Magazine article Herizons

Gender Studies Makes the Grade in Ontario High Schools

Magazine article Herizons

Gender Studies Makes the Grade in Ontario High Schools

Article excerpt

(TORONTO) Crowded around long tables, rapt students scrutinize the chalkboard at the front of the room, where a line separates two columns titled "Man" and 'Woman." A scattered list of adjectives fills each column: strong, graceful, decisive, empathetic....

"See how fuzzy it is in the middle?" asks the teacher, pointing to the insubstantial line that divides "man" words from "woman' words. "For so long, people have tried to put themselves into one category. And we're reaching a point in society where people are saying, I'm not going to do that anymore."

In the front row, one student breaks down in tears.

Welcome to high school teacher Kim Snider's gender studies class. It's only been in session a few weeks, but Snider says there's already an atmosphere of trust and safety between her and her students-even when touchy subjects come up. "We established rules, like: you can pass if you don't want to talk, you can leave the room, or you can stay and just listen but not have to participate," Snider said.

These rules matter, because gender studies can be emotionally jarring for many. But, Snider says it can also be immensely affirming for students of gender and sexual minorities. "I think there's something about hearing a teacher put voice to your own experience, and recognize how difficult things can be, that is very emotional," Snider said. "When people have cried in class, they've decided to stay, and to me, that's a sign that they feel pretty safe. They don't feel embarrassed."

Snider is one of the smattering of Ontario teachers now offering the Grade 11 gender studies course, which was promoted for eight years by the Miss G Project, a group of former women's studies university students who managed to convince the Ontario government to add gender and equity courses to the curriculum in 2013. The women's and gender studies course covers a range of issues not commonly taught in high school: everything from suffrage and women's rights to unrealistic beauty ideals and queertheory.

Now that the course is officially available, the challenges for its teachers are threefold: convincing their schools' administration to offer the course, planning lessons and activities, and helping students navigate the charged topics of gender and sexuality in ways that feel comfortable and safe.

Snider was in a better position than most to suggest that the course be taught at her school: She teaches at Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, a high school in Toronto. She felt confident suggesting a gender studies class, even though her humanities and arts background makes her technically unqualified to teach social science courses. I think [our principal] has a lot of faith in me, and it was more a question of would he want another course offered?" Snider recalled. "I pitched it to him by email, and he emailed me back and said, yeah. I think it would be a good fit. Let's put it on the option sheet and see if anyone signs up."

Not all schools make it so easy for hopeful women and gender studies teachers, however. Hema Kaura, who teaches history and social sciences at Saunders Secondary in London, Ont., says some of her peers were initially unsupportive of her plan to teach gender studies.

"Occasionally, there would be teachers saying they talk about gender issues already," she said, "but they don't understand that talking about famous women in history or literature, for example, isn't the same as focusing specifically on gender."

Once a teacher gets the course offered at their school, the next hurdle is planning classes and gathering materials. The Miss G Project worked for years to get the course into the curriculum; now, implementing the curriculum is the next challenge, as educational resources can be scarce.

"If there's very few resources for the course, who is going to feel confident teaching it? …

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