Tag Archives: education

Learning To Program

Why Your 8 Year Old Should Be Coding.

Kids should learn programming as well as reading and writing, a TED talk

Coding essential to future curriculum, says Michael Gove at Computer Weekly

Programming for all, part 1: An introduction to writing for computers from Ars Technica

Computer classes should teach regular expressions to kids from Boing Boing

BUT

No, programming is not for everyone.

Maybe Not Everyone Should Learn How To Code.

Yet I think everyone can benefit from learning a little programming.

When I enrolled in a Programming and Networking course in my late twenties, hoping for a career change, I quickly realised that programming was not for me. I thought I’d be okay, because I’d already studied Japanese to a high level and that’s pretty technical.

It’s true what they say about talking one-on-one with computers, though: You need the right mindset for it. Either you’re fascinated by code, or you’re not. Either you’ll get a kick out of writing a simple program, or you won’t. I could hardly focus on my textbook, which was the driest thing I had ever read. As I sat reading my Introduction to Java tome in the library, every single other book beckoned. I couldn’t concentrate. Most importantly of all for anyone considering programming: You have to enjoy being stuck on a problem. That ain’t me at all. In this respect, programmers have a lot in common with mathematicians. If you’re considering programming, it probably chose you some time around adolescence.

I was passing well, but I pulled out of my programming course. I didn’t get any useful piece of paper to add to my CV, but I’m really glad I did that first five months of the course.

And this is why: Compared to writing code, learning and using a piece of software is a breeze. Before I was introduced to the workings of a computer at that lower level, computers baffled me a little bit. If I accidentally changed a setting in Word or Excel, I’d sometimes have trouble getting it back. My brain just didn’t work anything like a software designer’s, and my instincts were all wrong.

After that five months learning programming I had the confidence to tinker, but it wasn’t just that: I learnt the basics of how programmers think.

(This has also come in super handy being married to a programmer. Apparently, the only group of people with lower ‘social needs’ — requirements for human interaction — than programmers is park rangers. (Listen to the iTunes U lecture by Steve Sawyer: Working Whenever.)

Anyway, that’s why all students should learn about programming, even if they won’t end up coding. Because you don’t really know how to use a computer unless you’ve at least glanced under the hood.

***

So which program do you start with?

I’m not convinced Java was the best language to start with, even though that was the decision of the TAFE I attended. My programmer husband thinks BASIC is a good place to start but unfortunately it’s not actually used in the real world anymore. So neither of us has the answer to that. My hunch, coming from a teaching background, is that it doesn’t matter so much what language is picked, but rather that students are given meaningful and interesting tasks to complete. Coding a program to convert temperatures from celcius to fahrenheit didn’t rock my boat, necessary as that task may have been, but perhaps if I’d learnt Javascript rather than Java first with the aim of creating my own website — a website directly linked to my interests — I would’ve got on better.

Game Salad: Game design engine which is relatively easy to learn, apparently.

Scratch Programming For Youngsters from Moms With Apps

11 Tools to Teach Kids How to Code from Avatar Generation

From Scratch to Tynker: Tools to Teach Kids How to Code from SLJ Digital Shift

Education secretary Michael Gove called the current ICT curriculum “harmful and dull”. He announced the pans today, saying, “Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word or Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations.” from CNET

Then there’s learning to program through Codecademy, which, like most things worth doing, and anything without supervision, requires almost super-human perseverance.

To those learning programming: I wish you the best of luck. The world will need you.

Here’s a roundup of some of the best apps which will teach programming concepts to kids.

7 Apps For Teaching Kids How To Program from Edutopia

These are the skills students learn from coding from Educational Technology and Mobile Learning

Noisy Noise Noise… NOISE!

by holly northrop

Last week I visited a brand spanking new library which opened locally. It’s impressive, all right. There are literary quotes woven into the carpet, big red armchairs which allow patrons to look from an enormous window to the street outside, numerous standup computer terminals, and flash decor which feels like something between an airport departure lounge and a Borders bookstore.

