Women’s History Month: A Classroom Guide

Girls and women make up 51% of the global population. Yet women’s stories, accomplishments, and experiences are too often left out of the curriculum. Women’s History Month is an important opportunity to engage in dialogues about equity, representation, and inclusion. The following resource is part of our series on culturally responsive teaching and includes activities and ideas for celebrating women’s history month in the middle and high school classroom. For some more history on Women’s History Month, see this student-friendly article published by Time magazine.

The theme of this year’s  (2019) National Women’s History Project is Visionary Women: Champions of Peace and Nonviolence. As you and your students read stories, create art, watch videos, and complete projects, try to tie those activities back to this theme.

Guiding Questions 

  • What can we learn from the visionary women of today and yesterday?
  • How have women changed the course of history through the use of peace and nonviolence?
  • How can we all be champions of peace and nonviolence?

Stage-Setting

Ask your students to respond to the following questions:

  • What do you think it means to be a visionary?
  • What are some examples of visionary women from history or your own life?
  • Why is it important for women to champion peace and nonviolence?
  • How can we be visionaries who champion peace and nonviolence?

These questions are a springboard for exploring how women have used peace and nonviolence to instigate radical, visionary change. The National Women’s History Alliance notes that “the drive for nonviolent change has been championed by visionary women. These women consciously built supportive, nonviolent alternatives and loving communities as well as advocating change. They have given voice to the unrepresented and hope to victims of violence and those who dream of a peaceful world.” You can find more information about this year’s National Women’s History Project theme on the NWHA website.

In talking about visionary women, women’s history, activism, and non-violence your classes will certainly explore feminism. Students (and adults) often carry a lot of assumptions and misinformation about feminism.  The following chart might give your students some common language around feminism.

The following two videos by Chimamanda Adichie and Emma Watson will further help dispel these myths and explain why feminism is important for everybody.
Watch these videos with your students:

  • Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian activist and author, gave this widely-watched TED talk called We Should All Be Feminists.  She later published a book with under the same title. Both the talk and the book can be excellent stage-setting pieces for your class.
  • Emma Watson gave this speech at the United Nations launching the “HeforShe” campaign. In this speech Watson discusses the way our gender stereotypes limit us.
    • You can also print out a copy of the transcript for your students to follow along.

Discussion questions:

  • What surprised you about these speeches?
  • How do these speakers define feminism?
  • How is their definition similar or different from what you thought feminism meant?
  • Which examples do you think are the most important or powerful in their speeches?
  • What evidence can you see of persistence in these speeches?

Media

  • #MeToo Movement: Tarana Burke, a social activist, was the first person to use this hashtag on social media in order to call attention to the issue of assault and harassment against women. In 2017–2018, it gained viral global attention and has now been used by hundreds of thousands of people. Many famous people in the media, including actresses and singers, have shared their own stories using this hashtag. Writers in the #MeToo movement want to let victims know that they are not alone. This hashtag has also been translated into many languages, encouraging people all over the world to share their stories and put an end to violence against women. The #MeToo movement is a powerful example of the global impact of a peaceful and nonviolent protest.
    • Hold a socratic seminar around the #metoomovement where students discuss their impressions of the movement, how social media can be used as a political tool to bring about change in a peaceful and nonviolent way, and their proposed call to action to make their local communities safer for women and girls.
  • Diversity in the United States House of Representatives: The 2018 midterm election in the United States was a pivotal moment for women in politics. In the House of Representatives, 102 women were elected to office. Significantly, two of these women are Native American, two are Muslim, and two were 29-years-old when elected, making them the youngest women elected to Congress.
    • Discuss with students what challenges these women might face in office (gender discrimination, scheduling/childcare challenges, gendered dress-code discrepancies). Also discuss what issues might be a priority for these newly-elected women (gun control laws, family leave, racial injustice, immigration, education, LGBTQ issues, domestic violence, etc.). Ask students what types of changes these visionary women might make to promote peace and nonviolence.
    • Policy Outline – Recognizing the potential of the most diverse House of Representatives in history, have students write a policy outline that they think could get passed around peace and nonviolence.  As an extension opportunity, students can send their policy outlines to local or national legislators.
    • Rutgers: Teach a Girl to Lead offers additional reading, articles, books, and questions to extend your class discussion about women in politics.
  • Using Nonviolence to Instigate Social Change: Watch Jamila Raquib’s TED Talk, “The Secret to Effective Nonviolent Resistance.” In this talk, Jamila Raquib gives an example of how twelve ordinary citizens used Facebook to help spark a nationwide movement that led to the resignation of the members of Guatemala’s corrupt government. Note: This talk offers complex and critical thinking about how to organize non-violent resistance that is a better fit for high school learners. Please do preview this talk ahead of time as the speaker refers to a mature euphemism used in this nonviolent campaign and you will be the best judge of whether or not this is appropriate in your class.

Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development:  Educational psychologists often talk about two domains: a cognitive domain (thinking) and an affective domain (feeling). Much of the early work on affective development was conducted by men. Since the 1980s, several women scholars have criticized the linear and hierarchical models for understanding feeling, emotions, and the moral choices we make. Two people who were at the center of this first debate were Carol Gilligan and Lawrence Kohlberg.

Carol Gilligan worked as a research assistant for Lawrence Kohlberg. While both scholars worked on affective development, Gilligan criticized Kohlberg’s insistence that advanced moral development was always characterized by rationality in predictable patterns. Instead, she suggests that there is “a different voice” to our moral/emotional development. This voice includes historical context and relationships. Gilligan published her critique of Kohlberg, In a Different Voice (1982) to much acclaim. This work opened up new conversations about psychological and moral development.

  • Join the dialogue around affective development. Below are some of the questions Carol Gilligan wrestled with. Invite students to explore these as well.
    • How do your relationships with others impact the decisions you make, particularly moral or ethical decisions?
    • How does historical context impact emotional development and decision-making process?
    • In what ways does care and compassion encourage people to make different choices? How does the absence of care and compassion impact our choices?
    • Is it ever possible to develop a completely predictable algorithm for emotional development? Why or why not?

Sciences

  • Hold a science panel “inviting” women scientists who have changed the world. Assign students to work alone or in small groups to research famous women scientists. Some names to get you started include:  
  • Case Study on Temple Grandin: Watch Dr. Grandin’s TED talk, “The world needs all kinds of minds.” Dr. Grandin is a scientist who was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts of Sciences for her work in the humane livestock handling industry. As a person on the autism spectrum, she has used her ability to think differently to make a huge difference in the treatment of animals. If students are interested in learning more about Dr. Grandin’s work, there is also a semi-autobiographical HBO film about her called Temple Grandin.
    • Discussion questions:
      • What surprised you in this talk?
      • How is Dr. Grandin a visionary woman?
      • What does Dr. Grandin’s story and work teach us about inclusion and representation?

Social Sciences

  • Suffrage:  Watch this video about the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States. One striking quote from this video is the statement, “Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.” Discuss with students how this false idea affected the women fighting for women’s right to vote in the video. Bring this question up again after the students complete their oral history project. Also remind students that women were not permitted to vote in the United States until 1920 and discuss how recent that is within a larger historical framework.
    • Assign students to work alone or in small groups to create a 3- minute oral history on a key figure in the suffrage or the ERA movement. Students may either report on that person or write a script and present as if they were that person.
      • Suffrage Movement
        • Sojourner Truth
        • Susan B. Anthony
        • Elizabeth Cady Stanton
        • Julia Ward Howe
        • Lottie Rollin
        • Lucy Stone
        • Lucy Burns
        • Dora Lewis
        • Alice Paul
      • ERA Movement
        • Alice Paul
        • Shirley Chisholm
        • Martha Griffiths
        • Betty Frieden
        • Kate Millett
  • Equal Rights Amendment: While women now have the right to vote, they are still not guaranteed equal rights under the Constitution. The Equal Rights Amendment, which states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” passed in Congress but still needs the vote of one more state to become the 27th Amendment to the Constitution. This video explains the ERA and why women need its protection.
  • First Ladies for Social Justice: Although the role of the FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) has never been officially defined, many women have used the position to make a difference on issues that matter to them. Divide students into three groups (or more) to research the initiatives of different first ladies. If you break the class into three groups we recommend having students research  Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama. Students should address these questions:
    • How was this first lady a visionary woman?
    • What were her passions and interests?
    • What initiatives did she start and lead?
    • How did she use her position to make a positive difference for others?

First Ladies for Social Justice: Although the role of the FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) has never been officially defined, many women have used the position to make a difference on issues that matter to them. Divide students into three groups (or more) to research the initiatives of different first ladies. If you break the class into three groups we recommend having students research  Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama. Students should address these questions:

  • How was this first lady a visionary woman?
  • What were her passions and interests?
  • What initiatives did she start and lead?
  • How did she use her position to make a positive difference for others?

Encourage students to pay particular attention to social activism, women’s rights,
health, and poverty. Have each group present their research to the rest of the class. After the presentations, facilitate a dialogue on the role of the FLOTUS and how students see that role changing in future administrations.

  • Intersectionality: Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to explain how our multiple identities (e.g. race, class, gender, ethnicity, etc.) intersect to create complex and compounding experiences in social space. For example, what it means to be a Black woman in America is different from what it means to be a Black man in America or a Latina woman in America. Ask students to make identity maps exploring their various personal identities.
  • Proposals: Challenge to write proposals for which woman who should be featured on the new $20 bill.  
  • Explore mental health: Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Encourage students to research treatment options for mental health, particularly for women, around the time this story was published (1892).
    • Extension opportunity: Students can also compare and contrast mental health treatment and/or stigma from the 19th century to today.

