One Educator’s Take on Teaching Gender Oppression

ITVS Community Classroom and the film Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide made a big splash at the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference in Seattle in November. This is the largest national gathering of social studies educators, drawing more than 3,500 people. ITVS hosted a screening of excerpts from the film to a crowd of more than 700 and Sheryl WuDunn gave a keynote address before the screening. NCSS awarded the honor of their national endorsement for the curriculum Community Classroom developed around the film. U.S. Department of Education Ambassador fellow Lisa Clarke moderated a panel discussion with representatives from local and national NGOs, and writes here about the importance of bringing this content into social studies curriculum nationwide.

The Half the Sky panel at the National Council for the Social Studies in Seattle, WA.

How many of you were born from mothers? This question, asked by Heidi Breeze from One by One at the 2012 NCSS Conference in Seattle, pointed to a paradox; if we all have a biological mother, then why is it so difficult to discuss maternal health issues in our classes? As a teacher, I’ve had conversations with my colleagues about if and how to discuss issues affecting women and girls in my contemporary world issues class. Our concerns included whether it is cognitively and developmentally appropriate to raise these issues – involving human sexuality, pervasive violence, and unsettling images – in our high school classrooms. Could we do so without portraying women as passive victims?

There were over 700 social studies teachers and women’s rights advocates convened to discuss these very issues at the conference. The event started with a rousing keynote by Pulitzer Prize winning author Sheryl WuDunn followed by a screening of excerpts from the documentary Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Sheryl shared with those gathered the stories of the women she’s met, the challenges they face, and the solutions they are offering to end gender based oppression in their own communities. Her message reminded educators of the vital role we can play in inspiring young people to become involved with the global movement to end the oppression of women and girls.

I was invited to moderate a panel of inspiring leaders working on women and girls human rights issues that followed the screening. The panelists provided the audience with some suggestions on why and how to build connections between classrooms and community organizations. Kimberly Vallejo from Room to Read discussed the importance of ending gender disparities in access to education by explaining the ripple effect that educating girls can have on a community. Jen Muzia from Girls Scouts of Western Washington encouraged us not to lose sight of the issues girls face locally. Kathleen Morris from the International Rescue Committee described the work she was doing with local students to raise awareness about the trafficking of girls and encouraged teachers to partner with local organizations for support.  Kiki Bernirschke, a local high school student and co-founder of Richard’s Rwanda, showed the long term impact that learning and working on these issues can have on students. She shared that her work on education issues in Rwanda changed her worldview and fuels her passion for education.

My hope is that teachers and community groups can continue the conversation about how to bring these issues into our classrooms. In a recently released international strategy, the US Dept. of Education suggests that in order to develop a globally competent citizenry “students need to have the substantive knowledge and understanding to address issues, phenomena and catastrophes that cut across borders, like the spread of disease, climate change, natural disasters, and financial crises.” Gender oppression is a border crossing issue. We need to create more opportunities for students to learn about the issues affecting women and girls worldwide and develop skills necessary to combat gender oppression locally and globally.

Lisa Clarke is currently a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the US Department of Education. She is on leave from her Social Studies position at Kent-Meridian High School in Kent, WA. Prior to teaching, Lisa worked at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and coordinated the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence Campaign