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

All change: new KS4 specifications

English subject leaders around the country have undoubtedly been on the same emotional journey as me regarding the introduction of new specifications for KS4 and 5 simultaneously (not to mention the recent KS3 changes and removal of KS3 levels). For a time, I complained it was too much. How could we possibly be expected to take on such an inordinate amount of wheel reinvention? Not to mention the purchasing of new texts from already overstretched budgets.

Then, in a moment of calm over Christmas, I turned off all technology, sat with the specification, and planned. I looked at the assessment, the time, the units, the assessment objectives. And after a while it ceased to be scary.

I’d made my peace with Literature before Christmas. Having chosen to go with AQA (albeit with reluctance), I wanted to stick with as much of the same content as I could. We currently teach both Macbeth and An Inspector Calls, and though neither would be my first choice of text, I’d rather send English teachers into classrooms armed with at least some prior experience of teaching at least some of the texts.

For the nineteenth century novel, I won’t lie: my first impulse was to go for the shortest available. We teach Jekyll and Hyde in year 9, so it would have to be The Sign of the Four (a short story that begins with the injection of illegal drugs? Sounds eminently teachable to me). We want to teach every child the same curriculum in English, and if the exam is closed text, surely the shorter the text, the more manageable?

Luckily, I was dissuaded of my instinct to game by two people: my glorious line manager (deputy headteacher; fountain of wisdom, knowledge and general calmness) and my superstar NQT (so good at what she does already, I am improving my own practice with every observation). Both looked at the text choices afresh, having not been in the room when I was descanting on the virtues of a short, easy novella. Both said “Jane Eyre.

Of course. We teach in a girls’ school, for one thing, and what female (human?) has not felt left out, isolated, unfairly treated? And, of all the texts on the list, which would I most want the children leaving us to have read? It had to be Jane Eyre. Plus, we have time – despite the weight of many exams, the course content is comfortingly manageable. Four texts in two years is no great feat.

That settled, my new worry was the Language specification. Teaching fiction would be straightforward – I stuck the word “seminal” in front of the unit title, and thought we would pretty much teach any “great” literature, thus exposing students to excerpts from the best that has been thought and/or said. The non-fiction reading/transactional writing had the greatest potential to devolve into the current, mostly meaningless skill-drilling of the current AQA language paper (my least favourite exam ever).

Instead of teaching skills, therefore, I thought about what else I most wanted our girls to leave us with. I want them to be confident young women, who are armed with knowledge of the inequalities of our world that might face them, and angered enough to challenge these. I wanted them to be inspired by female role models, and seek to achieve more as a result. I wanted them to understand the journey that women as a sex have been on, and how far we have come. It was thus that the idea of “Women Through the Ages” came about: a scheme of work that would explore female journalism and feminist polemics in the context of works such as Everyday Sexism. The unit is under construction now, and I will write more about it in due course, but I am terribly, terribly excited.

But with eleven schemes of work to write over two key stages (and that’s just for us to be 2015-16 ready), how could I convince a small team to pitch in? I agonized over the department meeting, and spent a good deal of time talking with close colleagues and loved ones about how I would go about dumping a massive amount of work at English teachers’ feet; English teachers who I already have to chase out of the office nearing 6pm on a Friday, where they trudge, still laden with exercise books, home to half eat, half watch television and half communicate with their families while marking.

Under excellent advice, I simplified my initial explanatory teaching grid (it underwent many guises, including one especially confusing multi-coloured moment), and talked teachers through it. I’d spoken to the whole department about the new specs informally leading up to this moment, and I think our conversations were invaluable to trail this meeting. We went through each paper and the mark scheme, but not in a great deal of detail. I then shared a timeline for how and when these schemes would be completed: each teacher was in a team with either myself or the 2 i/c, and each teacher had a deadline for the medium term plan, first week of lessons, second week and so on.

I could not believe the response from the team. They nodded along during the meeting, chipping in helpfully, and making positive and enthusiastic comments. When I broached the making of SoWs, no-one flinched. When I asked them to go and have a think about any they might be happy taking on and let me know by the next week, one burst out with: “can I do Jane Eyre?” I wanted to explode with gratitude.

The following week, I approached my team to see if they wanted to sit down and clarify their schemes prior to beginning the medium term plans. Each member surprised me by showing me nearly fully finished plans, three weeks prior to the deadline. There was no fear, no concern; just seeming excitement and graft at the task in hand.

I could not be more grateful to the team of amazing teachers I am privileged to manage. I was expecting resistance, struggle and unhappiness; instead, the department feels invigorated, stoic and almost merry. Long may it last.

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.

Women in literature (or: this one’s for the girls)

I didn’t choose to work in a girls’ school. It just sort of happened. Twice. I wasn’t even aware, the first time, that girls’ schools existed outside of the independent sector. And this is in no way me weighing in on the argument about mixed or single sex education: I am too utterly torn between the unfairness of working in phenomenal schools that effectively exclude 50% of the population, and the fact that girls are really, really lovely to teach on their own. (I know it’s more complicated than that, so here ends my weighing.)

One thing that I love about working in an all-girls’ school is the way I can shape my lessons and my curriculum to reflect what are also my concerns. I can obviously understand and empathise with the women in literature and the feminist concerns more readily and with more interest than those of the other sex. I know what girls like. And I’m sure my colleagues in mixed schools know what both boys and girls like, but with me there was no learning involved.

It’s self-indulgent to have the capacity to only consider what would interest people I was once like. My reading lists are undeniably lacking in machismo, action or horror, or any of those texts that traditionally don’t appeal to women; don’t appeal to me.

But what is much more important than all this literary laziness is the opportunity to be proactive about women’s issues. That’s right, I said it. Because for all our assumed equality, there is a massive bone to pick with literary history, and I intend on my girls knowing about it and reading about it, then using those glasses to look more closely at the way things are now, and to draw some new conclusions.

Year 10 have just finished studying a beautiful course my department has called “Women in nineteenth century literature.” The first half term, we skipped through “The Lady of Shalott” and waded more slowly through “Jane Eyre,” before considering the female mindset under patriarchy (or, hysteria) in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” We then segued into an exploration of women who once earned us the right to vote, looking at the pamphlets they wrote and the speeches they gave.

The young women I teach are full of confidence, and full of brains. They brim with these. There is an overriding concern in some areas of some English departments with what boys are reading, and what boys are learning, and how to engage boys in reading and literature; in particular ethnic groups particularly. But when you dig down in the data, with the luxury of looking only at the girls, the same under-achievements are there. Yes, girls do better overall; but crucially, not as well as they could.

Of course, gender is only one slim strand of a person’s many-textured personality; it is simplistic to argue that if I like it, they like it. But I will be forever grateful for the many opportunities this single orientation has allowed me.