book review: girls on the edge

I believe that reading broadly on gender, poverty, caste, and India is crucial to my understanding of the students I teach. While it cannot replace talking to students, visiting their homes, and otherwise prioritising collecting data on the individual children in front of me, these readings are an indispensable part of my professional learning. This is the first in a series of reviews in which I try to share some of the books and papers that have shaped my practice.

what it is about

Girls on the Edge is Leonard Sax’s third book. The first talked about the science behind gender differences, advocating that as parents and educators, we need to be gender-sensitive in our approach to raising children. His second talked about the crisis that boys face in the 21st century. This book delves into the crisis facing girls.

Sax’s core argument is that a strong sense of self is a crucial predictor of success, both personally and professionally. He walks through each of the four factors and how they directly or indirectly challenge a girl’s ability to find a sense of self within themselves. The first factor is sexual identity, where Sax argues that premature sexualisation encourages students to dress for others before they are developmentally capable of feeling sexy/attractive in their own bodies. The second is the cyberbubble – Sax argues that young women get caught up in how they present themselves to an audience at the cost of understanding who they really are. Obsessions, he argues, lead students to cling to understandings of themselves based on shallow metrics that are breakable. He calls the product of these kinds of obsessions “anorexia of the soul.” For example, girls who see themselves as just “Sruti’s best friend” are more likely to fall apart when the friendship does, compared to girls who can describe themselves in a more comprehensive, well-rounded way. Finally, Sax discusses how chemicals that young girls imbibe can encourage early onset puberty and other health complications that exacerbate girls’ premature sexualisation.

Sax then proceeds to provide solutions and recommendations to better support adolescent girls amidst the crises he identifies. Sax discusses the importance of children’s developmental stages and the correlating needs, interdisciplinary inquiry for girls’ learning and growth, and strong teachers who value socio-emotional learning. He discusses the importance of respecting a womans body as a parent and as an educator. Injury, motivation, and social pressures all look different with female athletes. Finally, Sax discusses the importance of nurturing a girl’s spirituality – something he argues often gets confounded with sexuality, particularly for a girl who doesn’t have a healthier spiritual outlet. While I found this the least persuasive of the book’s chapters, Sax does reiterate the value of providing purpose for adolescent girls.

why one might assume it is irrelevant

This book is a parenting book. Sax’s audience is clearly meant for parents of adolescent girls. Many of the chapters include suggestions for mothers to advocate for their daughters at schools, churches, and other community organisations.

three ways it has shaped my practice

In general, I find parenting books extremely helpful for my work as a teacher. Even when these books are written on a seemingly irrelevant topic – early childhood support or conflict resolution in primary school, for example, I’ve often found that the insights are to some extent applicable to the way I engage with and respond to my students. In this case, the area Sax focuses on is directly relevant to my work – he talks about the unique issues of 21st century teenage girls.

More specifically, these are three ways that the book has concretely influenced my classroom:

one: thinking about girls’ socio-emotional learning

Sax discusses a classroom where teachers ask students to collaboratively write a contract filled with classroom rules surrounding inclusion, kindness, and effective bystander behaviour. He argues strongly that all-girls’ classrooms must have teachers who care about both academic and socio-emotional success, that girls trust teachers who explicitly care about more than just grades and classwork. This discussion has validated a lot of my beliefs about teaching keeping the whole child in mind in an all-girls space. Because of the book, I have made a much stronger commitment to the pastoral care structures in my school – reading about socio-emotional learning as part of my professional development, pausing class when I notice affective issues show up in the classroom, and taking time to tell students explicitly when I think there’s a life lesson or non-academic idea that a lesson touches upon. I have forgiven myself more for pausing instruction to address groupism or lack of motivation or stress levels even in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade classrooms where board exams loom over us.  I have seen these pauses impact students, particularly those at the lower end of the academic spectrum, who react quickly and strongly to a teacher they sense sees all of them.

two: creating and leveraging interdisciplinary connections

Sax discusses the importance of interdisciplinary learning in all-girls’ classroom. He discusses schools that have integrated projects that connect history to English, math to science. He spotlights a physics teacher who re-arranges the order of her units to better align with the unit progressions in a math classroom. In the school I attended, teachers designed a project where we learned ratios and proportions in Math to enlarge a painting of an ancient Egyptian god to scale in Art class. We learned the history of Egyptian religion, mathematics, culture, and art. We read translations of Egyptian stories and fables. We spent several weeks in a truly interdisciplinary space, where all of our teachers communicated with us and each other about the common themes and learning objectives.

