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Exploring Gender Stereotypes in Middle School Health and Wellness

Nashoba Brooks School’s social-emotional learning objectives are spread across disciplines and departments, and one of the most significant pieces for our middle school students is their health and wellness class. Guida Mattison, who has been helping young people navigate the world of personal development awareness since 2007,  is continually modifying her curriculum while she learns alongside her students.
At NBS, there’s no textbook for health and wellness class, a subject area that has grown in scope as new ideas about mental health and awareness have emerged. Ms. Mattison’s curriculum is designed after years of watching students learn. This year in 7th grade, her content began with a topic common in all girl’s schools—how are women perceived in the media?  Ms. Mattison explained how she has learned that this area of study is still important, but alone, inadequate: “In 2011 the film Miss Representation was released,  and really highlighted a bias against women in the media and it’s negative affect on young girls. I used to show the entire movie, and it was great. The students really responded to the messaging, and I would hear students making connections and often relaying stories of their own experience with gender bias from boys or adults. I then started to realize that my class’s message was too binary.” And she admits that teaching this class has helped her see her own bias. 

Ms. Mattison explained that the positive messaging in this celebrated film helped elevate a consciousness of women’s struggle, and she still uses clips from it today, “but something had to change when I heard my students, in the same breath say that they loved the movie, and then also make fun of boys using age-old stereotypes.” Determined to craft an equitable message, she incorporated the stereotypes that boys have to deal with too. Specifically, the pressures they have to be “manly.” She watched as her students began to see the entire picture. “I wanted them to know that stereotypes and social pressures exist for everyone, and everyone deserves to be seen for who they truly are: girls, boys, and nonbinary students,” she said, and then went on to explain how seeing the whole picture was the only way we could begin to fix the whole problem.

Ms. Mattison’s belief that “at this age, they’re learning who they are, which is why it’s so important that we teach them how to think critically about the world around them,” is roundly felt by her students. Zoe Wallace, a seventh grader in Ms. Mattison’s class, has enjoyed this critical lens: “I think it’s nice and interesting to see that girls can stereotype boys too, that it goes both ways.” And Vittoria Rodenhiser, also in Zoe’s class, added that she “appreciated learning about how all these things came about.” Historical context, a part of Ms. Mattison’s curricular foundation helps “women know who we are now by seeing where we’ve been in the past.” She used the example of the stay-at-home dad, an American vocation that is becoming more common, but fifty years ago, men who are first, family caretakers, are hard to find. Seeing that women have been relegated to the homefront for much of American history is an important step in understanding why upward professional mobility for women remains difficult today. Ms. Mattison’s class goes one step further in part by magnifying male truth and highlighting that men who choose to manage their households are often met with ridicule and scorn. 

At NBS, social-emotional learning in the upper grades doesn’t mean adding diversity, equity, and inclusion to curriculum periodically, it means molding a syllabus with the hands of these imperatives. If middle school is a time, biologically and socially, when young people begin to create their first selves, these DEI should be in every facet of a student’s experience. The first month of health and wellness is a tribute to this ideal. 

In this initial rush of self-discovery, teachers at Nashoba Brooks make it a priority to imbue the importance of flexibility and change when developing perceptions. These perceptions will be ideas that students lean on or fall back to, especially when they are met with difficult ethical questions in the future.
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Nashoba Brooks School is a coed Lower School from Preschool to Grade 3 and an all-girls Middle School from Grades 4 to 8 located in Concord, Massachussetts.