Teaching gender in English literature at a South African secondary school in KwaZulu Natal (KZN)
Work on gender in education has only recently gained impetus in South Africa. The GETT report (1997) draws attention to the paucity of context-based and qualitative research in this area particularly with regard to the extent to "which knowledge, skills and attitudes developed by boys and girls through schooling are gendered, and the extent to which such factors as ... teaching practices and out-of-school experiences are involved" (GETT, 1997: 116). It was in specific response to the above area of concern that this project was conceived. In this light, the project provides a detailed analysis of a classroom in which the teacher taught (what she considered) a seemingly innocuous, 'gender neutral ' short-story to a grade 10 (standard eight ) class. An in-depth examination of how pupils interacted with the short-story as well as the teacher's approach to the text was undertaken to establish how a gendered discourse was generated and how that discourse fed into, or undermined, dominant hegemonic gender practices. In addition, a closer look at interactional processes (that is, learning styles and strategies; and teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil interaction) was conducted to uncover whether gender was implicated in their operation within the classroom. Hence, the project constitutes an attempt to explore the extent to which the text, pedagogical practices, and out-of-school (lived) experiences were involved in shaping the pupils' knowledge and understanding of their gender identities. The particular class of forty grade 10 pupils who formed the main focus of the study came from an ex-House of Delegates (HOD) secondary school at which I am presently a senior teacher of English. The school was established in 1961 in Asherville, a middle- to working class Indian residential area about 5 kilometres west of Durban's Central Business District. The school serves about 950 pupils from the surrounding areas of Clare Estate, Overport and Sydenham. It must be borne in mind that despite its location, there are pupils from as far as Umlazi, Chesterville and Kwa Mashu which are former apartheid townships for a largely African population. The complexity of this project required careful planning of the research design and methodology. The data drawn on here was collected using three different methods, namely, questionnaires; interviews; and classroom observation. The questionnaire was designed in a way to draw on the pupils' 'lived experiences' in order to understand how they positioned themselves with regard to the shaping of their ' masculinities ' and 'femininities'; and, to discover the kind of gender identities they were developing in response to the text. The primary aim of the interview phase was to solicit the pupils' attitudes towards their teacher's pedagogical approach to the text. It also involved participants reflecting on their own lives. The former was an attempt to understand how their sets of learned gendered experiences (which they brought with them into the classroom) interacted with the teaching-learning context. Because of my commitment to qualitative research, the data obtained was entirely the participants' personal reflections. The theoretical considerations underpinning the study are based on perspectives of gender and education with particular reference to the role that school textbooks play in the construction and articulation of gendered subjectivities and classroom interaction investigations of conversation (talk). Interwoven with the overall theoretical discussion will be post-structuralist feminist perspectives on language and gender. This contextual approach project demonstrated that the gendered meanings which were generated during the English lesson were deeply embedded in the variety of lived experiences and discourses that the pupils drew on to make sense of their lives. In other words, it showed how the text, pedagogical practices, and lived experiences interacted in shaping the pupils' gendered identities. Through the analysis of classroom interactional processes, it also became evident that although the teacher played a considerable role in influencing the pupils, they were not without agency as some of them were capable of resisting the ideologically hegemonic patterns and even influencing the teacher. Although constrained by some limitations, this research project has implications both for further research on discourse patterns in the classroom and for strategies to foster gender sensitive education. I believe that I have identified an important area in South African education which should be explored in much greater depth. Whatever the outcomes are of such comprehensive qualitative research, the urgency is still the same - to sensitise teachers to practices which subtly implicate gender differentiation in their operation within a classroom. It is hoped that teachers cognisant of the processes illuminated in the study may translate these insights into concrete action for change through collective efforts.
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