Disrupting Gendered Pedagogies in the Early Childhood Classroom

by April Larremore (Author)
Textbook 141 Pages

Table Of Content

← x | 1 →Chapter 1

Can I Rethink My Kindergarten Teaching?

For many early childhood teachers and professionals, interacting with children about complex and contested issues is fraught with feelings of uneasiness and anxiety. For an unfortunately small number of other teachers, an openness to challenging dominant societal beliefs is considered important if this questioning leads to classroom interactions and pedagogical behaviors that can increase acceptance of diversity with/for children. This book is about one kindergarten teacher’s attempts to reframe classroom power relations—to be willing to challenge the accepted and suitable definition of the “good” teacher—to be willing to be labeled a “bad” teacher if students can benefit from perspectives and interactions that have not been labeled good, developmentally appropriate, or acceptable. I am that kindergarten teacher.

Living with diverse cultures, identities, knowledges, and ways of being in the world, some early childhood educators have called on a variety of approaches and perspectives to meet these positive yet complex challenges of diversity and multiplicity (Grieshaber & Cannella, ← 1 | 2 →2001). The reconceptualization movement in early childhood education has brought about new spaces and lenses through which a different way of thinking about children as subjects has emerged. Looking at early childhood educational practices through diverse feminisms, poststructural, and critical lenses, teachers have, and can, reflexively consider their own positions within discourses and ways that normalizing is unconsciously perpetuated and marginalizes those who are perceived as different.

In our current context, the ways early childhood teachers see, understand, and respond to young children’s work, play, and language are positioned within their knowledge of childhood, teaching, and learning. These knowledges are often monocultural, Universalist, and limiting. In the early childhood classroom, this mindset is oftentimes informed by developmentalism, which in turn is the basis for developmentally appropriate practice (DAP; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Developmentalism refers to the overdependence on developmental ways of seeing young children within DAP (MacNaughton, 2000), a knowledge base informed exclusively by developmental psychology that universalizes the child and childhood (Burman, 2008). Concern about this normalizing grand narrative and related other forms of educational marginalization is why I became determined to rethink and reframe my teaching. I chose as my particular focus the narrow developmental interpretation of those who are younger as asexual, ignorant, and innocent. As a teacher, for many years I have perpetuated this view.

Uneasiness and Pressures to Be the Asexual Good Teacher

Despite the intimate links that exist between gender and sexuality, the dominant discourse of childhood has constructed children as innocent, asexual, and too young to understand, thus positioning sexuality as irrelevant to their young lives and yet, at the same time, troublesome for them. For many early childhood teachers and professionals, interacting with children about issues concerning gender and sexuality is fraught with feelings of uneasiness and anxiety. While many early childhood ← 2 | 3 →teachers control expressions of sexuality as if they were biologically determined, researchers who work on sexuality argue that these expressions are more than just sex, but rather they include all of the cultural practices adopted by individuals, in this case young children, such as kissing games, through girlfriend/boyfriend practices, romantic ideals (e.g., pretend families, dating, and marriage rituals), stories, movies, and television shows, as well as daily involvement in sexually based social and legal societal institutions (e.g., marriage). In questioning the belief that children are too young to understand these displays of gender and sexuality, Robinson (2005) has directed our attention to the degree to which these heterosexual assumptions and behaviors are everyday yet unacknowledged routine practices in early childhood settings (Blaise & Taylor, 2012). Young children are gendered through early childhood practices, such as playing mothers and fathers in the dramatic play center, chasing games on the playground, mock weddings, lining children up by gender, and the selection of children’s literature that portrays only the makeup of heterosexual families (Janmohamed, 2010; Robinson, 2005; Skattebol & Ferfolja, 2007). While oftentimes unquestioned or unobservable, sexualities are never completely silenced or removed from early childhood settings (Mellor & Epstein, 2006).

Those who draw upon scientific and Western understandings of child development in order to make sense of young children and their behaviors tend to have concerns about the sexualization of childhood and the loss of innocence. For this reason, most adults either quickly shut down the conversations/behaviors/play or ignore them. Teachers (and parents) often view this silencing as protecting children from hearing or seeing what might be perceived as too sexual in nature and therefore inappropriate. By purposefully disregarding these types of behaviors, children are constructed as asexual. Even in cases where adults consider the play or behavior sexual in nature, they may explain away the child’s actions by saying s/he is too young to really understand what s/he is doing. All of these notions of childhood are founded on the belief that sexuality does not occur until adolescence, a time far removed from a child’s early years (Blaise, 2009). Because of this Western belief in childhood innocence and the fact that adults commonly associate sexuality with sexual intercourse only, very few ← 3 | 4 →studies have been carried out on the sexual knowledge and understanding of young children (Brilleslijper-Kater & Baartman, 2000).

Challenging the revered notion of childhood innocence, there is a body of research (Blaise, 2010) that indicates that young children are enthusiastic to talk about gender and sexuality and do have a considerable amount of knowledge regarding their ability to determine sex differences, name sexual body parts and their functions, and describe what they know about adult heterosexual behaviors. Research has increasingly highlighted how young children themselves are both active and knowing shareholders in seeking and regulating sexual knowledge and engaging in the policing of gender performances of other children and adults, within rigid boundaries of what is widely considered appropriate masculine and feminine behaviors (Alloway, 1995; Davies, 1989. 1993; Grieshaber, 1998; MacNaughton, 2000). Additionally, some research has begun to denote the significant role of the curriculum and educators’ pedagogical practices in constructing and normalizing children’s gendered identities (Robinson, 2005; Robinson & Diaz, 2000, 2006). For example, as part of a participatory action research project, which developed work that supported sexualities equalities in the elementary school classroom, the No Outsiders Project explored ways of addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equalities through the use of storybook readings in English primary schools (Cullen & Sandy, 2009). As part of the study and subsequent to earlier feminist poststructural work (Blaise, 2005; Davies, 1993; Sears, 1999), Cullen and Sandy (2009) proposed that one method to consider was to provide young children with the know-how to deconstruct narratives and subjectivities with their classmates and teachers and to equip them with the ability to question the privileging and silencing of “other” discursive subjectivities. This work suggests that in order to open up identities and render them understandable for young children, we must first voice the unspeakable (Allen, Allen, & Sigler, 1993) by talking openly about sexual and gendered identities in elementary school classrooms. For some in the field of early childhood education, this knowledge has resulted in rethinking their approaches to the gendering of identity in their own classrooms (Hughes & MacNaughton, 2001).

