Women through the ages

A few months ago, I enthusiastically tweeted:

twitter women through ages

I was increasingly excited about the prospect of teaching some of my favourite texts to my year 10 class. I’ve written about year 10 before, but in a nutshell they are an intervention group whose literacy could be better than it currently is. My main aim for the scheme of work was to build their vocabulary and improve their creative, informative and persuasive writing skills through exposure to some of the best examples I could find.

Oh, and I wanted to make them feminists.

I teach in an all-girls’ school, and so this kind of aim pretty much suffuses our curriculum, not to mention the SMSC and other varied acronyms. I’ve written before about feminism’s place in the classroom, so perhaps this scheme of work was partly my way of making such arguments heard and understood.

Because I don’t think we can take it for granted that our students are cognisant of the challenges that might face them because they are girls. Despite continually out-performing their male counterparts in the education stakes, girls continue to enter a world in which women, to paraphrase Sheryl Sandberg, are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. Women continue to do the vast majority of housework and child rearing, and they continue to earn far less than men over their careers. More terrifyingly, our children are growing up, as the film Miss Representation makes clear, surrounded by media which dictates that girls looking attractive to men is what matters.

Yet the message of feminism is by no means undisputed. Sandberg has been critiqued for exploring only a very tiny subsection of society in her analysis; Roxanne Gay has pointed out that women of colour are experiencing gender inequality in different ways which must also be heard; Caitlin Moran has been called “dismissive” for her comments on the hijab and why women ought not to be wearing it. This is a complex discourse, and one I very much would like my students to be able to enter into.

I’ve pasted the lesson powerpoints below, but will be making some key changes in preparing a similar scheme of work for the new Key Stage 4 curriculum. The revised scheme will be longer – six weeks instead of three. It will span a greater length of time, and take account of these alternative feminisms. It will be focused on key questions to interrogate, rather than key texts to read. I’ve posted a week-by-week below in case this is of interest.

I’ve also omitted textual exploration of masculinity, although we did watch the trailer for The Mask You Live In and go on to explore depictions of masculinity in adverts. This kind of scheme taught in a mixed school would definitely benefit from more gender balance, perhaps including the “He for She” campaign and exploring the challenges boys and men face in today’s society.

If we need to teach non-fiction, I do think there are some key messages we can use those schemes of work to put across to young people. There are too many inequalities in our society; I want my students to be empowered and inspired by knowledge and understanding of these inequalities to put them right.

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Revised SoW: Week by week outline

Week 1:

  • Coverage:  Modern femininity
  • Key question: how are women seen in today’s society?
  • (Everyday Sexism; MissRepresentation; feminism today)
  • (Opposing branches of feminism (Wolf/Benn/Gay/Moran))

Week 2:

  • Coverage: Women under oppression (Malala; Wadjda; Reading Lolita in Tehran)
  • Key question: do women everywhere experience the same freedoms and constraints?

Week 3:

  • Coverage: Historical female oppression (Suffragettes)
  • Key question: how has the female experience changed?

Week 4:

  • Coverage: Female communication: journalism
  • Key question: Is there a female voice?
  • (Lean In excerpts; Lena Dunham (write to entertain), India Knight (write to shock)

Week 5:

  • Coverage: Female communication: political
  • Key question: how successfully do women convey messages in a political setting?
  • Speechwriting (Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Harriet Harman/Theresa May?)

Week 6:

  • Coverage: Roles and perceptions of women
  • Key question: how are women seen, and how do they see themselves?
  • Hillary Bill Clinton; Eleanor Roosevelt; Sandberg commencement speech; Fey Bossypants

Year 10 feminism SoW

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Professional distance and politics

In this week’s “Tough Young Teachers”, one of the trainees talks about professional distance, mentioning he’s not a father/brother/uncle, but a teacher. Sure, the lesson of his week seemed to be that letting his guard down a bit led to big gains with a hard-to-reach student; but most teachers will agree with the dictum of professional distance.

It’s not that I’ve ever fiercely guarded my private life, but if it doesn’t come up at a time when learning is not happening (and without a tutor group, it doesn’t tend to) I won’t mention it. This week, one student asked me during break if I was a nun, which interested me, but was possibly more to do with my below-the-knee skirt than anything else.

