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Exploring Women’s History With Digital Choice Boards

By Robert W. Maloy, Torrey Trust, and Elizabeth Lownds

Women’s History Month — thirty-one days in March that focus attention on the struggles and achievements of one gender while also reminding us how, in many schools, most of the time, the historical and contemporary experiences of nearly half the population receives only minimal attention in educational curriculum and student learning experiences. It has been estimated that only about ten percent of the historical figures featured in school textbooks are women (Murphy & Wages, 2015).

Examples of largely womanless or women-minimized history abound: Paul Revere’s Ride is celebrated in textbooks and poetry, but Sybil Ludington and Betsy Dowdy also rode to alert local townspeople; Charles Lindberg flew the Atlantic and became an aviation celebrity, but Bessie Coleman broke color barriers for women pilots of color; James Watson and Francis Crick are credited with unlocking the structure of DNA, but Rosalind Franklin developed the data on which their models were based; Steve Jobs is hailed as a computer pioneer, but Grace Hopper transformed the use of COBOL as a language of computer programming. The list can go on and on.

Women’s History Month challenges teachers at all grade levels to engage students in the critical exploration of women in history, not just in March, but throughout the school year. This can be done by encouraging students to 1) examine how women’s actions have influenced history and present-day society; 2) make predictions about the future of women in different roles; 3) act in the ways these influential women have (like investigative journalists or pioneering scientists); and 4) explore how cultural and social contexts, as well as gender bias, influenced women’s success in history and present-day society.

Digital Choice Boards for Women’s History Month and Every Month

In our roles as college faculty and public school educators, we have been developing digital choice boards for students and teachers to use to explore the hidden histories and untold stories of women in U.S. history. A digital choice board is an interactive online visual display that gives students multiple ways to learn about a topic (Trust & Maloy, 2021). Digital choice boards feature hyperlinks to digital resources and tools that can extend students’ learning. Tasks embedded within digital choice boards can, and should, encourage higher-order, critical, and creative thinking. Commonly designed in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or Google Slides, choice boards often have a grid or box-like format. Students can complete a single box or any combination of boxes (e.g., 3 diagonal boxes; 1 box in each column or row) during in-person or online learning activities.

To date, we have designed four Women’s History choice boards. Each of these choice boards features a Creative Commons license (i.e., CC BY NC SA 4.0), which means that they can be freely used, remixed, and shared as long as attribution is given, any remixed versions feature the same license, and the material is not used for commercial purposes. With the addition of a Creative Commons license, these choice boards become open educational resources (OER) that can be used by educators and students around the world. In the following paragraphs, we will discuss the four choice boards.

First, the Women’s History Month choice board (see Figure 1) focuses on women changemakers in politics (from Lucy Stone to Stacey Abrams), labor (the Lowell Mill Girls and Clara Lemlich and the Uprising of the 20,000), science (from Clara Barton to Rosalind Franklin), and journalism (Nellie Bly). In crafting this choice board, we wanted to direct students’ and teachers’ attention to how women’s actions propelled change by challenging the status quo and promoting equity and justice. Each box invites readers to explore the long histories of women’s struggles and achievements in overcoming the confinements of longstanding gender roles.

Women’s History Month Digital choice board

Second, we used a SlidesMania.com choice board template to design an interactive digital choice board about influential women in U.S. history (see Figure 2). We started with women in colonial America and then included separate slides for the Lowell Mill Girls, women abolitionists, labor activist Mother Jones, pioneering filmmaker Alice Guy-Blache, women’s rights activist Alice Paul, and the roles played by women during the World Wars and in the development of math, science, and technology fields. Each slide in the deck is multimodal — featuring images and/or videos to capture students’ interest and inspire deeper learning — and includes ideas for higher-order, creative learning activities for students to complete.

Influential Women in U.S. History Digital choice board

Third, we designed Women Discoverers: A STEM History Digital choice board (see Figure 3), to investigate women’s pioneering roles in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Taking a long historical view, this Women Discoverers choice board ranges from astronomer Caroline Herschel (who made her first discovery in 1786) and paleontologist Mary Anning (her first discovery was in 1823) to more recent women in space exploration (e.g., Sally Ride, Mae Jemison) and the environmental movement (e.g., Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall).

Women Discoverers: A STEM History Digital choice board

Fourth, we constructed a Women and the Wars choice board (see Figure 4) based on an article in the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies Newsletter (October 8, 2021) in which Lownds (2021) argued that women played far greater roles from the battlefield to the homefront during times of war than is typically presented in school textbooks and curriculum frameworks. From the American Revolutionary War to the current conflicts of the 21st Century, women have participated in wars as soldiers, spies, nurses, activists, writers, workers, codebreakers, explorers, scientists, pilots, inventors, astronauts, and journalists. This choice board focuses on untold stories and gender studies, including the influence of Awashonks, Weematoo and Quiaiapen on King Philip’s War, the Six Triple Eight Postal Battalion, women war correspondents, peace activist Jeanette Rankin, and other women at the intersections of war and social change.

U.S. Women and the Wars Digital choice board

The overriding importance of Women’s History Month — like Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Native American/American Indian Heritage Month, Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, and Gay Lesbian Pride Month — is to propel school-year-long, interdisciplinary, across-all-grade-level learning for students about all the diversities of American life. All these histories are American history. Digital choice boards, like the ones featured in this article or the ones that teachers and students build together, offer ways to explore the histories and stories of people’s lives. As teaching and learning resources, they emphasize not heroes and holidays, but diversity and democracy as they enlarge everyone’s understanding of the broad and interconnected fabric of our past, present, and future.

Authors

Torrey Trust is an Associate Professor of Learning Technologies in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Robert W. Maloy is a Senior Lecturer in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Elizabeth Lownds is a 5th-grade social studies/ELA teacher at Greenfield Middle School in Greenfield Massachusetts.

References

Lownds, E. & Maloy, R.W. (2021, October 8). “Women and the Wars: Uncovering Hidden Histories and Untold Stories from the Homefront to the Battlefield.” Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies Newsletter & ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst.

Murphy, M. & Wages, J. (2015, March 8). Girls must see it to be it . . .Beyond women’s history month. National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. https://www.ncgs.org/advocacy/blog/2015/03/08/girls-must-see-it-to-be-it-beyond-womens-history-month/

Trust, T. & Maloy, R. W. (2021, November/December). “Digital choice boards: A highly flexible approach to STEM learning.” School Library Connection, pp. 15–17.

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