Adventures in Gender-Specific Language

My mother once called me from Chicago to ask, "What's another word for manhole?" No introduction, no context, just the question.
I offered "utility cover" and we both hemmed and hawed as it was a replacement but not the same mental image. She pulled the phone about a millimeter from her face, yelled the suggestion to someone I presume was standing a mile away, gave me a harried thanks, and hung up.
Later it would emerge that she was the editor on a wiki project and helping a team update text. The round discs embedded in roads that cover access points to utility services had nearly brought the group to blows. Did the first syllable imply? Did it even need to be changed? These are things my mother worries about in her retirement and I hope it remains the most stressful thing she worries about.
Language is a wonderful, messy thing. It can lift us up but it can also hold us back. Whoopi Goldberg once said in an interview: an actress can only play a woman. I'm an actor I can play anything.
The words we use, the titles we describe can have an impact on how we see the world. One of my recent favorite reads, The Notorious RBG talks about Justice Ginsberg's first argument before the Supreme Court. Not yet an "Honorable," she used Ms. as her title, even after getting married in 1953. The court's security knew she was a female lawyer and handed her a bar admissions card that read, 'Mrs. Ruth Ginsburg.' No doubt, for the Notorious RBG it was NBD as she won her argument on behalf of a husband who had been denied equal benefits by the Air Force.
Niki Nakayama is not a chefess, she's a chef.
Ava DuVernay is not a dictoress, she's a director.
John Williams isn't a composer, he's a .... [record scratch]
[I'll admit I didn't search terribly hard but I wasn't able to find any titles that implied male have evolved to be genderless. Heck, I couldn't even think of what a masculine suffix looks like in the English language. (The closest I came was -bro but I don't think that counts.]
Frustratingly enough, gendered words persist. In the midst of this great article about Graham Windham is the phrase, "Mrs. Hamilton served as its first directress for 27 years." It's a fantastic piece and rather than thinking about the story, I wandered off into: what information do the letters -ss serve that the title Mrs. doesn't? Didn't Mrs. and "widow of Alexander Hamilton" effectively communicate she was female?  Did someone add those letters because she held the position in the early 1800's? Did the editor sneeze when reading and missed it? How might Carly Fiorina react to being called a "candidatess" for president?
Musing on that article aside, the inverse linguistic habit often pops up frequently. When the gender is unknown, we're predisposed to default to "he", even when the writer is a cis-gendered woman or girl. We're so used to "he" and masculine as the default, that we notice "she's" or experience observational selection bias wherein we notice several female names or stories in a row. (As an aside, the women of the Missed in History podcast are fantastic at calling out readers' letters when they complain about "too many" women stories.)
Cast a group of funny men in a movie and it's a comedy.
Cast a group of funny women in a movie and it's a "chick flick."
Write a novel about a man and his family? It's literary fiction.
Write a novel about a woman and her family? It's "women's fiction."
Boys play district supported sports? Give them a mascot.
Girls play district supported sports? Add Lady or -ette to the mascot.
Chris Lehmann brought it up this summer on Twitter and received several "yeah, we do that" or "Well, what about?" responses. In each case, it raises a compelling question about how we talk about, define, and describe the things that girls do. What are the implications when we define their sports teams or clubs by the fact they're not boys? There's evidence to suggest that it's harmful for girls and it serves little purpose other than to say, "the body under this uniform belongs to a girl."
While writing this post, I wandered through some of my old Tweets and once upon a time, I used to call out gendered language like it was the reason I thought Twitter was invented. Then I got smacked down. And told I was wrong and didn't get it. And slowly, I stopped. Now when I do it, I often add a " :) " at the end to mean,  "Look, I know you're not a sexist prat. But come on, please think about what you're saying and the words you use."
My new habit is to climb right into threads, uninvited, when I see a series of white, male avatars talking about problems with the teaching profession and all the things that a profession that is 75% female has done wrong. I'm thinking it's the next level of the work: to figure out and unpack how feminism, especially intersectionality, can be a force for addressing many of the problems in the modern education system.
But, hey, whadda I know? I'm just a bloggess. And not even the cool one.
Postscript 1: None of this is to say we shouldn't attend to sex and gender or should ban related words. The US women's soccer team call each "girl" and talk about their "girls club." Rusty Young, Katie Youngs, and Sarah Thomas were all the first female to hold their particular job title (flight crew chief on a carrier, Blue Angels pilot, NFL ref.) You cannot be what you cannot see is one of my favorite sayings as for me, it speaks to the need for children to see what's possible. It's our job as adults to elevate and celebrate voices, names, and faces that are "firsts."
Postscript 2: "Gender-specific language" describes words that imply gender such as "actress." As our language evolves to include, rather than exclude, members of the trans* community and as our understanding of the relationship between sex and gender expands, a new moniker may be coined.

