(Re)Designing Women

Part 3 in an ongoing series about Tanya’s fall elective on American women’s history. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

It’s September, which must mean that my course is ACTUALLY under way. Yippee!

We started the school year two weeks ago, and as expected, it’s been a good – but intense – two weeks of getting to know my students, getting my first lesson plans out the door, and, unexpectedly, getting hit with a massive head cold (on the second day of school, no less).

When I last talked to you, I pulled the veil back on my initial course planning efforts for my one-trimester Intro to American Women’s History. But a month ago, I didn’t know how many students I’d end up with, or who they were, or what they would want to do.

I’ve now solved 2 of those three problems, and reader, it’s about get interesting.

On the day before school started, I had 10 students enrolled in my class. The morning of our first class 13 showed up (!), all officially on the roster by the time that class began. Two days later, a new student decided to add the course, bringing us to a lovely, robust 14 students. Most of them are seniors; all identify as women, and they’re all thrilled as anything to get to talk about women’s issues on a regular basis.

I went into the course with a plan to move chronologically through our class activities. That meant we would spend a couple of days on colonial America, move into the early 19th century, and then – theoretically this coming week – start talking about the first wave of women’s activism in the 1840s. I left the final month of the course aside for a project, but until that point, things were pretty clearly mapped out from one day to the next.

We started reading No Turning Back by Estelle Freedman, which the students have really taken to. We’ve had two spider-web-style-discussions; for now, I’ve taken a back seat to see where they take the conversations, but this may shift in the future and I may join in a bit more. In the early days, I like to see what they’re all bringing to the table.

But this week, we’re heading back to the drawing board together. Several things combined this past week to make me rethink a few things and to open the class to the student’s input quite a bit more.

It began with a conversation about one of the archives at our school. The school where I teach began its life as an all-girls’ school in the mid-1800s. There are, in some families, long-lasting traditions of attending the school, although it’s changed quite a bit in the last 160 years and we’re now a co-ed institution due to a merger some years back. Still, I thought it would be great if I could include the school’s history in our work, and I began talking to some people about how that might work.

The long and short of it is that a little collaboration led to the possibility of doing something more than I ever would have thought. I’ll talk about it more another time, once it’s more defined, but here’s where things are sitting right now:

  1. On Thursday, I opened up the last 20 minutes of class to start a conversation with my students that went like this: “What if all of YOU could design this course to make sure you learn what really interests you, in a way that really interests you?”
  2. On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, we’re redesigning together. I’ve asked them to come in with the topics and themes and questions they want to explore, so together we will put our heads together and figure out what direction this will take.
  3. And yes, that includes assessments. We’ll talk about what sort of assessment requirements we have in front of us, but also what kinds of assessments interest them.
  4. The big thing on the table involves framing the rest of the course in a way that will get them a lot of local and institutional history. There are some caveats to that (for example, that institutional history may have strong ties to the women’s suffrage movement, but it’s also a very white and upper class tie).
  5. Additionally, we’re playing with ideas for final projects that may have to do with commemorations of the school’s upcoming anniversary, with a number of possibilities in the mix.

Basically, I feel no closer to having a fully-designed course than I did a month ago, but this opportunity to work with my students to create a course so intentionally seems important right now. I won’t lie: it’s a little scary. In this case, though, I think the scariness is just what we need to get us to something truly excellent.

Do you have experience letting students take a major hand in course design? Let me know!

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