Sax would argue that this interdisciplinary approach is crucial to maximising girls’ learning. While teachers at my school are more ensconced in our departments, the book has pushed me to schedule meetings where teachers in history and science walk me through their curricula for students in the same grade. That way, I can make strong references to their knowledge in climate change, reproductive systems, politics, caste, and Indian history when we read related literature in class. I’ve also pushed harder to inform other teachers about the novels and themes that we discuss in English class, so that they can make similar connections in their own classrooms.

three: preparing girls to become women

Sax argues that it is not enough to just discuss what kind of adult should become, but what kind of man or woman. He argues strongly that young girls don’t benefit from vague, gender-neutral values education. I have become more conscious about discussing adulthood with students, interspersing gender-specific language with gender-neutral messages.

Students benefit from messages that they believe are addressed to them as individuals. It isn’t just that I need to talk to the women in the classroom, rather than the “adults” or “people.” I need to talk to them as Indian women, or women in STEM, or women journalists. As far as possible, I think it is crucial to address the girls in front of us, especially when we talk about the values we want them to exhibit.

I acknowledge that this particular stance has risks. It is important that as educators we teach our students how to be strong, powerful women without messaging expectations that further entrench stereotypes or restrictive societal roles. However, I also do believe that there is a way of thinking about students’ identities in a rigorous, individualised, and ultimately beneficial way. Reading Kate Manne’s Down Girl provided a strong framework for how to think about this in a way that ultimately empowers girls rather than reinforcing the status quo.

final thoughts

As a Teach for India Fellow, Why Gender Matters challenged me to reflect on whether my practices benefited girls more than boys. Girls on the Edge presented key factors threatening girls’ growth that are crucial for any educator, particularly one in an all-girls’ institution. In this book, Sax roots his commentary and recommendations in plentiful, rigorous, and convincing data. Extensive footnotes and citations allowed me to read the data behind conclusions I questioned. Ultimately, I found this book empowering – it ensured that my practices – both pre-existing and ones inspired by Sax – are rooted in what works for girls.

teaching english and learning hindi

When I walked into the 6th grade classroom, I had Atwell’s workshop model in my mind, but I had never done it. I’d read In the Middle, in parts, and Lessons that Change Writers, in its entirety, but in my Teach for India classroom I had improvised so much and worked around my 50-person classroom to the extent that my pedagogy was a slapdash synthesis of instinct, reading, and fire-fighting that couldn’t be summarised coherently at all, let alone be considered workshop. But this was different – we had 22 students, the range of language ability was bound to be narrower, and the school was committed to the workshop model in English instruction.

In this new, and infinitely more supportive setting, I discovered the unique challenges of a majority English as a Foreign Language classroom. Students had varying exposures and attitudes towards English. In India, it’s common to assume that English is the language of the educated, and Indian languages such as Hindi and Marathi are less useful. English has the same role in schools that Spanish has in Latin American countries with high indigenous populations – it is the language of conquest, and hence, the language of globalization. This reality influences students’ attitudes towards learning English in varying ways. Some thought in Hindi or Marathi, but were embarrassed to admit it. Others were proud that their home language was not English and switched into Marathi without regard for those in the classroom who spoke another of India’s hundreds of languages in their own home. Still others were voracious readers and loved English, coming into the classroom with almost-grade level reading ability. A small number respected the value of English but were proud of their own language as their own. And our school has a small number of high-income students, many of whom really do speak English at home, and for whom the “English at a Foreign Language” label is incomplete and misleading.

In this fiercely diverse classroom, I thought about what it means to conduct workshop in a way that honors students’ home languages. Many studies indicate that strong primary education in a student’s mother tongue is one of the most reliable predictors of subsequent academic achievement. Studies in the US, New Zealand, and Peru have all found that students should not be taught in a foreign language just because it is dominant or common. I came into the classroom having read these studies, but not quite knowing what to do with them. While my school is a secondary school, not a primary school, my experience at my first school taught me that it is crucially important to honor students’ first languages. My consistent experience was that breaking down the primacy of English made students more comfortable in expressing themselves, willing to take risks, and confident in their potential. So, despite the fact that my new school required English in all spaces on campus, formal and informal, and that I knew none of the languages most common in my new classroom, I committed to honoring native languages in whatever ways I could.