← 4 | 5 →Risking Repositioning Myself as a Teacher

A critical project (whether pedagogy or research) is not about searching for a truth but rather about acknowledging and deconstructing the values and relationships embedded within one’s discipline, interactions, and practices. Qualitative and critical researchers and pedagogues presuppose that all actions are value laden (Smith, 1983). Critical scholars and teachers enter the field already positioned and ready to examine and acknowledge that position. For that reason, and directly tied to my attempts to reframe my teaching, situating myself as an educator is very important.

I entered the teaching field with more than 12 years of having been a student, and rather than critically reflecting upon the ideas I was bringing to my teaching career, I felt fated to repeat these practices. The origin of this classroom project lies in how my struggle to reconcile critical postmodernism with the dominant discourse of early childhood education fostered critical reflection on my instructional practices. Because I was educated in the United States, my educational teaching experiences have been dominated by child development knowledge, thus shaping my beliefs as an early childhood educator. I developed a concrete, play-based approach to early childhood education and consequently desired to be the “good” early childhood educator, as defined in DAP terms (Grieshaber & Cannella, 2001). Additionally, my parents were devout Southern Baptists, raising me within strictly defined religious boundaries, which constituted children as asexual and too young to understand or experience sexuality, thus rendering it as a taboo subject in both my life and education (Robinson, 2005).

Drawing upon this Western understanding of child development (Blaise, 2009; Cannella, 1997; Fleer, 1995; Lubeck, 1998) and concerns about the sexualization of childhood (Levin, 1998), I clearly remember striving to be the good early childhood teacher by quickly shutting down and ignoring play that was thought of as too sexual and therefore inappropriate for young children to take part in or watch (Blaise, 2009). This regulation of my teaching practices was dependent on both the dominant discourses of childhood and ← 5 | 6 →sexuality, along with the religious discourses that governed my thinking. Within this understanding of young children, I neglected to consider diversity, equity, or inclusion in the lives of my students and their families. It was not until my own divorce and situation as a single parent that I began to make a determined effort toward acknowledging family diversity in my classroom. When my family dynamics changed, so did my thinking, thus moving me beyond the notion that children and their families do not exist beyond the commonly understood normative framework of a mother and a father. I changed the way I addressed families in the class notes I sent home; I rephrased the way I asked students to remind their family members of upcoming events; and I opened up school events such as “muffins for mom” or “donuts for dad” to all family members regardless of who they were or the role they played. Despite these efforts at recognizing diversity in the makeup of my students’ families, I continued to privilege heterosexuality in the relationships between parents and family members.

These memories compel me to reflect upon my idealized image of the early childhood teacher, my classroom teaching practices, and the range of overlapping and competing discourses in which I am situated. When I began this in-depth graduate study, my identity as the good DAP early childhood teacher collided with my introduction to critical postmodernism, causing my idealized image of what it means to be a well-accepted early childhood teacher to shift and change based on the new discourses in which I was situated. Teaching in a public kindergarten classroom, I am entangled in developmentalism, notions of childhood innocence, and dominant DAP practices on a daily basis, yet this pedagogical exploration has allowed me to create a space for challenging these principles as a single, universally accepted, normalizing approach to classroom teaching and child development. Consequently, these aspects of my identity link me to a range of conflicting belief systems as well as political and cultural tensions (Giugni, 2006). This project was the result of a personal desire to question the constructs, categories, and theories I used in the classroom and to open up the space to new possibilities.

← 6 | 7 →Helping Teachers Rethink Dominant Approaches: Critical Lenses and the Pedagogical Project

The belief in childhood as asexual is grounded in a grand narrative of the child that fails to acknowledge the significant roles sexuality plays in a young child’s life experiences, education, and growth (Blaise, 2005, 2009; Browne, 2004; MacNaughton, 2000). There is a universal belief that young children either do not or should not have knowledge of sexuality. In the early years, efforts to engage with children concerning issues of sexuality are considered problematic for parents, caregivers, and early childhood teachers (Blaise, 2010; Epstein, 1999; Renold, 2005; Robinson, 2005; Sears, 1999; Tobin, 1997). Dominant discourses of assumed childhood innocence situate young children as naïve with little or no knowledge of sex, gender, and sexuality (Blaise, 2009; James, Jenks, & Prout, 1998). Many early childhood teachers either quickly shut down or ignore play and language that center around sex, gender, and sexuality. Young children do not only learn the social meanings, values, and expectations of how to be a girl or boy from parents, classmates, teachers, or the media, but they also individually carry out and regulate gender by taking part in and consistently doing and redoing their gender roles (Blaise, 2010).

For this classroom project, multiple feminist perspectives, as well as poststructural, critical, and queer theories, were used as multiple locations from which I could examine and reframe my interactions with my kindergarten students. Feminist poststructuralisms are theoretical perspectives that integrate the various feminisms with critical poststructural understandings. Feminisms contribute insights into the multiplicities of gender, sexualized subjects, and interconnecting oppressions, while poststructuralist views challenge the existence of predetermined universals. As an example, women-of-color feminist thought interacting with poststructuralism question the very notion of woman as a universal and all-inclusive term, demonstrating how the construct has denied differences among women related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and economic condition, just to name a few. Normalizing, reductive, and universalizing views of woman ← 7 | 8 →have come to be understood as perpetuating cultural binaries such as male/female, man/woman, boy/girl, heterosexual/homosexual, stud/slut, and even adult/child (Butler, 1990, 1999; Collins, 1990). Viewed as natural opposites, these dichotomies are embedded in power relations through which one side of the binary has the power to define and oppress the Other. This understanding of power relations can also be applied to the interpretation of childhood as asexual, ignorant, and innocent.

