He Said/She Said: Analyzing Gender Roles through Dialogue
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Middle school students face a lot of pressure, including pressures coming from stereotyped gender expectations. This lesson has students brainstorm some gender stereotypes, find examples in popular culture, and discuss how the stereotypes affect their lives. After this introduction to stereotypes, students choose two characters (one male, one female) from a class novel, and analyze the ways that the characters' speech is described. Students then evaluate how the author's language might send a message about gender roles. Optionally, students may present their findings to the class and discuss their opinions in small groups.
Interactive Venn Diagram: Use this online tool to compare and contrast any two items, such as gender tags.
From Theory to Practice
Issues of gender identity and what it means to be male or female come into play for many middle school students, as they are defining who they are and where they fit in the world. Exploring gender identification issues through literature is one alternative that the teacher can use to help students develop a clearer concept of what it means to them to be male or female while also exploring and judging gender stereotypes. In Gendered Fictions, Wayne Martino and Bronwyn Mellor explore the ways that "the versions of masculinity and femininity that particular texts appear to support or challenge" (xi) through close textual reading and analysis. They explain, "texts construct particular ‘versions of reality' rather than reflecting to readers the real world, of life, as it ‘really' is" (xi). "Readers," they continue, "can make generally agreed sense of texts only by adopting certain ways of thinking about gender. Thus, texts can be read as supporting or challenging particular ways of thinking about what it means to be a man or a women by setting up gendered reading positions" (xi). By asking students to explore these gender assumptions, teachers can encourage students to question more fully the "norms" they see and often tacitly accept.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
Materials and Technology
- Copies of the novel read by the class (This lesson focuses on The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare; however, any book which the entire class has read will work for this activity.)
- Access to computers (lab or classroom, if available)
- Chart paper, board, or transparencies and markers
- Making a Poster: Assessment of Dialogue Tag Venn Diagrams rubric
- Class Discussion Assessment rubric
- Character Pair Chart (optional, see also interactive version)
- Read and discuss the major issues and events in the novel.
- Introduce the concept of dialogue and brainstorm different words that are more descriptive than "said" in dialogue tags. If desired, take advantage of the situation to model use of the thesaurus to find alternative verbs.
- If students need a more structured introduction to dialogue tags, the Choosing Clear and Varied Dialogue Tags: A Mini-Lesson provides strategies that will familiarize students with the text structure.
- Test the Interactive Venn Diagram, Gender Stereotypes Analysis Chart, and Character Pairs Analysis Interactive Chart on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
- If desired, make copies of the Class Discussion Rubric, Making a Poster Rubric, and Character Pairs Analysis Handout.
- Familiarize yourself with the characteristics of gender stereotypes in childrens literature by reading "Gender Issues in Children's Literature" from ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication. The piece can provide background information to inform class discussion or be shared with students after they've explored the dialogue tags as an extension.
- examine stereotypes that both they and society hold of what men and what women should be.
- compare the dialogue of a male and a female character to identify ways that the dialogue tags (he said, she wailed, etc.) relate to the stereotypes discussed in class.
- analyze what the author is saying about the two characters through the use of specific tags.
- analyze characters from a novel read by the whole class to determine how these stereotypes are portrayed in literature and how some authors turn the stereotypes upside down.
- Begin with a sponge activity---an activity at the beginning of class that focuses students on the upcoming lesson. Like a sponge, it absorbs distractions and allows students to approach the lesson figuratively "clean." In other words, it's an opening activity that transitions students to the class. As the sponge activity for this lesson plan, have students respond to the following question in their journals or on loose leaf: "Being male/female means…" Have male students respond to the male prompt and the female students to the female prompt. Ask students to come up with as many responses as they can.
- Provide an example if necessary such as "Being female means never being taken seriously when discussing sports."
- Explain that some of the answers will be posted for the class to consider. Make a chart on the board, on overheads, or on chart paper with the heading "Being female means…" and another with the heading "Being male means…" You'll return to the lists in later sessions, so choose a location for your chart that can remain in place for several sessions.
- As students develop their responses, circulate through the room and ask selected students to put specific answers on the board or on overhead transparencies. Try to choose responses that are both expected stereotypes (e.g., "Being male means not being able to cry") and surprising responses (e.g., "Being female means taking all the blame when there's a problem"). Students' responses may be private, so allow for the possibility that a student may not want to share response with the class.
- Students quietly walk up and write their responses on the prepared chart.
- After students have had a chance to compile several responses, draw the class's attention to the lists that have been created. Before discussing, have volunteers read each of the phrases. At this point, it may be difficult to manage the class since many students may shout out agreement or disagreement with certain responses. Ask students to keep their opinions to themselves while you read the responses. Explain that they can write specific comments they'd like to share in their journals for later discussion.
- Once all the responses have been read, open class discussion by asking which phrases on the lists seem true to them. This discussion starter will likely elicit responses which can lead to debate about various stereotypes.
- With about 10 minutes left in the period, draw students' attention back to you. Explain that each of the statements they have discussed are stereotypes. Explain what a stereotype is and how they evolve from specific truths into broad generalizations.
Homework for Session One:
Find an example of one of the stereotypes brainstormed in class from a newspaper, a magazine, a CD, or a billboard you pass on your ride home. Bring in your example with an explanation of which stereotype it represents, how it represents it, and what you think about this particular representation---is it true?
- As an opening activity, ask students to reflect on the discussion from the first class session. Students' discussion can include responses to comments made during the discussion or comments that students wanted to share but didn't get a chance to share during the first session. Remind students to check their journals for notes on comments they had during Session One.
