During a recent Twitter chat on #sheparty hosted by the Women’s Media Center, I tweeted: “How many feminists know edu hashtags and vice versa?”
The point I wanted to get across is that many feminists today don’t know much about today’s education conversation and, in turn, educators don’t know much about what’s going on in feminist discourse, whether it’s academic or activist.
My job as a feminist high school teacher is to close the women’s and gender studies gap for young people. To stop bullying, stop raping, stop perpetuating racism and sexism, and instead start making social change, I believe in bringing a gender, racial, and economic justice lens to education at all levels. Feminism does this work.
For me, connecting schools with feminist theory and action is personal. When I was in elementary school on Long Island in the early ‘80s, I was called “Afro” and “nigger.” Recess was not fun; to the contrary, it was a time to be bullied by my peers, who surrounded me while I was on the swings and in the sandbox. I always wonder how different my life might have been if my white teachers and white peers knew something about racism or if the rich history of Puerto Ricans and African-Americans had been taught to us as children. The goal would not have been color-blindness, but safety and inclusion, respect and responsibility for each other.
Now that I am a teacher, I believe that the power of feminist theory and action is exactly what young people need to create understandings across differences, learn how to lead healthy lives and to make social change.
Tapping the Women’s Studies Canon
I start by teaching my high school students the very thing that colleges teach in feminist studies — intersectionality. The students read a variety of texts — Patricia Hill Collins, the Combahee River Collective, Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Cherríe Moraga. Like any good high school English class, they conduct close readings, hold discussions and write about their interpretations. Their writing also includes blogging on their own feminist blog, F to the Third Power.
Students also write personal essays about their own experiences. From the young white boy to the multi-racial girl, each of my students has a story to share about race, class, gender and sexuality. They include the Dominican girl who was afraid her undocumented parents would be found out and the Asian boy figuring out his sexuality. No theory has ever made more sense to them than intersectionality because it finally gives students the language to describe their everyday lives, making this important tenet of feminism suddenly indispensable.
The social issues that high school students face have long roots in feminist analysis. Schools struggle to combat bullycides, cyberbullying, and mean girls (and mean boys), all of which are ongoing at alarmingly high rates. These concerns involve homophobia and transphobia, sexism and misogyny, racism and classism; feminists have offered rich analyses about these interlocking systems of oppression for over 40 years.
I also teach them how to enact social change in their communities. For the past three years, the students in my high school feminism course have supported GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), which is the only agency in New York State to protect girls from re-entering the cycle of domestic sex trafficking. We watch the film, Very Young Girls; we read GEMS Executive Director Rachel Lloyd’s new memoir, Girls Like Us, and invite GEMS outreach workers to talk to the class about the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
But that’s not all. I don’t want my students to just learn about the work of feminist activism. I want them to participate in it, as well, and to develop a sustained relationship with an issue that is part of a gender justice vision, not flavor-of-the-month activism.
For the past three years, the students in the high school feminism class have hosted a GEMS assembly, during which they teach their peers about the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Students write a script, create presentation slides, show clips from Very Young Girls, share their personal stories about why the topic means something to them and invite GEMS outreach workers to answer questions. At the end of the first assembly in 2009, students called their peers to action, asking for donations for GEMS girls and their babies. The next day, our donation box was flooded with baby blankets, clothes and diapers. Following our assembly, we received a rare invitation to visit the GEMS office to participate in World AIDS Day activities.
The second year, a student club at our school called the Community Service Roundtable was so moved by the GEMS assembly that it dedicated its annual coffeehouse fundraising efforts to GEMS. What was once a classroom unit became a school-wide commitment. This year’s effort will include students interviewing Lloyd about her memoir and selling her book to support the Girls Like Us campaign that fights for a world where girls are not for sale.
In my experience, high school students flock to courses that bridge what they learn in the classroom to the outside world. This idea is a core principle of passion-based learning, which is the complete opposite of test taking and racing to nowhere. Passion-based learning inspired one of my students who had seen assemblies on the commercial sexual exploitation of children during her first two years in high school, to take my feminism course her junior year and explore more deeply the kind of social change that is based on gender, racial and economic justice.
The work I do with students incorporates some of the most valuable aspects of education: critical thinking, analytical writing, collaboration and public speaking, all the while connecting them to important social issues that asks them to practice care and compassion.
More Work to Do
More cross-connections between feminists and educators would make a difference. Why don’t we talk to primary school children about gender roles and gender expression at a time when these roles are first reinforced? Why not teach middle school students to be more mindful about the sexualization of women and girls in the media and how these images prime their buying habits and influence how they eat (or don’t eat)? Why aren’t educators teaching high school students how men can stop rape?
People tell me that I’m unique for doing this work with high school students. I disagree. Waiting in the inbox for my blog are several emails from middle and high school teachers from across the country, asking for ideas on how to bring a gender-based lens to their classrooms. Mostly, these teachers need support with age-appropriate content that will help them implement curricula for K-12 classrooms.
Achieving this transformation in schools will take an entire village of feminist scholars, activists and teachers working together. Here are some things that would help:
● Women’s, gender, queer, and ethnic studies departments should offer pedagogy classes for the K-12 sector.
● Professors in women’s, gender, queer and ethnic studies and teachers in local K-12 schools should share content and approaches.
● Education schools should create centers dedicated to gender research and invite teachers to participate in research projects and curriculum design.
● Feminist activists and organizations should partner with teachers on participatory action research (PAR) projects and activist initiatives that involve K-12 students.
There is so much more that we can do. Obama’s Council on Women and Girls could collaborate with the Department of Education on how to bring more gender research into curriculum design. International partnerships with the Miss G Project in Canada, which has been working to get a gender studies course into the Ontario secondary school curriculum since 2005, could be created with teachers here in the U.S.
During my time as a Fulbright teacher and researcher in Mexico this past year, working on LGBT youth in schools in the gender studies program at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), showed me that teachers, not just scholars, need to do more global research on issues of gender and sexuality, and bring that knowledge back to their schools.
In the end, this is about working together with young people to tackle our most important social issues. In 15 years of teaching, I have seen that there is no other generation than today’s high school students more ready to take on this work. Are we ready to join them?