There is also a sizeable children’s play area, smack bang in the middle of the library, with furniture designed for romping and a data projector on the ceiling depicting giant, foot-sized ants onto a paddling-pool sized rectangle of carpet below. No amount of squinting at the ceiling allowed me to work out how this works, but if you stand on the ants, they get ‘squished’ and disappear; a satisfying ‘bug-squish’ sound reverberates throughout the library space.

‘Satisfying’ if you’re a kid, that is.

If you’re at this library to study — and you might well be, because it’s attached to a community learning institution — you can always take refuge in one of the glassed-in study rooms which have also been provided.

I was glad to see those. Because despite being the owner of a three-year-old, and also of an open plan house with wooden floors, my tolerance for noise isn’t that high. I need regular periods of peace and quiet.

Sometimes I say this and feel all alone in my age group.

It’s usually people several decades older than me writing  in to local newspapers bemoaning the cacophony of pop music piped through cheap speakers in shopping centres ‘these days’.

It’s usually the retired and the out-of-touch who speak disapprovingly of ‘young mothers’ who won’t make any effort to keep their children orderly in restaurants and movie theatres.

But these old grumps have a point.

THE urban WORLD IS BUILT FOR THOSE WHO don’t mind NOISE.

There is ever-increasing acceptance of individual difference: sexualities/eating preferences/body shapes, but are we equally schooled up on our own individual learning types, and as part of that, of our individual reactions to noise?

I’ve noticed three broad types of people in this world:

1. Feels invigorated when surrounded by external stimuli.

Others might call it noise, but competing sounds are instead processed as excitement. This sort of person is often drawn to nightclubs, big cities, music concerts, crowded pubs. Much prefers watching sports events as one of a crowd. Loves mardi gras. But this sort of person can feel lonely without some sort of external stimulus, and is inclined to switch on the television when returning home to an empty house, even if they’re not actually watching it. Can feel uncomfortable with lulls in a conversation, and conversational style reflects that: Will repeat oneself, interrupt others or add fillers before allowing gaps in dialogue with people they don’t know well. Type ones can think and talk at the same time. Indeed, thinking is talking.

2. Ambivalent about noise.

Type two is able to retreat into their own mind regardless of external stimuli. Would probably choose to live in the suburbs, where intermittent trips to the city provide occasional excitement. Can study in a cafe, or while listening to a radio, though may have personal preferences requiring white noise or music without lyrics for certain types of work.

3. Needs silence.

This sort of person — often called an introvert — feels most invigorated after a period of solitude. The minimum amount of time preferred varies from person to person — it might be 20 minutes a day, or it might stretch to hours. This sort of person can become frustrated when living with others who need noise, because radios and televisions running in the background interrupt private thoughts and feel like an intrusion. These people most likely live in urban areas (because most people these days are urban dwellers) but their idea of a holiday is more likely to be somewhere less bustling, not more bustling, than their regular daily life. Their best thinking is done when external stimuli is at a minimum. Some people of this type can feel harried during fast paced conversations, and will utilise silences in a conversation as thinking time.

I’m type number three.

I think this is the least understood type, and also the type less and less catered for, in a world where we are all expected to just put up with sounds inflicted upon us by others.

A FEW DISTURBING TRENDS

1. Forced Exposure to Music

It’s true that you can’t go into certain shops — especially clothing stores — without music blaring loudly from the speakers.  No matter — I can avoid clothing stores bar a few times per year, when it’s in and out for me. (I don’t enjoy clothes shopping. I can also tell you, after having worked in a women’s clothing store, that most women don’t enjoy clothes shopping. Many women enjoy having shopped. There’s a difference.)

Unless you’re also type three, however, you may not have noticed the constant noise over loud speakers in a supermarket. I can’t understand why workers in large shops still think it’s necessary to talk to each other over the loud speaker. Pagers were invented ages ago. Why not make use of those instead, clipping them onto the belt of your work pants at the start of each shift, along with your name badge? Customer service training might require etiquette about not checking a pager until after dealing with a customer, but surely an entire supermarket full of shoppers doesn’t really need to know that a price on Durex ribbed is required at checkout number nine, or that someone spilt a yoghurt in aisle five.