Emerging largely from feminist poststructural perspectives and Foucauldian genealogy, queer theory is concerned primarily with normalizing practices, whether related to sexuality or other constructs that would be used to universalize and limit (Foucault, 1974; Sedgwick, 1990). Often associated with critique of dominant heteronormative perspectives, queer theory supports the feminist poststructural notion that gendered identities are not fixed or stable but shifting, contradictory, dynamic, even fractured, multiple, and socially constructed (Blaise, 2005; Robinson & Diaz, 2006). The lens assumes that gender cannot be understood apart from sexuality (Jagose, 1996; Robinson & Diaz, 2006). Dominant gender discourses and the hegemonic discourse of heterosexuality are intertwined and must be considered together in order to more fully understand the constancy of and damage caused by gender stereotypes (Butler 1990, 1999). Young children are embedded within these dominant discourses as they attempt to make sense of what it means to have a sexual identity and to practice one’s own sexuality, as well as to accept the diversity of those around them (Blaise, 2009, 2014); this embeddedness constructs boundaries for diversity, acceptance, and possibility. Further, queer perspectives question the assumption that young children are too young to understand sexuality and in fact call attention to the degree to which heterosexual assumptions and practices are a common yet unacknowledged everyday happening in early childhood settings (Blaise & Taylor, 2012; Cahill & Theilheimer, 1999; Robinson, 2005).

From feminist, poststructural, queer perspectives, teachers can come to view words, knowledges, and actions as never impartial or benign but rather constituted in and maintained through power relations (Foucault, 1978). Regarding interactions and practices within ← 8 | 9 →early childhood classrooms, one’s own beliefs and actions can be more specifically examined. Through our everyday interactions with people and institutions, we speak and perform discourses into existence. Since there are multiple ways of looking at the world and the events in it, multiple discourses can coexist, operating simultaneously to construct different understandings about the world and how it operates. Discourses gain power when taken up by social groups and institutions that perform them as an officially sanctioned knowledge or truth about the world. For example, a heterosexual discourse renders a framework for how young children come to understand and make sense of boys, girls, femininities, masculinities, and sexualities. It also sustains power and strives to establish a set of rules concerning which constructions of gender are considered right and which ones are considered wrong (Blaise, 2009).

Constructed by and constructing discourse knowledge is understood as partial and truths as interpretations or understandings held by particular groups or individuals, rather than objective facts. Burr (1995) refers to knowledge as “the particular construction or version of a phenomenon that has received the stamp of ‘truth’ in our society” (p. 64). How we see the world and the truths we uphold are based on the knowledge taken up in our lives. We acquire knowledge from our daily communications with the people and organizations with whom we interact (Fuss, 1989). This knowledge is oftentimes based on a narrow understanding of the world, on stereotypes, and on common-sense understandings that act to construct and define our perceptions of the world and those who live in it.

According to Foucault (1974), our subjectivities (multiple selves, which would also deny definition) are constructed within the discourses that are socially available to us, the ones that we draw upon in our interactions with others. Our thoughts and feelings, our sense of self, and how we connect with the world, as well as the ways that we are individualized, gendered, racialized, and sexualized, are embedded within the discourses that we position ourselves in and take up as our own ways of being in the world. Our subjectivity does not come from within us but from interactions with the society in which we exist, the one where discourses are framed and perpetuated, constructing and ← 9 | 10 →determining the potential of who we can be and what we can think. The discourses we draw upon to construct our subjectivities determine how we perceive what we can do and cannot do and what we should do and should not do. Our subjectivities are not considered fixed states but rather dynamic and fluid.

Power plays a fundamental role in understanding the concepts of subjectivities and subjectification. Power and the complexity of power relations create and are created by the discourses we draw on as we position ourselves in the world. All discourses are dangerous and never without the construction of both power and resistance as potentially negative and dangerous but also potentially positive and productive. However, certain discourses are entangled with power relations that are more likely to benefit particular groups, beings, and ways of living while marginalizing, disqualifying, even erasing others. In Western societies, these discourses have often become dominant, unquestioned, and even normalizing. Foucault’s (1978) concept of regime of truth is helpful in illustrating officially sanctioned discourses that operate together to perpetuate certain truths and power relationships. Central to Foucault’s definition of power is the understanding that where there is power, there is also resistance.

Agency is one’s ability to make choices and impose those choices on the world; thus individual subjects are active agents in the construction of their subjectivity. Agency is concerned with our ability to act deliberately and with a conscious understanding, raising important questions surrounding both collective and individual responsibility and accountability (Hall, 2004). Many have debated the degree to which a person has agency in the construction of his/herself and his/her social relations. Sawicki (1991) argues that individuals can creatively take up or resist the discourses that constitute their lives according to the outcome they want to attain. Hall (2004) says, “We are subject to discourse, not simply subjects through discourse with the ability to turn around, contemplate, and rework our subjectivity at will” (p. 127). Ultimately, individuals must assume responsibility for the way they position themselves within discourse and its implications for social change and economic justice.

← 10 | 11 →Reflexivity and Reframing Pedagogy

McNay (2000) defines reflexivity as a “critical awareness that arises from a self-conscious relation with the other” (p. 5). It is critical that as early childhood caregivers, educators, and researchers, we carefully examine our attitudes, routines, policies, and pedagogies in terms of the way that we may be consciously or unconsciously involved in the process of privileging certain identities and marginalizing and silencing others. The positions that we take up in discourse are influential to the perpetuation or collapse of the social justice that operate in the world around us. To take a truly reflexive approach, one must not only consider one’s own attitudes and prejudices, but one must also acknowledge that through language, discourse, and texts, societies are constructed and reconstructed in ways that have been hidden and even forgotten (Usher & Edwards, 1994).

