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Feminist Pedagogy: Transforming the High School Classroom

Author(s): Paula A. Roy and Molly Schen

Source: Women's Studies Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3/4, Feminist Pedagogy: An Update (Fall -
Winter, 1993), pp. 142-147
Published by: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
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Accessed: 08-03-2019 01:25 UTC

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Feminist Pedagogy:
Transforming the High School

Paula A. Roy and Molly Schen

We are writing this article together not only because we share ideas about
the feminist classroom in the high school and feel doubly empowered to
convey these ideas in our shared voice but also because what we have to say
deals with relationship, shared learning power, and voice. We choose
consciously to model as well as to speak about our convictions. Currently
colleagues and friends, we have also been teacher and student. Despite age
difference, we have shared concurrent encounters with feminism as it
connects with our professional lives. We share the belief that feminist
pedagogy can transform the high school classroom; in fact, we believe that
the high school may be more receptive to feminist teaching than the
college lecture hall.
Higher education honors the professorial mode which validates the
critical, public, impersonal, arid objective stance. Kindergarten honors the
private, personal, and subjective world of the student. Between these two
extremes perches the high school. Because institutions are based on hier-
archies, the upper-track classes in the high school idealize the high school
teacher as college professor; the lower- track classes tend not to emulate
professorial teaching, but neither do they carry status and prestige. Some
teachers in "general" and "remedial" courses are cognizant of and sensitive
to different learning styles. We believe that a pedagogy that honors both
diversity of learning styles and intellectual rigor should - and can - infuse
all teaching on the high school level.
As we begin to explore how one can implement feminist pedagogy in
high schools, we note that there is a tradition of research and discussion
that can be used to support feminist theory about teaching. The feminist
teacher needs to draw from that literature, research, and theory, needs to
translate its potential into a more inclusive language for her classroom.
Pragmatically she stands a better chance of achieving credibility and of
getting support if she builds on existing traditions and appeals to recog-
nized needs. Briefly, these familiar traditions include: group learning,
peer tutoring and evaluation, differentiated standards, evaluation modes,
dialectic between cognitive and affective domains, writing process, learn-
ing theory, critical and creative thinking, case study method, and educa-
tional reform movements. Without particular concern for gender issues,
then, many teachers are already practicing pedagogy that parallels the


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Women's Studies Quarterly 1993: 3 & 4 143

efforts of feminists. The high school environment from wh

enter both the academy and the world of work presents a fe
for feminist teachers, a territory ripe for transformation.
With the emphasis currently on meeting the needs of al
through both pedagogical and curricular reform, we are in a
effect change. Inclusiveness, acknowledgment of diversity, and
different voices are hallmarks of feminist pedagogy; beginnin
goals gives credence to what may be considered more rad
toward what Peggy Mclntosh calls phases four and five of h
curriculum transformation, a "re-vision" that necessarily im
agogical revolution.1 The open door through which to ent
world is a variation on the old theme of democratic education for students
regardless of race, class, or gender in the United States.
Bolstered then by existing models and emboldened by a nascent network
of collegial awareness, we, as feminist teachers, face several challenging

1. How can we create the classroom community as a safe place that

honors all its voices and silences?
2. How can we fight fragmentation and nurture the wholeness of learn-
3. How can we emphasize process over product while still teaching
important skills?
4. How can we honor the private, personal, and subjective as well as the
public, impersonal, and objective?
5. How can we redefine the student-teacher relationship in terms of
power and authority as we deal with adolescent learners?

All of these questions suggest that the knottiest problem at the high school
level is the forging of a new relationship between teacher and student. In
our world, the high school English classroom, the student-teacher rela-
tionship is complicated by issues of adolescent development, stages in a
teacher's own life and career cycle, and the expectations of supervisors,
peers, and parents. Within each of these frames are hierarchical assump-
tions as well as real problems with which we must deal.
How does the feminist teacher of students fourteen to eighteen years of
age find effective, honest ways to create and maintain a healthy, safe
climate for learning, to honor and validate all of the voices (and silences) of
her students who do not choose to be there, to share the power of learning
and discovery with them without being misunderstood as abdicating her
role in the institutionalized setting?
We face these challenges from two perspectives, that of the experienced,
mature teacher whose reputation and style allow students to verbalize their
identification of her as a mother figure and that of a young teacher who
must balance issues of control and community in order to develop a

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144 Women's Studies Quarterly 1993: 3 & 4

reputation and maintain personal integrity. Here we separate o

speak personally about the student-teacher relationship in our

PAULA: As a veteran teacher of seventeen years' experien

department chairperson, I come into each year's classes pr
reputation that gives me room to work without nervous sup
parents looking over my shoulder. In strictly classroom m
terms, I have no "discipline" problems; I've learned how to h
personalities and situations. In fact, I encounter quite the op
tures: students too eager to please, almost slavish in their wi
accept as absolute my every word. Responses for the first fe
especially from the young women, are prefaced with such di
"I'm not sure this is right . . . I'm probably wrong, but ... I don
is what you want." Faced with ambiguous responses from me
express frustration, even anger, especially if I say, as I often
Students expect me to know and also to send out signals that tell them
how to please me into the grade they want and need. When I step out of
the role of the expert, they initially feel cheated, threatened, and insecure.
In uncertain and clumsily veiled terms (after all, Ms. Roy is head of the
department and a "good" teacher), they tell me that I'm not doing my job
when I refuse to know it all. In the feminist context of my classroom, how
do I defuse that anxiety and refocus it to empower students to participate
in their own learning? I have ten suggestions, my own ten commandments,
written in good faith, not stone.