Also, as a type three individual, I would add that low-volume music piped through cheap speakers is even more irritating than music played loudly on high quality speakers. Basically, unless I’m listening to my own music, selected and paid for by myself, I don’t want to hear anybody else’s music. I don’t even want to hear my own favourite music when it’s forced upon me as I’m trying to work out how much change I’m owed from a fifty. Besides, nothing but nothing sounds good coming out of supermarket speakers, especially when it’s punctuated by incomprehensible mumblings from middle management.

Those who need the background stimulus of music while shopping for soap and spuds have always got the option of ear buds. Those of us who prefer quiet don’t have any choice in the matter. There’s a problem with that. (Of course, I can’t write any of this without sounding like Shocked and Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.)

2. Education Policies Which Promote Technological Literacy and Student Centred Learning… At the Expense of Peace and Quiet

Is it just me, or have schools become noisier?

With caveats, computers in schools are a great thing. Within the next decade I predict all students in this country will be making use of laptops during lessons and reading books from tablets and e-readers. Many already do.

What concerns me about some of the software being produced for these devices is that some developers assume bells and whistles (mindless sound effects, in other words) will grab students’ attention and lead to greater engagement with the learning material.

This is a dangerous assumption and I’d like to see more research into it. The vocab training software I used several years ago in the foreign language classroom required each student make use of personal earphones. The computer lab was next to the library, and one day, while taking an English class in the library, I overheard a relief teacher in there, using the same software with someone else’s class, unaware that the headphones were hidden inside the cupboard. The noise coming out of that room was horrendous, yet none of the students thought to tell the teacher where to find the headphones. I told her myself, mainly because I — alone? — couldn’t put up with the noise coming into the library for our ‘silent, sustained reading’ session. (SSR is a well-known concept in New Zealand. I suspect it’s one of the few intervals in a school day where type three students get a 20 minute period in which to enjoy the thoughts going on inside their own heads.)

I did wonder what proportion of the students in that noisy class of 25 would have fit into type three, like me, and therefore found it impossible to concentrate on the task at hand. None of them had said anything. This software was designed to promote vocab memorisation, and after years of studying foreign language myself, I know that I can’t do this when surrounded by noise. I acknowledge that not everyone is like me — many of my university classmates said they could only study with some sort of background noise, and preferred the cafe over the library. That’s okay. The world caters for that. What about the rest of us? What are the proportions of type threes in a typical classroom?

It concerns me that schools aren’t offering enough quiet time in the school day. With emphasis on group work, and co-operation and peer-teaching, it can sound terribly old-fashioned to insist that a class work in silence at all — indeed, it’s very draining to enforce, because many students aren’t used to it now, so a teacher must have complete control of classroom management — but I think there are more students distracted by background noise than we realise.

They may not know it themselves. Maybe no one ever told them it’s okay to need silence. Instead, I see some ‘forward thinking’ principals keen to see students making full use of technology in the classroom, and this often includes listening to music as they work. It’s a mark of comradeship, to share a single pair of ear buds with the classmate sitting next to you. It wouldn’t be easy for a kid to opt out of such an invitation.

But not all students work well while listening to music — and despite some evidence that certain types of classical music promote certain types of thinking — actually, you know, not many students are listening to that. I fear it’s become almost nerdy (and not in a good way) for a student to require silence during class. Besides, if students aren’t getting silence at school, are they getting it at home?*

*There’s increasing evidence that high school students aren’t getting enough sleep, and I suspect it’s because they’re reclaiming ‘me-time’ in their own rooms late at night, because that’s the only time they get to be inside their own heads over the course of a typical school day. Is it possible that we’re overstimulating our teenagers?

