Dirt Under My Fingernails

intentional teaching on the great plains

Engaging Girls in History: the 20th Century Through the Lens of Powerful Women

on November 5, 2013

Engaging Girls in History

This week marks the end of an extended engineering-based science study and the beginning of a month of narrative. Eva’s participating in National Novel Writing Month, and we’re launching into the next period of history, picking up where we left off last spring, the beginning of the 1900s.

Why Does My Narrative-Loving Daughter Dislike History?

Welcome to the 20th century! Over the years, Eva has disliked history for two reasons: 1) it’s chock full with stories of war, disease, and cruelty, and 2) it is primarily the story of men. Eva didn’t see herself represented anywhere in the history books, and has complained about this since the ripe old age of six. Kings and scientists, warlords, people of power – all men. There are some exceptions of course, and we’ve clung to the few stories about women like bees to nectar. But Eva felt that her story – the story of women – was for the most part, absent.

She particularly dreaded studying the 20th century. I asked her what she knew of the century the other day, trying to assess her resistance. This is what she rattled off: WWI, WWII, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, the Cold War. Holy cow, no wonder she doesn’t want to study this stuff. It’s so … depressing.

Reframing Our Study

A challenge, then. I wanted us to study these major events, but I decided to balance it all with the positives – the scientific advancements, the beautiful art, the amazing music, the profound acts of kindness and courage. And above all the women. This century marks a significant change in the story of women. We finally get the vote, get out of the house, wear pants, speak our minds, and begin as a gender to take significant strides in changing our world. I’m not downplaying the amazing accomplishments of women before this century; it’s just that things started opening up for us during the 1900s, and there are more stories to be told and heard.

Girls Who Rocked the World

Creating Our Curriculum Together

So today we began. The only planning I did ahead of time was to check out as many books celebrating the accomplishments of women as I could. Highlights include Girls Who Rocked the World by Michelle Roehm McCann, Lives of Extraordinary Women by Kathleen Krull, and Amelia to Zora: Twenty-Six Women Who Changed the World by Cynthia Chin-Lee. I spread out the books on the classroom table and told Eva we would be creating this curriculum together.

Lives of Extraordinary WomenWe set a goal of identifying 10 women that we wanted to study. We wanted them to represent different periods of the century, different major events (for example, choosing Anne Frank to look at WWII), and different careers and interests. Then we began, writing up our findings on our white board in a massive brainstorming session.

Ten women became twenty-nine, and Eva, who had entered this project with shoulders drooped and eyes rolling, became increasingly excited. “Mom, check out Rachel Carson! She’s so COOL! We have to study her!” Though I put a few of the names up on the board, they were mainly Eva’s contributions. By the end of the morning she told me she really didn’t expect to like this project, but now she was all in.

Amelia to ZoraOnce we had all the names up on the board, I had Eva create a table in Word and list all the names, then their life dates, then their category (artist, politician, etc.), and finally their historical context (late-century, WWII, etc.). We sorted the table by date, and we will use this timeline of sorts as our framework to study the century.

How It’s Going to Work

For each woman, we will look at her personal life and the political climate of her day studying history through the lens of these amazing individuals. We won’t leave out the men, but their stories will be told in context of the women’s lives, kind of like how we’ve always studied women in the past. Time to turn the tables! In this way I hope to make history relevant to my daughter, give her a place in the human narrative, and still explore the depth and breadth of the century. She plans to make paper puppets of these women, with their faces on the front and brief notes about their lives on the back. She will also choose one woman and write a formal essay about her.

Not Just for Girls

I’m going to share our list with you, and if you see a major omission, please be sure to let me know in the comments! But first, I want to make a brief statement about the title of this post, “Engaging Girls in History.” I’ll tell you right now: my only regret with this unit is that Ian, no longer homeschooled, isn’t here to share it with us.

Studying amazing women should not – should never be – something just for girls. Neither should reading novels about heroines. Boys and girls alike should study and be engaged in the amazing lives of men and women. Ian was incredibly moved by the stories of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony when we studied them last year. They are worthy of our attention, regardless of our gender. My hope is that this approach won’t be relegated to “girl stuff,” but that families with daughters and sons will consider providing both perspectives to their children. This is how we will change the world.

And Now the List

So here’s the list. Let me know if there’s anyone else we simply must add.

Marie Curie * Helen Keller * Virgina Woolf * Eleanor Roosevelt * Agatha Christie * Zora Neale Hurston * Barbara McClintock * Grace Murray Hopper * Frida Kahlo * Rachel Carson * Rosa Parks * Indira Gandhi * Ella Fitzgerald * Maya Angelou * Anne Frank * Ruth Bader Ginsberg * Jane Goodall * Gloria Steinem * Janis Joplin * Hillary Clinton * Cyndi Lauper * Sonia Sotomayor * Condoleeza Rice * Oprah Winfrey * Ellen DeGeneres * J.K. Rowling * Ani DiFranco * Natalie Portman * Emma Watson

How do your kids engage with history?

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10 responses to “Engaging Girls in History: the 20th Century Through the Lens of Powerful Women

  1. dawn says:

    i’m currently reading gail collins’ when everything changed: the amazing journey of american women from 1960 – present. dd is peeking over my shoulder at times. i think it has real-life perspectives and is a story-telling, informative read.

    my dd has similar issues with studying history as eva does. she recently heard, though, my telling of some family stories that span countries, continents, and cultures, and now she’s interested in learning more about the times and events in which her great-grandmother lived.

    if you take a look under the biographies section under “what she reads” at my blog, there are a couple of other titles that might be interesting to you and eva, too. http://happyerathome.blogspot.com/p/what-she-reads.html

    (please tell eva i’m glad she has agatha christie and indira gandhi on her list. i admired and studied them when i was her age, too.)

  2. Ken says:

    You might include Betty Ford who was brave enough to say that she had an addiction and then tried to help others with their addictions.

  3. Lara says:

    Fantastic idea! I just reserved your recommended books at my local library. Thank you.

  4. herring6987 says:

    Great idea. I would add Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. Also Wilma Mankiller. Maybe Katharine Hepburn, Hedy Lamarr, Maria Agnesi.

    • Great suggestions. One of my favorite stores of Hepburn is that she jumped in a frozen lake every day to experience some kind of suffering. I’d like to look that one up for more details, but I think she’s fascinating. Thanks!

  5. Lara says:

    I’m checking back with you to let you know my daughter and I are having a grand ol’ time reading these books. ;-) Thanks again.

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