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February 26, 2015

Women's History Month for the 21st Century Girl

By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    March is Women’s History Month, both a helpful reminder to include women’s perspectives in the social studies we teach every month, and to set aside some time this month to highlight the contributions of girls and women. But when we look beyond the outsized shadow of dead-white-men’s history, the female half of the world population has thousands of years of documented history to pick from, so how do we choose what to teach this month?

    Traditionally, Women’s History Month has focused on the U.S. women’s suffrage and reform movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s, but are they really the most relevant? Sure, I appreciate Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but I also know that my students learned about those women last year and will probably study them again in future years.

    Will learning about the women's suffrage movement inspire our 21st century girls to become scientists? Or is there something else we should teach during Women's History Month to tackle the STEM gender divide?

    Embracing the indomitable spirit of those Progressive Era reformers, I propose that we use Women’s History Month to tackle a problem that our girls are facing now in the 21st century. Sadly, women continue to be underrepresented in the STEM professions at the university level and beyond. According to the National Science Foundation Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, in 2013 only 29 percent of the employed engineers and scientists in the U.S. were women, and only 19 percent of engineering majors were female. (For an in-depth discussion of women in STEM professions, see the 2013 New York Times Magazine article "Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?," as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy page about Women in STEM.) Fellow teacher and blogger, Christy Crawford offers distressing data on the gender gap in computer science fields — and very doable ways to close that gap.

    So what’s an elementary school teacher supposed to do about this national, systemic issue? Well, we are the ones to create the initial foundation for growing confident, enthusiastic young mathematicians, engineers, and scientists among our boys and girls. We can highlight women making contributions in the STEM fields, we can invite speakers from the field into our classrooms, we can serve as STEM-enthusiast role models ourselves, and we can normalize STEM achievement for girls in our classrooms. Here are three ideas to celebrate women’s STEM contributions this month and throughout the year:

    I put out a display of STEM-focused books for girls during March as well as a new book basket.

     

    Explore the MAKERS Documentaries

    The MAKERS website features hundreds of mini-documentaries about important women who have “made America!” It is a treasure trove of primary source interviews and curated footage, much of which aired on PBS and is now available for free online.

    If your students don’t know about Katherine Johnson, who calculated flight routes during the Space Race, Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, or Susan Wojcicki, the current CEO of YouTube, they can (and should) learn about these women and others through MAKERS videos.

     

    Biographies Beyond Marie Curie

    Read-aloud biography picture books are a great way to expand your students’ knowledge about women who’ve made important contributions in STEM. These books can be used for nonfiction literacy lessons for a wide range of teaching points, so this doesn’t have to be something else to squeeze into your daily schedule — it can be woven directly into reading workshop. Here are some of my favorites:

    Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully

    I launch this read-aloud by asking students to examine a brown paper lunch bag — a familiar object that they certainly take for granted. I point out that somebody actually invented the flat-bottomed paper bag, and we’re going to learn all about her! This book sends a warm message about female empowerment, and it celebrates the rewards of hard work rather than “born genius,” making Mattie truly inspiring.

     

    Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh

    I love any book with Raul Colon’s etched watercolor and pencil illustrations, and this biography about a stalwart astronomer is no exception. Henrietta Leavitt discovered the relationship between a star’s brightness and its distance from Earth at a time when women were relegated to clerical calculations in the astronomy lab. For budding astronauts and astronomers, this is a great pick!

     

    The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter

    Jane Goodall’s primate adventures always capture my students’ imaginations, and this picture book is a great way to introduce this famous biologist and the importance of observation as a scientific skill. I like to pair this biography with a classic from my own childhood, Koko’s Kitten by Dr. Francine Patterson. While Koko, a famous sign-language-speaking gorilla, lived at the San Francisco Zoo, her story demonstrates the gorilla’s interactions with the author, a young female scientist.

    The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins

    Show your students a Google Maps satellite view of San Diego and they’ll notice a green patch in the middle of the city. Zoom in on Balboa Park and inform your students that this impressive green space only exists here in this desert city due to the efforts of one determined botanist, Katherine Olivia Sessions. The predictable refrain throughout the book — “But Kate did!” — makes this a fun interactive read-aloud.

     

    Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle

    The artist and naturalist Maria Merian was the mother of entomology and a free-wheeling explorer of exotic locales in the late 1600s — long before women were making their mark in scientific realms. This brightly illustrated picture book focuses on Merian’s discovery of moths’ metamorphosis at a time when this biological phenomenon was considered magic. Students thrill to learn that Merian made her big discoveries when she was merely 13 years old!

     

    Olivia's Birds: Saving the Gulf by Olivia Bouler

    This book isn’t a biography, but your students will definitely want to learn more about the 11-year-old who wrote and illustrated this bird guide in order to raise money and awareness about birds affected by oil spills. This book will inspire the nascent environmentalists in your class to take action.

