Teaching Feminism in High School: Moving from Theory to Action

By Ileana Jiménez, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine

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 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 in 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.

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 social change 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.

Read the rest here.

17 comments for “Teaching Feminism in High School: Moving from Theory to Action

  1. October 17, 2011 at 8:33 am

    I so wish I had a feminism course in high school. The work you’re doing sounds amazing!

  2. Wendy
    October 17, 2011 at 10:26 am

    That is awesome. I wish I could have taken a course like that when I was in high school. Jealous!

  3. October 17, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Damn, that sounds wonderful. There’s nothing like that anywhere that I lived.

  4. Sarah
    October 17, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Seconding the other comments. How I would have loved to have gotten started on intersectionality in high school. How I would have loved to have gotten started in a serious way on *any* -isms in high school. There are so many shoulders there for the girls of today to stand on, they just need to know where to start — above all, they need to learn to articulate and name their own life experiences (without being indoctrinated, of course), and to know that they are not alone in those experiences, because that is the beginning of power. So kudos to you.

  5. Politicalguineapig
    October 17, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    That sounds awesome, I just hope the girls actually listen. From my experience in high school, it seemed like most of the girls were surgically lobotimized. Trying to get them to care about anything else but looking good, keeping their grades up to an acceptable level so their parents wouldn’t freak out, and nattering about boys and the latest party. Then again, it sounds like your students are smarter than most of the kids I went to school with.

  6. Tawny
    October 17, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    So excited to see things like this happening!

    Also, I love the encouragement for us to look more at education. It’s not something I know a lot about, but thanks to this I want to engage more in the conversation about it. What are some good education hashtags or blogs?

  7. Valerie
    October 17, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    In Ontario, there’s an initiative called the Miss G Project that is lobbying the provincial government to make a course in gender studies part of the required curriculum to graduate, the way people have to take an English and math course every year or French in grade 9. They’ve had a lot of momentum, but surprise, surprise, the government keeps throwing setbacks in their faces. I’m a big supporter of the initiative because the formative adolescent years shape how (impressionable) kids relate to the world around them, including future romantic partners and business associates. Get them young, and teach them how to analyse the messages being communicated to them about gender and sexuality in mass media and global institutions regardless of where they stand socially or politically.

    Anyways, in addition to hoping that it gets off the ground for the obvious reasons, it would be great to use as a case study on which to base future arguments for this kind of necessary (and very fun/engaging) education. I, too, wish I had this sort of class available to me back then.

  8. October 17, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    I hesitate a bit to say this out of respect for what you may believe, but I have the utmost respect for you because I believe you are doing God’s work. Intersectionality is a concept that makes a tremendous amount of sense to me. My faith is about pulling people together, not separating people into the saved and unsaved. You may not use the same language, but it seems to me that you’re aiming for similar ends.

    I see your motives and intentions in this essay and I am grateful for the amount of work you obviously have put into this.

  9. October 17, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    What are some good education hashtags or blogs?

    Cosign to Tawny’s question. My daughter turns 12 this week, and I’m always on the lookout for DIY educational stuff like this (it’s why I subscribe to Rethinking Schools) ‘cuz there’s less than a snowball’s chance in hell that there will ever be a feminist course offered in the K-12 curriculum where I live (or anything else that challenges the dominant paradigm). Shit, in the rust belt we’re lucky to still have schools, period.

    Which brings me to my next question: when you started teaching, was there already a feminist curiculum that you could step into and expand, or did you have to build that from the ground up?

  10. Politicalguineapig
    October 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    That should be: “Trying to get them to care about anything else but looking good, keeping their grades up to an acceptable level so their parents wouldn’t freak out, and nattering about boys and the latest party” seemed like it would be an uphill battle and a waste of time.

  11. October 17, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    That should be: “Trying to get them to care about anything else but looking good, keeping their grades up to an acceptable level so their parents wouldn’t freak out, and nattering about boys and the latest party” seemed like it would be an uphill battle and a waste of time.

    I think you’d pleasantly surprised at the number of people interested in -isms in high school. There’s certainly a lot of social pressure to appear interested only in the things teenagers “supposed” to care about, but given the right (encouraging!) environment, students can be very open to new ideas – especially when those things affect them personally. I know I would have appreciated the opportunity to learn about this.

  12. Politicalguineapig
    October 17, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    Brandy- could be! I admit, I kind of underestimated the girls I went to school with at that time. One of the girls I disliked the most: total girly-girl, one of the top girls in the high school clique, applied to my (womens) college, and graduated as an education major. I didn’t know anything at all about feminism until I went to college. (Apart from the usual rah-rah, girls can do everything as long as they wear dresses stuff.)
    Although I kind of pitied the poor professor who got stuck teaching the first-year college students all about feminism; on a slow day, you could hear our eyes rolling. The isms make sense once one thinks about them, but it’s getting people to think about them that’s the hard part.

  13. Chelsea
    October 18, 2011 at 5:26 am

    Education failed me so badly in this regard. I mean, the only similar course I can think of is when I took a queer theory class in college. Except that wasn’t even at my school, it was a study abroad in Australia!

    I think not just feminism, but all kinds of cultural studies should be taught in high school or before. This is the stuff that’s actually vital to the way we live and interact with those around us. Everything I know I had to learn on the internet.

  14. October 18, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Ditto Tawny & LaLubu. My kids’ public schools are being drained of funds by the 1% who need state tax money to build a billion dollar stadium for the Vikings–they’ll be lucky if they can learn trigonometry and/or Shakespeare, much less feminism! Any resources for feminist parents would be welcome.

  15. Politicalguineapig
    October 19, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Shanon Drury: It’s not like the stupid Vikes ever win anything anyway. If they actually won something I might not be so hard on them, but as it is, I’m really sick of the whining. I’d like to get rid of every team but the Wild and Lynx.

  16. failure
    October 20, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Sorry in advance for the 101ness of this question but are feminism classes actively “this how women are / have been oppressed and why you should be a feminist” focused or are they the “feminism == these are the ways gendered messages are being culturally transmitted to you weather your male or female”?

    I spent most of my academic career not engaging in social life at all and ditching most classes so I really have no idea how this sort of thing plays out.

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