Being 'good' students and 'good' girls : performing gender and ethnicity in a New Zealand classroom

Santoro, Ninetta and Major, J (2010) Being 'good' students and 'good' girls : performing gender and ethnicity in a New Zealand classroom. In: Australian Association for Research in Education, 2010-11-28 - 2010-12-02. (Unpublished)

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It has long been accepted that gender and culture intersect in complex ways in the construction of identity. The ways girls and boys in primary classrooms perform gender are shaped by the dominant discourses of classrooms, as well as by discourses of ethnicity. Being a ‘good student’ is based not just on academic achievement, but also on particular characteristics such as being conscientious, cooperative and well mannered. These characteristics are more commonly attributed to girls than boys, thus making the ‘good student’ a highly feminised identity (Renold, 2006). Elena Skapoulli points out that ‘notions of gender-appropriate linguistic behaviour, gendered practices, and the meaning of femininities and masculinities … are not shared across cultures.’ (2004:247-248).. This paper draws on data from study investigating identity construction of eight culturally and linguistically diverse children in two Year 5 (Grade 4) primary classrooms in New Zealand. A focus of the research was the ways in which culture, ethnicity, gender, language, and relations of power shaped the identities available to and taken up by culturally diverse children. Data were collected using in-depth video and audio recordings of classroom interactions over several weeks, as well as follow-up interviews with children and teachers. Data were analysed using Discourse Analysis. The study is grounded in poststructuralist theories which understand identities as multiple, dynamic, contingent, and constructed in interactions. Poststructuralist feminists’ work on gender provided insights into the gendered discursive practices within the classroom. In this paper we draw on data from two of the children, Beth (from Korea) and Nilima (from Nepal), to describe how ethnic and gendered ‘good’ girl discourses act to both limit and enable them to take up the academic and social identities made available tin the classroom. The teacher’s pedagogical practices reflected culturally bound beliefs and understandings about gender that sometimes constrained the interactive and, hence, language learning opportunities for the two girls. Similarly, their own investment in the ‘good student/good girl’ discourse also shaped their interaction patterns in the classroom in ways that limited opportunities for effective language learning. However, the girls were also able to take up positive identity positions made available by the teacher in relation to their preferred ways of performing femininity in the classroom. We begin this paper with a brief outline of the theoretical and methodological frameworks for the research, then present selected samples of data to illustrate how culture and gender intersected in the identity work undertaken by the girls in the classroom context. We discuss the implications of these findings for teaching and pedagogical decision making in the classroom as well as teacher education.