by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Gina Campbell dove into a 3-foot pool 10 years ago. She broke her neck and became a quadriplegic. She could easily have become bitter, angry and depressed.
Instead, she got better. She married. She recently graduated from law school, so she can represent others who have suffered injuries resulting in neurological damage. She also devotes herself to cooking (she has limited use of her arms), reforming parking laws for the disabled, and promoting the National Spinal Cord Injury Association’s Arizona chapter she founded.
On a recent afternoon, Campbell talks with students in Annie Delgado’s classroom at Buhach Colony High School via Skype from her Arizona home. Campbell admits that drinking was a factor in her diving accident and says that poor decisions can have lifelong consequences.
Students walk up to a microphone and ask how she stays so strong, focused and upbeat.
“It’s all about perspective,” Campbell tells them. “My mother told me to focus on the positive. Women are more of a force to be reckoned with. And when you have a woman in a wheelchair in a courtroom, you have two minorities. These men will have to respect me. There won’t be any other choice.”
A class by itself
Welcome to The Role of Women in Society and U.S. History, a class Delgado created in 2008 for the school in the town of Atwater. Students (including a few boys) learn from strong female role models via Skype, including Maria Shriver, former first lady of California; Dee Dee Myers, the first female White House press secretary; and feminist activist Gloria Steinem.
Campbell, one of Delgado’s former students, tells the teens that Delgado inspired her to believe in herself before the accident. This helped her to carry on later.
The class is the only one of its kind in a West Coast public school and recently won a state award for its groundbreaking effort to empower students, many of whom are minorities and facing economic challenges.
“It is very exciting,” says Delgado of winning the Civic Learning Award of Merit, co-sponsored by Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, and Tani Canil-Sakauye, chief justice of California. “We were hoping we might be recognized for affecting the civic consciousness of students.”
Delgado was first approached to create the class by a male principal who was worried that female students at the school had low self-esteem, a high pregnancy rate and boyfriends who could be abusive.
“He asked me if I could possibly address all these issues in one class,” recalls Delgado, Merced Union High School District Teachers Association. “I was very excited about reaching out to the female students at our school.”
Much of the curriculum is “student-driven” and has evolved over the years, based on student feedback. She now has two classes, and she just submitted proposals for a global women’s studies class, an AP women’s literature class, and a class on Title IX, which was supposed to level the playing field for women’s sports.
Introspection and reflection
During the first semester, students look inward. They discuss things like body image, bullying, self-esteem, drugs and alcohol. They may share painful experiences in their lives such as family dysfunction, cyberbullying and domestic violence. Classroom discussions sometimes resemble therapy sessions.
“We need to discover who we are before we understand what historical female figures accomplished,” explains Delgado.
During the second semester, students look outward and focus on the accomplishments of U.S. women in history, from Plymouth Rock to the present. One of those figures is Steinem, author and advocate for women’s equality in the workplace and society.
Talking to present-day female role models on Skype is the icing on the cake. Students feel empowered and valued when successful women connect with them. Through answers to interview questions, students understand the importance of education in achieving goals and setting priorities.
“I love this class,” says student Yolanda Hernandez. “It’s really been eye-opening.”
“I’ve learned that women are all really very much alike,” says Jackie Baptista. “We all have a lot of personal things that we are dealing with and when we share that, we can relate to one another.”
Delgado’s students say they are like a family where members support one another without feeling judged. That includes some teenage parents, whom Delgado encourages.
“In this class, they learn that having a child isn’t the end of the world. They learn in here that they can go to college and be a positive role model for their child.”
Looking to the future
After the Q-and-A with Campbell ends, the class turns to another topic: the Steubenville football players who raped a high school girl incapacitated by alcohol while peers stood by, videotaping and posting the act on social media. Students in small groups discuss why boys would assume an unconscious girl is giving consent to having sex; why students stood by when another student needed their help; why parents provided alcohol to minors; and how their own parents might feel about underage drinking.
Sometimes parents send mixed messages about teen drinking, Delgado tells the class. Her students nod in agreement.
At the end of class is a “post-assessment” where students discuss whether their views have changed on alcohol, what they have learned, and how it may affect their own parenting style in the future.
One girl says she will take a “calmer approach” than her own parents and work to build a strong relationship with her children. Another says she will talk with her future husband so they present a united front and avoid sending mixed messages to their offspring.
“I want them to take what they have learned from our discussion in class and open up the lines of communication with their parents,” says Delgado. “I want to open their eyes so they see women in a different light. I want them to know they can set long-term goals for themselves. I want them to know they can indeed break the cycle of poverty and achieve their dreams.”
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