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In a new book, 2 ISU professors examine how some school practices unfairly target girls

Dawn Beichner, Erin Mikulec, and Winnie Nuding
From left, Dawn Beichner, Erin Mikulec, and Winnie Nuding.

Movements like #MeToo have helped spur a national dialogue about the sexual harassment of women, and led to a closer examination of traditional gender roles and the ways they're reinforced in schools.

A new book by two Illinois State University professors explores how policies like school dress codes unfairly target girls. "Distraction: Girls, School, and Sexuality" by Erin Mikulec and Dawn Beichner brings together 19 scholars to discuss the ways in which girls are sexualized through school practices.

One of those scholars is Winnie Nuding, who believes that school practices emphasizing gender affect the way girls understand their place in the classroom. Nuding teaches English at Chiddix Jr. High School in Normal. She recalls being approached by a couple female students interested in starting a coding club.

“At first, I was hesitant because I had no idea how to code,” Nuding said. But after speaking with the students, Nuding realized there was a need for a space where girls could learn to code. Because while similar clubs did exist, they were almost entirely male.

“And they started to feel really outcast by that,” Nuding said.

So, Nuding helped sponsor the club, which eventually drew girls from all over the community. Nuding wanted to explore what made the coding club such a success with the students. She conducted a formal study to determine which components of the club resonated most with the girls.

She found that students found a sense of “validation and safety” in sharing a space with other girls who shared similar interests. Nuding probed deeper, asking if that was different from their experiences in the classroom. Her students reported feeling that teachers called on boys more often and tended to value the input of female students less.

Nuding detailed her findings in an essay for the book called, “Power of the Sisterhood: Young Women Coding at the Middle School Level.”

Mikulec, a professor in ISU's School of Teaching and Learning, believes the experience of Nuding’s students points to a need to rethink many school practices. Mikulec said policies like gender-specific dress codes reinforce antiquated ideas about how male and female students should behave — especially when it comes to the idea that girls should dress a certain way so they are not a “distraction.”

“There are many that still have the language of boys and girls will dress in a manner in accordance with their gender,” Mikulec said. In addition to sending the message that girls should be somehow “ladylike," policies designed to align students with a reductive and outmoded understanding of gender can have implications far beyond wardrobe.

Mikulec also advocates for a change to the way schools think about curriculum, “Starting with the way health education is approached,” she said. Mikulec knows it can be a touch subject for parents, but she thinks students should be taught about notions of consent as part of sex education.

And when it comes to the focus of subjects like history, Mikulec would like curriculum to reflect a deeper understanding of the contributions of women. “I’d love to see a history book that focuses on the history of the United States, for example, purely through women’s contributions,” she said.

Widening the perspective of a curriculum to be more reflective of race, gender, and experience should involve the collaboration of students, said Beichner.

Beicher, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at ISU, said she’s drawn to inclusive teaching models that ask students to help create culture in the classroom. “By that you’re recognizing, ‘I’m approaching this as a white, heteronormative school teacher that only has certain ideas about what feminine or masculine behaviors are,” she said.

Beichner said when it comes to paradigm shifts that affect school curriculum, there’s bound to be resistance.

“We anticipate and welcome any of that,” she said. “It’s not going to stop us from our mission.”

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.