Reflective Inquiry Practice: Addressing Gender in an Inquiry into the Teenage Experience

As a relatively new teacher, or as I hear from my more experienced colleagues, any teacher, I have lessons that are glorious and ones that fail miserably.

In my student teaching experience we entered into an inquiry surrounding Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  Philosophically, I think it it is necessary to include topics about gender and wanted to with this text.  We had brief discussions hitting on the surface, read great non-fiction texts like Veiled Intentions: Don’t Judge a Muslim Girl by Her Covering, and watched clips like the Miss Representation trailer.

I learned that my issues in the unit were a lack of gender diversity within my own text choices and the way in which I inserted the feminist literary lenses.  It was not an inquiry into gender.  It was spouting; placing me as the holder of knowledge and then letting students use that knowledge as they pleased.  It isn’t an evil pedagogy, but upon reflecting on my practice as a student teacher from a classroom teacher’s perspective, not something that I wanted and not at all something that I believed in.

This year I will be inquiring into the teenage experience while using Persepolis as a grounding text for the third time and have compiled resources to address gender, some of the same as my first go around, that I believe show a diverse gender curriculum.  I have also carefully considered how to approach topics surrounding gender from a true inquiry stance.  This is not a college sociology class, a women’s studies presentation, or even an English Language Arts unit about Persepolis.  This is an inquiry into the teenage experience in which students, along with many other perspectives and experiences, will consider gender.


Veiled Intentions: Don’t Judge A Muslim Girl by Her Covering by Maysan Haydar (PDF)

Mini-Inquiry: How do stereotypes play into the experience of the teenager, of you?  Does this have a broader impact on our world?

I know.  No questions about gender, right?  But girl is in the title! But sexism! But women! But Muslim women!

My plan is that we’ll get there. In the discussion on the piece gender will arise.  I know this because like all teachers, I know my kids.  I can think of at least three students who will bring gender up as a point of a discussion and if they don’t their feminist, Women in Literacy and Life Assembly member, former LGBT youth mentor teacher might pepper in a question a two.

What I learned from the first time I taught this story in student teaching is that hitting students over the head with gender stereotypes that I see impacting their lives everyday is never going to make them see them.  I don’t want sexism, gender, or stereotypes to a,b,c, d. all of the above multiple choice answers on some ridiculous unit test.  I want them grow through questions layered on questions developing into some culminating ideas.


The Mask You Live In – Trailer from The Representation Project (link)

Mini-Inquiry: How can teenagers be stereotyped based on their gender?

As part of an inquiry in the teenage experience, I think we should be discussing topics surrounding gender in specific ways.  A lot of the boys where I teach are boys who I can see masculinity weighing on them heavier than all those worksheets for homework.  I see them, like the boys in this trailer, posturing or trying at all costs to avoid it.

I cannot introduce this text by telling them that information. I cannot introduce this text while positioning them as victims, as mindless, as societal products.  I can do it by asking, nicely, about a time when they, along with their non-male classmates, were asked to “Man Up.” I can begin to chip away at something by begging for a personal connection.

I did not show this trailer the first time I taught topics in gender while reading Persepolis. It did not exist yet.  Which, to me, is telling in itself. At the suggestion of my incredible cooperating teacher I showed clips from Raising Cain, another documentary addressing masculinity.

Is there obvious male oppression present in Persepolis? No, but we are not solely inquiring the text.  We are inquiring into the teenage experience, in which gender, in my opinion, plays a massive role.


Skirt Image (JPG)

Mini-Inquiry: What language do we use to shame people? How do we judge each other based on the way we are dressed?

This is probably the most text focused of all the “supplementary” texts I will use.  There is a point in Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi where the narrator’s mother is referred to a “slut” because of the way she is dressed.  I have found, amongst all the mistakes I have made while teaching this text, that the students in my class are struck by the moment. “But she’s in a dress to her ankles!” “She’s married!”  Thier responses to that moment are telling, fascinating, and wonderful.

There are times in any inquiry where we need to, as classroom community, stop and pause.  How are we perceiving this?  Why are we perceiving it this way?

I use this image as a way to fuel that conversation.  It seems uncomplicated, but it is the type of text we can truly break apart and begin to analyze our own perspectives through.

Teenagers are, in my opinion, the most important, most under-utilized, and most genius group of people in the world. Inquiries in their own experiences in the classroom validate them as learners and participators.  Addressing topics of gender within those inquiries is a necessity in a world where gender is our greatest asset or, at times, our worst enemy.



blog by Deborah Bertlesman

Deborah is a high school English teacher. She earned her B.A. from the State University of New York at Geneseo and M.A. and certification from the University at Buffalo. She is currently serving as WILLA’s Vice Chair. Her research interests include identity development and gender within the English Language Arts classroom. She hopes to continue to develop WILLA into a community of educators dedicated to how gender impacts learning.

feature image Andreas Lehner


One thought on “Reflective Inquiry Practice: Addressing Gender in an Inquiry into the Teenage Experience

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