I do wonder how many doctors, lawyers and physicists spent the bulk of their study hours listening to music. The law library at my university was one of the few places you could go if you wanted to be sure of silence — the furrow-browed law students poring over their books ensured it by scaring noisy intruders away with the stink eye. I’m inclined to think that, even for thinkers who do okay on music, that there are certain complex ideas which can really only be processed after deep and prolonged time to oneself.

Silent time. Silent time and more sleep.

Might educational outcomes really be improved by focusing on something as simple as that?

Related Link: City Life Could Change Your Brain For The Worse.

Gender Balance in Children’s Literature

Lately I’ve been taking a hard look at what my three year old daughter is reading. I’m especially interested in this for a number of reasons:

1. I UNDERSTAND THE EFFECT THAT CHILDREN’S LITERATURE HAD ON ME.

As a kid I went through a longish phase (directly corresponding to my Enid Blyton Famous Five phase) during which I wished I’d been born a boy. With the clarity of hindsight, I realise this was only because I perceived that boys got to do the fun stuff. Girls, too, got to do fun stuff, but only if they masqueraded as boys (eg. Georgina George).

I don’t want my own daughter to feel, at any stage — not even a little teensy bit — that she is shortchanged by her femaleness. I was a very keen reader as a kid, but I got stuck in ‘the loop’ (whereby I was still reading the books my grandmother had passed on to my mother). The old-fashioned values imparted by those books definitely had an impact.

It amazes me how many people keenly acknowledge the positive effect of literature on their own childhood lives without admitting that books can impart unwelcome messages equally.

It’s not okay to say, ‘As long as my kids are reading, that’s great.’ I used to think that, because I assumed the alternative was watching TV and playing (even more gender biased) computer games.

I don’t think that’s good enough anymore. It’s not okay for parents and teachers to be happy ‘so long as our kids are reading’; it very much depends on what they’re reading — most of all, the balance of it, more so than any individual book. My daughter would be better off watching nothing but thoughtful and inclusive TV shows than reading discriminatory  and thoughtless books.

2. DESPITE THE MISDIRECTED FEMINISATION OF EDUCATION IN RECENT DECADES, RESEARCH TELLS US WE SHOULD STILL BE CONCERNED ABOUT OUR GIRLS.

During study for a diploma in secondary education 10 years ago, I was introduced to a variety of educational studies. The ones that stick in my mind involve gender bias in the classroom, mainly because the conclusions of those studies echoed how I’d felt instinctively during my own time as student of a large, co-educational high school.

My first job was teaching in a girls’ high school, where gender bias is a non-issue. But as soon as I left that environment and started working at a co-ed school, I saw plenty of gender bias — a bias that seemed invisible to my new co-workers — most of whom had never set foot inside a girls’ only environment. The fact that my first, and most formative, teaching job was in a girls’ only school primed me to notice such things whether I wanted to deal with them or not. And like any form of inequality, once you start noticing, you can’t ever become blind again.

One of those studies had put numbers on the very real fact that in a classroom with a 50/50 gender balance, boys will feel shortchanged unless the boys are getting more than 50% of total teacher attention. This perception leads boys to act in ways which ensure they end up with a higher proportion of their teacher’s time. Likewise, when teachers are asked after a lesson to comment on the sum of calls on their attention, they are likely to underestimate how much attention they afforded the boys and overestimate how much attention they afforded the girls. It is expected in our society that male people will get more attention than female people.

Here’s a similar study: The Chilly Climate by Bernice R. Sandler.

See also: Recognizing (Almost) Invisible Gender Bias in Teacher-Student Interactions, a study by Dr. Alice Christie, Arizona State University President’s Professor Emeritus.

AndGender Bias In The Classroom: Do Teachers Give Boys More Attention? from Alas!

Despite these studies, you may have heard about the War Against Boys in education, as expounded by Christina Hoff Sommers. A response to that can be found here.

Yet Boys read for pleasure as much as girls.

It’s worth mentioning here that any observation of this kind involves writing of averages and totals — not of individuals. We all know girls who demand more than their fair share of attention in a group, and of boys who are quiet and unassuming.

