I’ve discovered that we are constantly learning from nominees for our LifeChanger of the Year educator recognition program.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to share this inspiring story about gender equality from an elementary school teacher.
Sara Medalen is a Title I reading and math teacher at Sunnyside Elementary School in Minot, N.D.
By Sara Medalen
used in reference to an attitude of independence, confidence, empowerment, and equality among women and girls
Is there a time and place for teaching gender equality in schools? A couple of years ago, I naively volunteered to do an International Literacy Project for the North Dakota Reading Association with students from my school. My initial thought was “easy peasy” (I’m an elementary teacher, we say things like this), we’ll send some children’s books to a country in need – boom, international literacy. While researching international literacy, however, I was quickly drawn to the staggering statistics regarding gender inequality. According to the World Literacy Foundation, in 2015 there was an estimated 781 million illiterate adults in the world, two-thirds of them were women. Quickly, my ‘easy peasy’ project took a deeper dive into the real issues and needs.
The a-ha moment came when a video circulating through social media caught my attention. “The Ugly Truth of Children’s Books” a library experiment conducted by authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, reveals that in a study of over 500 children’s books, only one-fourth contained female characters. The video features a full bookshelf and a mother and daughter one-by-one remove books from the bookshelf that contain no female characters, books where the females didn’t speak, and books about princesses. By the end of the video, the bookshelf is nearly empty. How can this be in our society? In one that preaches equality and civil rights in many, many arenas? Somehow, this stark and revealing inequality towards women has been missed.
With this, the Girl Power Project started coming together. The goals of the project are to promote global literacy for all children to fulfill their potential and improve their future with a strong emphasis to empower girls to make a difference in their lives and in the lives of others.
Girl Power has been going strong at Sunnyside for the last two years. Students have learned about gender inequalities across the globe, including right here in the United States. We have brainstormed ideas for making a difference in the world. We became Girl Power friends with girls in Haiti; Facetiming them has given both groups of girls a better awareness of challenges girls face, as well as achievements. According to UNESCO, poverty, geographical isolation, minority status, early marriage and pregnancy, gender-based violence, and traditional attitudes about the role of women contribute to the illiteracy rate among women globally. The best news is the enrollment rate for girls in Haitian schools is on the rise and our Girl Power friends in Haiti have very similar aspirations to our girls; they hope to attend college some day with dreams of becoming doctors, teachers, engineers, artists, hair dressers, musicians and hold many other dreams. We have sent hair ties, rocket launcher toys, letters, books and Girl Power t-shirts to our Girl Power friends in Haiti. We also made it our mission to make sure that the girls and boys at our school understand that our Girl Power project does not mean we believe girls are better than boys. Girl Power means girls are equal to boys!
I answered my own question after starting this project. There IS a time and a place for teaching gender equality in schools. The time is now. The task is ours. The recent #timesup and #metoo movements have brought to light this topic has been kept untouched and hidden for too long. We all know change in a society starts with children and gender equality is no different. I believe my job as a teacher is to empower every student to become the best possible version of themselves. I believe this project has led to an increased awareness of the power that comes with being literate and the power we have to help girls in other countries and in the US bridge the gap of gender inequality. We believe that strong girls lead to a stronger world. Girl Power!
To see the Girl Power project in action at Sunnyside, please view this video.