Who's your favorite woman in education?

BlogHer Original Post

When Denise asked me to write about "great women in education" in honor of Women's History Month, I agreed immediately, but my excitement about the topic was quickly eclipsed by a creeping dread: How the heck should I distill all the great women in education globally into a 500- to 1,000-word post?

Instead of trying to condense what should be a multi-volume series of books into a single blog entry, I'm taking the easy route, sharing the names and a little bit about three of my favorite twentieth-century women educators--as well as giving a shout-out to those women who have been particularly influential in my own career as an educator. But I also want to know who your favorite women educators are, so please leave their names (and a link about them, if you have one) in the comments, or better yet, write your own blog post about women in education here on BlogHer.

In no particular order--because I couldn't rank them if I tried--here are three women educators I hold in high esteem, and whose philosophies have influenced my own teaching in one way or another:

bell hooks
bell hooks is perhaps best known for her insistence on building within the classroom a community of learners regardless of race, class, or gender. What I most admire about her is her passion for taking her teaching and learning outside of the academy. In the preface to Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, hooks writes,

In the past ten years I have spent many hours teaching away from the normal college classroom. Publishing children's books, I have spent more time than I ever thought I would teaching and talking with children, especially children between the ages of three and six. This teaching takes place in various settings--churches, bookstores, homes where folks gather, and in diverse classrooms in public schools and at colleges and universities. The most exciting aspect of teaching outside conventional structures and/or college classrooms has been sharing the theory we write in academia with non-academic audience and, most importantly, seeing their hunger to learn new ways of knowing, their desire to use this knowledge in meaningful ways to enrich their daily lives.

Want to learn more about hooks? The blogger at Securing a Space has provided some good notes and a summary of one of hooks's best-known works, Teaching to Transgress.

Anna Billings Gallup
In 1899, the Brooklyn Children's Museum became the first museum designed especially for children; less than eight years later, Anna Billings Gallup became curator of the museum, and later became its chief curator. She was with the museum for 33 years. Billings Gallup's views on children's museums were visionary, allowing the children to explore specimens from, and exhibits on, a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines. In an article from 1917, she writes of the museum,

An active corner in the Museum is the "busy bee" room where the children study natural history material which they have collected, making use of magnifying glasses and microscopes for the purpose; analyse, press, and label plants for their herbariums; identify and label minerals, and mount insects. In this room are balanced aquaria and a hive of living bees.

About two hundred thousand visitors use the Museum annually. Nearly thirty thousand of these voluntarily attend the Museum lectures despite the fact that the lecture room seats only one hundred people. About fifty thousand visitors habitually read in the library, and over eight thousand children are members of Museum clubs.

This is, in my opinion, among the best kinds of learning: inquiry-based, exploratory learning that arises relatively naturally from the student's interests. Many of her ideas about informal science learning remain at the heart of informal science education today.

Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall revolutionized an entire field of science--primatology, and especially field primatology--by approaching it through what some folks might call a feminist lens. The Jane Goodall Institute site explains,

It is hard to overstate the degree to which Dr. Goodall changed and enriched the field of primatology. She defied scientific convention by giving the Gombe chimps names instead of numbers, and insisted on the validity of her observations that animals have distinct personalities, minds and emotions. She wrote of lasting chimpanzee family relationships.

As Goodall's research on chimpanzees has inspired other researchers to undertake primatology and has seeped into popular culture, our perception of chimpanzees has changed dramatically. One thing I recently learned from an episode of This American Life is that in the U.S. the chimpanzee is pretty much the only animal we don't euthanize--because these animals are so very similar to human beings.

Goodall's studies have led to a greater worldwide understanding not only of chimps, but of the importance of preserving habitat for these and other creatures. Her countless papers and books--including many children's books--as well as her willingness to talk to everyone about her passion, ensure that her work has a global reach. Her Institute also funds a wide range of initiatives designed to educate local Africans about habitat while also improving the locals' quality of life. Check out, for example, the Institute's sustainable livelihoods program for women living in the Lake Tanganyika region; the program offers not only education, but credit and savings programs.

My teachers
On a more personal note, I wanted to offer a shout-out to three of the women educators I have known personally who have influenced my own thinking on teaching and learning. I am in awe of my mentor Carolyn de la Peña's intellectual curiosity, the keen connections she makes among phenomena that at first or second (or third) glance seem unrelated, and her academic savvy. I also admire--as should be clear by the number of times I've cited her blog posts here on BlogHer--the fearless Barbara Ganley of Middlebury College (and, soon, of the fledgling Center for Digital Expression). Barbara is so very thoughtful in her approaches to fostering a community of learners, and she's generous enough to share her experiments and successes with the rest of us on her blog. Finally, I owe a debt of gratitude to Jacki Rand at the University of Iowa, whose Museum Literacy and Historical Memory course I took almost a decade ago. Jacki's thinking about museums and injustice, and the ways in which she shares some very raw experiences as a person of color--and particularly a Native woman--within the museum world, inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. in cultural studies and to write a dissertation on women in museums. In fact, you should stop whatever it is you're doing right now--like, say, reading this blog post--to read her essay "Why I Can't Visit the National Museum of the American Indian."

Who are your favorite women in education? And whom do you tend to admire more--women like these leaders I've mentioned, or your own teachers from childhood through high school or college?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.


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