Also, there is the legalese on political balance to be aware of – you can’t fly a particular political flag in your classroom; you must introduce balance. These are impressionable young minds, after all. 

Over the years, I’ve shied away from politics and political statements more and more. I think this is mostly down to my personal preference to be inoffensive to others, as well as my general ennui with the political game.

Increasingly, I’m starting to wonder if this is an acceptable approach.

A couple of years ago, one of my oldest and dearest friends asked me to go to see a film with wadjdaher that she had free tickets for called “Wadjda.” I agreed, mostly because time with her is golddust (she spins many plates) and I wanted to catch up. It came as a genuine surprise to me that this film was scheduled on Internetional Women’s Day, mostly because I didn’t have an awareness of when that day was. Before the film, we chatted, among other things, about “feminism” and both agreed that 1. We weren’t feminists and 2. We thought feminism was a bit outdated.

After the film, we were both put firmly in our privileged places by the media before us. Luckily for us, we live in the UK, where a woman’s freedom is equal to a man’s; a woman’s legal rights are equal, access to education is equal, and the right to work and generally live unfettered lives of choice are equal. My ignorance of the experience of the rest of the world was poorly showcased as I watched open-mouthed at a little girl who was not allowed to ride a bike in public, in a film set not in the dim and distant past, but today, right now, in a different part of the world.

And then I sort of got on with my life.

Somewhere along the way, I found myself reading Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman”, which is hilarious and brilliantly written. I nodded along to everything she said, while simultaneously recognising that, actually, I conform to many of the expectations society unfairly has of women (example: I do things men do not, such as wear make-up: Moran tells us we need to ask one central question to see if something is fair or not, and that is “are the men doing it?”).

And then, again, I got on with my life.

But misrepresentations of women are all around us, and accepting this and buying into this is undeniably damaging for the future generation – this future generation, part of whom I happen to teach, working, as I do, in a girls’ school.

Working in my second girls’ school was definitely unplanned. Although I loved my first, I sought to broaden my experience by joining a mixed school. And although I was offered a great job in just such a school, I happened to fall in love with my current one on interview day, and here I am.

I have always maintained, however, that segregation of schooling for any reason (money, faith, gender) is wrong. I’ve maintained this very, very quietly, because I really hate disagreeing with people. I’m also a terrible debater, so I’d rather write my views here and run away. I can’t hold my own in an argument. I start smiling and nodding too soon.

My belief that gender segregation of schooling is unfair stemmed from research I encountered early on in my career that, while girls do just as well in single sex schools as in mixed schools, boys don’t. By this, of course, I mean exam results. So there are a whole lot of boys out there who aren’t getting as good of a deal as the girls I am lucky enough to teach.

Miss_Representation_(2011)The film “Miss Representation” has put me firmly in my place on that. Because actually education is not just about exam results. So the boys don’t do as well in their GCSEs? They go on to dominate the media and society as a whole in every conceivable way.

I visited a school in my first year of teaching with a heavy boy bias, due to being flanked by several girls’ schools in the surrounding area. While there, a colleague informed me that the girls had a big problem with “self respect”: they would let boys talk to them inappropriately, and even touch them inappropriately, many of them falling in line with the expectations of women the media had of them. I sat in on a wonderful assembly, where the girls were gathered and shown this Dove ad. They were spoken to about their potential, and the role they should be looking to play in society.

In “Miss Representation”, the media’s bias is laid bare, with advertising, tabloid journalism, music videos, news broadcasting and politics all explored to mine the cultural implications for women. Watching this, I found myself thinking about the students I teach, and the amount who can become very passionate and articulate about why they should be allowed to wear make-up to school, but don’t seem to have an awareness of why they, as females, are expected to wear this make-up while men are not.

I’m wary that banging a feminist drum will alienate people, but perhaps I need to be a better role model for the students I teach. It’s really hard to get some students to buy into education, but what if they knew the world they would enter into would be one where their voices would be always judged in accordance with their looks? Might they better see the link to be made between an education and redressing the balance?

These are impressionable young minds. I’m in a privileged position to be leading them. I think it needs to get political.