It may come as a surprise to teachers and students alike that textbooks aren’t gospel. We tend to trust that our American history textbooks are telling us the truth when they tell us Columbus “discovered America.” When we only see white male authors on the syllabus of our 19th Century Literature class, we’re inclined to think that there were no female authors or authors of color in the 1800s. But these are skewed and false versions of history presented to us with a neat bow on top, meant to continue systems of oppression and inequality.
So whether you’re a teacher hoping to present your students with tools to put these so-called “facts” to the test, or a student planning on challenging your class’s syllabus, check out this feminist lesson plan.
The first step is to pick a subject. Let’s go with history .
Even though textbooks tend to underrepresent women, some achievements are hard to ignore. Even the language used, however, can undercut women’s achievements. Take the phrase, “Women were given the right to vote in 1920 when Congress passed the 19th Amendment.” Sound familiar enough? Well, the construction of this sentence puts women in a passive position (“Women were given”) and Congress in an active position (“Congress passed”). What does this do? (Looking at you, English teachers). This reduces women’s hard battle to win the right to vote, which included unconstitutional arrests, hunger strikes, and verbal abuse, as well as making it sound as though Congress benevolently gave women suffrage without prompting.
Ask your class: What do you think women had to do to get the right to vote? Challenge the students to think beyond what their textbook may tell them and make them demand a bigger picture.
After presenting your class with this sentence, and then a counterpart: “After years of protests, women achieved the right to vote when the 19th amendment was passed by Congress.” Ask them what the difference is.
In this second sentence, women have an active role (“women achieved) while Congress has a passive role (X was passed by Congress).
Ask your class: Why Congress might have decided to give women the right to vote? Challenge them to consider what might have motivated Congress besides a desire to right a wrong.
After deconstructing these sentences, have the class read this speech by Alice Paul about women’s suffrage.
Then, turn the discussion on its head and ask who else or what else might be left of the story of suffrage. After discussing this subject for ten minutes, have them read this article about racism in the suffrage movement.
Assignment: Write either a story or a response about someone outside of our history textbook that you would like to learn more about. Why do you think their contributions to history are not in our history textbook
Broadening the Lesson Plan
Even though we’ve mostly been discussing the subject of history, these questions can be applied to any subject. If you are a student, ask why math problems give examples featuring gender stereotypes. In your science classes, speak up and ask why so much of the subject refers to men as a neutral subject and women as a specialized. And in your English classes, we’ve already seen the power sentence structure holds!
If you are a teacher, challenge your students to look beyond what is given to them so that they can deconstruct assumptions about the world that they’ve already internalized.
Though these questions may seem like small, simple steps, the world can change if teachers and students alike begin to challenge assumptions and ask, “why?”