Women's History Month: Lessons for Teachers on Promoting Gender Awareness
Last year, Karen Bovard, a teacher from Connecticut, traveled to Indonesia as a fellow of the TEA-ILEP U.S. Teacher Exchange Program. Upon returning, she created an advanced high school course called “Women in a Global Context” to cultivate an understanding of worldwide gender issues in her students. In this blog, Karen discusses the evolution of the course and what she learned from preparing and delivering it.
I’ve been fortunate in my life to spend significant time in a variety of cultures, but I’d never lived in a predominantly Muslim society before my TEA-ILEP exchange, which sent me to a madrasah—a Muslim boarding school. This offered me a glimpse into a culture that is quite different in terms of gender norms. I learned a lot, quickly, including the crucial role of women’s community in culture.
Designing the “Women in a Global Context” Course
I read Kristof and Wudunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide last winter, while I was preparing for my TEA-ILEP experience. That’s when I first conceived of the course. As part of my orientation for my trip, I watched Chimamanda Adichie’s brilliant TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” That has now become one of my favorite teaching tools, and I used it in this class. I often referred back to the central ideas—that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and that we must not assume we know more than we do—as a way of reining in stereotyping and promoting more nuanced critical thinking.
The course is a 12 week history elective open to any 11/12 grader, including those earning a special diploma in Global Studies. It is a practical course introducing Women’s Studies and promoting global awareness to students with a wide variety of learning styles. Students completed real world activist final projects in lieu of research papers or a final exam.
Specific learning objectives for the students included the following:
● To learn about the wide variation in gender norms across cultures
● To present gender as a crucial element in the reduction of poverty worldwide
● To enhance student awareness of current events through the lens of gender
● To build skills in media critique and critical thinking
● To introduce students to a culturally diverse set of heroines and heroes: people who have found ways to take effective action toward social justice
● To build student appreciation for their own privilege as young people who have access to education and to multiple options
● To build students’ activist skills, in real world projects of their own design
● To promote self-reflection and analysis of those projects through deliberate debriefing
Lessons for Other Teachers Hoping to Promote Awareness of Gender Issues
First: Be tuned to the issue of emotional load for the students. I found I needed to be nimble pedagogically to help the most susceptible of the students in the class keep from becoming fearful or traumatized. I developed reading guides to accompany each chapter we read, to help the students put personal stories into context. We skipped some chapters in the book. Additionally, I found it wise to break up the reading with other assignments, such as a brief lecture on resiliency studies, a class chalk talk on favorite sayings for hard times, a bulletin board design project on women change agents, short research papers on women winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, scavenger hunts related to microfinance and educational innovations around the world.
Second: Take particular care to set up norms at the beginning of the class that honor the differences (race, class, gender, culture, religion, etc.) amongst people, and insist that people speak for themselves, not as a representative of a group. This was particularly crucial to help the one boy in the class feel safe. Reminders were necessary.
Third: The current events thread of the class was managed via an online learning community where students posted and responded to articles from news sources around the world, not just from local or US sources.
Fourth: In designing the activist projects for the end of term, I wanted to allow students to make their own decisions but also provide some expertise and support. One of our technology experts delivered a fine, practical class on how to use social media effectively. Some projects had great outcomes—see, for instance, the following fully searchable website featuring books about girls and women around the world: http://witgc.watspaces.org. Some students were very smart about connecting to existing initiatives at the school. Still others banded together and held a benefit coffeehouse to raise money for two organizations they wanted to support. Students were graded on the project outcome, but also on a multi-part process portfolio and a self-reflective essay articulating lessons learned about activism and what they would do differently the next time.
Karen Bovard is the Director of the Creative Arts Program at Watkinson School, a grade 6-12 independent school in Hartford, CT. The TEA-ILEP U.S. Teacher Exchange Program, recently redesigned as the Teachers for Global Classrooms program, is funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State and implemented by IREX.