Part One: Unit Introduction
It is important for the teacher to keep in mind that some of the foundational ideas presented in this unit may contrast from what students already believe or have been taught. For that reason, it might be helpful to begin by introducing students to the concept of cognitive dissonance. It is a familiar experience for many teachers to encounter students who resist new ideas on this basis, but introducing students to it as a concept with a name might help alleviate some tensions and provide explanation along the way. An example that may clarify this concept for students is learning the scientific truth of biological evolution after an individual has been raised to believe in creationism (although admittedly, this example may not be welcome in every classroom). Opening with a discussion of cognitive dissonance will let students know that it is acceptable in the classroom to be uncomfortable absorbing new ideas, and it can also prompt metacognition as students monitor their own acquisition of new information. Additionally, for some students, knowing up front that some of the material in the unit may challenge their preconceptions can be alluring and serve as a meaningful hook before our formal studies begin.
Following our preparatory discussion about cognitive dissonance, students will begin their studies by discussing the meaning of gender as a social construct. By clarifiying immediately the difference between gender and assigned sex, students will build foundational knowledge that will allow them to recognize how each impacts an individual’s experience. Students will be asked to list some of the gender-based expectations that they have encountered in their own lives. This introductory activity will begin with students finishing the sentence: When I was a kid, a good boy / girl was expected to… Students will be asked to list their ideas of expectations for each of these gender identities. This will likely provide some fascinating and illuminating discussions as students share their ideas of how children are expected to behave. By keeping the statement general and not necessarily based on individual experience, students identifying as genderfluid, agender, or genderqueer will not be limited from participating in this activity. The teacher might then ask students to complete the same prompt, but this time focusing on adults rather than children (I learned that a man / woman is supposed to…). In both cases, contradictions and impossibilities will inevitably be revealed as students share their thoughts and memories, which should facilitate the understanding that gender expectations are subjective, and that they do not allow for a full range of human experiences.
Following this activity and discussion, students should record separate definitions for their own reference to delineate between the terms sex and gender. Doing so could be accomplished in a small group activity, in which students may work together to articulate a definition of each of these terms in student-friendly language. The teacher may then choose to assist groups in synthesizing these definitions into one, establishing a common language for the class to use moving forward. At this point, it will be useful for the teacher to identify and clarify the term social construct, and to point out that society does place different expectations on men and women, but that these expectations are inconsistent and subjective, using the suggestions from our class conversation as evidence.
After defining these terms, students should spend some time, either in small groups or as a full class, discussing where they think the ideas of gender roles came from. In most class conversations, some students will eventually suggest that a hunter-gatherer family structure (or at least the biological designation of motherhood to women) may have led to the designation of separate roles and responsibilities. The teacher should raise the point that many women work and have children, and ask the students to consider how this connects to those expectations discussed in the previous activity.
To illustrate the tangible effects of gender roles, it will be useful for students to explore and discuss data on the wage gap between men and women, as well as information about separate treatment of men and women in the workplace. Students should first review current statistics that show evidence of a wage gap, which can be discussed as a class to address any questions or confusion. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research features data from as recent as 2018 that will be helpful to facilitate this discussion.
Natasha Josefowitz’ “He Works / She Works” will help students identify double standards for women and men. “He Works / She Works” places identical professional habits of men and women side-by-side, along with the very different assumptions that are commonly made in these cases (Example: “HE’S leaving for a better job: HE recognizes a good opportunity / SHE’S leaving for a better job: Women are undependable”). To discuss the implications of this text, students might pair off and discuss whether they agree with one set of the generalizations juxtaposed, and then identify the gender expectations that are suggested for men and women using a note-taking organizer. When students’ notes from these conversations are shared out, it will be interesting to identify how closely their ideas align with the list of gender expectations that were suggested previously.
An additional task that may be beneficial for students, particularly those struggling with the idea of gender as a social construct, is to identify and share a “gender lightbulb moment.” The teacher can model this activity, in which students reflect on the first time in their lives that they were made aware of division based on gender. For example, I might share an experience from kindergarten, when I attended a birthday party for a twin brother and sister. After playing together for a short time, the boys in attendance were led outside to play kickball, while the girls were taken to a playroom to play with dolls. I initially went with the girls, because their activity sounded like more fun, but an adult quickly explained to me that the boys needed to play sports. Most students likely have a moment similar to this, in which it becomes clear to them that gender is associated with division and specific, predetermined roles. While students may not all feel comfortable sharing an experience along these lines, some will likely be willing to do so. These personal stories will help us to reinforce the idea that gender is not innate, but rather learned.
