How teachers bring women’s history and women’s rights to life

As the world marks International Women’s Day, a glimpse at some innovative classroom lessons.

Luke MacGregor/REUTERS
Malala Yousafzai speaks at an event in London Friday. In many US schools on International Women's Day, Ms. Malala’s story is a springboard for discussions about the importance of women’s education and equality,

First, all of Tracy Lally’s sixth-graders stand up. Then she tells the boys to sit. The girls count off in threes, and she tells all the “ones” to sit.  “Sorry,” she says to the girls left standing, “You don’t get an education.”

The excluded girls feel appalled by the unfairness of the situation, pressing their teacher about why those sitting get an opportunity denied to them.

It’s a dramatic introduction to the fact that in Pakistan – where Malala Yousafzai has become famous for persisting in her activism after being shot in the head by Taliban militiamen – only a third of girls have access to primary school.

Malala’s story is a springboard for discussions about the importance of women’s education, equality, and “how individuals, even at 12, can be activists,” says Ms. Lally, who teaches at Quest Elementary in Melbourne, Fla.

In honor of International Women’s Day March 8, the American Federation of Teachers is promoting the Malala-centered lesson plan, which is posted at It also includes activities such as comparing Malala’s diaries to an 1851 speech by abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.

In Lally’s class, students moved from their horror at the violence Malala faced to an eagerness to sign her petition supporting educational rights. They followed that up with discussions about ways they could improve their community.

At Oscar DePriest Elementary in Chicago, a high-poverty school, Tammie Vinson used the lesson with special education students in 7th and 8th grade when they were discussing the history of women’s fight for the right to vote. Malala’s story helped them appreciate their education and “opened their view of the world,” Ms. Vinson says.

It also boosted their sense of perseverance, she says. “Some of the female students that I have are like, ‘Oh, I can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ But to see someone who realized there were injustices and didn’t just give up,… it will help them make a difference more in what goes on in their lives.”

In Isabel Morales’s social studies class at the Los Angeles School for the Arts, students study the women’s rights movement as one aspect of civil rights history – and link the lessons to modern-day issues.

Students are impressed by the fact that earlier generations of women couldn’t vote or own property, and that laws in recent decades have pushed for more rights in education and the workplace, Ms. Morales says. But “we also watch a documentary called ‘Miss Representation,’ about the depiction of women in media and politics … which shows how, despite all these legal advances, there’s still a long way to go with regards to gender equality.”

Some students on their own initiative showed the documentary to their mothers because they wanted to talk about the issues it raised, she says.

Josephine De Castro, a senior in Morales’s class, could relate personally to that documentary, which touched on how girls are often socialized to think about beauty.

“When I was younger, I was pressured to be pretty and popular, but I always wanted to succeed educationally,” Josephine says. “This class is showing us how women can succeed and we are equal to men and there’s nothing holding us back.”

She says her mother pushed more traditional notions of femininity, while her father has encouraged her interest in engineering, which he wasn’t able to pursue because he couldn’t afford the education. Josephine also looks up to a half-sister who served in the US Air Force and is now an aerospace engineer. She’s considering college or joining the military after high school.

For tech-savvy teachers, educational consultant Monica Burns has been sharing a lesson plan that can be paired with biographies of famous women.

Using a free resume-building iPad app, students are asked to build a resume for the person they’ve chosen to study. What were her experiences as a child? What did her career path look like? Who were her contemporaries who could act as references, and what would they say about her?

Recommended for grades 4 to 8, Burns says this twist on a biography project “requires not just recall, but critical thinking” and creativity.

Women’s issues percolate throughout the year at the Kent Place School, an independent K-12 girls’ school in Summit, N.J.

A recent week of activities related to computer programming involved 4th- and 5th- graders coding robots to react to movement using sensors, for instance. Because there’s a dearth of women entering computer science jobs, “it ended up having a lot more to do with women and leadership than we ever imagined,” says Head of School Sue Bosland.

Kent Place girls have role-played scenarios to prevent dating violence and have written advocacy letters when upset by T-shirts that demean women.

Through leadership lunches, the girls are exposed to role models ranging from female entrepreneurs to the first woman to serve as chief justice in New Jersey, who told of applying to law firms when no other women worked there.  “Learning civics and government looks different when you realize you could be a chief justice one day,” Ms. Bosland says.

Additional resources are available at a wide range of websites, including these special sites:

The National Education Association

The Zinn Education Project

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