Robbins, K. (2004). Struggling for Equality/Struggling for hierarchy: Gender dynamics in an English as an additional language classroom for adolescent Vietnamese refugees. Feminist Teacher, 15(1), 66-79.
Robbins begins with an awareness that there is a lack of scholarly research that focuses on gendered power relations in the classroom for students of colour (2004, p.67). Robbins is interested in observing on gender dynamics in an EAL classroom of Vietnamese migrant students in exchange for teaching English to the class. Students were refugees who had arrived to US for under a year (ages 9-14).
The article is grounded in the context of local Vietnamese culture gendered and power dynamics. Vietnamese power relations are based on traditional gender hierarchy with males as the breadwinner who provides for the family (Robbins, 2004, p. 69). Women are seen as good wives and mothers concerned with housework, appearances, politeness, and being respectful of superiors (Robbins, 2004, p. 69). However, in the process of migration, these traditional Vietnamese values shift and “migration diminishes the power of men and… enhances the power of women and the young” (Robbins, 2004, p. 69). This shift leads to “increased independence and self-assertiveness among females, particularly adolescent girls” (Robbins, 2004, p. 70). Girls assume an important role beyond the home when they begin school; they may translate content for their family because of their English skills and also have greater access to education than their parents might have.
Based on Robbins’ observations, girls were likely to ask teacher for help, and did so often. They establish a peaceful environment in the classroom with their interactions with other girls, resulting in more collaborative work in the class. Conversely, boys who seemed to fear poor academic performance were more likely to display disruptive behaviour. Robbins suggests that their “disruptive behaviour was tied to maintaining dominance and included a combination of factors, such as the desire to get attention, outperform others, and avoid feeling like or appearing as a failure” (2004, p. 70). Male students also acted more assertively, yelling out answers in the class or taking up more time to talk than female students, whereas girls were more soft-spoken when uncertain about their response (Robbins, 2004, p. 74). Taking into account cultural background of these students and the shifts that occur as a result of migrating to a new country, Robbins concluded that “boys competed more for dominance and roles of power because it is socially more acceptable for them to do so” (2004, p. 71). The male students demonstrated an increased power struggle in the classroom now that the presence of female students challenged traditional cultural gendered constructs, leading to increased competition to assert dominance.
I selected this article because it recounted one researcher’s specific experience of the intersection of culture and gender, as opposed to viewing them as two separate entities that do not relate to each other. While the account is informative, it is necessary to recognize that the author’s experience might vary vastly from another teacher’s experience with students from Vietnamese immigrant backgrounds. I appreciate that the researcher took time to consider the cultural aspects of the students in explaining their behaviour in relation to the research about gendered difference in the classroom. I also appreciate that the teacher recognized how migration- a significant social process of change in the lives of our students and their families can be reflected even in the classroom. This article provokes the notion that often classrooms reflect the reality of what is occurring on outside of them, and the necessity of teachers to recognize such realities. Knowing about social and cultural factors related to the individual, teachers can inform themselves, their students, and their classrooms.