Monthly Archives: April 2014

Taking the Keyboard Away

There’s a nasty thing that happens sometimes in group projects that contain a mix of boys and girls, where boys–who are trained from a young age to speak up–tend to put their hands into the mix early on, while the girls who have been trained to keep their voices small and polite and to always make space for others before claiming room for themselves tend to fall to the outer margins of a project.  Women in technology or gaming have a term for this; it’s called “taking the keyboard away,” and it’s pervasive.  It’s shockingly common for us to physically pry the tools needed to perform some project directly out of the hands of girls and women.  It will happen at the flimsiest of provocations: a single question about how to proceed is usually sufficient for someone to take the tool away from a woman or girl and do it for them.

This is not a good way to teach people.  It’s insulting, it’s demeaning, it shows a lack of confidence in their capabilities, and worst of all it denies them the opportunity to improve and learn.  It’s commonly done to women & girls, but it’s common whenever dealing with people whose skills in a particular area you don’t respect, especially when the “teacher” doesn’t have the patience to actually teach.  Taking the keyboard away is the kind of behavior that can take an otherwise amazing school project and thoroughly ruin it.  The teacher may think they’ve planned an awesome, hands-on activity that gives children room to fail and builds resiliency while leaving them room to tinker and be creative, but if only half of your students actually end up getting to put their hands on the project you’re not really accomplishing your goals.

The truth is that no individual teacher is going to be able to undo the years of gender norms that cause girls to put up with having a drill ripped out of her hands.  What you can do, however, is to keep it out of your classroom.  No teacher can be everywhere, but there’s a few things that you can do that make a big difference:

Tell, Don’t Show
Do not touch your student’s projects — ever. Put the tools in their hands and talk them through how to use them. If you absolutely must show, then have a demo project set aside to show them on, so that you never actually touch their work. We all want our students to be successful, but you are not there to do the project for them. 

Outnumbering the most overbearing boys is a good way to keep them from taking over.

Outnumbering the most overbearing boys is a good way to keep them from taking over.

Make Expectations Clear
From the very beginning of a group project, make it clear to the class that everyone is expected to participate.  If there are a number of different tools, state clearly (and frequently) that you want everyone in a group to use each tool at least once.

Avoid Letting them Specialize
Don’t let students specialize into their own roles too early; it’s all too common for a girl to get pushed into the role of “secretary” and be stuck taking notes while everyone else is drilling, sawing, soldering, or generally doing the “fun” part.

Two girls work together at the hot-glue station to attach their wheel & axle.

Two girls work together at the hot-glue station to attach their wheel & axle.

Work Together, Grade Separately
The smartest kid in your class probably hates groupwork.  The typical way of grading these projects is to give one grade for the entire thing, which forces those kids who won’t settle for anything less than an A to do more of their share of the work, while other students skate by on their hard work.  It’s a bad situation for everyone; the hard workers end up stressed and resentful, and other kids end up not learning anything.  Making kids do the in-class portion together while still being responsible for some sort of independent work does wonders towards keeping them all engaged & involved.  If that’s too much work, then start out with a shared grade but have each student receive a separate participation score.

Isolate the Overbearing Boys
You know that one boy in your class that can’t quite seem to shake the tendency of pushing the girls to the periphery?  Group him with a trio of girls.

Before letting them use the powertools, ask "Has anyone in your group not had a chance to use the drill yet?"

Before letting them use the powertools, ask “Has anyone in your group not had a chance to use the drill yet?”

Guard the Toys
If you’re doing a project that involves tool use, set up a station near the coolest ones to supervise.  Every time a kid comes to you to use them, go ahead and ask them “Have you used the (drill/saw/soldering iron/etc.) yet?”  If their answer is yes, ask if anyone else in their group hasn’t had a chance to use it yet, go ahead and pull them forward to get them involved.  This is probably the single best way to make sure that everyone ends up actually having their hands on a project.

Hands-on projects are a great way to keep students engaged and in love with the material.  Just remember that it falls on the teacher to make sure that everyone is getting the full benefit of the assignment.


Pretty girls, pockets, and possibilities: how fashion traps girls

I was ecstatic when I opened up the fedex box to find it there: all soft brown leather and brass and laces and (most importantly) pockets. I’d ordered it from an artist in Asheville, NC, a city with nearly as many skilled artisans as San Francisco but with the added benefit of fewer vegans…and hence, skilled leatherwork. It was a utility belt, and I bought it because I was sick of not having a vial or a ziplock to put the occasional interesting spider or butterfly in.

My utility belt fits the following: wallet, cellphone, chap-stick, keys, a half dozen vials of varying sizes, a few ziplocks, a knife, and two loups (16x and 10x magnefication). I could fit more in if I squeezed, but it basically amounts to the general contents of what would fit in most men’s pants. What’s important is that it’s enough for me to have the tools I need with me all the time, even if I choose to put on a pretty dress.

Click me to see the website of the awesome lady who made the belt!

Collection vials, magnifying glass, AND a pretty dress? Yes please!

Picture a child, playing on the edge of a pond, catching salamanders or tadpoles. Is the child a boy or a girl? Now, I think few in their right minds would argue that a six or seven year old girl has any less interest in capturing the local fauna than a boy, but the fact remains that it is far easier for one gender to actually do anything with that frog or lizard. If a child intends to set up an aquarium full of local organisms, watch tadpoles transform into frogs, or bring back that beautiful iridescent beetle for her bug collection, she needs something to carry them in. If our young scientist happens to shop in the women’s or girl’s aisle, then odds are she either has no pockets or pockets that exist primarily for show.

Via the excellent webcomic

Via the excellent webcomic

Can we pause to recognize how ridiculous this is? We have entire industries devoted to making purses and bags specifically because women’s clothing is intentionally designed to rob us of the ability to store our own belongings. We store our IDs, credit card, and a few twenties in our boots, or (if we’re wearing those nice strappy heels that make our calves look so shapely) shove them down our cleavage. Entire companies exist to create more convenient ways of shoving cell phones into our bras. The fashion industry would rather we shove our personal belongings under our sweaty boobs or stinky feet than give us actual pockets that work. Heaven forbid we ruin the smooth lines and perfect curves with a place to store a pocket knife.

Meanwhile, where are the little girls with magnifying glasses in their back pocket, ready to observe the trichobothria on a spider’s legs? Which of them is going to catch a honey bee in a vial and take it home to look at its pollen baskets? How are we to make young scientists out of these girls if we deny them the ability to carry the tools of science?

I don’t know what the solution to this is. I don’t know what to tell those of you who are parents of little girls aside from this: be mindful of what you buy your daughters. Girl’s clothing with pockets is rare, but it does exist. Pay attention when you’re choosing what to buy them, and whenever possible try to ensure they aren’t hobbled from the beginning.