There is another common misconception which affects girls. Fluent adult speakers  of English understand that the words ‘he’ and ‘man’ often include both men and women; moreover, we know exactly when the word ‘man’ refers only to men, and when it refers to both men and women. This actually requires quite an advanced command of our native language, and one of the studies I read ten years ago outlined an experiment in a kindergarten which concluded girls of that age do not have the skills to understand implicitly that females are included in a sentence employing masculine personal pronouns. Whenever the researcher said something like, ‘Anyone who wants to go and play on the slide should put his hand up’, no little girls put their hand up.

By extension, little girls would surely exclude themselves from stories making use of ‘he’.

Personally, I find Old Tom hilarious and gender-irrelevant, whilst Fiona’s story was all about breaking down stereotypes about pigs!

- Tiger mother

To a little girl, a rabbit is not ‘gender neutral’ so long as the rabbit is ‘he’. Gender neutrality in animal characters is a common but completely wrong assumption, because related research shows otherwise.

Besides, personified animals in children’s books are not really animals. When  they dress in human clothes, speak in words and feel human emotion, we’re no longer talking about animals.

English is not alone in its absence of a gender neutral personal pronoun (‘it’ does not suffice when speaking of people) but because of this developmental confusion, it really is important that when speaking to girls, especially, that we are hyperaware of the language we are using. When writing books, even more so.

What is mentioned less often, and what concerns me equally, is the message conveyed to our boys. They, too, are likely to interpret female exclusion whenever adults make use of the masculine pronoun. So what’s the result of a corpus of children’s literature whose default setting is ‘he’?

If a boy won’t read a book because it was written by a woman or features a female lead, then Darwinism will eventually take care of him.

- @sarahlapolla

The problem that needs to be fixed is not kick all the girls out of YA, it’s teach boys that stories featuring female protagonists or written by female authors also apply to them.

- from an excellently sane post by Saundra Mitchell, written partially in response to this uninformed claptrap, published in the very important New York Times. Here’s another intelligent response to that. And another one. Now, let’s hear no more from the old dude.

4. THIS POST BY MAUREEN JOHNSON REALLY CHALLENGED MY OWN ASSUMPTIONS LAST YEAR.

Sell The Girls:

The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle. Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate—as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us.

Largely because we have little choice in the matter.

(excerpt)

Like most other people, I’d sort of resigned myself to the ‘immutable fact’ that While Girls Will Read Books With Boy Characters, Boys Will Notand cannot be expected toRead Books About Girls.

(Is this even true? That boys don’t read about girls? Some think not.)

This never struck me as right; it has always made me uncomfortable. But I assumed that it did no real harm, because if girls are reading AND boys are reading good books, what does it matter?

But Maureen Johnson’s post completely changed my view on that. She is absolutely right.

Related: Meryl Streep Says Guys Don’t Identify With Lady Characters, quoted at Jezebel. (And if Meryl Streep is right — about some men, at least — why might that be?)

5. gender bias is true of literature for all ages, and starts with picture books.

This podcast from The Book Show on ABC, features Janice McCabe,
Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, talking about her study on Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books.

Males are present in significantly more books than are females.

When all books are combined, we find 1,857 (out of 5,618) books where males appear in the titles, compared to 966 books with females; a ratio of 1:9.

For central characters, the ratio was 1.6:1.

The greatest disparity is for animal characters (2.6:1).

from the McCabe study.

This podcast, even more than Maureen Johnson’s article, has shocked me. Here’s why. You see, I did know that literature from the early 20th century was sexist. Hell, the entire world was sexist back then. It was quite understandable that Enid Blyton would create the tomboyish character of George during WW2 — back then boys really did get to do the fun stuff. (Also some very crap stuff, but look at what women were doing too.)

I assumed that as long as I introduced my daughter to books which have been published recently — in the last ten years — that I wouldn’t have to worry about gender discrimination. I thought that had been fixed up.

