Little Women

Three gifted adolescent females are the subject of disagreement between the school guidance counselor and gifted education teacher. The two educators do not see eye to eye on the issues facing Jakki, Joanie, and Jane. Nor do they agree on how best to advance the development of each young woman.

Frank Murray realizes that gender issues influence his students’ choices.

Frank Murray’s class

29 fourth graders cram Frank Murray’s classroom. He’s glad it’s a high-achieving group, mainly girls, with about ¾ of the class identified as gifted. He has to keep things moving so that classroom management doesn’t become an issue.

Frank enjoys introducing the scientific method to this motivated group, and this year he’s come up with a clever hook that captures their interest. “I want you to draw a picture of a scientist,” he says as he passes out blank paper and buckets of colored pencils and markers. “Make it as complete as you can. Think about personality as well as what scientists do!”

The students grab markers, arguing over who gets which colors, and get to work. Frank walks around the room, listening to their chatter and checking progress. After fifteen minutes, he asks for volunteers to share their drawing. It’s not until they finish presenting, that it hits him: They all drew men—and white men, at that! Given the demographics of their school, he’s more surprised by the gender issue. They’ve had female science teachers before, haven’t they?

The next morning before the opening bell five students—four girls, one boy—arrive early. Frank asks them to brainstorm a list of famous scientists. Once again, they only come up with the names of white men. Frank wonders if he’s somehow contributing to this limited image of who does science. He decides to make a conscious effort to broaden their understanding, focusing on gender issues first.

Next class, Frank begins with a brief overview of famous and not-so-famous women in science. Jakki, an outgoing girl who usually talks a lot, pays close attention. After class she tells him, “My mom’s knows all about these women.”

“Yeah, there really are a lot of women who don’t show up in the textbooks,” Frank says. “I’m learning right along with you.”

“Cool,” says Jakki. “I like talking about these kinds of things.”

“Glad you enjoyed it.” Frank responds. “By the way, did you know you were the only person who drew a female scientist the other day?” Jakki shrugs. “I wish you’d presented it.”

“Well,” says Jakki, “I felt weird. Everyone was showing pictures of boys. Then someone called scientists nerds…”

“You don’t think scientists are nerdy?” he asks.

“No way!” she says, shaking her head. “My mom’s a bio-chemist. And she’s not a nerd!”

Now Frank is sure of it—richer, more inclusive conceptions of science need to be part of his curriculum. He heads to the gifted education resource teacher. Together they discuss ways to broaden students’ view of the identities and lives of scientists, particularly women scientists.

See a list of interventional plans for young women with an interest in science below:

Frank also decides to start a science club for second through fifth graders. Only three girls attend the first meeting, and only one attends regularly that semester. This issue is going to be tough to handle.

A seventh grade student completes an independent study on women in science.

In her first period honors class, Janet Williams’ 10 girls and 18 boys have just completed their two-week independent research projects. This high-achieving group, 90% of whom are gifted, were selected based on previous performance, achievement, and willingness to take a higher-level science course.

Students were supposed to make predictions from data. Some students have examined population statistics. Others have studied changes in technology use in society. However, one student, Joanie, surprises Janet.

Initially, Joanie wanted to predict long-term effects of El Nino on weather systems on the east coast of the United States. As she studied the literature on El Nino and on weather prediction in general, Joanie constructed her reference list. As she told the class the day of her presentation, “I’d have to be blind not to see there were only men’s names on the list!”

It was only a short mental step from this observation to a complete change of projects. She turns in her paper, Women In Science: The Null Set and presents a slide show to the class.

Joanie’s slide show

Joanie changes her project topic

Joanie’s work is fascinating, and Janet is intrigued by her findings. However, this new project doesn’t fit the assignment parameters. Janet meets with the gifted resource teacher, Brian Johnson, during lunch and explains the situation. “I just don’t know how to respond to her, Brian. She changed her project without consulting me—and I just don’t think this topic is science project material.” She raises an eyebrow. “At least not advanced science.”

“Whaddaya mean?” Brian asks. “There’re so few girls enrolled in advanced science courses after sixth grade—and Joanie’s data has some pretty scientific clues as to why!” He pauses for a moment, thinking. “We really need to do something to encourage our gifted girls in the sciences. Maybe some sort of career prep for traditionally male careers.”

“Sounds good, Brian,” Janet laughs. “But I still don’t know how to grade Joanie’s project!”

Jane, an extremely bright freshman at Greenfield High School, is not appropriately challenged by the school’s curriculum.

Cynthia Durkee, the gifted education resource teacher at Greenfield High School, hung up the phone with one hand and pulled open her file cabinet with the other. Mrs. Eccle had just called to set up a meeting about her daughter, Jane, and Cynthia needs to see her records.

See Jane Eccle’s records below:

She certainly is an impressive student! Cynthia’s knows that from working with her. The Eccles have made it clear they’re not happy with the rigor of Jane’s education, but Cynthia’s hands are tied. There just aren’t many options for a student of this caliber.

See Transcript of the parent meeting below:

Several days after her discussion with the Eccles, Cynthia fills the assistant principal in and asks for advice. “What options do we have for Jane and other gifted students? Can we add more AP courses?”

“Jane’s hardly a ‘regular’ student,” Geoff Norum says, “We can’t afford to create additional advanced courses just for one kid. I checked the stats: most young ladies don’t enroll in the AP science and math courses we currently offer.”

“Well,” Cynthia says, “maybe we can DO something about that!”

Geoff smiled patronizingly. “Across the country, girls don’t take as many AP exams as boys—and boys consistently outscore girls.”

Cynthia is speechless.

“Perhaps the Eccles’ expectations are too high,” Geoff finishes. “If they call again, have them contact me.”

“No problem,” Cynthia chokes out, imagining the Eccles’ response when she reports this conversation. How could Geoff—in this day and age—really believe that girls aren’t as able as boys to complete AP work?

See Data on gender and Advanced Placement exams below:

Click here for more detailed data from the NCES web site.

See Data on gender and SAT scores below: 

Click here for more detailed data from the NCES web site.

At the semi-annual Riverside School District gifted education retreat, resource teachers discuss gender issues.

Students explore gender issues

The Riverside School District has eight elementary schools, three middle schools, and three high schools. The elementary schools house resource-room programs to serve gifted students, while the middle and high schools place students in honors and Advanced Placement courses with one gifted education teacher assigned to each building. Now, the fourteen gifted resource teachers and the gifted curriculum coordinator gather for their semi-annual, day-long “retreat” in a central office conference room.

Today’s discussion focuses on gender issues. Teachers share stories of gifted girls’ self-concept. The group sets a number of goals for expanding their current programming services to include issues specific to gifted female students. Drafting the proposal is easy; getting teachers, parents, students, counselors, and administrators to buy into it will prove more difficult. Still, the group is prepared to do all it can to support gifted girls in their district.

See The group’s goals below: