Teaching Activism: How can I encourage my students to take feminism beyond the classroom?

One of my main goals in the feminism course I am teaching this year is to encourage students to take what we learn in class into the world with them. In fact, it is my greatest wish that they start to see themselves as teachers of feminism.

Audre Lorde’s Letter to Mary Daly (1979)

Lesson Slideshow & Assignment

With that in mind, I spent a day on a classic feminist text and asked the students to design their own lesson based on mine.

The feminist text was Audre Lorde’s Letter to Mary Daly from 1979. It was published in Sister, Outsider and is widely available online. Here is a link to a good printable version with room for students to annotate.

Making this lesson is the final assessment, the test, for our first unit: Invisibility: What keeps some people and experiences from being seen? Our central text was Gender Talk by Johnetta Betsch Cole & Beverly Guy Sheftall. So often, I ask my students of color to filter their experiences through a white lens. In this first unit, I wanted to put the experiences of people of color at the center of our study. To my delight, the students in my class had no trouble verbalizing the importance of an intersectional approach to feminism that takes into consideration matters of race, class, sexuality, gender identity, language, and so many other factors.

That said, I could tell from their comments this past month that many students hadn’t considered how difficult it has been for black women, in particular, to participate in the feminist movement without sacrificing or putting strain on their relationships within the black community. This was yet another reason I wanted to focus my model lesson on Lorde’s letter to Mary Daly: it’s an eloquent testament to the bravery of black American feminists and to their frustrations at being sidelined and diminished by white feminists.

The letter is also a piece of activism in and of itself that, in my lesson, I ask students to use as a model for using ideas to fight for change.

Lorde’s words, and the lesson as a whole, demand that students blend the personal and the political to take action.

At each stage of the lesson, I had the students do the activity first, explained why I chose it and finally gave them a few things to think about as they designed their own lessons.

To make the lesson format easy to remember, I condensed the format into an opening image and three sentences.

I chose to open my lesson with this photograph to introduce my students to Audre Lorde (if they don’t already know her work or what she looks like) and to evoke the ideas of education and power. In my original lesson, I juxtaposed it with an image from the website of my Alma Mater, a K-12 girls school, which showed little girls wearing hardhats. I asked my students: Which image seems more feminist?

Lesson Plan

Opening Image: What tensions do you notice?

1. What is s/he saying?

2. What am I thinking?

3. What can we do?

Teachers will recognize that I’m going through a classic sequence of reading comprehension, analysis, and production. Putting the lesson in more casual language will, I hope, encourage students to bring the class’s themes into their own lives.

I’ve included the slideshow I used with the students here. I’ve annotated it with some of my comments. Below is the main slide. One the left are three writing/annotating prompts for exploring Lorde’s words in more detail. We only did two. After the students write, they share some of what they have written aloud. We don’t comment. We just listen.

Once the students had a clearer idea of what the author is saying, we moved onto analysis and personal reflection. Separating these two steps so clearly encourages the students to contemplate the author’s meanings carefully before shifting attention to their own reactions, thoughts, and questions.

My model lesson

Giving the lesson and either writing or recording a short reflection was the final assessment for our first unit. I asked the students to make their lesson about something they felt was vitally important for others to know. Below is what I showed them. In the slideshow, all the links work.

The assignment

In my next post, I will have brief descriptions of each of the writing activities. Please let me know if something is unclear or if you would like to know more. This whole lesson plan owes a lot to the principles of Writing-to-Learn, which I learned at Bard’s Institute for Writing and Thinking and from my colleagues, Carley Moore, Alexia White, and Maureen Burgess. There is a healthy dose of Gradual Release of Responsibility as well.

About the Author Georgina Emerson

Collaborate with purpose.

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