Melissa Baldwin, a member of West Sacramento Teachers Association, teaches women and gender studies (WGS) and English at River City High School in West Sacramento. She created the WGS class in 2018, getting it approved by her department chairs and the school board, and then as an “a-g” course meeting CSU and UC admission requirements. Though exact data is hard to come by, the course is one of just a few WGS classes in California and nationwide.
Baldwin taught her inaugural WGS class in the 2019-20 academic year. This fall she has enough students signed up for two 35-student sections — an indication of the interest and need for the course among young people. She is eager to share her experience and help other educators navigate creating similar courses in their schools, so they can help their LGBTQ+ and WGS students feel safe and connected on campus.
“A big part of our discussion is performance — how do we perform our gender and what does that mean?”
What spurred your interest in teaching WGS?
It’s my passion. I have an undergraduate degree in American studies with a gender and sexuality emphasis, and in grad school I studied queer theory. I became an English teacher, and then a program specialist focused on college and career readiness, where I got CTE [career technical education] courses “a-g” approved.
But I belong in the classroom. I kept thinking, why have I not created a gender studies course? I taught it at the community college level while concurrently teaching high school.
Describe the process for course approval.
I wrote the course based on the college-level course I had been teaching, but with modifications for high school students, and designed it to be a survey — an introductory class that was mindful of LGBTQ+ and gender studies content. It was an extensive process, but because of my experience with the CTE “a-g” courses and because I had been a WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) coordinator, I knew what to write in the “correct” way, where all audiences could hear and see my vision.
How detailed were you in writing the curriculum?
I looked at other “a-g” courses to make sure I was clear on standards and goals, and that the demonstrated coursework was rigorous enough. I had to provide key details on the coursework. For example, it wasn’t enough to say students would write an essay. Instead, students would write a reflective essay on their identities in class, at home, in media and/or film, and in society as a whole.
A great series of books, Keywords for American Cultural Studies, with individual titles on various groups such as African Americans, people with disabilities, etc., helped. The texts organize everything by American studies terms, and I formulated my course by some of these keywords.
How does the curriculum play out in class?
It includes film and television reviews, historical projects, interviews, and guest speakers. We discuss intersectional issues such as race and sexuality — for example, the hypersexualization of bodies and how race plays a part. We had a transgender author from the Sacramento LGBT Community Center speak on National Coming Out Day, and other speakers have been women and women of color dealing with career and discrimination, single motherhood, how they’ve succeeded.
A big part of our discussion is performance — how do we perform our gender and what does that mean? For example, one student watched Disney’s TV show Bunk’d, and then wrote an essay on how it ingrains
in young children strong ideas about race, class and gender.
How did the pandemic affect the course?
The course ran pretty well in fall even though we were remote. The one thing missing was a sense of collaboration and community. It was hard because some kids didn’t turn on their cameras or unmute, but they did have a lot of chatbox conversations about their ideas and others’ ideas. Students told me in person and in messages that they still enjoyed the class. One parent emailed me saying, “Oh my gosh, my daughter talks about your class every night when we sit down at dinner.”
I had to change my approach teaching remotely, because I was in students’ homes and maybe they were taking care of younger siblings, so I’d tell them to wear earphones or go somewhere private because the material wasn’t age-appropriate. I had to tweak the lessons. For instance, previously I had assignments to watch film clips of gay conversion and listen to guest speakers on conversion therapy and adoption rights, but I couldn’t stream the films remotely. (I was still able to have the guest speaker.) I wanted to be respectful of students’ homes.
Have any of your students gone on to study WGS in college?
Yes! The first group of kids graduated in 2020. A couple of students that I’ve run into in the community have taken gender studies in their first year of college and told me things like, “Because of your course I knew [this], and I was able to talk to my professor that much better.”
Find more information about Melissa Baldwin’s WGS course, including curriculum and syllabus materials, here.