I Teach Like a Girl, Too

JavaciaHow to create a feminist classroom.

By Javacia Harris Bowser

I have a coffee mug that reads “Teacher by day, Blogger by night” and that’s a pretty accurate description of who I am and what I do. By day I teach English at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and by night I blog about writing, wellness, and women’s empowerment and I run See Jane Write, an organization for local female writers and bloggers.

For years I worked to keep these two worlds of mine separate. I never talked about my blog at work and since I often shared my blog posts via social media, I never accepted Facebook friend requests from students and I kept my Twitter account locked so I could control who followed me. But then one day a student came up to my desk and said to me the words I never wanted to hear: “Mrs. Bowser, you know I read your blog.”

I wanted to hide under my desk.

I know it was completely irrational for me to believe I could keep something hidden on the Internet, but sometimes I am completely irrational. The student went on to say, “From what I’ve read, I can tell you are a feminist.”

I should mention that this student was a boy.  And I should also mention that even in the 21st century there are still people for whom calling yourself a feminist is akin to dropping the f-bomb at church. I was certain this student of mine was about to ask me if I hated him because he’s a boy.

But I was wrong.

Instead he tucked his mop-like red hair behind his ear and said, “I wanted to ask you…can a boy be a feminist? After reading your blog I think I might be one.”

After that day I made two decisions: I decided to be very, very careful about what I shared on my blog, but I also decided that I would strive to create a feminist classroom. I decided that I would teach like a girl. This may cause complete panic for some people. Some people may imagine me creating some man-hating, Communist mini-cult. Those people would be wrong. And some people who agree with the idea of creating a feminist classroom may imagine I’m telling students how they should feel about abortion and Republicans. And those people would be wrong too.

Creating a feminist classroom, in my opinion, isn’t about telling students how they should vote once they’re old enough to do so. It’s about encouraging them to treat all people with dignity, regardless of gender, race, class, religion, sexual orientation, or ability. A feminist classroom is simply a place that values equality, respect, and representation and makes those values apparent every day.

I believe one of the best ways to cultivate equality and respect in a classroom is by giving students a voice. I give my students options and I strive to create a classroom that fosters discovery and discussion and that isn’t solely based on lectures. Sometimes I let my students have a say when planning lessons and class activities and I give them the chance to express and work through their thoughts on the various topics we study. It’s about letting my students have a voice and listening to them.

A feminist classroom is also a classroom that values representation. I strive to include commonly marginalized voices in my lesson plans so that my students are learning about writers, artists, historians, and history makers often ignored by the canon. And I not only want to make sure these marginalized voices are represented, but I also encourage students to try to examine the topics we study from these different perspectives. Obviously, I try to develop a variety of activities to speak to different types of learners, but also I try to acknowledge other facets of my students’ lives such as race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity. This doesn’t mean that I ask students to be the spokesperson for a particular group. But if a student wants to share his or her individual experience I absolutely encourage that.

So to create a feminist classroom I don’t have to wear my Rosie the Riveter T-shirt to class every day, but I want to be sure that marginalized voices are represented so that students of all backgrounds leave my class with a “We Can Do It” attitude.

When that student asked me if a boy could be a feminist I told him, “Absolutely!” We talked about how gender stereotypes can be harmful to both boys and girls. And we talked about the negative connotations of the word feminist. Then I reminded him that according to that blue dictionary I’m always urging them to use when they’re reading The Scarlet Letter and have no idea what half the words mean, a feminist is simply a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

And then he looked at me, smiled and said, “Yeah, then I’m definitely a feminist. And I’m glad you’re one too.”

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