McCabe’s study shows that I was absolutely 100% wrong about that.

Nothing much has changed, and that shocks me. If we want to ensure our children are exposed to a balance of male and female characters, we have to go out of our way to redress the balance, making a conscious effort to choose books about female characters rather than plucking good books at random from the library shelf.

6. VARIOUS DISMISSIVE COMMENTS ABOUT ‘POLITICAL CORRECTNESS’

From the comments section of the podcast mentioned above:

Girls love Hobbs’s work as much as boys, and for very different reasons. He manages to speak to them in ways that no politically correct, officially sanctioned work will.

- rongthing

Hobbs’s books are subversive and wonderful at many levels, and thankfully free from self-conscious ‘correctness’.

- Tiger mother

Notice that the word ‘correctness’ is placed inside quotation marks – the punctuation equivalent of rubber gloves.

But despite its mainly pejorative use, ‘politically correct’ is not a pejorative term.

Just imagine what it would be like to live in a non-politically correct society. You don’t even need to imagine. You can learn about some very non-politically correct parts of the modern world — countries where I doubt the phrase exists in common lingo. I’m talking about countries where men control the wealth while (uneducated) women are forced to stay at home and belong, like chattels, to their husbands.

There are more women living like this in our world than there are liberated people like you and me. (I make an assumption about you, because first you can read, and second you have access to the internet.)

‘Political correctness’ is not an evil thing. It’s a very good thing indeed, but mainly if you happen to be the sort of person who understands that discrimination still exists. If you’re the sort of person who thinks we’re there now, and that everybody should just shut up and stop whinging, then I suggest you’re the sort of person who makes use of phrases such as,’The world’s gone PC mad.” I suggest you haven’t had your eyes opened to it, regardless of which sex you happen to be.

I think what Leigh Hobbs says in that interview speaks for itself, and to me his lack of awareness on this issue is loud and clear. He has no awareness of his very own work, estimating that characters in his own books were be 50/50, yet when the interviewer added up the total, his own work reflected the exact gender discrepancy that was uncovered by Janice McCabe’s research. I’m disappointed he wasn’t challenged on this point, though I suspect the interviewer counted up his characters only after the interview had been conducted.

7. A QUESTIONABLE DEFINITION OF ‘STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER’

What also disappointed me was the fact that Sally Rippin, the other Australian children’s book author interviewed during the podcast, has now bowed to pressure to write a series featuring a boy protagonist, because boys (including her own 8 year old son) won’t be seen dead reading a book with a female character on the front cover.

Previously, Sally Rippin has written a series about Billy B Brown, who is bad at ballet and excellent at soccer.

At first sight, this looks like a wonderful example of a strong, female character in literature, but this description does not sit easily with me.

Basically, Billy B Brown sounds like a boy, bar the fact she was born with a vagina. The fact is, this is not a story about the typical female experience. It’s almost erroneous to count a tomboy figure as a strong female character — and it feels to me as if we’re still stuck on the Famous-Five-George prototype. And why is it mostly females who do most of the crossing of gender boundaries? It’s still harder to find a ‘sissy’ boy than it is to find a strong, ‘tomboyish’ girl. As ever, this feminist issue isn’t just in aid of girls.

To me, a ‘strong female character’ is one who doesn’t have to give up typically female pursuits in order to be ‘strong’. While tomboy girls exist — I was one of those myself — most girls are not. There is certainly a place for Sally Rippin’s books about Billy B Brown, and they are enjoyed by many, but it’s still a mistake to assume we’re ‘there’ when it comes to gender equality.

I’m reminded now of a Quentin Tarantino interview in which QT recommends all girls watch Kill Bill for a wonderful example of a strong female character.

Corollary: Strong female characters = strong male characters.

Note for Life: If you’re going to argue with someone with a cult following like Quentin Tarantino, wear an unobtrusive hat because you do yourself no favours. I don’t feel this woman was allowed to make her point. Also, here’s a nice feminist breakdown of female characters in the work of QT.

