Not-so-little Women: LSE introduces Women’s Literature as a new senior elective

LSE introduced Women’s Literature as a new senior elective

Sophia Merritt, Photography Editor

As a student progresses through middle and high school, the literature they encounter in their English classrooms has, overwhelmingly, been written by white men. For example, the texts that are considered part of the “literary canon” for high school English are mainly written by one ethnicity group and gender. The term “literary canon” refers to a body of books, narratives and other texts considered to be the most important and influential of a particular time period or place. This list includes works such as “The Odyssey,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Lord of the Flies,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Fahrenheit 451” and many others whose authors are men. These stories are probably familiar to many students of Lincoln Southeast High School, as they are taught by LSE English teachers, year after year.  While the “canon” is slowly changing and it is becoming more

common to see books written by women and people of color, most books that are considered classics are still written by white men. 

For students like Arlie Daniel (12) who have noticed the disparity in diverse authors, a new Southeast elective, Women’s Literature, piqued her interest.

“I think [Women’s Literature is] important, because women need to see themselves in literature,” Daniel said. “Most of the time we read books by men and we talk about books by men. It’s considered philosophy, and Women’s Literature gets pushed aside. I think it’s good that women can see themselves.”

This school year, Women’s Literature was added to Southeast’s list of English electives. While this class has been at Southeast in the past, this is the first that it has been available for many years, according to English teacher Tressa TeKolste.

“I think I asked for it two or three years ago,” TeKolste said. “But senior electives are super hard to have added to the course offerings, because it all depends on the numbers of other classes.” 

Malinda Murphy, the curriculum specialist for English language arts, said that all LPS high schools offer Women’s Literature as an English elective, but that this is not necessarily available to students every year. 

“Many [literature] electives are offered on an every-other-year basis and depend on enrollment,” Murphy said. “For example, a given literature elective could be offered, but if the minimum enrollment numbers are not met, the course will be removed from the course offerings for the semester.”

When this class finally became available, TeKolste was able to do what she wanted with the curriculum as long as it followed senior literature objectives, these being writing argumentatively, reading narratives and critically thinking. 

“I was super lucky,” TeKolste said. “Ms. Danielson, who is the department chair for English, pretty much said, ‘Do what you want within budgetary reason and district approval.’ So I decided what texts I wanted to focus on and then had to go through the approval process.” 

TeKolste picked an array of books representing a mix of historical Women’s Literature and feminist texts with modern work. To get the books approved, a form must be filled out for each book and then sent to Murphy to be approved. This form is divided into six sections: Bibliographic Information, Significance of the Work, Multicultural Education/Educational Equity Considerations, Literary Considerations, Power of Story and Curriculum Considerations. 

Once TeKolste got her books approved, she started to work with other teachers within the district who also teach Women’s Literature. This helped her create her own syllabus for the class, bounce ideas on what to teach and see what has and hasn’t worked for others in the past. Then, when TeKolste was prepared for the new school year, she found out that she was going to be taking on more students than she originally planned. 

“There were so many sections right away after registration,” TeKolste said. I was going to have a section, and Mrs. Sejkora was going to have a section.” 

This schedule, however, would be changed due to tragedy. The death of another LSE English teacher over the summer meant that many English teachers’ schedules got moved around. After finding out that she would have 53 students between two class periods for her first semester, TeKolste had to rearrange her reading plan until she was able to order more books on Sept. 3, when the department budget would unfreeze.

“The district was implementing a new system that all budget expenses had to go through this new system called ‘Core,’” TeKolste said. “That didn’t go into effect until Sept. 3, so every department across the district was on a spending freeze.”

With this, the most stressful part about having this new class has been deciding what to teach. TeKolste wants this class to be a well-rounded survey of literature about and by women, rather than turning into a gender studies class or one about famous women throughout history. Along with this, she has also had to take into account the wide variety of students who would be taking the class. 

“In my designing of this class, it was difficult because I felt like there’s a wide variety of students who are enrolled,” TeKolste said. “Just given statistics, a lot of women in this room have probably experienced assault or harassment, and then there’s these boys in the class who act with good intentions, but they’re just so distant from female experiences.”

TeKolste wants to destigmatize these experiences that women face and be able to validate them and the emotions that come with them, as well as develop empathy. She said that this process can look different for different people, because it all depends on the places that students are at in life. 

For students like senior Dylan LaPointe, this was part of the reason that he was interested in taking the class.

“I’m doing this, [and] I am a man. I don’t really know the exact issues that women go through, and I think this class will help me understand [them] and teach me to help women,” LaPointe said.

Along with being able to normalize these experiences for her students to create more communication and understanding, TeKolste intended on teaching students to know when to interject and help. TeKolste wanted another outlet that could empower women and bring awareness to the everyday issues and concerns that they face.

“One of my goals as a teacher is to empower women, which is one of the reasons I coach Cheer,” TeKolste said. “I felt like this would be a good opportunity for people who aren’t involved in cheer or dance or other select female groups to have a opportunity to talk about women’s issues, women’s concerns, the positives of being a women and being able to spread awareness and give a voice to other people who are feminists but maybe don’t look like cheerleaders.”

Through this new class, students are able to focus on literary pieces that bring awareness to issues that people only partially know about and allow them to be discussed in a civil way among their peers. This creates a more positive form of discussion on topics that are typically very stressful. 

“[Women’s Literature] brings awareness to issues that are more complex than ‘Yes or no, black and white,’” TeKolste said. 

These complex issues are ones that are typically fought over and cause a lot of disagreement, taking away from being able to have civil discussions. Some of these issues being unequal pay, harassment/assault against women, sexism and many other issues women face in their day-to-day lives. Women’s Literature creates an outlet to read more controversial pieces and to discuss them. 

LSE senior Samantha Taylor sees Women’s Literature as a class that allows students to perceive things from all angles, specifically within class discussions about the topics covered within the text.  She also appreciates the fact that this new elective gives students the opportunities to create their own definition of feminism.

“It does help bring perspective, especially if you aren’t a woman. It helps you understand things in a different way and step into someone else’s shoes for once,” Taylor said.

Because students are given the chance to see things from new and refreshing perspectives, LaPointe said that he believes Women’s literature is an important class for younger students to consider signing up for as they go into their senior year. According to LaPointe, it will allow underclassmen to create a more informed understanding of what feminism is and why Women’s literature is important. 

“I think it’s good to open their minds and a lot of kids in it now are already on the side of feminism,” LaPointe said. “But I think in the future, it would be good for the younger generations and the lower classmen to join so that they can see what feminism is.”