What Hangs in the Balance…: Creating next year’s classes

Recently, I was presented with these questions:

“Any ideas on class loading based on gender?  Still have some teachers that are determined to load based on gender.  While they agree to not use “blue and pink” loading slips, they are going to add a spot for M and F and X….”

Here are some thoughts on how we determine class placements.

I wish there was a simple answer to this question, but there are many nuances to the conversation about how we build classes in a meaningful way.  These conversations are complicated when sex / gender plays a role in our concepts of what balanced means.

From a philosophical perspective, it’s helpful to have some conversation about what balance means, and what our objectives are in forming classes.  Having a shared view of what this means can be helpful, though I recognize that trying to create time and investment in these conversations can be difficult amongst the myriad of other demands of this complex profession.

I struggle with the move away from the pink and blue slips, if we’re simply going to reinforce the same ideas about boys and girls with another indicator.  For example, a shift from pink and blue slips to yellow and green slips is not a meaningful adjustment if it’s just another way of visually separating students by gender.  A shift to white slips for all, with M / F / X indicators on them sort of defeats the purpose of refining the process or tools we use for class loading (though I can appreciate the acknowledgement that X is a valid and legally acknowledged gender identity).

I also struggle with asking young people for their pronouns (or making assumptions about what their pronouns are – despite a movement by some advocates and activists to encourage this).  There is a difference between creating the space for someone to share their pronouns and requesting that all students declare their pronouns.  Many people who are gender diverse or are questioning their identity find this causes a lot of anxiety until they have fully embraced their gender identity and have clarity about which pronouns they align with.  Again, this is a nuanced conversation that needs to be handled with sensitivity.  We definitely want to allow opportunities for gender diverse youth to explore their identities, but we want to avoid imposing identities on them.

In one school I was at, we shifted to placing our highest needs students first, building supportive communities around them, extending that community by building on existing friendships / relationships, evaluating needs (like language support, leadership, etc).  During this process, I thought we actually built pretty balanced classes – the balance of which was often undermined when they conversation shifted to “counting” the numbers of boys and girls (or some other arbitrary identifier like the number of ELL learners).  (I do say “boys and girls” to reflect the conversations I’ve witnessed and been a part of, even though it tends to exclude trans- and non-binary learners, but I’ve done it to simplify the conversation to a degree). Good questions to consider are: “If we build based on some of the priorities (as listed above), and then make adjustments based on gender, how do those refinements change the composition or balance of the sorting?  What impact does prioritizing the key needs and de-centering some of our conceptions about gender have on the classes we load?  Once we start shifting placements (i.e. moving one student from one placement to another), balance is rarely achieved by a one-to-one trade and often involves a complex shifting of groups of students. 

Having said that, I also don’t want to leave the impression that I’m arguing that gender is completely irrelevant to the conversation.  If our objective is to be “Gender Neutral” and to suggest that gender never matters, I find that problematic in the same way it’s problematic to say “we don’t see colour” when we talk about race.  My difficulty with the conversations around gender is that we when we tend to talk about the learning styles or needs of a particular gender, we often are referring to “all” learners of that gender (whether we intend to or not).  When we talk about individuals and we talk about the specific needs of a particular learner (which may or may not be related to their gender), it’s a different conversation and it’s situated in discussing specific conditions to support a specific learner.

One of the things to be surfaced in this conversation is, “are we talking about balance based on sex or based on gender?”  

      • Sex refers to physiological characteristics (chromosomes, hormones, body parts) 
      • Gender refers to people’s internal sense of themselves

If we are class loading on the basis of sex, then perhaps we should be labelling our post-its with genitalia. I say this with some degree of humour, but it is relevant to the conversation.  If we are loading based on gender, it’s difficult to determine what someone’s internal sense of themselves is, and we often rely on stereotypes of how girls and boys behave – and, in many cases. not questioning how we construct and perpetuate some of the stereotypes by the ways in which we perceive and reinforce gender roles.  I would extend the definition of gender to include the social construction of how we understand and perceive gender.  Often conversations about gender balance in schools is rooted in compliance and obedience, and perceptions of how each gender aligns with these concepts, when a more focused conversation about engaging teaching practices and strategies (and how to support them) might be more constructive.  There have certainly been shifts in the kinds of learning styles and learning behaviours we are viewing in our classrooms that are reflective of the experiences of young ones who enter our schools.  For example, experiences with and access to technology is shifting how we learn and what is deemed important.  It’s not harmful to continuously be questioning some of the assumptions or routines that are prevalent in our profession.

