Although the concept of gender has been challenged in mainstream culture in recent years more than ever before, many high school students still subscribe to the notion that an individual must identify as a man or a woman, or a boy or a girl. These binary divisions are reinforced in educational settings as early as preschool, when students may be asked to line up or separate according to gender. Even casual language often reinforces this binary, as students are likely to hear announcements over the PA addressed to “ladies and gentlemen,” or a teacher greeting them with a “Good morning, boys and girls.” At the same time, an increasing number of young people identify as genderfluid, genderqueer, or agender, and in the interest of empathy and compassion, it is crucial that we as teachers validate the needs of these students, who are already more likely to face bullying and harassment than their genderconforming colleagues. Crucially, marginalization of these students comes not only from their peers, but also from policies in place at many schools, so showing adult support for trans and gender-nonbinary students is of particular importance.
The selection of anchor texts for this unit is of particular importance, as both A Raisin in the Sun and The Color Purple are considered part of the literary canon, but can also be seen as progressive examples of challenges to gender norms and stereotypes. Reading these texts through a critical lens of gender studies can reveal the authors’ suggestions of the possibilities for transcending gender expectations, as well as the constrictions that individuals may feel due to the way they are “supposed to act.” Furthermore, the women portrayed in these texts are complex, dynamic, and engaging, and therefore stand in contrast to many female characters that readers may encounter in other canon texts. The fact that both texts feature prominent, strong Black women is also of utmost importance, since female students of color are largely underrepresented in my classes, and these students will likely benefit from seeing protagonists with whom they may identify.
As a white male teacher who identifies as straight and cisgender, I understand that many of my students’ experiences are very different from my own. I feel that this adds another layer of necessity to exposing my students to the stories of marginalized groups in order to validate their experiences.