Girardeau and Hunt hold up some of their required reading, such as Wuthering Heights and The Adentures of Huckleberry Finn. photo by Violet Cowdin
Girardeau and Hunt hold up some of their required reading, such as Wuthering Heights and The Adentures of Huckleberry Finn. photo by Violet Cowdin

Exploring the curriculum gap

According to the Gender and Education Association, in the 1950s and 1960s, secondary education brought the separation of boys and girls in England. This separation allowed for a difference in curriculum-- girls being offered subjects based on "femnine" domestication and boys taking more "masculine" science-based subjects. With two co-ed, two all-girl and one all-boy school, Kansas City and surrounding areas offer a variety of options when it comes to private high school education. As this gender separation continues, does the differentiation of curriculum remain?

November 9, 2015

story by MaryMichael Hough and Linden O’Brien-Williams


Before coming to teach at STA three years ago, English teacher Kate Absher taught at two area coed schools, William Chrisman High School and St. Pius X High School. She also taught at all-girl Trinity High School outside Chicago, Il., which she says was “very similar” to the atmosphere at STA. While Absher has enjoyed teaching in these four schools, she says the major differences in curriculum lay in what is approachable during class discussions.

The major difference between curriculum, and this sounds so simplistic, is that we’re able to focus on women’s issues,” Absher said. “Here, we’re able to focus our curriculum around that and then have a bunch of people interested, not to say that men or boys shouldn’t learn about those things as well.”

For Absher, approaching these “women’s issues” is made easier by the books she teaches at STA. In Absher’s freshmen classes, students read a variety of books from different authors, including Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Shakepeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Homer’s The Odyssey. In addition to these selections, freshman students  each select a novel to read independently and study, each girl researching a women’s issue such as campus rape, education and leadership or eating disorders.

Although Absher enjoys teaching her classes with heavy focuses on women authors, she says that STA does not miss out on learning from male authors.

Overall, most of our curriculum is classic literature, so we do have a lot of men authors,” Absher said. “We [study] William Shakespeare, we do [Nathaniel] Hawthorne, Mark Twain, we do F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chinua Achebe… Again, we’ve got some diverse backgrounds there.”

While Absher stresses that STA’s English classes focus on female topics “quite a bit,” previous Bishop Miege High School English teacher Tina Wendling says that the topic “just didn’t” come up in class discussions at the coed Miege. However, according to Wendling, Miege’s heavy emphasis on the Catholic faith was often integrated into literature discussions.

“[Miege is] so so heavily focused on infusing Catholic teaching and morality into what we’re teaching and literature is a good place to do that, which is a little easier to do than in a math class,” Wendling said. “…Honestly I felt like as a teacher, [discussing women’s issues] was not an option, [because] ‘this is what we do here.’ Maybe if I had been somewhere with more diversity, I would have, but it was just not a focus.”

According to Wendling, the books she taught at Miege featured many more male protagonists and authors than female. Wendling believes this to be an issue that could be resolved by different levels of the school staff “just being more conscientious” of the material being covered.

“I think when you’re in that coed environment, your choices [are limited],” Wendling said. “Unfortunately, the majority of especially older literature is more male centric. In a Catholic school especially, you’re making more traditional choices of what you’re reading.”

Notre Dame de Sion High School English teacher Casey Engel also noticed the large number of male protagonists featured in her previously taught coed classes.

“When I taught coed, and I did so for a decade, I did have a few more books featuring male protagonists than I do now,” Engel said. “I used to teach more books like The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451 and Frankenstein, which I think are truly important works… but you know, no matter the audience, those books weren’t reaching students like the ones we teach at Sion.”

STA social studies teacher Patrick Nielsen says he tries not to approach certain topics differently than he did when he taught similar subjects at Archbishop O’Hara High School. He does feel, however, that at STA, it is beneficial to use female-centered examples or show female perspectives “as much as possible.”

“I tried to talk about why we haven’t had a female President, or Vice President for that matter [at O’Hara], and the topic never seemed to go anywhere constructive,” Nielsen said. “Things like that can be discouraging when you look for good discussions in a government class.  I think for females especially, and here at St. Teresa’s ones who are so driven, talking about politics more, and understanding them better can help them break down the male dominated political system we have been a part of for so long, and that will be a very good thing.”

Miege junior and former STA student Brie Hussey does not see a change in content covered between STA and Miege, but says that class participation at her coed school is “very different” from her single sex experience.

I don’t know if the curriculum itself is very different, but the way the students approach it is different,” Hussey said. “I think at STA people were a lot more willing to speak openly about [certain topics], but I think people at Miege are a lot more relaxed and laid back about things in general.”

While Wendling says her English classes did not include a lot of female participation, according to Miege senior Nick Murdock, certain organizations at Miege allow for the expression of female students and other people who may feel as though they are affected by discrimination in society.

“This year is the beginning of the Women of Miege club which helps female students at Miege unite behind each other while also helping to better the women’s bathroom and create a conversation about possible sexism in our school,” Murdock said.

According to Hussey, this Women of Miege club puts up an inspirational question in the bathroom, which students are then allowed to answer on their own post-it notes. The club also makes little basics like lotion available in the girls’ bathrooms. Murdock says that besides the Women of Miege club, other areas of Miege bring awareness to important issues.

“Campus Ministry also offers the Community 360 retreat, that I’ve been a leader on, which addresses sexism, racism, heterosexism and many other forms of institutionalized discrimination and oppression in our society,” Murdock said.

While Wendling likes that in all girls environments, teachers can “preach that gospel of female empowerment and independence,” she says that coed environments have benefits as well.

I think honestly, the real world environment is a plus,” Wendling said. “I think there’s something to the fact that, in a coed environment, on both sides, guys and girls, there’s a little more social appropriateness.”