For want of a sledgehammer

According to ESSA, all districts and schools that receive public funds must administer a math and ELA test to at least 95% of their students in grades three through eight, and in High School, once a year.

There is no opinion in that statement. No claim. Nothing to refute or disprove. It is what it is.

There are basically three ways the system can respond to this fact. At the upper level, state ed leaders can:
  1. design and administer tests that look like current ones
  2. design and administer tests that look different
  3. ignore it
Door #3 isn't really an option as Massachusetts' attempt at two tests has shown the feds aren't messing around. Gambling with the dollars that most likely support students in low-resource schools and districts isn't something states should be doing. (I'm looking at state's responses here - what an individual parent of a child in public ed can do is a different matter.)

New Hampshire not only went through Door #2, they kicked it off its hinges. ESSA allows for more states to apply for that path, so here's hoping lots of states have the courage to do it. This path though, isn't easy. It requires an incredible amount of work to shift from machine scored, multiple choice tests to capstone projects or portfolios. Time and money. Yet, these kinds of assessments are a worthy goal. They embed diagnostic, interim, and summative assessments into the curriculum and turn tests from something done to students to learning experiences and tasks done with and for them. This ideally is where I'd hope we head as a country. 

So that leaves Door #1 - tests that look like what we have now (25 Multiple Choice questions based off a passage or math problems plus a few extended writing or problem-solving tasks). The challenge is with this approach is, as the cliche says, "what gets measured, gets done." If there's poetry on the test, so goes the thinking, teachers will be sure to include poetry in their curriculum. This strikes me as a Faustian bargain. There's no denying that the content of state tests dictates what happens in the classroom - we've known that for years. That said, there is space to push back. Schools and districts can and tdo. The larger issue here is if state tests should treated like the tail that wags the dog (driving curriculum) or a flea on its back (a minor annoyance). 

What if, perhaps, there was a door 1.5? One solution I've been mulling (that I didn't explain very well on Twitter and am resisting the urge to delete all of the Tweets where I tried) is shifting the nature of what students read on the ELA tests.

So basically, there are two types of texts students can engage with during the state ELA tests - informational or literature. Currently, NCLB/ESSA state tests use a combination of these types which means students are answering multiple choice questions about poetry. Which... ew. I get why it happens. I get why they're doing it but it remains one of the oddest things to ever emerge from the public education system. When writing state assessments, states have to narrow down the entire pool of standards to what can be captured by a multiple choice item given to all students at the same time. States already leapfrog the Speaking and Listening standards and pick the most meaningful RI or RL standards to focus on.

What if the tests instead left literature alone - recognizing there is rarely one right answer when it comes to interpreting narrative fiction - and only used informational texts? The content could alternate between Science and Social Studies texts. For example, in grade 3, 5, and 7 students would read passages and answer questions about scientific experiments, plants, space, or technology. In grades 4, 6, and 8 they would read questions and passages about American history, events, and people.

