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New Curriculum Focuses On Positive Boy-Girl Relationships

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By: Robyn Gee

Education reform is full of silver bullet ideas. A favorite among some communities is single-gender education.

But Richard Fabes, director of the Sanford Harmony Program (SHP) and Professor at Arizona State University, believes that single-sex learning situations promote and reinforce gender-norms and stereotypes. In contrast, the Sanford Harmony Program is experimenting with a curriculum that aims to dissolve gender biases and facilitate positive co-ed relationships. The curriculum will be available in 2014.

California made a big effort to try single-gender education in 1997, but failed. Governor Pete Wilson said single-sex academies would be a good alternative for students who were struggling in co-ed environments. However, the state eventually concluded that these public same-gender academies were not viable and produced mixed results.

A final report on the experiment stated, “Educators ensured that equal resources were offered to both sexes but were less concerned about gender bias. Traditional gender stereotypes were often reinforced in single gender academies. Students received mixed messages about gender from their teachers.”

That is precisely the outcome that Richard Fabes wants to avoid at the Sanford Harmony Program.

At a very young age, children naturally begin to segregate themselves into same-sex peer groups, he says. Through high school and even into adulthood, people tend to associate more with people of their same sex. Fabes talks about the Segregation Cycle: “The more boys and girls spend time with same-sex peers, the more skills are developed that focus on same-sex peers, and the more attitudes become positive towards same-sex peers, and communication styles are geared towards same-sex peers... All of that feeds back into the tendency to separate into same-sex peer groups,” said Fabes.

In order to change this natural tendency to segregate and break down gender stereotypes, the SHP has created activities to address the issue with kids as young as preschool and as old as fifth grade.

For example, preschoolers in the SHP have a set of books that feature an alien named “Z.” On Z’s planet there are no boys or girl, so Z is therefore clueless about gender norms. “On planet Z we have no he’s, we have no she’s, we only have we’s,” explained Fabes. Z meets a group of children on Earth, and through a series of 14 - 16 books, they teach him about what it means to be a boy or a girl.

Z frequently makes “woopsies” -- or gender bloopers -- that the children in the book have to correct. “‘Girls can’t be doctors, only boys can be doctors,’ would be something that Z might say. So the children don’t make the mistake, Z makes the mistake because Z is clueless,” said Fabes.

In fifth grade, students might look at pictures of people, and then match various skills or interests with the pictures that seem to fit. Fabes gave the example of a marathon runner. “Some are stereotypes and some are not. Then [students] have to have a discussion about who might be a marathon runner. You can see the degree to which you assign masculine skills to boys and feminine skills to girls and then you engage in a discussion about doing it,” said Fabes.

The classroom is one thing, but the lunchroom and playground are a different story. Yet, the SHP attempts to embed positive co-ed interaction here too. “We have lunchtime scrambles for the older kids, where teachers will put children into [mixed sex] groups to eat lunch, and have them come up with a group theme for themselves, or a group handshake over lunch -- something that connects them,” said Fabes.

Their hope is that interacting positively will become the default. “We think it’s going to promote gender equity, non-stereotyped thinking,” he said. Fabes said that poor co-ed relationships are often to blame for bullying, victimization, harassment, and dating and domestic violence that exists today.

The key is to not draw attention to the fact that boys and girls are purposefully being mixed together. For example, a teacher would not want to say, “I want everyone to line up boy, girl, boy, girl...” or, “I need another boy to join this group to make it balanced...” Instead, teachers receive training on how to do this in subtle ways.

Even the ACLU is getting involved in this issue, with a new campaign called “Teach Kids Not Stereotypes.” They are demanding that states with public single-sex education programs be abolished, due to the research showing these situations reinforce sexist, gender-biased stereotypes.

Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

Youth Radio/Youth Media International (YMI) is youth-driven converged media production company that delivers the best youth news, culture and undiscovered talent to a cross section of audiences. To read more youth news from around the globe and explore high quality audio and video features, visit Youthradio.org