In the partnership to learn and improve our writing, I was the one least equipped due to language (Hindi), not them . Nevertheless, I began by allowing students to switch into Hindi to ask questions or confer. I sought to achieve two goals. First, I wanted to explicitly and implicitly message language equality. Despite the hegemony of English in India, first languages are important, and I refuse to shy away from potential opportunities to learn them. Second, I could leverage my lack of knowledge to model what it means to be a student of language to my sixth graders. In these moments, I was careful to ask questions about words I didn’t understand and paraphrase to ensure my understanding was correct. I consciously projected both confusion when faced with words or phrases I didn’t understand and comfort with that confusion by asking questions whenever I needed to.

Halfway through the year, we decided to try out something new: collaborative writing. It was a risk and it was something we had never done before. Students, in groups, worked together to write “choose-your-own-adventure” novels. The goal was to give them the freedom and flexibility to imagine wildly, while introducing a genre that was conducive to extravagant plots without being dependent on nuanced characters or complex problems. It wasn’t so much that the 6th graders couldn’t develop nuanced characters or complex problems, but they simply didn’t have the vocabulary in English to be able to communicate complexity in their writing. My initial response would have been to remove fiction from the set of genres entirely, but Atwell and my fellow teachers were firmly convinced that 6th graders imagined, and their imagination needed an outlet. The “choose-your-own-adventure” genre seemed the best marriage of the students’ strengths and weaknesses and the need for a writing form that allowed for and encouraged the act of imagination. It placed the emphasis firmly on imagination and creativity, and depended far less on complexity of characters, description, or language.

The combination of a new and untested genre and a commitment to group writing was a game-changer. While I had had some sense that I was a weak communicator in conferences, this unit taught me that my lack of Hindi knowledge had severely  impacted their ability to express themselves in conferences, but that it had also inhibited their ability to develop a vocabulary in English. Suddenly, conversations in student groups happened in mixed English and Hindi, and students worked out their stories in the way they were most comfortable. As their ideas bounced off of each other, they were able to understand the importance of narrow specifics in telling their stories. Students came to me gesturing excitedly, asking me for words to describe the propellers, blades, and sounds of a helicopter. They tried to describe to me the sound of ocean waves, and jumped in to each other’s sentences in a desperation to ensure I would understand. Because they were able to communicate with each other, every conference with me was a team effort to bring me onboard.

As I started learning that the group work was leading to more specific, engaging stories, I also started giving them tools to answer their own questions. After I fed them the words “propellers” and “blades,” (they already knew “helicopter”) they used Google and discovered the words “spinning,” “motors,” and more. The girls looking for the sound of ocean waves, after learning the words “ocean” and “waves”, found onomatopoetic words like “swish,” “rush,” “undulation,” and others .

Slowly, I worked with my students to uncover their innate “itch” to find the right word. This could never have happened if I had restricted them to English. They needed each other, and they needed their first languages (both Hindi and Marathi) to reach that desperate, earnest point where they as writers need to get something right.

Imagine your own experience in a foreign language class. I, for one, never felt like I could be a writer in Spanish. I tried to communicate the best I could, and gave myself credit for approximations that I’d never be satisfied with in English. I patted myself on the back when I was coherent, not when I was engaging, imaginative, innovative, or captivating. It was much later, when I wanted to gossip, giggle, and gush with my Spanish-speaking friends did I develop that “itch.” Our experiment with collaborative writing in the classroom brought this “itch” to students and they latched onto it with enthusiasm.

Writing and reading workshop as a pedagogy is rooted in assumptions that, as a teacher, I couldn’t safely assume in a classroom where the vast majority of my students are language learners. Students need to be committed not just to sharing their stories, but sharing them well, crafting and revising sentences until they can surprise their readers. In my experience, two things built that commitment: they needed to first see value in their own mother language and their skills in it, and they needed to develop and experience the “itch” in getting something right in that language before those feelings could be effectively leveraged to build skill in English.