  • Science and Social Studies would get more attention as background content knowledge will make the passages easier to negotiate (if we assume that the presence of something on the tests ensures teachers teach it)
  • Poetry and literature can return to their rightful place as a deeply personal experience without one forced right answer as determined by one team of adults
  • Test designers can make explicit connections to states' SS and Science standards, making the tests primarily an ELA/Reading test, but aligned to the other content that students experience
  • It runs the risk of chasing poetry and literature right out of the classroom - if they're not going to be on the test, will ELA teachers include them? (I say yes but your mileage may vary)
  • Literature is a key part of English Language Arts curriculum - removing those passages takes it from an ELA test assessing 4 of the 6 CCLS areas to 3 of the 6 (Language, Writing, Reading Informational Texts). The loss of literature passages may cause content and construct validity issues.
Right now, I'm kind of love with this idea. Keep in mind, though, that I'm MORE in love with the idea of portfolio, capstone, and performance-based assessments as the annual measure. If told door #2 isn't a viable option, I'd love to find the nearest sledgehammer and make a space between door #1 and #2.

To fail or not to fail?

There's a compelling challenge around the word "fail" and all it's derivatives. If we accept the truth that the words that we use shape our reality, it becomes especially troublesome given the current climate.

On one hand, we've got the idea behind makerspaces, hacking, and a call to help students experience failure and success like Jessica Lahey describes in her book. Failure is good. 

On the other, we've got bloggers writing extended thought pieces about how many and why children fail the tests. We've got public school advocates talking about failing schools. Failure is bad. 

Failing. Failure. Fail. Were I a linguist, I would be studying the ever loving daylights out the fact that those with opposite positions on so many issues in public ed use the same word in so much the same way. Which of course, raises questions:  
Why are we using the very language we want students to embrace to create a climate of fear?
What makes an eight-year-old think they failed a test?
Who is it that describes schools as failing?

I spoke up once about this tension before and was told in no uncertain terms: "until you are appointed my editor, I will use the word "fail" to describe these lousy tests in every way possible." I wrote a post about the semantics of state tests and was told that we don't have to use the words "failure" for an eight-year-old to know they failed.

So which is it? 

If it's the former, failure is good, then let's stop talking about kids failing a test they can't fail. Let's stop talking about failing schools and talk about under-resourced schools. Let's force people to talk about specifics instead of abstracts.  

If it's the later, and failure is bad, then why are we surprised when high schoolers are afraid to try or kids are stressed about taking a state test that has no tangible impact on them? 

In either case, I suspect if we don't get our linguistic house in order, the feedback loop continues. 

What do we lose due to Opt Out? What do we gain?

It is not my place to say if a parent's decision to have their child not take a state test is the right or wrong call. Rest assured, there are plenty of people willing to say it's their right and must happen or those who say no, don't. As Joey would say, my take on it is a cow's opinion. It's a moo point. If you're curious, though, I've shared it here.

Defenders of the "right to opt out" claim have a wide variety of opinions behind that claim. In my particular neck of the woods, the claim goes back to parents' rights and policy related to teacher accountability. In other areas, especially NYC and Chicago, it's about larger systemic issues, equity, and the impact of how test scores are used to close schools.

Critiques of the "right to opt out" claim generally fall back on the "it's the law" rationale and point to No Child Left Behind (now ESSA) 95% testing mandate. Some will attempt to speak to the benefit the scores provide schools and parents, which at times, acts like gasoline on the fires kindled by the opt-out movement.

So here we are at the end of 2015, gearing up for 2016 and the buzz of large-scale testing endures. New York State tests are in April and I've already seen a flyers in store windows, letters to the editors, blog posts and tweets telling parents to Opt Out now; that this year's opt-out numbers need to be the highest ever. To which, I wonder:

Why? And at what cost? What do we gain due to the Opt Out movement? What do we lose?

The Opt Out movement has given the system energy it hasn't seen in decades. It's given parents a name to use to describe their frustrations with school and an outlet for action. Opt Out allows parents to *do* something. Turning frustration into action is mighty, powerful thing.

The Opt Out movement is working to deprive a massive system of consistent, reliable data. This year's third graders are the first group to take state tests who have only known Common Core. Without state testing data, educational researchers lose key information they need to look at interventions and figure out what works. A quick review of Google Scholar reveals over 8,000 studies and articles published since 2005 that use No Child Left Behind mandated state test scores to look at the success of funding initiatives, after school programs, to defend art and music programs, and to explore different curriculum programs.