Murdock also believes that coed schools offer certain benefits that should not be overlooked.

“All male or all female schools might cover more specifically male or female literature and history in their courses, but I hope that they also offer the same sorts of out-of-school gender or race based learning opportunities that Miege does.”

photos by Violet Cowdin

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According to Engel, Sion’s English department determines their curriculum by focusing on “empathizing with others through multicultural literature” and on literature that features female protagonists and public figures. Engel says that they do focus more on “strong female characters” and though they read books with “plenty of male counterparts,” the female condition is emphasized “a bit more” due to the all-female environment.

“[We read books that tend to focus on] the suffering and hopefully triumph of the marginalized; the triumph of female strength after enduring adversity and oppression; the intricate facets of the human condition that plague us, challenge us, drive us and empower us,” Engel said.

For STA senior Hallie Ryan, reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini during her sophomore year stands out because it made her aware of the treatment of women around the world. According to Ryan, although not every novel she has read at STA features a “strong female protagonist,” the ones that do spark similar discussion.

I think [reading novels with female protagonists] is important [at STA] because there’s only so far you can go in an English classroom talking about what it was like for this person at this time, but I feel like if you take a little bit from every book you read and discussion you have, you carry that forward in your own life,” Ryan said. “You don’t just leave it in the book, you take it with you and it makes you more independent and more willing to see changes that need to be made. I  think that’s one of the things that is so great about STA, is how they prepare us for the real world and make us willing to make that change.”

Rockhurst High School English teacher Mike Wickenhauser believes that including female authors and protagonists in English curriculum is important, but that at the high school level, teacher should choose authors “that look like the populations they teach.”

“I have found it more effective to incorporate female authors and female protagonists in our discussion of other, shorter writing pieces,” Wickenhauser said. “…The longer works require students to relate more to character in order to sustain engagement.  While some students are able to do this regardless of content, others are not.  As such, the longer works I teach have predominantly male characters and are by predominantly male authors.”

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Wickenhauser says that Rockhurst specifically is guided by its “five benchmark values” of being open to growth, intellectually competent, committed to justice, loving, religious and becoming “men for others,” which is reflected in class discussions.

“When we discuss a character’s actions and motivations or any topic in general related to the texts we read, students are challenged to relate what we read to themselves and their lives,” Wickenhauser said. “When they do so, they are also challenged to assess the characters and/or topics on moral grounds.”

Rockhurst High School junior Ryan Chandler agrees that Rockhurst’s values guide discussions. He also finds that the all male environment changes the tone of different lessons and class discussions.

“I think going to a single sex school allows us to feel more comfortable when it comes to talking about life themes that pop up in books,” Chandler said. “…One theme that is more relevant in our literature because we go to an all guys school is brotherhood and comradery.”

STA principal of academic affairs Barb McCormick believes that, like Rockhurst, the topics important to discuss at STA include the charisms of the sisters and the mission of this school.

“If you’re taking a science course, you’re going to look at some ethical issues; if you’re in a theology course, you might look at the injustices of society,” McCormick said. “So, you’re going to see these themes woven in and how women might have played a role in history or play a role in tomorrow’s world in making changes to those situations.”

STA senior Hallie Ryan believes that because history “has been male dominated,” English is the class that she feels highlights women in history and different time periods. While she acknowledges the relevance of all girl schools empowering women and all boy schools empowering men, Ryan believes that a balance should be struck.

“I feel like there’s only so much we can do at an all girls school to prepare the girls here for gender equality,” Ryan said. “But we also have to take into account that young men at Rockhurst need to be prepared for that too. You can’t just have young women coming out of STA ready to take on the world; Rockhurst needs to accept that and incorporate that into their lives, too. I feel like if Rockhurst boys can see that and they’ve accepted that and a way to do that is through literature, then that’s the best way to start making this happen.”

Although Engel feels that her audience does make it easier to discuss female specific topics, she agrees with Ryan that a balance is important.

“I feel we can talk comfortably about anything, and the girls tell me they feel the same,” Engel said. “Personally, I feel a bit less hindered at a single-gender school… I do watch for conversations that paint men in an unfair light, though.  Sometimes we get too hard on men because of historical factors; we have to look at issues from all sorts of perspectives, which can become biased and clouded in a school of empowered women.”

According to McCormick, curriculum can also mean what STA is delivering in the way of content, or the courses offered. When establishing content, STA looks at courses that are required and what courses are offered that females are “more likely to take an interest in or look at professional opportunities in.”

“When you’re talking about teaching young women in courses, you need to think about what adolescent women desire, how they choose to learn, how their brain works and what’s the better fit for them in their learning environment,” McCormick said. “So, that’s what we make more of our modifications in, more of that attention purpose towards being a teacher that instructionally is looking at what young women need in order to strive and thrive and be successful in a classroom.”

While Wickenhauser believes focusing on male authors and male characters is beneficial for Rockhurst students and understands all girls schools focusing on female authors and female characters, he says that issues addressed at different schools should not depend on whether they are all female, all male or coed.

A school grounded in values focuses on those values, which are not context specific,” Wickenhauser said. “As such, the topics related to the values are important to discuss in an all male, all female, or co-ed school.”

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  • C

    Christina EliasNov 9, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    Great job, you guys! Super interesting topic and very well-written. Proud of you 🙂

  • A

    Audrey CarrollNov 9, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    MaryMichael and Linden, this was such a well-written story and was really informative. I think it is interesting how in this article it seems that the claim as to why boys only primarily read books with male protagonists is because that’s what they mostly relate to, but girls are expected to learn how to assimilate female AND male protagonists into what they can relate to in their reading at school. Well done to both of you on this article!!