1. I establish a human relationship that is inclusive and whole; that is, I

let students know who I am outside of school and develop links between
our worlds so that we learn together as whole people. In my case, that
means I make no apologies for my teaching style, which is nurturing and
maternal, or for the familial classroom environment I like to foster. We
have telephone trees that include my number, and students sometimes
drop papers off at my home or stop to chat when they see me outside
gardening. I demystify me.
2. I begin class each year with an exercise in group problem solving. I
create the exercises myself and change them each year.
3. I try to begin each unit, each important discussion, each work of
literature with a personal writing assignment or a clarification exercise
based on personal experience. In this way, I try to help students locate in
their lives places to enter the "schoolwork" we are doing.
4. At some point, as I get to know the students, I develop with them an
assignment that turns them into teachers. By demystifying the teacher's
role, I help them empower themselves as learners.
5. I make no attempts to be objective about my enthusiasms; in my case,
I get very excited about poetry and Flannery O'Connor and women's
studies. I also make no bones about the fact that I have never read the

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Women's Studies Quarterly 1993: 3 &f 4 145

middle sections of Moby Dick and that I never plan to teach Crim
6. I no longer give writing assignments but spend time and e
helping students develop and "own" their topics.
7. Because I teach in a competitive college preparatory high school
attempt to defuse grade anxiety. At least once during the marking
I offer non-graded experiences. I also am developing assignmen
carry one of two grades - an A or no credit. The student works t
level of personal excellence and skill mastery, not to beat out the c
8. By creating cooperative learning activities and by honoring
reading, editing, and reacting, I broaden the audience to whom we
our written and spoken thoughts. Through writing and sharin
informally with students, I become one of several writers and rea
instead of the only audience for their work.
9. I work harder each year to guarantee representation to all voi
the classroom and in the curriculum. We take as text the literature w
our own lives, and the community around us.
10. I do not apologize for being a feminist nor for overtly working
sure women's voices are heard. Always pragmatic, I have learned,
ever, that talking about gender as opposed to feminism is a good do
credibility. If we want them all to listen at this time of their lives
sexual identity and attractiveness are such preoccupations, we need
at the roles we play and women and men in literature and in life.

MOLLY: When I was in a teacher training program four years ago

educational vocabulary was replete with words like classroom m
ment, control, and discipline. Maintaining order - keeping the stu
quiet and in their seats - was of such concern that I and many
colleagues believed we had to be stern authority figures if we were g
be effective teachers.
Imagine my consternation when, after teaching for several months, I sat
down and realized how unhappy I was. True, my students were learning a
few writing and reading skills, and I had had some thrilling classes, full of
good talk and even laughter. But for the most part the days fell into a
dreary pattern. From the front of the class I would talk, interrupting
myself to reprimand the inattentive and disruptive. "But Ms. Schen . . . ,"
an offender would protest. "That's enough, Jill," I would respond, tersely
and efficiently. The problem lay not with the curriculum (though there
were problems aplenty there, too), but with the pedagogy.
I had been trained to implement a hierarchical, top-down, teacher-
driven method of instruction. While the method is efficient for delivering
lectures and doling out knowledge, it was making me and my students very
unhappy. So that year I shifted my teaching style a bit. In discussions I held
my tongue. Work became more project oriented. I was less directive. I was
happier. Students were more apt to ask questions and to help one another

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reach an answer. I am not sure if they l

but they certainly learned better. They
own learning.
The next summer I left teaching and
Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools. A
advocate for educational reform, Sizer
agogy, a pedagogy propelled by a conc
of kids.2 During my two years with t
gingly with teachers and principals
transform schools into safe communiti
for all students. His emphasis, howeve
child who tends to slip through the crac
who is not bright, wealthy, or differen
of class rather than gender.
Last year, in a master's program in ed
Dewey and encountered Carol Gilligan,
for the first time. Now I embrace fem
cause of its respect for students, its con
Particular advantages attend my situat
Some faculty view me as a complete nov
tical) theories, while others look forw
groups expect me to take risks, to expe
position to be in! No one - neither fac
expects me to be perfect.
As I embark on a new and importan
weave together the pieces of my exper
making, and in the academy. All three
understanding of feminism in educatio
representing practice, theory, and resea
converse with one another. After all, th
ing the world.

We conclude our shared vision with some hopeful thoughts. As the web
of feminist awareness widens its cast over classrooms at all levels, kinder-
garten through the university, feminist educators need to abandon the
hierarchical assumptions that separate them. As we empower voices, ac-
knowledge diversity, and develop inclusive curricula and teaching strat-
egies, we must apply the same revolutionary values to our own
professional networks and relationships. The work of high school (and
elementary school) teachers and scholars offers fertile models for change,
models from which new scholarship and practice can develop. We insist
that feminist educators need to gaze across, levelly at one another, to
abandon the "up" and "down" assumptions that have stratified the world of
education and limited communication among us. As we have pointed out
through our own work, the high school may be the pivotal place where
powerful ideas and practice can converge.

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Women's Studies Quarterly 1993: 3 & 4 147

1 . Peggy Mclntosh, Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-vision: A Femini
Perspective, Working Paper No. 124 (Wellesley, Mass.: Wellesley Colleg
Center for Research on Women, 1983).
2. Theodore R. Sizer, Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the America
High School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983).

Paula A. Roy is Chair of the Department of English at Westfield High Sch

in Westfield, New Jersey, where she also coordinates the districts writing proje
and leads faculty development seminars and student workshops on race, clas
and gender issues; strategies for the inclusive classroom; and dealing wit
homophobia in schools.

Molly Schen is a doctoral candidate in the Harvard Graduate School of Ed

cation. She coordinates a project in Freeport, Maine, to redefine the high sch
diploma around outcomes instead of course credits. Schen is a recent Chris t
McAuliffe Fellow.

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