MVRHS teachers highlight women, gender education

Women’s History Month offers opportunities to delve deeper, but courses are available to students year-round.

MVRHS teachers are always looking for ways to highlight women in their curriculum, and broaden students’ perspectives on gender and gender bias.

Teachers at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) are highlighting the importance of inclusive education by bringing a diverse range of female authors, artists, and historical figures into their everyday curricula.

With February being Black History Month, and March Women’s History Month, the high school has been providing additional resources and coursework to students surrounding these topics.

But MVRHS arts and social studies teachers are not looking to limit the focus on female, Black, and minority influences to individual months, and are instead hoping to reshape the normative way of educating students to include all voices from different genders, races, and ethnic backgrounds.

Social studies and history teacher at MVRHS Corrine Kurtz told The Times she teaches two classes geared toward women. They are typically electives, but this year the courses go toward students’ history credits.

“One is an introduction to women’s studies, and the other is a brand-new course — an intro to women’s studies part two, called ‘Women in Film,’” Kurtz said.

Kurtz said women often don’t get a chance to talk openly about issues related to gender bias, but she wants to provide a forum for students to have these kinds of discussions whenever she can. “Women never get a chance to talk about this stuff. Conventional history education has always focused on the white, male perspective,” Kurtz said.

When female, and male, students are given the opportunity to discuss these issues, and their own experiences and understandings, “they just don’t stop — they are incredibly passionate, some of them,” she said.

According to Kurtz, change in the white, patriarchal status quo of American education needs to come from the top down, which can often be difficult when that structure itself is male-dominated. Although some schools offer additional women and gender courses during Women’s History Month, Kurtz said, “One month isn’t enough.”

“Women are 50 percent, arguably 51 percent of the population. Maybe it will be the next generation when a women’s studies course isn’t that odd, or the fact that we are going to learn about gender in history class isn’t strange to people,” she said.

By creating opportunities for education surrounding gender and gender bias, Kurtz said, schools can open up doors to new ways of thinking for the next generation. “Do I think we are going to get past that conventional way of teaching? I don’t know, but I am certainly going to try. I am a firm believer that change starts with kids, and it starts with education,” she said. “These things happen very slowly, and I can tell you right now that the patriarchy isn’t going anywhere.”

Ena Thulin, another history and social studies teacher at MVRHS, said she teaches a current events class which often covers issues for women.

In her experience, MVRHS students are often not afraid to delve into difficult discussions, and providing an outlet for openness and acceptance in the classroom is essential to foster these learning processes.

“In particular, I have found that girls at our school, and I think the boys as well, are very interested in exploring rape culture. Particularly the juniors and seniors, who are heading out to college,” Thulin said.

She said her method for many of her classes is to let the students lead the discussion. Before the pandemic hit, Thulin said, students in her class were fascinated by issues of prostitution, and how it is handled around the world.

“Getting into real debates about who is harmed and who is helped by legalizing prostitution and keeping it illegal, both sides. These are mixed-gender classes,” Thulin noted.

Thulin also teaches a psychology class, and said that while psychology is heavily dominated by male theory, she makes it a point to highlight more contemporary female psychologists.

Thulin said the work the high school is doing surrounding race and culture has inspired her and many other MVRHS educators to bring more attention to race and gender equity in all forms. “We don’t necessarily always have to talk directly about racial or gender issues. Let’s bring more racially diverse academics, more female academics into the classroom, so kids get exposed to really bright and diverse intellectual ideas from a wide variety of minds,” Thulin said.

For Thulin, the most effective way to keep the discussion surrounding gender open and accessible is by “modeling calm conversation to kids.”

If she can model a conversation surrounding a topic that might be difficult for some to discuss, Thulin said, students may be more likely to sit down with their peers or their families and have similar talks.

Tiffiney Shoquist, art teacher at MVRHS, said her educational experience growing up was very much based on white, Western artists and art history. “Even though I don’t teach an art history class, I always try to incorporate other cultures and minorities and art influences, and really just a totally different history than what I was taught,” she said.

In her drawing and painting introductory course, Shoquist said, students are learning about surrealism through women artists. 

“With surrealism, people historically think Salvador Dalí or René Magritte. It’s just a very male-centric art movement. All of the women are very sexualized, oftentimes they have no heads or faces, so it is very removed and objectified,” Shoquist said.

Shoquist said her intention is not to approach these topics in an overtly feminist way, but more to use the diverse experiences and works of artists to broaden student perspectives, and get them to think.

Because art allows people to work through abstract concepts and complex moral dilemmas, Shoquist offers students the opportunity to explore issues of gender and gender bias by simply asking questions, then having them describe how they feel through their art.

“Just to sort of ponder these things, and try to work it out through their artwork. Maybe gain a little empathy with either the artist’s process or their concept,” she said. “You can’t always use verbal language to explain and work through these things. Art allows students to visualize their own thoughts and feelings.”