By Christy Cartner and Emily Warren
March ushers in warmer weather, a glimpse of light at the end of the school year tunnel and Women’s History Month. Students across the Commonwealth engage in lessons on famous female figures and women’s issues.
With this month of attention, students and educators may question the relevance and importance of additional emphasis on women in their already overflowing curriculum. While it is possible to embed women’s issues into traditional history and literature classes pretty seamlessly, we argue that entire women’s studies courses have a place in Kentucky high schools.
Bryan Station High School (Fayette County) has offered both women’s studies and women’s literature electives. When originally designed, students would take the electives during the same period of the school day to foster collaboration. In the original design of the class, student would learn about women’s history and topical issues in the social studies elective, and then discuss how the historical events and topical issues influenced literature in the English elective. While the courses can be taught apart, pairing the two courses offered students a rich and well-rounded look at how women are influenced by the world around them.
Classes focusing on women’s issues can reinforce content and skills learned in other classes, with the opportunity to explore topics such as the history of feminism, body image, gender roles, politics, media, health, economics and pop culture. In a course focused on women’s studies, these major topics easily can become themes for units. Or if a teacher wants to embed women’s issues into a pre-existing curriculum, it would make sense to insert these topics where they naturally fit into what is already taught.
Adding literary connections also can be an effective way of using women’s studies in a pre-existing curriculum. Female authors who may be overlooked in core classes but offer rich opportunities for discussion include Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Sylvia Plath, Gloria Naylor, Sandra Cisneros, Alice Sebold, Laura Esquivel and Amy Tan.
As with many social studies and literature courses, women’s studies aims to blend content with skills. The history of each major theme merges with contemporary issues in order to maximize engagement and relevance for students. This class naturally lends itself to instructional strategies such as literature circles, project-based learning, multi-modal writing, inquiry, analysis of multiple perspectives and taking informed action.
In independent courses focused on women’s studies, students often engage in student-led discussions and Socratic seminars, and do not take traditional paper-and-pencil tests, but rather engage in projects that immerse them into the topics they have discussed in class. These projects have ranged from Women’s History Month celebrations – like student-created museum exhibits for the school community to visit and dancing flash mobs in the cafeteria – to multi-modal writing projects like doll boxes and board games.
Women’s studies courses are valuable for all students because they help build lifelong learners. These classes not only allow a diversity of perspectives, but encourage students to look at issues through multiple lenses and hone their communication and deliberation skills as they work through complex issues. Students at Bryan Station High School (Fayette County) have gone on to form summer book clubs, participate in volunteer activities to promote women’s causes and declare majors in college related to women’s studies.
Perhaps the strongest argument for the benefit of women’s studies courses comes from a 2016 graduate who wrote the following reflection about her experience in Women’s Literature: “Although I had already considered myself a feminist and well-versed on most ‘feminist issues,’ I was able to expand my worldview, discovering issues I would never have thought of, and began to explore the concept and importance of intersectionality.”
Emily Warren has taught AP English Language and Composition, English 2, 3 and 4, and Women’s Literature. She is in her ninth year of teaching at Bryan Station High School (Fayette County). She is working on a doctorate in English pedagogy and technology at Murray State University. Christy Cartner has taught Civics, Women’s Studies and U.S. History. She is in her ninth year of teaching at Bryan Station. She is working toward a doctorate in curriculum and instruction.