A Gender Equity Elective in Elementary School
A class on gender equity built around the film Girl Rising inspires fifth-grade girls and boys to share their learning with their whole school.
Over the years, I’ve made the integration of social justice issues a priority in my teaching. This year, I had the opportunity to create a fifth-grade enrichment class about social justice called Gender Equity Champions, or GEC. The goals of this class were to help students identify how gender affects us and to learn about gender inequity around the world.
These may seem like complex problems for fifth graders, but as is often the case, students surpassed expectations around what they could process and actions they could take. What started out as a one-semester elective for a small group of girls and boys turned into a yearlong club that inspired deep school-wide conversations.
At their first class, the GEC students watched two segments of the film Girl Rising. It was produced by the organization Girl Rising, whose mission is to ensure that every girl around the world is educated and empowered. The film focuses on nine girls and their personal stories of striving for an education, trying to work their way out of poverty, and hoping for freedom.
When my team and I watched the film prior to the class to determine age-appropriate segments, the ones about a girl named Ruksana, from India, and another named Wadley, from Haiti, seemed perfect for us as the girls were around the same age as our students and the content did not include the abuse found in some other segments.
After watching the moving stories of these two girls and learning the bleak statistics on girls’ education, my students talked with great passion about their desire to do something to help.
Gender Equity Educators
I set up a videoconference with Kayce Freed Jennings, director of Girl Rising Educators, to build on the students’ new learning. I wanted to invite all fifth graders to share in this experience, even if they weren’t taking the class. To prepare, I asked my GEC students to create an overview of the film and statistics on gender equity in education so they could teach their classmates. They asked their classroom teachers for about 30 minutes of class time so they could present the PowerPoint presentations they had created to help teach their peers.
During the conversation with Freed Jennings, the fifth graders posed relevant questions about the role that geography, religion, and culture might play in the treatment of girls—they had learned a lot from the GEC students’ presentations.
Excited by their new role as student educators, the GEC students asked to expand the conversation about equity to the younger students in our school. We talked about the right age for learning new concepts and decided that in grades K–3, talking about general concepts might be more appropriate than the global issues addressed in Girl Rising. The students asked their former teachers in K–4 for class time to teach their younger schoolmates. Teachers across the school offered some time during morning meeting or social studies for these new lessons. So while my students were continuing to learn about gender equity in the GEC class, they were also finding ways to share that learning with others.
My students did more research on gender equity, and I worked with them to develop age-appropriate activities for younger children. For grades K–2, my students led a simple activity about what the younger kids believed girls and boys should like to do. As a couple of GEC fifth graders took notes on an easel, others joined table groups to prompt thinking and conversation.
At the beginning of the class, the young students voiced common opinions on gender roles, like the ideas that only boys like to play football and only girls like to play with dolls. With the helpful questioning of the GEC group, they began to consider that maybe there was a new way to think about what it’s OK to like and do, regardless of gender.
Based on an activity in the film Redraw the Balance, third-grade students were asked to color a generic outline of a firefighter, pilot, and doctor and then name the character. The students tallied the number of male and female names and found that the overwhelming majority of names were male. A discussion followed about why there were so many male names, and about the need to be trained and accepted to get certain jobs.
The GEC students committed to raising money for girls’ education, so they held two fundraisers. They produced school mascot keychains and necklaces on our 3D printer and sold them at school events and answered questions about equity posed by potential buyers. Enough money was raised to contribute to the Girl Rising organization and to the International Rescue Fund to educate three girls for a year.
Over the course of this year, I’ve heard from teachers in our school about how the GEC students’ lessons inspired a shift in class discussions and in school culture. In fifth grade, the class-wide reading of Breadwinner, a book about a girl in Afghanistan, took on new meaning, and in a science class, second-grade girls and boys learned as much about astronaut Mae C. Jemison as they did about Neil Armstrong. In one of their final classes, they produced a podcast in which one student said, “We’re very proud of the work we’ve done here. It was important work.”
I was fortunate to have the chance to develop this class with a singular focus of gender equity. But there are many opportunities to integrate gender equity concepts into math, language arts, and social studies. A simple conversation with kindergarten students, a women’s biography assignment in middle school social studies, or a statistical analysis of girls’ education in a high school math class are just a few ways teachers can help to redraw the balance of educational opportunity and make known the importance of equity for all, right here at home and abroad.