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.

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