WILLA v6 - A Different Kind of Course: An Experiment in Teaching Gender Issues

Volume 6
Fall 1997

A Different Kind of Course:
An Experiment in Teaching Gender Issues

Alice Cross and Geraldine O'Neill

We began small. Three women faculty members, fueled by the testimony of Anita Hill, met informally during the spring of 1992 to discuss the status of women and girls at our high school. Were women's voices heard on campus? Were young girls as attended to in and out of the classroom as their male counterparts? Our discussions attracted the attention of other women faculty members and, finally, the principal, who agreed to create a core group of five women, each of whom was to ask one other female teacher, to join us to discuss gender issues on campus. At the same time, some faculty members asked for reading material. We created a list of books and articles and a small coterie of teachers met three times during the summer to discuss what we had read and to consider its place in our lives both as women and teachers.

This flurry of activity did not go unnoticed by the male faculty. A few questioned what our intentions were; some, we won over. The advisor to the student government, for example, on seeing that what we were doing was not male-bashing, joined the group. Later, he helped students draft a statement on harassment to go into the student handbook. Other staff members, however, remained quietly hostile. Nonetheless, the waters were flowing, and all of those small streams converged into a Gender Issues course, which eleven of us collaborated on during the fall semester of 1993.

According to Peggy McIntosh, there are several distinct phases in the development of curricular re-vision. First, one has to note that there are no women in the curriculum. Then one begins to compensate for that absence by including the select few, always seen in terms of male accomplishments: the female Shakespeare, the female Darwin. Then one discusses women as an oppressed group within a larger, dominant culture. At this point, the curriculum begins to appear unsatisfactory, and a new way of thinking about the topic, beyond the established order of things, begins to emerge (3). This is exactly what we decided to do. We had no real model for a course, only our own education and our own passion for the subject. The initial group consisted of eight teachers representing six departments: English, Science, Social Studies, Foreign Language, Guidance, and Child Development. At a later date two more Foreign Language teachers and a Math teacher joined the team, which now totaled eleven. We met before school closed in June 1993 to map out a syllabus so that individual team members could spend some time over the summer preparing for the segment which they would teach. We met again in late August to complete the syllabus and to map out common strategies for classroom management and bookkeeping. We agreed to keep a journal which would be passed from teacher to teacher as the semester progressed, so that once a segment was completed, the teacher would make an entry evaluating the segment in light of both student and personal reactions to the topic presented.

We also agreed to keep a common grade book throughout the course and to distribute copies of any handouts to the ten other members of the team. Each teacher was responsible for assigning and grading at least one activity, i.e., a paper, journal entry, test, or presentation for the segment which s/he had presented. We decided that in lieu of a written final exam, each student would do a project and we would each serve as a mentor for two or three students to help them through the process.

One of our most serious concerns at first was how to maintain continuity in such a fragmented structure. Eleven teachers moving in and out of a classroom over a twenty-week period seemed chaotic. How would we ever keep track of what was going on, who had said what, what had been discussed, and what had been overlooked? As it worked out, this proved to be one of the most exciting elements of the course. The class met at a time when many of us happened to be free. We decided that we would sit in on the presentations as often as possible, at least once every four class meetings. If we were teaching a class at the time Gender Issues met, one of the other teachers would take that class. Sometimes another teacher from the same department would volunteer to step in for a day or two to free up her/his colleague. What an exhilarating and educational experience for each of us, to be able to participate as equals in a class with twenty-three 10-12 graders, and to observe colleagues perform their own special kind of classroom magic. Many of us never missed a class!

As we prepared the syllabus for the course, we tried to work in a logical framework from the known to the unknown. We started out with three questions which we kept posted in the front of the classroom and to which each of us referred as we worked through our own segment:

Who are we?

How have we come to be who we are?

What changes can we envision (for ourselves and for society) based on what we have learned about ourselves and the world during this course?

The class was scheduled to meet four times per six-day cycle, and each of us took responsibility for 4 to 5 class meetings. Below are the units, in the order in which they were taught:

Who Are We?