Part Two: A Raisin in the Sun (Full Class Instructional Focus)
After having established a definition of gender as a subjective concept and identifying its accompanying societal expectations, students should begin reading A Raisin in the Sun. This is an ideal text to begin our studies, since its opening scene features Walter Lee Younger struggling with his duties as a man, a father, and a husband. After reading the first scene, students should prepare for a discussion in which they seek to identify the reasons why Walter Lee is so frustrated with his job and his life, and what expectations he has for himself due to his various roles.
As the class gets familiar with the characters and conflicts in the play, a discussion of race will be necessary. Because the plot deals with a Black family struggling with the idea of moving into a predominantly White neighborhood in the 1950s, students will benefit from a quick overview of redlining. A variety of resources, specifically the 2018 Washington Post article “Redlining Was Banned 50 Years Ago. It’s Still Hurting Minorities Today,” and the 2019 podcast from In the Thick, “The Legacy of Redlining,” are helpful for explaining this New Deal practice to students. This will provide historical context for the play and also set students up for a discussion of intersectionality. If time permits and the teacher wishes to enrich students’ knowledge of redlining, a role playing activity available from the Zinn Education Project provides an engaging method to understand the history and continuing effects of redlining. Additionally, “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs,” an episode from the truTV series Adam Ruins Everything may be a useful and engaging (albeit brief) resource for enrichment on this topic.
As they progress through the text, accompanying activities to illustrate and clarify the impact of race, gender, and class will be helpful for students to understand the play’s implications. A crucial activity in this regard is for students to complete an “Identity Inventory.” The activity asks students to privately fill out information about themselves on a chart. First, the students will be asked to list (without suggested categories) some important things about their identity. An individual may list relationships, activities, social groups, or any other element that makes them who they are. Once they have completed this step, students will complete a separate list of identifying qualities, this time with designated categories. These categories include race/ethnicity, social class, gender, sex, and religion, among others. Once they have completed this section, students will be given a list of discussion questions, which they will address with a partner. The teacher should emphasize that students are not to share anything they feel uncomfortable discussing. The purpose of the activity is for students to recognize the constituent parts of individuals’ identities, and to understand how scales of relative advantage and disadvantage exist along several axes. Following the activity, students will respond with a journal entry, and the teacher will explain that this concept is called intersectionality.
The identity inventory can be revisited repeatedly throughout the unit, as it may help clarify the various plights of the characters. It also may be beneficial for students to complete the inventory for a character in the play. This process may help students to recognize how Beneatha Younger’s role as a young, single, educated Black woman without children makes her situation different from that of her brother, who is a husband and a father. Comparing these charts for various characters will reinforce the multifaceted ways that societal expectations can be constricting for any individual.
Throughout the class’ reading of A Raisin in the Sun (and continuing on through the rest of the unit), the teacher may wish to assign podcasts for students to listen to as homework. Many podcasts feature discussions of gender norms and nonbinary categorization, such as Radiolab Presents: Invisibilia, They/Them/Theirs, and Gender Stories. In addition to listening and responding to the content, students will benefit from exposure to the format of these recordings, as they will be required to assemble their own podcasts for the first performance task of the unit.
Because A Raisin in the Sun is fairly short, reading the text should be manageable for students over roughly two weeks. In addition to the aforementioned activities, the teacher may ask students to give live performances of various key scenes from the play, or intersperse excerpts from the 1961 film adaptation of the play in order to clarify characters’ expressions, deliveries of lines, and various other aspects that students may have trouble recognizing when reading the text by itself. When students have finished the play, a close reading of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” (the poem from which A Raisin in the Sun takes its title) will provide a prompt for a culminating discussion. The “deferred dream” in the poem will be considered as it applies to each character, and students will argue the extent to which their aspirations have been realized, and how each has been impacted by the gender roles and expectations he or she is expected to adhere to.
At this point, the full-class instruction segment of the unit will conclude with a performance task. For this project, students will be asked to work in small groups to assemble a podcast. This will consist of the students discussing and debating the situations of various characters in the play. Group members will be expected to include information from outside sources that connect to the issues addressed in Hansberry’s play, including gender, and also incorporate and edit other media to construct a dynamic recording. The teacher will provide some example outside texts that may be used, but students will also be expected to gather some information and sources independently.
