Reclaiming My Classroom

Twenty-four, idealistic, and teaching 11th grade American Literature, I could think of no better text to assign than The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

Years earlier, that book connected with me in a way that no other piece of writing had—and I was a reader. As a floundering 20-year-old in college, Plath’s novel defined an unknown part of myself. I forged a connection to Esther Greenwood and Plath herself, making me feel a little less alone in this world. And isn’t that the essence of literature?

As I was soon to discover, it wasn’t just reluctant teenage readers that would stand as a barrier to my idealism, but the literary canon itself.

In Loudoun County, Virginia, where I teach grades nine through 12, there are 210 texts reserved and suggested for the high school English curriculum. Of these 210 novels and plays, only 60, across all four years, are written by women—less than 30 percent of the entire high school curriculum. (Far fewer of these texts are written by women of color.)

When I went over the course curriculum to locate The Bell Jar, it was not a listed text. Not one of the 60. Not required reading. Not suggested reading. It was absent. Ignored. Almost every student that moves through Loudoun County Public Schools (and probably the American public schooling system for that matter) will read The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, The Odyssey, Hamlet, something by Hemingway and on and on and on. But The Bell Jar, apparently, does not even merit being on the suggested reading list.

No male writer could have captured the essence of living under the “bell jar,” floundering to find an identity that hasn’t been pressed upon you by societal standards, the way Sylvia Plath did. It comes from her heart, her soul, her voice as a woman that was experiencing something unnamable. Something so many young women experience to this day. Something I was experiencing when I read her novel.

We give young men plenty of chances to connect to male writers and male protagonists through required curriculum reading. What happens when we do not give our female students a chance to connect with the voices of female writers, and protagonists, and that part of themselves that they are struggling to identify?

And to the greater point: Why is the literary canon across not just Loudoun County, but the entire English academic world, still comprised mostly of dead white men? Young women are too often left to connect with male authors and characters in whatever way they can, but we don’t ask male students to do the same—and it does them a disservice. Men are left with the notion that half the population does not merit our consideration or understanding.

The assumption that women’s stories and voices are not as important as men’s, of course, is not a problem exclusive to the literary canon. History classes in my school and schools across the nation are largely centered around the achievements and triumphs of men. We all learn about the ride of Paul Revere, but what about Sybil Ludington? We celebrate Dr. King and all he did for the Civil Rights Movement, but what about Ida B. Wells? There is a national holiday dedicated to Christopher Columbus, but Sacagawea gets a brief mention in textbooks, if at all. (If that is not indicative of the larger problem, then I don’t know what is.)

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: You can’t be what you can’t see. When the voices of women writers are silenced or ignored, young women are left silenced and ignored. If the aim of history is to see where we have been before in order to better envision where we are going, we’re leaving young women in the dark.

Young girls begin to lose their self-efficacy as early as fourth grade—and when school districts and educators fail to show them examples of the female voice in in literature, or the extensive accomplishments of women throughout history, then we fail to give them a reason to reclaim it. When young women don’t see the value of their importance through the curriculums taught in our schools, fewer go on to run for public office or aspire to positions of leadership, and they fall victim to the belief that their voice does not matter.

This realization during my first few years of teaching infuriated me. I was mad. I am still mad. I am being constricted by the status quo, and further perpetuating the lopsided curriculum of our county and country—and my students are being constricted by the status quo, too.

The tipping point was when my students looked at me in utter dismay, not understanding why (politics aside) the more qualified candidate did not win the 2016 Presidential election. I did not have time to tell them that 100 years ago women were not even allowed to cast a ballot in any election, and that the fight for that right alone took over a century. I did not have the time to delve into the history of misogyny and the rampant sexism that still exists today. I did not have time to tell them that our societal roles are being ingrained in us long before we are even cognizant these roles exist. I did not have time to tell them that the current system that dictates what we are learning in class today—and that why I didn’t have the time to tell them these things was part of the very problem they were questioning.

I did not have the time. That made me livid. So I decided to make the time. I created a Women’s Studies Course.

I began crafting a course where we would have the time to delve into these questions—to give young women and men a chance to view the world through more than the white male perspective. A course where the ignored and silenced women of literature and history could be given their deserved right to be heard. A course where Sylvia Plath and Toni Morrison, Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis, Chimamanda Adiche and Roxanne Gay would be as known and revered as their male counterparts.

My energy for teaching was once again rejuvenated. But if the women of history have taught me anything, it is that we must fight for the things we want. (What my own experience has taught me is that this fight consisted mainly of paperwork and bureaucracy.)

But the fight went on. And after filling out the correct forms, writing a course justification, outlining the curriculum, tying it to the English and History standards for our state tests, getting the necessary signatures, sending an annoying amount of emails to keep this course on the radar of the right people in the right places and so on and so on (and so on), Women’s Studies was added to the District Catalogue and approved for piloting. It is a small victory, and it took over a year, but it is a victory nonetheless. My fight will continue until Women’s Studies is a permanent course on the curriculum in every school in Loudoun County, the state of Virginia and the nation.

Idealistic? Maybe. But I will just take a “deep breath” and listen “ to the old brag of my heart.”

I can. I can. I can.

Jessica Berg is a high school English teacher in Loudoun County, Virginia, where she lives with her husband, Dave, two daughters, Harper and Bailey, and her dog, Finley. In 2016, she started the Ms. Phoenix Organization (an homage to Ms.) at her high school to empower and educate young women and men. She truly believes education is the first step in the fight for equality. Everything she does, she does for her daughters.

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Comments

  1. Susan Swanson says:

    My daughters’ required readings in public high school in Maryland included female authors. I especially liked The Glass Castle. The Secret Garden in 5th grade was great as well.

    • Jessica Berg says:

      That is great to hear! And there are female authors on the curriculum in Loudoun County, and most school districts. The problem is that it is a small percentage, and a majority of teachers don’t opt to teach them because they go with the standard “classics” from the Literary Canon, which are white, male authors.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. <3

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