Making Women's History Month Real for Students
March is Women’s History Month. Every year, school libraries across the country put up huge book displays of notable women historians, scientists, mathematicians, poets, and entrepreneurs. It’s a great way to commemorate the occasion and offer a friendly reminder to our students to reflect on the importance of these women’s accomplishments.
But it’s not enough. Why do we continue to operate at a baseline level of instruction when 21st-century learning standards encourage us to move from recognition and recall of information to one of creation and evaluation? After years of celebrating Women’s History Month the same way, last year I realized that I had no desire to make more picture collages or post facts on bulletin boards in my library. Instead, I wanted students to move from acquiring facts to evaluating the issues facing women today.
So I developed a brown bag seminar for freshmen girls that was hosted over two weeks in the school’s library. Students were invited to eat lunch and attend sessions with guest speakers in the fields of financial literacy and professional etiquette. Students played an interactive Jeopardy game about the importance of money management and learned about the career qualifications of financial advisers and mortgage loan officers. In another session, students took part in a Q&A about beauty trends and self-esteem, got tips for dressing for a job interview, and learned about the dangers of posting inappropriate images on social media. After the sessions, students were encouraged to share their email addresses with speakers if they wanted to network and stay connected.
I believe students appreciated having candid conversations with professional women about topics of interest to them, especially how to start their own career preparations. Next year, I hope to build momentum for the program and expand it with more guest speakers, students, and topics.
Interested in organizing a similar event? Here are some suggestions:
1. Start thinking about possible guest speakers early. Look first within the local community. Reach out to a wide range of professionals such as bankers, pharmacists, managers, salon owners, and car dealership owners. Since it was my first year in my building, I didn’t have a relationship with many businesses, so I called on my personal contacts. Consider asking your colleagues for suggestions as well.
2. Get funding. If your library budget is limited, request to use general funds from your principal and provide an overview with a rationale. Be sure your request is connected to academic standards. You may need these funds to buy gifts and lunches for speakers and door prizes for students. However, look into getting as many resources donated as possible. My speakers requested no fees and volunteered their time. In essence, it was their way of giving back to the school community. I was also able to get local businesses to donate lunches and door prizes.
3. Invite students. Once you have selected your speakers, send out personal invitations to students at least one month in advance. But first, you’ll need to ask yourself some questions. Will you invite specific students, or will the event be open on a first-come basis? Will it be coed or for girls only? Reserve your library space and market your event by posting flyers around the school and making announcements. On your invitations and flyers, make sure to highlight the speakers and what students can expect to gain by attending.
4. Get help from other teachers. Solicit assistance from fellow teachers for the day of event. Teachers can greet guest speakers, order their lunches, collect invitations at the door, and help decorate the space.
5. Prep your space. I recommend doing this the day before the event. Contact speakers to see if they have any special technology needs. Provide evaluation forms for students. Write thank you notes in advance for speakers.
Although this project was developed as a celebration of Women's History Month, it could easily be conducted monthly. Women’s History Month has the potential to be expanded throughout the year and immersed into multiple disciplines. As important as it is for students to learn about the history of women’s rights and various struggles for equality, it’s just as vital that we examine and learn from the unique, diverse women whose character, intellect, and passion influence the world today.
This experience also showed me that school librarians can play a pivotal role in using Women’s History Month as a precursor to expand gender studies in our schools. While staff shortages and training may bring about challenges, the role of the school librarian can be much more than “book keeper”—think professional-staff developer, project-learning manager, and most importantly, collaborator. If we want to take our students to higher levels of learning for college and career readiness, we must transition from having students recall ordinary facts to creating environments in which we transform students into the change agents they have learned about.