Language plays a critical role in the construction of individual subjectivities, making the deconstruction of our everyday language and related practices fundamental to an understanding of the ways power is produced and acted out in our day-to-day lives. Based on the works of French poststructuralist Jacques Derrida (1980), deconstruction was created as a theoretical tool used to expose the various discourses that operate through texts in order to more closely examine the power relationships and the knowledge being constructed (Davies, 1993). Deconstruction attempts to identify the normalizing discourses that construct the dominant understandings that define, limit, and regulate our representations of subjectivities and identities. Through this pedagogical project, I hoped (and continue to hope) to deconstruct my thoughts, language, and practices—and to continue to reframe my teacher values, methods, and actions.

Summarizing the Pedagogical Project

The students who participated in this pedagogical project were part of a traditional public kindergarten classroom located in an elementary school in a suburban city in the southern part of the United States. ← 11 | 12 →Although children came from all over the city to attend the school, most of the students lived in the nearby neighborhood. At the time of the investigation, the school had 527 students and 29 teachers. There were 18 students in the kindergarten classroom, 7 girls and 11 boys. The children were ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, with the majority of the students coming from working-class families.

When the project began, I viewed my classroom as child centered and developmentally appropriate. My teaching practices and the curriculum I used were all influenced by the principles of child development. Following this type of framework, I believed that children learned best through play and by interacting with materials, other children, and other adults (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Therefore, hands-on activities and play were integral parts of daily classroom life. My students had the opportunity to play and interact with others during learning centers and math stations. Classroom routines included literacy and math activities, singing, read-alouds, writer’s workshop, and whole-group lessons on the rug. The classroom structure was well suited for this project since the children had a wide range of opportunities to read, write, and talk about their interests and desires. These characteristics made it possible to locate, observe, and record gender discourses operating within a variety of activities throughout the classroom.

A feminist poststructuralist conceptual mindset informed the project’s design and data collection methods, thus keeping the focus on the constructed rather than established bodies of knowledge. By using feminist poststructuralist thinking, the social, cultural, historical, and political construction of gender was placed at the center of the investigation (Lather, 1992). As an act of raising awareness and in rethinking gender and early childhood teaching, this project was designed to turn critical thought into social action and by its very nature has special and important relevance to the work of teachers and researchers who want to continuously interrogate and dissect their teaching practices. This method of teaching and researching was used to disrupt the existing practices of the teacher and young children involved. For instance, instead of going into a classroom and researching on or about children, this pedagogical project is about my work with them. In addition, working alongside and researching with my students provided ← 12 | 13 →opportunities to intervene and disrupt inequitable power relations that existed among myself and my students (Blaise, 2005).

One of the methods used to influence change in my practices as a teacher and researcher and in my students’ interactions as boys and girls was to allow time for expanded critical dialogue and questioning. The time I spent in the classroom as both a teacher and researcher included observing and documenting children’s interactions and talk through field and journal notes, as well as fostering relationships with my students in which I continuously uncovered the ways heterosexual practices and discourses operated within the context of my classroom.

Information was obtained through the following sources: (1) field notes of observations of children interacting and talking with each other; (2) field notes of conversations between myself and my students; and (3) reflective journal notes written to think on, question, and open up the space for trying on, being in, and becoming (Phillips, Harris, Larson, & Higgins, 2009) a feminist poststructural early childhood teacher. These terms trying on, being in, and becoming stem from Ellsworth’s (2005) concept of transitional space and represent my journey from comfortable places of knowing to uncomfortable spaces of becoming (Phillips, Harris, Larson, & Higgins, 2009).

Working as both the teacher and a researcher, I spent 7 hours a day, 5 days a week with the students in my classroom. Being with my students all day long allowed for opportunities to observe and interact with them as they made their morning entrance into the classroom, took part in breakfast and whole-group time, participated in centers and math stations, and transitioned between activities. I accompanied my students to lunch, recess, and special events, and I took part in all of their daily routines such as reader’s and writer’s workshops, small-group instruction, and end-of-the-day dismissal.

In order to keep a written record of the children’s talk and actions in the classroom, field notes were made throughout each school day. The field and journal notebooks serve as what Foucault (1983) termed hypomnemata or “account books, public registers, and individual notebooks serving as memoranda…constituted as a material memory of things read, heard, and thought” (p. 246). Field notes were obtained through the following sources: (1) observations of children playing and ← 13 | 14 →talking; (2) participant observation in the classroom; and (3) student interviews. Field notes were recorded to address: (1) how young children construct gender discourses in the early childhood classroom; (2) how young children take part in doing or performing gender in the early childhood classroom; (3) how young children use their understandings of heterosexuality to regulate space and the gendered social order in the classroom; and (4) teacher and student talk and behavior, as well as classroom events that demonstrate the ways gender and sexuality are understood within the early childhood classroom. In some cases, notes were written at the time of the experience, but in other cases, they were written at the end of the school day after the students were dismissed. When possible, exact words were recorded. Other times, scenes and dialogue were constructed based off my memory of the event. The purpose of the notes was to record the dialogue and behaviors young children displayed as they constructed gender and heterosexual discourses within their early childhood classroom. The notes were also used for and reflected on throughout the journaling process. The notes were written based on observations made using a feminist poststructuralist and queer lens.

The field notes were used to show recurring patterns of behavior and relationships between the students and to document and describe actions and interactions that provoked me, as the teacher, to make changes in my teaching practices. As part of the field notes, narrative text was used to document teaching sessions and to explore and illustrate teaching practices related to sex, gender, and sexuality. These narratives also documented specific events of everyday life in the kindergarten classroom. In some cases, recorded lessons were preplanned, while in other cases they occurred as a result of impromptu conversation that emerged from the students. Lessons were used and recorded to show the ways I, the teacher, changed my teaching practices in reaction to the research. Three specific transformational events were described and deconstructed as part of a multivocal autoethnographic text. Field notes and journal entries were used to select the text included in the autoethnographic pieces. The events chosen were based on three pivotal happenings that exemplified my journey of living in a “transitional space (Ellsworth, 2005), “of trying on, being in, and ← 14 | 15 →becoming” (Phillips, Harris, Larson, & Higgins, 2009, p. 1456) a feminist poststructural thinker and early childhood educator.