The Opt Out movement has forced a long overdue conversation around what constitutes quality testing. Parents are looking carefully and closely at testing items and raising important questions about how we capture evidence of student learning. Since the Opt Out movement overlaps with the anti-Common Core movement, conversation around textbooks, curriculum, and homework has hit the mainstream.

The Opt Out movement is making it difficult for the layperson to understand what constitutes quality testing. State tests typically go through several rounds of design. The process includes field testing, statistical analysis, final eyes review, and teacher analysis. I've written before on how terrible adults are at predicting item difficulty and PineappleGate and the implication that an adult can recognize a bad item on sight is making the conversation harder.

Commissioner Elia shared what she's doing to attend to the Opt Out issue. Yet, it's a loud, local, and unstructured movement. Organizations representing some members proclaim opt outs will continue until, for the lack of a better phrase, their demands are met. Those demands, though, seem highly localized. Parent groups in Chicago and NYC have raised issues of equity, funding, and resources. Parents in suburban areas raise issues of teacher evaluation. If teacher evaluation goes away and tests are shortened back to pre-2012 length, will suburban parents opt back in?

It's pretty clear that a variety of factors contributed to the rise in Opt Outs in NYS: the Regents Reform Agenda, a state commissioner who went out into the field, longer and more challenging tests, etc. etc. So we hit a tipping point. I continue to wonder though if the fall has been worth it. What have we - members of the American public education system, present and future - gained? What have we lost? What has the education profession gained or lost? Will it be worth it? How will we know?

How responsible are we for the behavior of others?

A former colleague in a teacher workgroup I belonged to designed a unit around the question: How responsible are we for the behavior of others? When she spoke about how her 5th graders wrestled with the essential question, she spoke about the direction their questions and inquiry followed. Rather than focusing on the powerful dynamic between the bully and their target, the students wanted to talk about those bystanders. What do we do? Is it my responsibility to stop the behavior of someone else? Is it my job as a fellow student to speak up in defense of the target? What if the bully then turns their attention to me? It's safe to assume students look to adults to figure out the right thing to do.

There are entire TV shows devoted to what adults do in the 3D world in situations in which it appears someone is the target of a bully. We study the bystander effect. We re-frame bystanders as upstanders. Trump is a prime example of a society wrestling with how we deal with an adult who says and does things that are clearly offensive. (Spoiler alert: His actions cause us to seek out tribes. If what he says resonate, you want to connect with others that feel the same. If what he says is offensive, you want to connect with others that feel the same.)

The edu-twitter and blogsphere is a different challenge. Education chats happen regularly. Education-related tweeters return to threads that are days, weeks, sometimes months or years old. With Trump and other examples of bullying, in the "real" world, we have multiple data points to inform our conclusions about the speaker. We hear his voice, we see his body language and facial expressions. We see how his words are often a direct response to the feedback he gets from his audience. We don't have that in 140 characters.

So, this morning, I'm wondering - what's our obligation to our profession? How responsible are we for the behavior of others? If someone says something sexist, racist, or factually incorrect, do we speak up?

No. As long as the sexist, racist words aren't directed at someone, no one is being hurt. The reader has no idea what the Twitter user's intent is and their gaffe may just be a sloppy or lazy word choice. More the point, it's not an individual's responsibility to police others' words, thoughts, or actions. Report offensive behavior, ignore offensive words.

Yes. The lack of a specific audience doesn't limit the responsibility we have to speak up for equality and equity. Stereotypes are reinforced when someone makes a statement about a group of people and that statement goes unchecked. It's not necessary to chastise the speaker but it is critical that educators hold each other accountable for perpetuating stereotypes or inaccuracies.

It depends. If you care, speak up. If you don't... don't. I suspect the heart of the matters lies less around who and when we speak up and more around what we do when someone brings a word or a phrase to our attention. Does it cause us to double-down on our thinking or double-check our work and language and clarify as needed. It remains that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their impact. So it would seem that when it comes to this particular essential question, I have no answer.