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Feminist Theory in the Adolescent Classroom

Feminist Theory in the Adolescent Classroom

This blog post is based on a syllabus that I made in my Feminist Worldmaking class, titled: “Feminism in the Classroom: A Feminist Approach to Teaching Adolescent Literature.” Although my syllabus is designed for pre-service teachers, students in a teacher preparation program, teachers and college professors alike could benefit from incorporating ideas from my syllabus into their own classrooms.  Below is a brief overview I wrote in explaining my methods and reasoning for designing this course and a copy of my actual syllabus.

The trouble with theory

“So today class, we are going to talk about literary criticism and theory, specifically examining our text using feminist theory.” I can just imagine the eye rolls, the groans, and the defeated sighs from my students if I were to utter these words in my classroom. Theory, lenses, criticism, are terms that seem to always have a negative connotation attached to them, especially in the middle and high school setting. I have to admit that I, too, cringe when I hear these words in my own graduate classes, but why? Why does examining texts through critical lenses such as feminism, post-colonialism, and even gender construction, seem to disinterest students and veer them away from enjoying the beauty and art that is literature?

What I discovered in my own studies and my own personal experiences in the English classroom is that theory and criticism are not the problem-the problem is how literary theory is approached and taught in the classroom. I myself was never taught about literary theory or criticism until I entered college, and even then, I never really was taught how to take a critical lens and use it to approach and interpret a text- it was just expected of me to already know how. In a study conducted by scholar Deborah Appleman, she found “that 72% of literature teachers surveyed in schools that had a reputation for excellence reported little or no familiarity with contemporary literary theory” (6). So, not only were students not being taught literary theory in the classroom, but they weren’t being taught literary theory because the teachers themselves did not know and were not properly taught literary theory. I can relate to this, and I do not want to be that teacher who either completely eradicates theory from the curriculum or approaches theory in a boring or complicated manner simply because I do not know how to teach theory in a way that is engaging and relevant to students.

But another issue with teaching theory is point of view: what ideologies are these lenses and theories being approached from and how is theory being used? This is addressed in Barbra Christian’s The Race for Theory, where she questions, “For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?” (77). So much of theory is based on Western ideals and favors white, European and American works of literature, yet so many other theorists, such as women of color, have often been overlooked because their theories, their work, does not follow standard academic “norms.”  But this idea of who gets to decide what theory is and what is important to discuss currently in academia is something Christian wants students and educators alike to think about and to question. This too is something I want my students to think about as they begin to learn about theory. That is why I wanted to design a course for pre-service teachers where they could take a critical lens or theory, in this case feminist theory, and apply ideas and elements of feminist theory to popular multicultural young adult novels, written by women, that adolescents can connect and relate to. By designing a course that allows pre-service teachers to look at feminist issues through popular young adult literature and pop-culture, my goal is that future teachers will feel prepared designing lessons that can highlight feminist ideals while creating activities that are engaging and welcoming to adolescent students, and in turn, students will be able to explore literature and theory written by women of color, in order to reflect on how  race, class, gender, and sexuality intersect with feminist theory.

Hooking students with multicultural literature

When I first began designing the syllabus for my course, I knew that one of the most important things I had to do in order to make this course successful was the texts-finding multicultural texts that highlighted feminist issues while being relevant and relatable to students. That’s why I chose diverse and unique texts for my course, because, “for teacher candidates to work effectively with students from diverse cultures in all grade levels, they need to become familiar with some of the major issues that students confront in today’s society,” such as gender inequality, racism, and class issues  (Davis et al. 177).  These are topics and issues that are prevalent in our society today, but they are also issues that students themselves might be facing outside of the classroom walls.

I thought that it was important to supply students with novels that have diverse  protagonists that fight against common societal stereotypes, but also have different racial, social, religious, cultural, and gendered backgrounds because, studying “literature from multiple perspectives can be a vehicle for developing an understanding of complex concepts related to multicultural issues (Davis et al. 177). So often in ELA classrooms students read stories that are centered around or written by white men, and if they do have a female protagonist, she is usually white and heterosexual- but I wanted to breakaway from this outdated and narrow mind set because it doesn’t portray the world as it currently is- a melting pot of individuals from around the world. By incorporating diverse characters into the classroom, adolescents will have the opportunity to connect and identify with characters that they can relate to, whether it be with race, class, gender, and/or sexuality.