In the context of this project, journaling refers to the process I used to share my thoughts, ideas, feelings, and experiences through writing (Chabon & Lee-Wilkerson, 2006). Diary-like free writing was used to document self-introspection and interactive introspection concerning my understandings and responses to sex, gender, sexuality, and professional practice. As part of this project, journaling also served as a means of documenting and reflecting on the research practices involved (Banks-Wallace, 2008).

In order to keep a written record of personal reflections during the project, journal entries were made throughout or at the end of each school day. Journal entries were made to address my (1) reactions to classroom events, language, and behaviors related to gender and sexuality; (2) revelations concerning, reactions to, and/or changes with the approach; (3) reflections on feminist poststructuralism and queer theory as lenses to view gender discourses and how they influence the social construction of gender in the early childhood classroom; and (4) emotional reactions to student talk and actions, the approach, and the theoretical lenses used for the study.

All of the children who participated in the study acted as active research partners, giving verbal consent for their stories to be told and helping collect information through classroom discussion, storytelling, writing, and drawing. On a regular basis, we talked over with one another the nature of this pedagogical undertaking, how our classroom discussions and activities contributed to it, and how I was writing about what we were doing and talking about in the classroom.← 15 | 16 →

← 16 | 17 →Chapter 2

Critical Autoethnography and Possibilities for Reframing Teaching Practices

This project is the narrative representation of my teaching journey living in a transitional space (Ellsworth, 2005). It is a story of wandering, thinking, and writing within my own spaces of unrest—spaces that moved me intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I called upon a reconfigured poststructural autoethnography to reflect theories of subjectivity and transitional space, including ruptures and paradoxes, along with possibilities for transformative answers to new questions and the construction of rethought pedagogical behaviors (Phillips, Harris, Larson, & Higgins, 2009). While poststructural theorists challenge assumptive humanist notions of the subject as capable of knowing and articulating the self, they simultaneously offer a justification for situating the self into the written text. I used multivocal poststructural autoethnography (Mizzi, 2010) to assist me as I reflected ← 17 | 18 →upon multiple (and changing) subjectivities, voices, shifting identities, and the construction of transitional spaces.

Reconfigured Autoethnography

Shaken by criticism from poststructuralist, postmodernist, and feminist writers, some social scientists turned to personal narrative as a method of inquiry in order to frame an alternative relationship between researcher and subject. This postmodern moment was defined by a yearning for storytelling, a desire to compose ethnographies in new ways, and an urge to find alternative ways to write, including locating one’s self within the text. As a result of this movement toward personal narratives, autoethnographic writing emerged, offering with it a way to organize and frame a research study that positions the researcher as the subject (Denzin & Lincoln, 2003). In recent years and as part of a corrective shift against ethnographic practices that erased the researcher’s subjectivity while permitting him or her absolute authority for representing the “other” of the research, there has been an upsurge in autoethnographic writing. While autoethnographic written text may seem to be just “me” writing “my story” in a specific context, Denzin (2003) suggested these “mystories” may also be “reflexive, critical, multimedia tales and tellings” (p. 26). The authorization for the narrative emerges from the body and memories of the autoethnographer at the location of lived experience. From a poststructural paradigm, this speaking/writing stance is already discredited in that “the subject of the speech-act can never be the same as the one who acted yesterday” (Barthes, 1989, p. 17). Within autoethnography, the subject and the object of the research give way to the body, thoughts, and emotions of the (auto)ethnographer situated in his or her distinct time and place (Gannon, 2006). From a poststructuralist point of view, one’s subjectivity produces “tiny explosions of the self that refuse to repeat the same I” (St. Pierre, 2008, p. 123). Ethnographic research assumes that experience is the “great original,” thus persuading readers that there is both a “there” and “beings” who are “there” (Britzman, 2000, p. 28). Autoethnographic writing endows the authority of being “there” to ← 18 | 19 →the self of the researcher, who has given himself or herself the power to speak. However, this writing the self back into the research does not signify the researcher as the center of the research, as a “master of truth,” or as the chosen one to reveal truths or speak for those who are unable to (Lather, 1991, p. 157).

Clough (2000) argued that by “disrupting the ontology of the presence, [putting] origins and authenticity under erasure,” (p. 6) poststructuralism creates the unexpected by making philosophy both “impossible” and “imperative” (p. 6). Based on Derrida’s deconstruction, Spivak (1997) suggested that we examine the subject and other categories “under erasure,” meaning we should write down a word and then cross it out in order to free it from its old essence or meaning. Lather (2007) further explained the concept of under erasure as “keeping something visible but crossed out in order to avoid universalizing and monumentalizing, keeping it as both limit and resource” (pp. 167–168). Rather than throwing away the old concepts, Butler (1992) proposed we reuse them for new purposes, repeating them subversively.

Probyn (1993) argued that autoethnography abandons theory, stating that it leads to writing where “the force of the ontological is impoverished…through an insistence on the researcher’s self” (p. 5). While Ellis (2002) has avoided taking on a critical persona, autoethnographers such as Ronai (1998, 1999) have illustrated the ways theory might “dance” with the personal in autoethnographic narratives that are strong, provocative, and theoretically complex. The “evidence of experience” that the autoethnographic writer attempts to seize in his or her writing runs the risk of discounting “questions about the constructed nature of experience, about how subjects are constituted…[through] language [or discourse] and history” (Scott, 1991, p. 777). Poststructural theoretical perspectives challenge humanist assumptions of the subject as capable of self-knowledge and self-articulation. By rupturing positivist research practices and regulative boundaries, poststructural theories synchronously offer a rationalization for fusing the personal into research, thus believing the body, emotions, and lived experiences are texts to be written and read in autoethnography. While autoethnography appears to suppose that the subjects can speak (for) themselves, poststructural thinking fractures this assumption and stresses the ← 19 | 20 →possibilities of writing the self from a ruptured and fragmented subject position. In poststructural autoethnography, knowledge is derived from our exact locations in unique bodies with particular emotions, flesh, and thoughts that are made possible through certain sociocultural spaces. While autoethnography recognizes that the body is “a site for the production of knowledge, feelings, emotions and history, all of which are central to subjectivity” (Probyn, 2003, p. 290), poststructural autoethnography insists that bodies are connected to other bodies, thus they dwell and take in meaning in cultural spaces. Probyn (2003) restated this thought by saying, “the body cannot be thought of as a contained entity; it is in constant contact with others… subjectivity [is] a relational matter” (p. 290).

