Women at the Centre of the Curriculum
by Janet Isserlis
WHAT HAPPENS when we put women at the centre of the curriculum? I reflect on this question from my teaching experience, which is rooted in participatory literacy work.* Participatory literacy work has everything to do with the primacy of learners' knowledge, feelings and experience. Working with men or women involves actively listening, carefully guiding and often allowing oneself to do very little at all. How do we listen to women when we are all and only women, together, and how do we listen to women when men are around?
I imagine the "we" I refer to as a broad-based group of women literacy workers who believe in the primacy of learners' strengths, voices and experience, and who dynamically work with those strengths, voices and experience to assist learners in accomplishing goals which the learners name.** Some of us believe that literacy and education should move women forward to "change power relations [and] transform socio-economic systems." We may frame such work as education for transformation. Others of us may remain more neutral on power issues.** Many of us view education as a social endeavor and literacy as a social process. Our work with learners and the material developed for this curriculum is informed by these beliefs.
There is no real mystery to the ways in which these women have learned to listen to one another, to ask their teacher for help with words or spelling or to decide that they want to spend some time learning to type. The interactions of the group have been modeled, discussed and passed on as new learners join the circle. Certain events occur regularly and consistently. There is a composition book into which new words are written. Stories brought into class will be typed and distributed the following day. A piece of mail, a notice from a child's teacher and the day's headlines are all open for discussion and exploration.
In another group of both men and women learners, the content of the reading, writing and speaking is again determined by the learners and their interests. Stories they dictate are typed up and distributed the following day, with expansion activities included on the work sheet for more advanced learners. The facilitator ponders how to allow for women's needs, strengths and interests as learners, when their culture has told them to defer to men, where the official agenda at this site is to make newcomers welcome into the school. When women's issues are taken up, the conversations are sometimes tenuous or difficult. The men are bored, at best; the women can't speak of their problems in front of the group.
*My recent work has been shared with Louie
Ettling, who posed many thoughtful questions as I was writing this piece.