Engaging Women: The Subtle Art of the Classroom Skit
Women have to work hard all over the world to achieve what men generally take for granted. What we discuss in college classrooms throughout the United States as socialized ‘gendered roles’; other countries I have visited discuss the very same roles as ‘natural attributes’ of the female sex. In many countries where women can pursue an education they must also cook, clean, and care for younger children in their families as primary to their roles as ‘women’. They are constantly juggling their domestic sphere and their professional sphere hoping to strike a balance and finish their education.
I will not complicate this discussion by interjecting the many variables- such as wealth and privilege, or living in modern, urban areas- that positively affect a woman’s experience. Wealth and privilege generally trump socio-cultural mores in any country of the world. I am writing from my experiences in Central and South America; and the women I refer to in this essay live in rural areas, and are not of a wealthy or privileged class. They had to claw their way out of their domestic sphere to attend my English classes, and most were only able to attend because older women in their communities had organized the necessary support groups.
These support groups cared for children, made meals for the family, or took up any of the designated ‘female jobs’ necessary to release the younger women to learn English. When women lacked childcare, I often welcomed their children to class, which added an interesting dimension. Children generally brighten and liven any classroom setting. They are curious, enthusiastic, and often unruly- and this behavior I used to my advantage. There is nothing more satisfying to a young mother than learning English commands while developing the subtle skills of effective parenting.
The mothers are frazzled, nevertheless, and they model exactly how gendered behavior reproduces itself in small, rural communities. Mothers treat their daughters as they were treated. They tell them to be still, be quiet, and obey. They tell them to be ‘good girls’ and not say a word. They defer to their sons- at any age- just as they defer to the men in their community. Consequently, little boys do as they please, and little girls are seen, but rarely heard. The girls grow up in silence while their little brothers and other men in their community lord over them.
Women who live in societies that require them to be silent and submissive are also timid students. When they bring their children to class, however, they are ironically more relaxed and open because motherhood is a comfortable role. They initially struggle with their role of student- but unruly children they understand! Once I recognized this phenomenon, I incorporated commands and the associated ‘parenting’ vocabulary into my classes. The children who were old enough to acquire new language learned the vocabulary and the intended purpose of the vocabulary quickly. In the context of the classroom, they knew better than to disobey.
As you can imagine, the men are not as enthusiastic with these lessons because parenting is not one of their gendered roles. Parenting is in the domestic sphere of which they are culturally not a part. Nevertheless, I incorporate a variety of scenarios or short vignettes in which the men are asked to participate. These skits relate to their everyday lives and initially, the men refuse to comply when women ask them to ‘Please tell the children to put away their toys’ or ‘Please play with the children while I cook’. Unlike the children, the men cannot separate their real life experiences from the life of a student in the classroom. They absolutely refuse to even contemplate doing ‘female work’- in or out of class. Only after the women and children chide them do they reluctantly cooperate and participate.
When I assign skits, I divide the class into strategic groups with a fair representation of both genders and varied ages in each group. The groups write their skits together and the skits are generally extremely funny. Playing a variety of roles allows students to reveal and resolve many of the issues in their families and in their communities. Women feel safe developing their voices and men are forced to listen. The children- both girls and boys- are forced to behave. Education has a transformative effect in other countries because students- at any age- respect their teachers. Consequently, teachers of English abroad can effect positive changes in the realm of gender equity if they take the time to create a culturally sensitive environment.
When women use language- even if it is not their native language- to empower themselves and command a situation, their self-confidence grows despite the protests from the men in the class or those in their community. They feel secure developing their voices because in the context of the classroom such behavior is accepted and expected. In my experiences, once women feel safe to exercise their voices freely, they completely command the classroom within a few short weeks. I have found that role-playing in short skits is the most effective way to engage women in an English classroom both at home and abroad.
When I have a class of younger students, generally college age, the women are initially just as timid, but the men are more open; and ‘gender bending’ in skits is more readily accepted. The most effective tactic for me is to force the men and women to switch gender roles. I have a box of commonly considered gender specific props- aprons, skillets, tools, wigs, tea sets, plastic rifles, trucks, airplanes, dresses, ties, and dolls, for example. On the first day I give the skit groups their ‘scenario’ and help them develop their lines- especially when they want to use vocabulary or grammatical structures we have not yet covered in class.
The most difficult requirement is that men have to accept the roles of women in their community and the women have to accept the roles of the men. Even after students feel comfortable in class, I encounter resistance- and from both sexes! Yet this gender-bending scheme works every time. The women embrace their new roles with gusto and everyone has a great deal of lighthearted fun. Play is a natural vehicle for learning and skits are a form of play; but play, as a natural vehicle for learning is not always a readily accepted concept. I have found that Asian communities have a more difficult time accepting any form of play in the classroom; and the skits are definitely a form of play. I simply take the time to explain that skits also teach language concepts, build vocabulary, encourage students to actually speak the language, and especially help students discover or develop their voices. Students have never refused to participate. For some, skits are a stretch; but all students feel a great sense of accomplishment!
I recognized how much freedom I had as a woman growing up in the United States my first year teaching English in Latin America. I had to develop cross-cultural sensitivity to accept the reality of gendered roles in other countries. Simultaneously I had to learn the skills necessary to develop a trusting relationship with the students in my classes. Certainly women have their gendered roles in the United States, but they are free to break out of these roles if they choose. To witness the hard work women in so many other countries must complete before they can attend classes is a sobering experience; and though I immediately feel a sense of urgency to break down the barriers that create gender inequality, I have learned to temper my emotion and tread gingerly, building confidence and trust with each class I teach. The most important lesson is that skits must come at the end of a session not at the beginning! Teachers must first build relationships so they do not alienate students or the community; and as tricky as incorporating skits in an English classroom abroad might sound, it has been my experience that skits really do break down a variety of cultural barriers that create and perpetuate gender inequality, build language proficiency with play, and absolutely empower women.
This is part of the ESL Educators Blog Carnival. Head to Go! Overseas this month to see more articles on engaging women in the ESL Classroom.
Maria Alvarez is the ESL Editor for Wandering Educators