By exploring the works of French poststructuralists such as Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, and Cixous who have written themselves and have situated those selves under erasure, a reconfigured poststructural version of autoethnography emerged—one that traces textual strategies, arouses fractured and fragmented subjectivities, and wakens discontinuity, displacement, and disunity. Through a poststructural autoethnography, the text writes the author as complicated and multiple, located in a world where the (self) knowledge can only be partial, contingent, and situated. Even though the personal story remains privileged and the body and memory are sources of knowledge, a reconfigured poststructural autoethnography weaves theoretical texts into autoethnographic texts, thereby “author-izing” different technologies of writing (Gannon, 2006, p. 477). Believing that truth is not internalized but acquired, Foucault (1997) maintained that the purpose of writing “is nothing less than shaping the self” (p. 211) through unintentional and imaginative consideration of our daily lived experiences and disciplinary principles of living. This implies that autoethnographic texts might be constructed to bring about our own foundational criticism directed at the repressive structures in our daily lives (Denzin, 2003). By taking up writing practices intended to displace or “disassemble” the self (Rabinow, 1997, p. xxxviii), autoethnographic writing becomes dialogic rather than self-contained. Despite its tendency toward partiality and possibility, most autoethnography leaves the written self somewhat untroubled in the text; however, reconfigured poststructural ← 20 | 21 →autoethnography stresses discontinuities, disconnectedness, and jarring moments, thus steering away from linear stories of coming to “know” our hidden selves (Lather, 2000, p. 22). Written within a poststructural perspective, autoethnographic writing bends toward the ancient imperative of self-care.

“Even in the deepest recesses of our psyches, there are no experiences which, if evoked, will reveal our true identities. But the quest for the self is itself a form of self-care…we are condemned to a quest for meaning whose meaning is that our human nature is continually being reconstituted by the forms that we create along the way.” (Foucault, as cited in Hutton, 1988, p. 140)

Autoethnographers understand that autoethnography moves forward in part from memories that are enfolded in the body, but poststructural autoethnography takes up Barthes’s (1978) strategies of estrangement situating memory writing not as a veridical act that recreates the original occurrence as it was lived at the time but rather recognizes it as always constructed from a specific time and place and within a discursive space. Barthes used a variety of strategies, including photographs, to illustrate how poststructural autoethnographers can hold the author, writer, present, and past in motion. Barthes pointed out that poststructural autoethnographic writing does not search for “sacred originary” but instead for small remnants and unreliable fragments of discursive and multiple lived experiences (1978, p. 304).

Derrida challenged any writing about “oneself,” calling it risky writing (Bennington & Derrida, 1993). In “Circumfession” (Derrida in Bennington & Derrida, 1993), Derrida presented a fragmented text that emphasized that no experience, regardless of how personal or individual, can be solely represented in relation to oneself (itself). Instead everything, including (especially) our bodies, is always already embedded within culture and all that has been stated before. Derrida argued that rather than dismantle the subject, it must be situated. Through textual tricks such as layout and voice, the poststructural autoethnographer creates possibilities for breaking up the hegemony of the self in the writing. For example, Ronai (1999) used “layered accounts” to erase, adjust, and readjust her written text, thus allowing for “traces of difference to remain at play” (p. 128). Lather and Smithies (1997) used the ← 21 | 22 →works of Derrida to suggest an alternatively framed “Derridean (anti)autoethnography” that appears as a “messy text” that “interrupts and exceeds and renounces its own force toward a stuttering knowledge” (p. 214). Bakhtin (1981) used “multi-voicedness” to illustrate a “plural consciousness” in his writing and work on language. Criticizing the use of a single voice as “monologic” discourse, he located a “dialogic” discourse that developed through his own writing. Bakhtin’s “plural consciousness” embodies a multivocality involving multiple identities, desires, and voices within the subject. Mizzi (2010) pulled from Bakhtin’s work in suggesting a multivocal autoethnographic text. In relation to autoethnography, he defines multivocality as “providing a representational space in the autoethnography for the plural and sometimes contradictory narrative voices located within the researcher” (p. 2). This multivocal autoethnographic text opens up space to demonstrate the researcher’s shifting identities, the cultural, political, and historical context shaping the researcher’s behaviors and perspective, and the silent tensions that lie underneath observable behaviors.

Drawing upon the fragmented (anti)biographical works of Barthes, Derrida, and Cixous, poststructural autoethnographers have reconfigured autoethnography, allowing researchers to write themselves as uncertain and contradictory authors who speak the self—the multiple selves that each of them is and have been—the fragmented bits informed by memory, the body, other texts, and most importantly, other subjects. Through various textual strategies, autoethnographic writers misplace the speaking self that is the “subject, object, and the (im)possible production” of the autoethnographic narrative (Gannon, 2006).

Engaging With/in the Feminist Poststructural Imaginary

As mentioned previously, the notion of feminism is multiple with some common concerns across perspectives. There is usually a deconstruction of female oppression, a breakdown of the intersections between sexism and other means of imposing submission (e.g., racism, heterosexism, socioeconomic oppression), as well as interrogation of forms ← 22 | 23 →of individual and collective subordination. Power relations are central to each perspective (Sawicki, 1991). Poststructuralism is primarily concerned with language, signs, images, codes, and signifying structures, which organize the capability of the mind, society, and everyday social interactions. It is related to broader social and political institutions that also make up the social body including regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, and philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions (Foucault, 1980; Sawicki, 1991). Poststructural projects call into question theories that are made up of constant predetermined structures that have been used to define society, history, language, culture, or the human mind (Descombs, 1980).