How Have We Come To Be Who We Are?

Biological Differences, taught by a science teacher, examined the genetic/biological foundations for our identities as males or females.

Gender Identification, taught by our child development specialist, studied the development of gender identity and sexism in preschool children.

Educational Biases, shaped by a member of the math department, examined the educational gap between males and females.

Images of Women in Advertising and Music Videos, taught by one of the English teachers, asked students to raise their awareness of the content and power of gender messages conveyed in subtle and not so-subtle ways through mass media.

Media's Influence on Adolescents' Self-Esteem and Body Image, led by the school psychologist, continued the investigation of the media's role in human development.

Adolescence and Coming of Age was a personal essay and dramatic monologue unit in which students could reflect on what they had learned to this point.

What Changes Can We Envision (for Ourselves and Society) Based On What We Have Learned About Ourselves and the World?

Women in the Developing World, taught by a Social Studies teacher, looked at the plight of women in Third World nations.

Women in Literature of the Developing World, taught by a French teacher, asked students to consider gender stereotypes in different cultures as they read short works from Africa, Japan, and Latin America.

For Better or Worse: Women and Men in Relationships, team-taught by an English and Spanish teacher, explored long-term commitments, both hetero- and homosexual.

Balancing a Career and Family, taught by a Spanish teacher who has done this juggling for years, asked students to think of the gender issues contained within family life, most particularly for the working mother.

The projects which students pursued were to be inspired by the classroom readings and discussion but took a variety of forms:

  • a program for cable TV
  • a visual display, a performance piece, or photo essay
  • an exploration of gender issues in a middle or elementary school
  • a short story with a gender issues theme
  • research, gathering information and statistics about a particular issue
  • a dramatic interpretation of an historical figure or moment in gender-related topics

Time was devoted to classroom presentations where appropriate although most projects were submitted in written form. Each project was evaluated by the mentor teacher.

Overall, we felt quite proud of the course and of the students' enthusiastic participation in the subject matter. Certainly, there were things we would have altered had we done the class a second time. That there were eleven of us created a few problems. Students could see that no one in particular was in charge. Who exactly should address the talkers in the back of the room? Who called home when papers were late over a period of time, stretching beyond one or two teachers' units? We were not consistent or clear on this issue ourselves. There were a few pedagogical problems as well. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Taule have noted that cooperative learning is better for female students than traditional teacher-centered instruction (217-22 1), but our short units, with their built-in time constraints, allowed little time for small group work and for long-term projects cooperatively done. On the other hand, the fact that we teachers sat in on each other's classes, that we participated along with the students, meant that teamwork was woven into the very fabric of the course. The eleven of us had worked together, had learned from and supported each other, had created and implemented a course without any kind of top-down framework. We were creating a different kind of learning experience both for ourselves and our students.

We would have liked to have had more experiential learning in the course, more studying of young children, more gathering data from their own classes and life experiences, so that students could see the application of what they were studying in their own lives. And although this kind of learning was limited to their final projects, we saw over the next few years an extension of this kind of awareness in other aspects of school life and student behavior:

  • There were articles in the student newspapers about equity in sports.
  • Three students in the science research program gathered data comparing the numbers of male/female interactions with teachers during their classes.
  • Several students, sponsored by one of the teachers of the course, founded a Gender Issues club whose goal it was to educate the student body about issues of harassment and equity.
  • One graduate of the Gender Issues class wrote to neighboring schools to see how many and what titles they had by women authors and then compared those lists to the ones taught in our school.
  • Another student, whose project during Gender Issues was a study of images of masculinity, went on to do a larger study of student attitudes towards Gays and Lesbians during his senior year

Even at the administrative level, we could see some changes. One of the assistant principals made it his policy to shape one of his three classroom observations for each teacher around gender equity. Teachers were regularly informed about whom they had called on first and whether boys and girls were asked the same level questions, whether there was longer wait time for boys than girls, issues that pose problemsfor even well-intentioned teachers (Maher, 3 1)

