Single Sex Education for Women & Girls (Re-Post)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

This Thursday and Friday, I have the great privilege to be attending the Womensphere Emerging Leaders Summit (of which I'll be writing a solid retrospective next week), so rather than suspend posting, I'll be putting up two of my favorite posts from the past about women, leadership, and busting stereotypes. Enjoy!

Last Friday, I spent several hours teaching 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade girls about body image in downtown Manhattan at Girls Prep Charter School. So this week I am weighing in on single sex education.

Going to Girls Prep, and talking to their amazing health teacher Lo (who is also a former Well Woman and hosts a foodie blog: The Amateur Chef of Brooklyn) has gotten me thinking about single sex education in a new way.

Previously, I never thought much of separate education for girls at such a young age. Sounds strange, doesn't it? I go to an all women's college, but I didn't give much thought to the idea for younger children. And, I must admit, I was converted pretty easily to the idea that Girls Prep was getting these girls ready to go into the world as women: they had strong personalities, were encouraged to pursue active and diverse activities, and got the opportunity to discuss issues in class that I did not confront until middle school.

As with all things, however, there are more complications to this story than allowing girls to flourish in an environment designed for their benefit. After speaking with Lo about the background of her program and single sex education itself, about a million questions formed in my head for every topic we discussed.

For instance, when is single sex education appropriate and when is it another challenge? While it appears to be useful in the elementary school or college context, should middle schools and high schools be single sex? How do you make sure you're not replicating the same hierarchies and stereotypes in an all-female school that you would see in a co-ed one? How do you manage or talk about the other influences that the children are getting from the outside world (yes, unfortunately, school is not the only place these girls are getting messages from)?

Overall, I believe that my experience at Girl's Prep showed me that women and girls really are being heavily influenced from a young age about their appropriate role. In a co-ed classroom, which I have experienced all my life (both as a workshop teacher and a student), girls are socialized to be demure and are complimented about their bodies/looks rather more often than their skills - that's the domain of boys' compliments. Single sex education definitely makes up for the treatment differential that I've seen in those classrooms because the teachers are really focused on the girls. The girls themselves also reciprocate by showing their true colors: they are sporty, loud, engaged, smart, silly, shy, loving, emotional, stoic, bossy, and so much more. But, most importantly, they are not just one thing. Unfortunately, they are often reduced to fitting one mold in co-ed classrooms.

But I also believe that it can't be done without some extreme commitment and serious planning. So, while Lo definitely gives her 100% to these girls, the same cannot be said for every all-girls school teacher in the country.

What do you think about single sex education? Where do you think the pitfalls are? The successes? Let me know!

You may also be interested in my opinion pieces Discrimination and Mixed Metaphors and my writings on feminist topics.