Engaging with these perspectives, teachers (and others) can generate spaces from which to interrogate their own beliefs, languages, and actions. The views can be used to generate emotional, intellectual, and even embodied spaces for individual reflexivity. These liminal spaces can become new sites for autoethnography exploration. By (re)considering the relationships that exist among sex, gender, and sexuality, it becomes possible to rethink the notion that children are born with a fixed gender or sexual identity. Butler (1990) argued that gender is the practice through which individual cultures make sense of their sexual identity and that by performing our genders we gain an awareness of what it means to have a sexual identity and to act out our sexuality.

Queer theory extends these feminist poststructural understandings of gender identity by concerning itself with heterosexual discourses and how they affect the social construction of gender (Blaise, 2009; Warner, 1993). Queer perspectives demonstrate that heterosexuality has become standardized as a group of power relations that are judged as necessary and carried out through rewards for appropriate behaviors and punishments for those who deviate from the accepted or normal ways of being either male or female. Queer theory acts to uncover how heterosexual ways of being have been normalized and in this way have become mechanisms of power, situating heterosexual relationships as the most important and accepted form of sexual identity (Blaise, 2009).

Queer theory poses some challenges for early childhood educators and scholars because it requires them to think about children’s behaviors as not only gendered, but also sexual. A queer perspective questions ← 23 | 24 →the assumption that young children are too young to understand sexuality and, in fact, calls attention to the degree in which heterosexual assumptions and practices are a common yet unacknowledged everyday happening in early childhood settings, meaning heterosexual discourses are found throughout early childhood contexts and the gender discourses young children make use of are almost entirely heterosexual (Blaise & Taylor, 2012; Cahill & Theilheimer, 1999; Robinson, 2005). Queer theory is being used to expand discussions concerning discourses of sexuality and childhood by showing how heterosexual discourses are imbued with power relations, how young children critically negotiate these discourses, and how children’s negotiations of these discourses generate patterns of inclusion and exclusion (Blaise, 2005, 2009; Taylor, 2007, 2008; Taylor & Richardson, 2005; Skattebol, 2006).

Feminist poststructuralism and queer theory open up alternate ways of thinking about the ways children become gendered, situating the early childhood teacher not as a passive observer of children’s language and actions but as one who calls into question and challenges children’s current gender understandings (Blaise, 2005, 2009; MacNaughton, 2000; Ryan & Ochsner, 1999; Sears, 1999). Early childhood teachers should engage with a range of theoretical perspectives to understand the complicatedness concerning classroom life and what young children are learning related to gender and sexuality.

I came to believe that it was time for me to look critically at the gender discourses accessible to the young children in my classroom. Early childhood teachers can rethink the ways they are able to confront and challenge the dominant understandings of gendered social order in the early childhood classroom. Reconsidering sex, gender, and sexuality opens up the possibilities for looking diversely at the ways young children are doing gender in the early childhood classroom, including the ways children struggle with a teacher’s efforts to question and challenge their gendered behaviors (Blaise, 2005). As I engaged in my own version of critical autoethnography, I allowed the following construction to facilitate my pedagogical rethinking. This is not a complete list but rather the feminist poststructural, queer entanglements that seemed most important to my transitionings:

← 24 | 25 →Heteronormativity is a term used to name the assumption that everyone is or should be heterosexual. Heterosexual discourses are defined by stereotypical gendered norms and expectations that are perceived as appropriately male and female, including society’s expectations of males and females to fall in love and sexually desire a member of the opposite sex (Blaise, 2005). It occurs when gender is perceived as a social activity and performed in normative ways, making it impossible to understand the concept of genderedness except through a heterosexual framework (Butler, 1990). Heteronormativity becomes evident when young children take part in wedding or chase-and-kiss games, playing boyfriends and girlfriends, or moms and dads are considered natural and normal roles in home center play (Blaise, 2014). These types of heterosexual practices become normalized, thus becoming instruments of power, situating heterosexuality as the most valued and accepted form of sexuality (Blaise, 2009).

A feminist poststructural perspective emphasizes the social and relational aspects of gender, acknowledging how gender resides in context and how it is constructed through children’s talk, actions, and interactions with each other and the social world they live in (Blaise, 2005). One’s gender is not bound by biological deterministic explanations, but rather it is susceptible to change across and within different cultures over time (Robinson & Diaz, 2006). It is a dynamic and fluid process that refers to the way one takes on characteristics that are considered either masculine or feminine. Alternatively, developmental logic assumes children are born either male or female and learn how to be boys and girls through a process where they naturally become gendered and eventually heterosexualized. From this point of view, gender is only understood through biological differences in the sexes and is relatively fixed by the time a person reaches adulthood (Blaise, 2014).

Gender identity has to do with an individual’s own feelings about his/her gender, whether he/she sees himself/herself as male, female, both, or neither. This may vary from his/her assigned gender, which is based on his/her physical characteristics. It is a private experience (Kessler & McKenna, 1978; Money & Ehrhardt, 1972; Paechter, 2001). In most cases, young children work to develop a corresponding gender ← 25 | 26 →identity and role that are deemed appropriate for their gender assignment or sexual identity (Pathak, 2008).

Sexuality is often publically understood as biologically driven acts of intimacy. However, researchers who study sexuality contend that it is much more than just the physical act of sex (Mellor & Epstein, 2006). Rather it is made up of myriad social interactions and cultural understandings constructed in particular places and situations. This includes cultural practices such as childhood chase-and-kiss games, dating and breaking-up practices, romantic ideals and stories, as well as social and legal institutions such as marriage. It is all of the aspects through which we organize our sexual lives, and these entanglements are varied and fluid.

Queer eye proposes the use of a new perspective or a new way of looking at gender, which is learned and informed by queer theory. When early childhood teachers utilize queer theory in their analyses into young children’s gender construction, they develop what is referred to as a queer eye. This perspective does not assume that any one type of gender is normal, but rather it examines the ways in which young children’s gendered behavior both mirror and strengthen the norms of heterosexuality. By developing a queer eye, early childhood teachers can gain an awareness of how children act in agreement with dominant gender discourses, how the power relationships within these discourses are negotiated, and how classroom behaviors and actions are conformed to what is deemed appropriate within the overarching discourse of heterosexuality (Blaise & Taylor, 2012).