In other words, strong female characters hold their own during physical fights (despite the real-life discrepancy in size and strength between the sexes). In this definition of ‘strong’, women will never be the equal of men, except in fiction, and both sexes know it.

Strong women go on missions to kill.

As you might have gathered, I take issue with many examples of ‘strong female characters’ in fiction.

As much as I enjoy the Kill Bill movies, Uma Thurman’s character bears little to no relation to my own life. She is not a female role model — the Kill Bill movies are light entertainment, and we’re in serious trouble if we start using Quentin Tarantino’s disturbing tales as models for real life.

We’re also in trouble if our definition of ‘strong female character’ equals a ‘physically strong, violent character.’ Since we don’t see violence in picture books, that’s not a pressing issue, but what I do see as pressing: We’re in trouble if our definition of ‘strong female character’ equals ‘tomboyish character’.

If girls are reading books about boys playing soccer, why shouldn’t boys be expected to read about strong girls who happen to dance ballet? Instead of taking for granted that boys will shun these books (and I don’t live in a remote hippie commune, so I happen to know they do), why not open up with boys a discussion about why they won’t have anything to do with what they perceive to be girls’ stuff?

Related Link: Tomboys and Pretty Little Girls: Why Should She Have to Choose One or the Other? from BlogHer

So, what is a strong female? 

A strong female resembles a strong male in most ways: She is honest, caring, considerate, humorous and all those other things we value in our own friends.

But a strong female is not necessarily a ‘tomboy‘ (read: honorary boy).

It is a huge mistake for children’s authors to create tomboyish female characters if the honest reason they’re doing this is to appeal to both sexes. Girls need to see themselves reflected in literature, just as boys do, and stories about ballet-loving girls should not be labeled and marketed as ‘books for girls’, thereby halving an author’s audience and income.

Obviously, this issue works its way right up into adult fiction. Books about feminine women are ‘chick-lit’ (when the protagonist is single and in her 20s) and books about grown women managing families is called ‘women’s fiction’, despite the fact that men are members of families equally. Note that books about men doing manly things (like solving crime and making lots of money) is not marketed as men’s fiction. In the local bookstore there is no section called ‘men’s fiction’ — it fits into some other genre like crime, or literary fiction.

In fiction as in real life, ‘man’ is the default setting; ‘woman’ is still the other.*

*Last week, waiting for storytime, I found myself privy to a conversation between 10 or so local librarians who’d gathered for a mini-conference. They were swapping stories from The Lending Desk, and all of them had male patrons who regularly borrowed women’s fiction ‘for their wives’. After the librarians each had a chuckle, one of them pointed out that it’s not for anybody to judge what someone else likes to read, and they all agreed with this. It did make me wonder, though, how many more men would be reading stories about women if they felt they were ‘allowed’ to do so. This issue is not just a women’s issue. Women’s issues never are.

I’ve since written more on the topic of Strong Female Characters.

8. THE IDEA THAT ‘ART IS ABOVE REPROOF’.

Leigh Hobbs’ response to McCabe’s study is lackadaisical, dismissive and shows his own lack of awareness. The idea that ‘books are art, and the artist must be given free rein to do as he or she wishes’ doesn’t sit well with me at all.

Sure enough, in the creating phase of any artist’s work, nothing should be constrained. Nothing at all. It’s during the editing phase that someone, at some point, needs to consider the impact of the story on a young audience (though I hasten to add I’m no proponent of censorship for art with an adult audience). Questions about gender (and ethnic) inclusion should be asked after the creation but before the production phase.

1)    A picture book should have at least two female characters

2)    Who talk to each other

3)    About something other than a male character.

In other words, more picture books with plenty of characters should pass the Bechdel test too.

Max Barry has a great name for books like the one below: Smurf Books. His is a tongue-in-cheek post rather than a frustrated one like this, but his message is the same. (How refreshing to hear it acknowledged by a man. Does it require a man to have daughters before realising this gender bias, I wonder?)

