks, to be exact.
“Why are these for girls? What reaction would a boy get if he came to school wearing a tiny backpack?” asks Mr. Poon, a tall, striking figure who is known to leap about the classroom. The students laugh, but consider the question thoughtfully.
“Maybe it’s because you can’t put anything in them except makeup,” says a male student.
Anyone looking for a traditional social-studies class is unlikely to find it in Poon’s Gender in Society course for seniors at Brookline (Mass.) High School. Sure, academic subjects from biology to philosophy get an airing. But the discussion also delves into a less familiar but key issue in the halls of learning: relations between men and women.
High school has long been a hotbed of conflicting emotions -exacerbated by media images -about physical appearance, acceptable male and female behavior, self-esteem, and sexuality. But over the past decade, such issues have taken a dark turn toward increased incidents of sexual harassment and assault.
In Boston public schools last year, for example, about 30 cases of sexual battery were reported – roughly a 33 percent increase over the previous year. A 1996 study co-authored by Eleanor Linn, director of programs for Educational Opportunity at the University of Michigan, found that 83 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys in Grades 8 through 12 said they had experienced unwanted sexual attention in school.
The problem has reached as high as the US Supreme Court, which ruled this spring that school districts are obligated to protect students from sexual harassment. But forums for structured discussion about gender issues are still limited by everything from time to a reluctance to take them seriously.
To Poon, such an attitude is inexcusable. “In today’s culture, young people are inundated with information about how they should be and act…. It is a critical skill to deconstruct these assumptions and arm young people to deal with the pressures….”
One way sexual harassment in schools differs from that in the workplace in that there appears to be no power differential, says Nan Stein, a senior researcher at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley (Mass.) College, who helped write a gender-issues curriculum. “But,” she says firmly, “sexual harassment in schools is what the kids call it.”
A former student of Poon’s, Caroline Kariyakou, recounts several incidents of sexual harassment or even assault endured by peers. “As much as people would like to ignore it, it happens.”
The curriculum for Gender in Society goes beyond the traditional health or women’s history approach. Poon draws on biology, philosophy, and history. The class examines gender roles in the media, and one unit is devoted to pop music.
Beyond giggles and squirms
The goal is to confront topics that might normally elicit giggles, or from men, silence: magazine advertisements, the definition of a ‘real’ man or woman, what constitutes date rape.
Student Mike Rosnach affirms that boys are pressured to discuss gender in certain ways. But, he says, this class makes you “realize all your prejudices.”
Indeed, Thea Deluga adds, “The guys in our class are really receptive. They’re totally open and you learn a lot from them.”
Students say they have become more aware of others’ opinions and the need to question social assumptions and media messages. “I’ve really started paying attention to TV commercials,” Mike says.
Breaking with traditions
This is Poon’s second year teaching the course. He had to face some gender issues of his own in preparing for it. “I worried about … teaching a traditionally female course … [but] the issue of my gender has never come up as a problem…. I never claim to have secret knowledge. I try to work students to figure out what they think.”
Social-studies teacher Polly Attwood, who has also taught the subject, hopes that the issues addressed will filter their way into the school curriculum as a whole.
“The more students are asked to talk about this, the more … students will see it is not as a taboo subject. The more ways we have to discuss these issues, the more we will understand how to build community.”
At the end of this day’s class, former student Mike Cermak stops in to say hello. He and Poon chat about Mike’s first year at Boston University, especially the sports, as Mike is member of the ski and lacrosse teams and Poon is the junior varsity lacrosse coach at Brookline High.
Mike then enthusiastically tells about his Women’s Studies course at BU, where he was one of four men in a class of 30 women. He calls his experience with gender studies “totally amazing.” Although he says he doesn’t agree with everything taught, “I take it so I can learn and develop my own theories.”
To Poon, it’s a sign his class has achieved its goal of expanding the way kids think about gender in society.