In a recent interview, I spoke with Arianne Thomas, Director of the Aspire Program at Hathaway Brown School—Ohio’s oldest continuously operating college preparatory school for girls. The program delivers three years of tuition-free academic enrichment and leadership development programming to girls from Cleveland and Greater Cleveland communities underrepresented at the elite day school. In this conversation, Thomas addresses some of the best practices that she and colleagues use within the Hathaway Brown community to center the developmental needs of girls, alongside the diverse array of needs and experiences that different learners bring to the classroom.
KS: Why have you found that broadening the narratives you share is really critical for the development of girls?
AT: Unfortunately, sometimes girls do not see themselves in the curriculum they are presented, particularly girls of color or queer girls, and others. And sometimes it's not intentional, teachers and other adults inevitably bring their own biases to the curriculum, and it's really important for educators to reflect on these. So at Aspire, and I think even at Hathaway Brown in particular, teachers are asked to look at texts with a really critical lens, and we ask students to do the same. I taught English Language Arts for a long time, and I think about what is considered "classic literature." At Hathaway Brown and Aspire, we ask who determines classic literature, because historically it is white, male literature, and we think deeply about finding resources and doing curriculum where students can see themselves in the text or can be inspired by it. Texts that don’t necessarily tell a single story. So let's look at those resources and make sure that they are put in front of our students.
KS: Are there any thoughts that you would share with educators who think that attending to girls’ gendered experiences (but not other dimensions of their identities) is enough?
AT: I would definitely encourage teachers to look into and think about intersectionality, and even unpacking their own identities. For example, I am a woman, but it's hard for me to unpack being a woman without also thinking about the fact that I am white. And so to ask our students to do that when it's really hard for us as adults to do it is kind of unfair. And you might be unintentionally reinforcing stereotypes if you are unwilling to look at the full spectrum of someone's identity. You might be disaffirming who they are. There's always room for everyone's identity and everyone should feel that all parts of their identity can take up space. It's so hard, especially for pre-teens and teenagers, to unpack what it means to be a woman—but also unpacking classism or being a woman of color. All of your identities are important and there's room for everyone's identity to take up space, and teachers can facilitate that. I really do believe that.
KS: Can you share any advice with educators who teach girls in coeducational environments?
AT: The beauty of teaching in a coed environment, and I did that for years, is that you get to teach not only girls, but also teach your boys about gender norms, gender expectations, and media literacy. So I guess an example I think of, say you're having a conversation around youth and beauty, and that sometimes girls learn that their value lies in their youth or their beauty. You can have that conversation with your boys, too, and they can also help break dangerous mindsets around that.
I guess some of my advice would be don't forget about your girls, and think about questions like “how do we expect our female students to express themselves in the classroom?” I think sometimes that's where I see girls getting lost in coed environments… I’ve had young women who struggled, but sometimes it was my male students who were more disruptive. That is kind of perpetuating a stereotype, but it was my reality. So I think just remembering our girls, acknowledging our girls, and affirming our young women and being willing to have conversations around gender, and also even acknowledging we are living in an increasingly non-gendered world. So if a student says to you they felt sexism, talking to them about that, unpacking that, but from a teacher perspective too, how do we affirm our students' identities? Even in a coed environment, you have a beautiful opportunity to affirm and embrace your students' identities, whether through content or pedagogy. You can do it in so many different ways.
KS: Is there anything that you feel is really important to share from your work and experience that we haven't addressed already?
AT: Just that girls are amazing. And women are amazing. The history of women has been one of struggle and one a strength, and society has come a long way. It’s so exciting to see how far we have come, but I also think it's important for us to acknowledge that we have room for growth. Teaching our young women that it's okay to take up space is so important. Take up that space. And the goal of Aspire and Hathaway Brown is to empower our young women to go out into the world and give back, and I think that's a goal for all women. So the question is “how do we give our young women the tools to do this?”
In my first year teaching, I taught in a pretty challenging environment in that my school didn't have a lot of resources. We didn't even have desks when I first came into my classroom. I was so lucky that the old director of Aspire had told us about Facing History so that when I moved across the country and started teaching in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I used it as a resource. I don't know what I would've done without it. Facing History, to me, is the ultimate example of culturally responsive pedagogy in curriculum, and when I came into the classroom, I did it intuitively and loved it. When you're a first-year teacher or even a teacher later in your career, Facing History was a lifeline for me. And then it turned into a resource, and—though I might not use all of the same texts—it eventually became a model for me.
Facing History invites educators and parents to use our Teaching Idea “Black Women’s Activism and the Long History Behind #MeToo” in your physical or virtual classrooms.