Autoethnography called to me as a way to make sense of the teacher/researcher world I lived in. It unraveled my subjectivities and gave voice to my experiences. By using multivocality within my research method, I was able to provide a representational space in the autoethnography for the multiple voices of my teacher selves that would have been overlooked otherwise (Mizzi, 2010). As I explored heteronormativity and argued for queering gender in my own early childhood classroom, my own experiences continued to interrupt my subjectivities, pushing me to (re)consider the falsity of my own beliefs (Pathak, 2010). This perplexity was worsened by my continual need to disrupt my knowledge of the good DAP teacher while acknowledging the ← 26 | 27 →embodied reality of my new experiences as a feminist poststructural researcher (Pathak, 2008). Throughout the study, I struggled to write a disruptive autoethnography that represented the self as silencing and dismissive of young children as sexualized beings yet, at the same time, troubled another that used queer theory to rethink gender equity in the early childhood classroom (Gannon, 2006).← 27 | 28 →

← 28 | 29 →Chapter 3

Disrupting Dominant Constructions

Constructivist and critical scholars suggest that the notion of child does not represent a universal human truth, but rather it is a category created through language and discourse that actually serves to limit and control the lives of those who are younger. Within postmodern and critical (Agger, 1991; McCarthy, 1991; Poster, 1989) research paradigms, the notion that younger human beings represent a separate and unique human condition called childhood has been examined and critiqued as producing power for one group of human beings over another (Cannella, 1997). Feminist poststructuralism has provided a lens through which these power relations can be exposed and deconstructed.

The Construction of the Child

Emerging largely from both the enlightenment and modernist periods is the notion that younger human beings embody a separate human condition called childhood. In Western culture, childhood is typically ← 29 | 30 →viewed as a human state that we all experience and see as recognizably different from adulthood. Most people living in the United States view children as separate from adults and as part of a distinct group who are to be controlled, protected, and guided toward a more independent and competent self. By creating a body of human beings who must have decisions made for them and their actions carefully observed and monitored, we have constructed a group that is marginalized, belittled, and silenced and who are not deemed able or mature enough to create themselves (Cannella, 1997).

Early childhood teachers recognize that within enlightenment and modernist discourses, the concept of child has changed over time and through different historical contexts, therefore making it progressively more complete. These discourses that emerged were highly influential in situating adults as more powerful than children since it was believed that the progression of intellect occurred over time. Consistent with views of progress, early childhood experts believe they have learned what young children are like and can describe how they grow, change, and think, and the types of early learning environments that are best for them (Cannella, 1997).

Traced back to the Cartesian concept of the separation of mind and matter is the reflexive discourse of dichotomies. In Western culture, children have been constructed as distinctly different from older human beings and as a group that depends on adults for food, nurturing, and care. Oftentimes, young children are characterized as innocent, weak, needy, lacking in skill, and savage, while adults are typically characterized in opposition as intelligent, strong, competent, mature, and civilized. This Western dualistic thinking of adult/child has constructed the child as immature and uncivilized, which has led to the belief that childhood is a period in life that requires protection, reform, and control by adults (Block, 1995). This dichotomous line of thought has produced structures of power, which allow those who are younger to be disciplined, silenced, and controlled. According to Burman (1994), this dichotomous construction is used to perpetuate a colonialist power for those who are created as adults. The construction of children as a group who need protection and/or to be saved has sustained forms of oppressive power, which deny young children voice and personal expression, ← 30 | 31 →resulting in less agency to establish themselves within dominant cultural domains and discourses (Cannella, 1997).

Postmodernist and feminist poststructuralist perspectives have been instrumental in challenging these modernist beliefs, which have dominated our Western understandings of childhood (Cannella, 1997; Davies, 1989, 1993; Grieshaber, 2001; James & Prout, 1990; MacNaughton, 2000; Robinson & Diaz, 2006; Walkerdine, 1990). These perspectives question the very notion of childhood as a universal experience, suggesting it is socially constructed through language that may actually act to limit and control the lives of those who are younger. Postmodernists and feminist poststructuralists propose that the notion of child is a value-laden construction characterized by dominant Western understandings of childhood and created by individuals to best fit their perceptions of particular historical periods and social contexts (Cannella, 1997; Golding, 1992; Laclau, 1990; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Morrow & Brown, 1994).

Queering Childhood and Gendered Identities

Western culture considers gender identity central to an individual’s life history, and while to some degree, each individual develops his or her own understanding and representation of masculinity and femininity, gender identity is also a joint experience that combines social relationships with personal life, meaning that the interpretations and practices of gender will fluctuate according to culture, race, era, etc. Long before a child is born, the dominant gender scripts in Western society are demonstrated in the ways we classify and think about his or her assigned gender. A central tenet to a Western construction of gender is how it is inseparably comprised within and normalized through the process of compulsory heterosexuality. This means of heterosexualization functions throughout everyday practices, including those in early childhood classrooms (Paechter, 1998; Robinson & Diaz, 2006).

Feminist poststructuralism and queer theory have been used to dispute the Western cultural belief that there is a direct, causal, and necessary relationship between biological sex and the gender role one ← 31 | 32 →assumes (Blaise, 2005; Connell, 1995; Nicholson, 1994; Paechter, 1998) or that there are particular dualistic gender roles within which all human beings must and can live. This rethinking acknowledges multiple possibilities and fluid and changing identities as well as notions of sexuality as subjective, liminal, and having been limited (and often disqualified) by dominant Western, even patriarchal cultural beliefs.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2016 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 141 pp.

Biographical notes

April Larremore (Author)

April Larremore works in the K-2 Curriculum and Instruction Department for Dallas ISD. She has worked in early childhood for twenty years as a practitioner, a learning coach, a curriculum writer, and a professional development presenter. She received her EdD in early childhood studies from the University of North Texas.


Title: Disrupting Gendered Pedagogies in the Early Childhood Classroom