      

    Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thimmesh

    An enjoyable, fast-paced anthology of biographies, this book lends itself to reading comprehension activities and jigsaw group work.

     

    Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

    A challenging photo-essay style “picture book,” this is a great independent reading choice for advanced upper elementary readers. I’ve used excerpts from this book as a complex text for shared reading with my students. This book tells the remarkable and frustrating story of 13 women who attempted to breach NASA’s male-only realm of astronauts, paving the way for the next generation of female astronauts.

    Rosie Revere, Engineer by Angela Beatty

    Okay, I know this isn’t a biography, but I had to slip this onto the list because it’s my favorite new picture book to celebrate trial and error bravery, particularly as it pertains to perfectionist young girls. The rhyming text and creative illustrations make this a lighthearted springboard into discussions about making mistakes, perseverance, and gender norms.

     

    Skype in the Classroom

    With this free, virtual platform, you can invite guest speakers into your classroom to discuss a wide range of STEM topics with your students. Do some prep work ahead of time with your students so they have meaningful questions prepared to ask their Skype guest. All you need is a webcam, projector, speakers, and an Internet connection to connect with scientists, programmers, authors, and more. For example, Microsoft has partnered with Skype in the Classroom to facilitate Skype chats with their tech professionals. Why not invite a female computer programmer or video game designer to chat with your students?

     

    Even More Ideas

    In 2007, the Scholastic Kids Press Corps interviewed 20 influential women in a wide range of fields to create inspiring profiles. These articles are great fodder for discussions about modern women’s contributions. From women in the military and government, to a documentary filmmaker and a mountain climber, this works as both an online or print reading lesson. Check out all of the articles here.

    Have older students listen to current U.S. policy makers and government scientists talking about their personal female heroes across the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math on the White House Women in STEM website, The Untold History of Women in Science and Technology.

    Older students can read about the day-to-day work of real scientists (several of them women) in the New York Times online section, Scientist at Work. These daily blogs capture what life is like in the field for science researchers. While the blogs are no longer updated, the archive is a rich resource of modern scientist role models.

     

    For updates on my upcoming blog posts, please follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

    One year ago: "Seasonal Reading to Celebrate (and Organize) Our Books"

    Two years ago: "Get Inspired With Biography Research! Part 3 — Design a Stamp"

    Three years ago: "Five Ideas for Perfectly Bookish Read Across America Celebrations"

     

    March is Women’s History Month, both a helpful reminder to include women’s perspectives in the social studies we teach every month, and to set aside some time this month to highlight the contributions of girls and women. But when we look beyond the outsized shadow of dead-white-men’s history, the female half of the world population has thousands of years of documented history to pick from, so how do we choose what to teach this month?

    Traditionally, Women’s History Month has focused on the U.S. women’s suffrage and reform movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s, but are they really the most relevant? Sure, I appreciate Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but I also know that my students learned about those women last year and will probably study them again in future years.

    Will learning about the women's suffrage movement inspire our 21st century girls to become scientists? Or is there something else we should teach during Women's History Month to tackle the STEM gender divide?

    Embracing the indomitable spirit of those Progressive Era reformers, I propose that we use Women’s History Month to tackle a problem that our girls are facing now in the 21st century. Sadly, women continue to be underrepresented in the STEM professions at the university level and beyond. According to the National Science Foundation Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, in 2013 only 29 percent of the employed engineers and scientists in the U.S. were women, and only 19 percent of engineering majors were female. (For an in-depth discussion of women in STEM professions, see the 2013 New York Times Magazine article "Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?," as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy page about Women in STEM.) Fellow teacher and blogger, Christy Crawford offers distressing data on the gender gap in computer science fields — and very doable ways to close that gap.

    So what’s an elementary school teacher supposed to do about this national, systemic issue? Well, we are the ones to create the initial foundation for growing confident, enthusiastic young mathematicians, engineers, and scientists among our boys and girls. We can highlight women making contributions in the STEM fields, we can invite speakers from the field into our classrooms, we can serve as STEM-enthusiast role models ourselves, and we can normalize STEM achievement for girls in our classrooms. Here are three ideas to celebrate women’s STEM contributions this month and throughout the year:

    I put out a display of STEM-focused books for girls during March as well as a new book basket.

     

    Explore the MAKERS Documentaries

    The MAKERS website features hundreds of mini-documentaries about important women who have “made America!” It is a treasure trove of primary source interviews and curated footage, much of which aired on PBS and is now available for free online.

    If your students don’t know about Katherine Johnson, who calculated flight routes during the Space Race, Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, or Susan Wojcicki, the current CEO of YouTube, they can (and should) learn about these women and others through MAKERS videos.