Part Three: The Color Purple (Small Group Instructional Focus)
After our study of A Raisin in the Sun has concluded, students will begin their exploration of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple. To introduce the text and get used to its structure and dialect, the class will listen to the audiobook track of Celie’s first letter to God and write down initial observations in their notes. Following a brief discussion in which any confusion about the beginning of the book may be addressed, the students will read a few excerpts from the novel in small groups. Each group will receive a different letter from Celie to God and discuss what they are able to infer about Celie from her writing. Because the epistolary structure of The Color Purple will likely be unfamiliar to most learners, this section of the unit is ideal for students to work in collaborative reading groups.
During our reading of The Color Purple, students should maintain a focus on the ways that specific characters’ behavior reflects their gender roles. Students may again refer to our list of socially constructed gender norms, generating additional criteria as they see fit, based on the characters’ behavior. Key characters to examine include Celie, Mr. ______, Shug, Harpo, and Sofia. Because these characters all respond to their roles differently, students will develop an understanding of specifically what expectations are being adhered to and defied by each. Characters may be divided among small groups for students to investigate, and groups will share their findings at the end of class.
While reading The Color Purple, students will concurrently make entries in a journal in which they consider gender norms and expectations from a variety of angles. In some cases, journal writing prompts will address the novel specifically. Students may be asked to adopt the perspective of a specific character in the book and freewrite from his/her current situation in the book. An entry like this would not necessarily have to focus on gender, but in a small-group follow-up discussion, students might reflect on the ways that gender roles or expectations have impacted the character’s perspective as shown in the journal. A possible prompt to initiate such a discussion might be, “How would I [the character] have acted/felt differently if I were a man/woman?” Students’ discussions of Harpo, Sofia, and Shug will be especially illuminating in these instances, as these characters tend to defy gender norms, while Celie’s and Mr. ______’s behavior and choices tend to be more restricted. Such entries might be revisited and expanded later in the unit, supplemented by extensive text evidence and reasoning to become more thorough analyses.
In order to reinforce our focus on the subversion of gender norms, a journal entry one day might be for students to reflect on their own behavior and describe a way that they defy a stereotypical gender expectation. In order to respect students’ privacy (particularly students who may identify as genderfluid, genderqueer, or agender), journal writing need not be shared out, or an alternate writing option could be provided for students to choose.
Throughout our reading of the novel, issues such as education and entrepreneurship will arise, and providing students with current data on these topics will increase the relevancy of the text and prepare students for their performance task. For this assignment, students will work in their groups to research and compile data that correspond to the characters’ actions in the novel. In what ways do these characters exemplify or demonstrate evidence against trends in gender roles and relations? For example, a student might look to Celie’s personal rebirth designing clothes to determine, based on researched information, her likelihood of success. Students would consider gender, class, race, and education as key factors in their research. The 2018 article “There Are 114 Perecent More Women Entrepreneurs Than 20 Years Ago and It’s Not Necessarily a Good Thing” from Inc.com may be of particular relevance to students who wish to focus on this specific issue. The information from students’ collaborative investigations will ultimately be presented to the class in a format of each group’s choosing.
Part Four: Student Choice (Independent Learning Focus)
For the final segment of the unit, students will spend a few class sessions exploring additional resources that explicitly address gender roles and norms. The teacher will provide students with a list of recommended materials to explore, and students will compile their findings on a note-taking organizer. As they browse the various texts, students should make note of how each addresses the central topic of gender expectations or gender norms. Materials suggested during this portion of the unit include a variety of media.
The short documentary film Raised without Gender, available to stream online, follows a parent who identifies as gender-nonbinary raising their two young children in Sweden, where genderneutrality is much more commonplace than in the United States. Both children in the film are allowed to make their own choices regarding gender labels, toys, and clothes, and students will likely be fascinated by the concept of simply letting kids just be, rather than limiting their options for self-expression.
Similarly, the children’s books Sparkle Boy and Julián is a Mermaid both focus on young people who do not conform to gender expectations. Although ostensibly geared toward small children, these books contain complex themes and questions for high schoolers to consider. Many students will likely find these texts valuable as they examine them in the context of the issues we have discussed over the previous several weeks. Additionally, the use of children’s books in a high school setting is often a fun and engaging activity for students, allowing these older learners to experience the fond nostalgia of “storytime.”
An empowering look at education and women’s opportunities can be found in Shabana Basij-Rasikh’s TED Talk, “Dare to Educate Afghan Girls.” In her speech, Basij-Rasikh tells her story of putting her life in danger by secretly going to school as a child in Afghanistan, defying Taliban restrictions on women’s education. The content of this speech highlights gender expectations that will be helpful for students to consider in the context of the unit.