The other conversation that I think is really relevant to class loading is “What assumptions are we making about gender?  What assumptions or biases do we have about behaviour and performance based on those assumptions about gender?”  One of the ways that you can preface this conversation is to invite people to think about experiences they’ve had with a particular student who presented as an exception to the apparent norms of their gender.  What factors should be considered in their placement?  Should a student whose expressions or tendencies that defy typical preconceptions of their gender be considered differently than someone who affirms gender roles / tendencies?  

In much of the research literature that I’ve encountered about gender and learning, I happen to defy pretty much every generalization about how boys learn and what their literacy preferences are, and my friend, Susan, affirms pretty much every generalization about how boys learn and what their literacy preferences are.  I’m curious what consideration people who have gender non-conforming tendencies like these get in these conversations about balance.  It’s also interesting to note, that some of the literature on how brains differ by gender is being questioned as being biologically determined and is  being refined by understanding how malleable the brain is in responding and adapting to circumstances and conditions it responds to (which include some of the stereotypical ways in which boys or girls are treated, the toys they are gifted, the clothing they wear, the activities they are encouraged to engage in or avoid, and generally speaking the ways in which we continually reinforce conceptions of gender). 

If I had the capacity to, I’d encourage a spectrum from introvert to extrovert to categorize students for grouping because I think it often (but not always) is more reflective of the balance we are attempting to achieve than the supposed balance we achieve by counting the boys and girls. 

In an environment where the composition of students is approximately 50% boys and 50% girls, it is often relatively natural to build a classroom composition (by whatever process) that results in a reasonable balance of gender in designated classrooms.  However, regardless of whether we make adjustments based on our awareness of trans- and non-binary learners or for other reasons, there are some problems I’ve encountered when trying to balance gender.  One of the scenarios that I can recall created (what I considered) one of the worst outcomes for class loading for a small group of girls.   We had a particular year where we only had 12 grade 7 girls enrolled at our school.  We had a school configuration that included one Grade 7 class and 2 combined Grade 6/7 classes.  Ultimately, the decisions that unfolded resulted in 4 girls being placed in each class, because the perception was that that was the fairest way to distribute that particular group.  The four girls placed in my class had no pre-existing relationships / friendships with the other girls in the class. Other possibilities about grouping that particular group of girls were considered but rejected because “it wouldn’t be fair.” I could easily make the argument that that was based more on what teachers considered fair and equitable than what students would regard as fair or equitable. 

In building classes, it’s helpful to remember that we’re building classrooms with SIMILAR dynamics, and not classrooms with the SAME dynamics.  Even if we could create classrooms that had the ultimate balance of gender (or any other arbitrary factor), the other factor that we can’t necessarily balance is the teachers. Teachers come to classrooms with a range of experiences, interests, and skill sets, and it’s important to recognize that this contributes to the overall balance achieved when we load classes – despite the story that the numbers tell when we count up specific needs or identities of students we place.  I was in a situation for a number of years where I was quite comfortable with taking on students with behavioural concerns, while my grade partner was quite skillful with students with physical or cognitive issues, and so, in part, balance was achieved through recognizing those strengths and how they benefitted the classes we formed. 

So, ultimately, I don’t have the definitive answer to how to address gender when loading classes, but hopefully this provides some insights into some of the questions to consider when engaging in a process which can have a lot of emotional attachment to the best ways to do it and how to create ideal placements for the human beings we care deeply about. 

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