     

    Biographies Beyond Marie Curie

    Read-aloud biography picture books are a great way to expand your students’ knowledge about women who’ve made important contributions in STEM. These books can be used for nonfiction literacy lessons for a wide range of teaching points, so this doesn’t have to be something else to squeeze into your daily schedule — it can be woven directly into reading workshop. Here are some of my favorites:

    Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully

    I launch this read-aloud by asking students to examine a brown paper lunch bag — a familiar object that they certainly take for granted. I point out that somebody actually invented the flat-bottomed paper bag, and we’re going to learn all about her! This book sends a warm message about female empowerment, and it celebrates the rewards of hard work rather than “born genius,” making Mattie truly inspiring.

     

    Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh

    I love any book with Raul Colon’s etched watercolor and pencil illustrations, and this biography about a stalwart astronomer is no exception. Henrietta Leavitt discovered the relationship between a star’s brightness and its distance from Earth at a time when women were relegated to clerical calculations in the astronomy lab. For budding astronauts and astronomers, this is a great pick!

     

    The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter

    Jane Goodall’s primate adventures always capture my students’ imaginations, and this picture book is a great way to introduce this famous biologist and the importance of observation as a scientific skill. I like to pair this biography with a classic from my own childhood, Koko’s Kitten by Dr. Francine Patterson. While Koko, a famous sign-language-speaking gorilla, lived at the San Francisco Zoo, her story demonstrates the gorilla’s interactions with the author, a young female scientist.

    The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins

    Show your students a Google Maps satellite view of San Diego and they’ll notice a green patch in the middle of the city. Zoom in on Balboa Park and inform your students that this impressive green space only exists here in this desert city due to the efforts of one determined botanist, Katherine Olivia Sessions. The predictable refrain throughout the book — “But Kate did!” — makes this a fun interactive read-aloud.

     

    Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle

    The artist and naturalist Maria Merian was the mother of entomology and a free-wheeling explorer of exotic locales in the late 1600s — long before women were making their mark in scientific realms. This brightly illustrated picture book focuses on Merian’s discovery of moths’ metamorphosis at a time when this biological phenomenon was considered magic. Students thrill to learn that Merian made her big discoveries when she was merely 13 years old!

     

    Olivia's Birds: Saving the Gulf by Olivia Bouler

    This book isn’t a biography, but your students will definitely want to learn more about the 11-year-old who wrote and illustrated this bird guide in order to raise money and awareness about birds affected by oil spills. This book will inspire the nascent environmentalists in your class to take action.

      

    Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thimmesh

    An enjoyable, fast-paced anthology of biographies, this book lends itself to reading comprehension activities and jigsaw group work.

     

    Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

    A challenging photo-essay style “picture book,” this is a great independent reading choice for advanced upper elementary readers. I’ve used excerpts from this book as a complex text for shared reading with my students. This book tells the remarkable and frustrating story of 13 women who attempted to breach NASA’s male-only realm of astronauts, paving the way for the next generation of female astronauts.

    Rosie Revere, Engineer by Angela Beatty

    Okay, I know this isn’t a biography, but I had to slip this onto the list because it’s my favorite new picture book to celebrate trial and error bravery, particularly as it pertains to perfectionist young girls. The rhyming text and creative illustrations make this a lighthearted springboard into discussions about making mistakes, perseverance, and gender norms.

     

    Skype in the Classroom

    With this free, virtual platform, you can invite guest speakers into your classroom to discuss a wide range of STEM topics with your students. Do some prep work ahead of time with your students so they have meaningful questions prepared to ask their Skype guest. All you need is a webcam, projector, speakers, and an Internet connection to connect with scientists, programmers, authors, and more. For example, Microsoft has partnered with Skype in the Classroom to facilitate Skype chats with their tech professionals. Why not invite a female computer programmer or video game designer to chat with your students?

     

    Even More Ideas

    In 2007, the Scholastic Kids Press Corps interviewed 20 influential women in a wide range of fields to create inspiring profiles. These articles are great fodder for discussions about modern women’s contributions. From women in the military and government, to a documentary filmmaker and a mountain climber, this works as both an online or print reading lesson. Check out all of the articles here.

    Have older students listen to current U.S. policy makers and government scientists talking about their personal female heroes across the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math on the White House Women in STEM website, The Untold History of Women in Science and Technology.

    Older students can read about the day-to-day work of real scientists (several of them women) in the New York Times online section, Scientist at Work. These daily blogs capture what life is like in the field for science researchers. While the blogs are no longer updated, the archive is a rich resource of modern scientist role models.

     

    For updates on my upcoming blog posts, please follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

    One year ago: "Seasonal Reading to Celebrate (and Organize) Our Books"

    Two years ago: "Get Inspired With Biography Research! Part 3 — Design a Stamp"

    Three years ago: "Five Ideas for Perfectly Bookish Read Across America Celebrations"

     

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