Mathematics

  • Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden: Visit this page on Scholastic.com that discusses Katherine Johnson’s contribution to NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon. There is also an interview with Christine Darden, who worked as an aerospace engineer at NASA for 40 years. After reading about and discussing these women’s invaluable work, students can calculate a diagram of Apollo 11’s flight plan.
    • Just in time for Women’s History Month (2019) NASA Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, West Virginia, has a new name. It’s now the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility. You can read the official article here.
    • You can find additional curriculum resources on the NASA website: https://www.nasa.gov/modernfigures
  • Organize a Women in Math Event: In 2018, Brigham Young University came under scrutiny after their advertisement poster for an event on Women in Math featured only men.
    • Imagine that your class is hosting a Women in Math event (that features women mathematicians). Divide students into groups and assign them (or have them choose) a woman whom they would like to research. Have students create their own Women in Math poster with their featured mathematician. Students’ posters should include biographical information, contributions to mathematics, and any obstacles the mathematician had to overcome in order to persist in her professional path. Students can then present their poster to the class at your women in math event. Possible women mathematicians include:
      • Hypatia
      • Sophie Germain
      • Mary Somerville
      • Ada Lovelace
      • Sofia Kovalevskaya
      • Florence Nightingale
      • Emmy Noether
      • Dorothy Johnson Vaughan
      • Marjorie Lee Browne
      • Katherine Johnson
      • Svetlana Jitomirskaya
      • Maryam Mirzakhani

Language Arts

  • Literature Studies – Study the works of Lydia Maria Child, Dorothy Day, Dorothy Thompson, Susan B. Anthony
  • Host a socratic seminar on Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” Use this opportunity to stretch your students’ thinking on the connection between the story and this month’s theme.  This may take some support on your part.
  • Read “Making Peace” by Denise Levertov and create a class poem: Read this beautiful poem and analyze with students this poem’s message about peace. Discuss how writers, poets, and artists can help create a world of peace and nonviolence. Create a class poem by asking each student to complete the sentence “Peace is __________.” After students have written their line of the poem, have them stand in a circle around the classroom and go around the room reading their line of the poem. Consider creating a poster of the class poem and hanging it up in your classroom.
  • Organize a Women’s History Month Book Club:
    Possible titles include:
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
    Discussion Guide: http://www.kpl.gov/uploadedFiles/Books/Book_Club_in_a_Bag/guide-hate-u-give.pdf
  • I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
  • We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World by Malala Yousafzai
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose
  • Girls Resist!: A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution
  • by Kaelyn Rich
  • Create a spoken-word poem. Watch this spoken-word poem for peace. Assign students to write their own spoken-word poem about peace and nonviolence. Organize a poetry slam where students can perform their poems.
  • Study the works of women poets including Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Rupi Kaur, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Mary Oliver, and Audre Lorde.  Analyze these poets’ work for our themes of persistence, personal storytelling, mental health, and representation.
    • Extension opportunity: Have students memorize or create a reader’s theater on their favorite poem from this study to perform at a class celebration. For inspiration watch Sarah Kay’s performance of “If I should have a daughter.
  • Additional resource: The podcast Text Messages: Recommendations for Adolescent Readers has an episode on feminist books for teens.

Art

  • Women Artists/Photographers – Read article, “Middle Eastern Artists & the Quest to Build Peace” and watch the video on an art exhibition by women from 12 Middle Eastern Countries called, I Am: Contemporary Women Artists and the Quest to Build Peace. Article: http://www.raniamatar.com/publications/pdf/matar2018_VermontWoman.pdf Video: https://blogs.wnpt.org/arts/vanderbilt-university-i-am-contemporary-middle-eastern-women-artists-and-the-quest-to-build-peace/
    One purpose of this exhibition was to “to build understanding and peace among the cultures of the Middle East and the West through visual art” and to “dispel stereotypes about Eastern women” while highlighting “the strength and creativity of these women and the contributions Middle Eastern women artists are making to the global culture” (Close). The video notes that, “We all live in a world where there are certain narratives imposed upon us. … We all look through a filtered lens, and that is not of our own creation. It’s made for us – with the media, with the world, with history, with whatever it is. I think that if it’s left to us without all the noise that we would see that we are more similar than not.” These women artists are visionaries who are championing peace between cultures with their art. How can we do the same?
    • Using whatever medium they choose (paint, colored pencils, charcoal, collage, etc.), have students create a piece of art that communicates a message of peace between two groups of people who are often seen as more different than similar.
  • Collage – Provide students with magazines that they can go through to cut out words and pictures to create a collage that celebrates peace and nonviolence. Collages should include images, text, and a call to action.
  • Artist Study – Violet Oakley described herself as a “pilgrim seeking peace.”

Watch this video about the beautifully striking murals she created and her artistic vision for peace. Create a class mural that depicts your students’ visions of peace.

Additional Resources:

  • The National Education Association (NEA) offers resources and lesson plans for Grades 9-12 and 6-8.
  • The National Women’s History Museum has an extensive library of resources for students and teachers, including biographies, lesson plans, posters, and electronic field trips.
  • The website Science NetLinks contains lesson plans that study the achievements of women in STEM fields.


Co-Authored by Jill Clingan and Kathryn Fishman-Weaver


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