Being able to hook students in with literature is key. Whether it is relating to a character who experiences firsthand the devastation that comes from violence and war in Persepolis, or connecting with a character who is a first generation American who is struggling to find her identity in a new country in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, the goal for students is to experience the stories of characters who might differ in their background, such as culture or religion, but still struggle with the same issues such as identity, family, and morality. In introducing pre-service teachers to a variety of multicultural novels that have strong, diverse protagonists, my goal is that no matter what area or demographic they choose to teach in, they have a variety of novels in their arsenal to use that are powerful, current, and relatable to the students in their classrooms.

Lesson planning and instruction

The second part of this course focuses on actual teaching: taking a novel and teaching it with a feminist approach that is engaging yet relevant to students. That is why students will be assigned chapters from Critical Encounter in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents, by Deborah Appleman, because she discusses the benefits that literary theory can have in the middle and high school ELA classroom, and provides pre-service teachers examples of how to approach and design different lessons through specific literary lenses. In her book, Appleman states, “the purpose of teaching literary theory at the secondary level is not to turn adolescents into critical theorists; rather, it is to encourage adolescents to inhabit theories comfortably enough to construct their own readings and to learn to appreciate the power of multiple perspectives” (8). Similar to my course, the goal is not to turn pre-service teachers into feminist theorists, but rather to show them how to approach multicultural texts with a feminist lens so that they can bring diversity and current social issues into the classroom.

Throughout the semester, pre-service teachers will have two opportunities to design and teach a lesson using a feminist approach. In the first mini-lesson, they will have to create a lesson with differential instruction based on one of the books we will be reading throughout the semester. This will help students think about the role feminist theory can play in the novel, but also how it can be approached to middle or high school students. At the end of the semester, students will have to design and teach a lesson with a fellow classmate either on one of the assigned course texts or a novel that they would like to incorporate one day in their own classroom. This not only gives students another opportunity to critically think about how they would approach a specific novel with a feminist lens, but it also provides them the opportunity to work with fellow pre-service teachers to see how collaborating with fellow teachers can be beneficial in creating diverse and unique lessons and activities.

Teaching literary theory can seem overwhelming, but if pre-service teachers are given the fundamentals of how to approach critical literary lenses through diverse and engaging instructional activities, they will see that, instead of being daunting, teaching theory can actually be quite fun and possibly even a life changing experience for their students. 

The goal of theory

As a student in a pre-service teaching program, I can honestly say that it can feel  a bit nerve wracking to know that I will be placed in a school where I will regarded as being the master of English literature by my students and fellow co-workers. Is it overwhelming? Absolutely. Realistic-not so much. The truth is, as an English teacher in a public school, the goal is not to leave a pre-service teaching program being the master of literary or educational theory, but rather to be able to create that connection between students and literature and writing using personal experiences and current events as a way to create that bond, that connection.

By incorporating pop-culture, current events, and multicultural perspectives into the classroom, I am not only preparing pre-service teachers to understand the importance relevance and relatability has with adolescents engaging and connecting with class novels and activities, but I am giving them tools that they can use to create a collaborative and respectful classroom environment. Feminist theory is important in the ELA classroom because it allows for the exploration of not only feminist issues, but of race, class, and gender issues as well. There is such a large movement happening today where women’s voices are demanding to be heard and they are not letting their stories lay silent anymore, and it is important that we incorporate this into the adolescent classroom.

In giving pre-service teachers the opportunity to explore how to approach feminist theory in the adolescent classroom, they will not only be introducing their students to a critical lens that they will see in their future educational studies, but the discussion of feminism and gender construction will spark a larger conversation about the world around them- and that’s the goal: to show students that their voice matters and to provide them with the opportunities to explore their identity and the world around them.

 

Works Cited

Appleman, Deborah. Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. Teachers College Press, 2015.

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Cultural Critique, vol. 6, 1987, pp. 51–63. 

Davis, Kathryn L., et al. “Experiencing Diversity through Children’s Multicultural Literature.” Kappa Delta Pi Record, vol. 41, no. 4, Jan. 2005, pp. 176–179.

Photo by Jamie Taylor on Unsplash

 

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