- Arrange students into small groups to discuss their reflections and their examples of gender stereotypes from their homework assignments.
- Allow a few students to share their homework with the entire class.
- Once you're satisfied that students understand the concept of gender stereotypes and are able to identify examples, ask students, first in groups and then as a whole class, to discuss some of the gender stereotypes exhibited in the class novel.
- Choose a random page in the novel with dialogue, and go through the tags (how someone says something) with the students. Students can follow along in their own copies of the text. Alternately, you can make a transparency of the page that you'll analyze as a group and project the text so that everyone can follow along.
- Make a chart on the board, chart paper, or an overhead. Label the rows with the names of the characters and the columns with the phrases "Demonstrates Stereotypical Behavior" and "Doesn't Demonstrate Stereotypical Behavior." Alternately, you can use the Gender Stereotypes Analysis Chart to record the findings for the passage. Instruct students to select the number of rows for the online chart based on the number of characters represented in the dialogue on the page students. Ask students to fill in the characters' names as the row headers.
- Read through the selection (teacher may read or student volunteers may take the voices of the characters similar to readers theater). Pause during the reading to place the tags in one of the two columns on the board or to type the tags on the Gender Stereotypes Analysis Chart.
- Discuss your findings---Did the male/female characters most often fit into stereotypical "voices"? Compare and contrast the tags on the board to show words only used to describe male speech, words only used to describe female speech, and words that are used by both.
- If time allows, discuss the results of the comparison and contrast.
Homework for Session Two:
Assign pairs of characters from the novel---one male and one female. For example, with The Witch of Blackbird Pond, you could assign the following pairing randomly to students: Kit/Nat, William/Judith, Mercy/John, Rachel/Matthew. Find at least ten examples of each character's speech tags, recording your findings on the Character Pairs Analysis Interactive Chart or using the Character Pairs Analysis handout. Bring the list to class for Session Three for use in a group activity.
- Have students respond to the following prompt in a journal or on loose leaf: In what ways did the words associated with your characters' dialogue surprise you?
- Briefly discuss responses to the prompt, but limit discussion to five to ten minutes in order to introduce the day's main lesson.
- Arrange students in small groups, based on the pairs of characters they considered for homework. Each group should have worked on the same pair of characters (e.g., one group for Kit/Nat, one group for William/Judith).
- Explain that for the remainder of the period, students will work together to discuss their characters' gender identities.
- Ask each group to create a Venn diagram using all the words found for both characters. One circle should be labeled with the male character's name for tags only used by him, one with the female character's name for tags only used by her. The middle area is filled with the shared tags (those used by both characters). Students can complete their diagrams on chart paper, or if computer resources allow, by using the Venn Diagram student interactive.
- After creating their charts, ask students to consider which tags represent stereotypes and which do not. For example, Matthew in The Witch of Blackbird Pond "thunders" while Rachel "pleads"---does this word choice represent a stereotyped view of the characters' genders? The goal for the group is to decide whether or not their characters can be defined by gender stereotypes.
- Ask students to add a brief explanation of their decision, including examples, to their diagrams.
- If this is the last day of the lesson, allow students time at the end of class to share their diagrams and decisions.
- If extending the lesson for one more day, use the computer lab or school resources (if available) to make larger copies of the groups' diagrams. You might enlarge the diagrams using a photocopier, for instance. If your school does does not have the technology, copy each of the diagrams onto overhead transparencies for the next day.
Session Four (optional, but recommended)
- Students will present their diagrams (as posters or transparencies) to the entire class. Limit presentations to approximately two minutes each to ensure time for all groups to share their findings. Ideally, organize the presentations around pairings, so that all groups with the same character pairs present in succession.
- Have students take notes on what they agree or disagree with during the presentations about specific characters. Ask students to take notes rather than interrupt the presentations so that everyone has a chance to share.
- Arrange students into two or three discussion groups (based on your class size). Ask the groups to share and discuss their agreements and disagreements. The only "rules" during this discussion are that students are not to insult each other and that they must use evidence from their lives, diagrams or books to support their arguments.
- With about fifteen minutes left in class, ask students to write an informal summary of their groups' discussions that should also include their analysis (opinion based on facts, what they've been doing for the past two days) of any one character. Allow at least five minutes for this, though seven to ten is ideal.
- Wrap up the lesson by asking students what they have learned about gender identity and stereotypes over the course of the past four days.
- Rather than waiting until students have completed their read of a novel, introduce this activity just after students have begun a novel. Student can explore the assumptions early in the text and predict what will occur as the story progresses. The list of assumptions, stereotypes, and predictions can be revisited as students complete their reading. Beyond considering the accuracy of the predictions, students could complete the activity again, with a passage from a later section of the novel to see how (or if) the characters' behaviors have changed over the course of story.
- Use the tips on creating a less biased classroom found at Gender Equity to extend the idea of gender equity into your regualr classroom routine.
Student Assessment / Reflections
Final assessment for this unit will be based partially on participation in discussions, completion of assignments (example of stereotype and list of tags for two characters), the completed Venn diagrams, and the final informal reflection. For more formal assessment, use the Making a Poster Rubric and/or the Class Discussion Rubric.
Alternatively, make assessment become part of the next novel or short story that students read. Listen for students to note the word choice that the author chooses to describe the speech of characters as they read. To make this process more structured, conclude this activity by creating a customized list of characteristics to look for in future readings. In this way, students add a new analytical technique to their repertoires.