McCabe found that Little Golden Books, for which new stories were published between 1942 and 1993, depict an especially small proportion of female characters: 3.2 males for every 1 female.

Running a story past the Bechdel checklist would not hamper anybody’s ‘creativity’*.

*since we all know artistic inspiration is a wild, flighty and ephemeral thing, subject to evaporation when questioned.

It would be a mistake to assume authors are experts in sociology and gender studies. By and large, they are not. Since authors, as much as anyone, are products of a gender-imbalanced society, it’s going to take first acknowledgement, and second deliberate action, before this balance is addressed.

Let us  start first with the denial.

Related And Sort Of Related Links:

1. Most Common Words In Toy Advertisements (for boys and girls)

2. My son is a big reader. How can I tempt his twin sister? from The Guardian, which should challenge us to think a bit harder about why a seven year old girl might give up reading.

3. Art and Adventure: A Manifesto for Women and Grrrls, by Mary Pauline Lowry.

4. Games Take The Cake: A Digital Media Industry Report on Girls and Gaming, which explains that females are ignored in the video game market. (But you didn’t need a link to tell you that, did you?)

It’s possible that when it comes to YA, fiction is light on strong male characters.

5. Female authors with feminine given names are still expected to, or are choosing to, use initials rather than their full names on book covers. Here’s some thoughtful musing from successful self-published author, Joanna Penn, or J.F. Penn. I suspect all of this comes down to the way in which we still don’t expect male people to read stories written by… or about… female people. For more on this issue, see No Place For A Woman: Female Fiction, from Beth Carswell at Abe Books, who surmises, as I have, that ‘It started with the children’s books, of course.’

6. Women and Children First! Why anyone who cares about gender and literature should pick up a children’s book. Now, from VIDA.

7. Teaching Kids About Women’s Stories from Don’t Conform Transform

8. Will Boys Watch Stories About Girls? from Blue Milk, which is about film, but could equally be about literature.

9. The Title Of John Carter And Why It Has Everything To Do With Gender And Money In Hollywood, from The Mary Sue. This is about a novel turned to film. The novel is called A Princess Of Mars. The film adaptation is called John Carter. So, why did the director change this female-centric title to a man’s name? You may not be surprised at the explanation.

10. A Girl’s Love for Batman from Beyond The Margins, in which a little girl is better off after engaging with typically boyish things. It works the other way too, naturally.

11. Beyond Judy Blume: Books for children of all genders from Bitch Media

Irritated by gendered activity books! Boys get history, robots, maths; girls get dresses, cupcakes, cute animals #kidsbookbuying

I have a real issue with pink glittery books featuring brides, bridesmaids and weddings. But they sell. Ideology vs commerce #kidsbookbuying

- @lilymandarin: author, reader, bookseller, 8 Sept 2011.

12. Ruth Whippman is the first other woman I’ve seen write about the general terribleness of the Mr Men and Little Miss books. A welcome read at Huffington Post.

13. Mrs H, blogger/writer, comments on this very issue after attending a workshop about getting children’s books published. And here is Nosy Crow’s response, with an interesting discussion in the comments section. It even prompted a follow-up post from Nosy Crow. One of the most interesting links I picked out of that discussion was a compilation of books/movies/stories featuring good, interesting female characters: A Mighty Girl. See also Stories Are Genderless from Foz Meadows

14. My daughter craves stories about realistic girl protagonists… While both male and female authors are writing fantasy about primarily male protagonists, female protagonists dominate realistic fiction. – from Realistic Girls and Fantastic Boys? Middle Grade Fantasy, Realistic Fiction and the Gender Divide at From The Mixed Up Files.

15. Reel Girl’s Gallery Of Girls Gone Missing From Children’s Movies in 2012, and the follow up post. Reel Girl also introduced me to the concept of ‘The Minority Feisty‘.

16. Children’s Books And Segregation from The Society Pages

Highly Recommended: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, particularly page 219, for an amusing take on The Jetsons.