It would seem we were a resounding success. Well, our story is not quite over. One thing we have not noted is that the eleven of us taught this course beyond our regular teaching assignments. Although there had been talk early in our planning about being given a break from our extra duty (cafeteria, clinic duty, et cetera) during the time we were teaching, in fact, we were not granted even that small favor. Our union approached us and reminded us that what we were doing could set a terrible precedent; if we could teach an extra class for nothing, why not increase everyone's teaching load the next year? We understood the dangers and agreed that after this semester, we would make changes so that we did not create long term problems for staff

The course attracted a lot of attention from the local press, including The New York Times; the superintendent and assistant superintendent and high school principal were all interviewed. All had praise for what we were doing. However, where things fell apart was in granting one of us credit for teaching the class. We had a full section of Gender Issues for the fall of 1994, and all of us were committed to doing it a second time. Ten of us were willing to give up our free time to teach our units and to mentor students if the eleventh had the course officially listed as part of her/his class load. For whatever reason, that request was never granted, and the class was not part of the program the following school year or any of the subsequent years.

Did we fail? We do not think so. Did we succeed? We are not sure. The question of gender issues is still very much on the minds of students and faculty and indeed some of the activities which it inspired are still functioning. The very nature of the course which we designed and implemented makes it highly interdisciplinary and subsequently difficult to include within the confines of the traditional school structure. This does not mean that it should not be tried. The concept of a large group of teachers working together to develop and teach a theme which cuts across all disciplines and affects everyone is at the heart of sound, feminist pedagogy. It is, as Carolyn Shrewsbury defines the concept, "a classroom characterized as persons connected in a net of relationships with people who care about each other's learning as well as their own" (6). This kind of teaching calls on everyone involved to look at both structure and process in a different way, to break the boundaries of traditional thought and to venture into strategies still untested. All of us who were involved in this course are still talking about it and still interested in revising it without losing the heart of what we have done. Is this not after all what we set out to do?

Those teachers involved in the earliest meetings and the gathering of materials: Peggy Breen, Elise Chadwick, Alice Cross, Sue Peters.

Those who made up the teaching staff of the Gender Issues course: Jacqueline Abair, Elise Chadwick, Barbara Clanton, Alice Cross, Steve Houser, Vita Materasso, Dr. Geraldine 0 Neill, Sue Peters, Steve Warren, Dr. Melanie Weinstein, Susan Williams.

The assistant principal who made it his business to see that we gave a fair shake to both genders in the classroom: Larry Breen.



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Belenky, Mary F., Blythe M. Clinchy, Nancy R. Goldberger, and Jill M. Tanile. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self Voice, and Mind. Basic, 1988.

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Crown Publishers, 1991.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Harvard University Press, 1982.

Shakeshaft, Charol. "A Gender at Risk. " Phi Delta Kappan (March 1986) 180-84.

Tavris, Carol. The Mismeasure of Women. Touchstone Books, 1993.

WoIff, Naorni. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Held Against Women. New York: Anchor, 1992.


Belenky, Mary F., Blythe M. Clinchy, Nancy R. Goldberger, and Jill M. Tarule. Women's Ways of Knowing: 7he Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. Basic, 1988,

Maher, Frances. "Classroom Pedagogy and the New Scholarship on Women" in Gendered Subjects. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

McIntosh, Peggy. Interactive Phases of Curricular Re- Vision: a Feminist Perspective. WellesleyCollege Center for Research on Women, 1983.

Shrewsbury, Carolyn "What is Feminist Pedagogy?' Women's Studies Quarterly XV; 3&4 (Fall/ Winter 1987) 7-14.

Alice Cross, an English teacher at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York has written articles for Cinestra, English Journal, Pittsburgh Magazine, and other magazines.

Dr. Geraldine O'Neill, a retired teacher of French at Horace Greeley High School, now works as an adjunct professor of Foreign Languages at Pace University. She has published in various educational journals.


© 1997 The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Cross, Alice, and Geraldine O’Neill. (1997). "A Different Kind of Course: An Experiment in Teaching Gender Issues." WILLA, Volume VI, p. 9-13.

by Radiya Rashid