EDUCATION

Schooling for success

Toronto feminists have customized a radical new curriculum for girls

DIANE BRADY April 25 1994
EDUCATION

Schooling for success

Toronto feminists have customized a radical new curriculum for girls

DIANE BRADY April 25 1994

Schooling for success

EDUCATION

Toronto feminists have customized a radical new curriculum for girls

DIANE BRADY

At 15, Alexandra Sutherland talks about school with the air of a warweary veteran. When she started kindergarten at Toronto’s Rosedale Public School, things seemed fine. "We would get together with the boys and play massive games of tag,” says Sutherland. But by Grade 6, playful teasing from the opposite sex suddenly had a new sting and she became too self-conscious to ask for help in math class. Sutherland’s mother, Mary Eberts, enrolled her daughter in St. Clement’s School, a private girls’ academy. The pressure of being around boys disappeared, but Sutherland was turned off by the “competitive and snobby” atmosphere. The following year, she switched to Spectrum Public, an alternative school where students design their own curriculum—and found that she and her 45 classmates had little in common. In Grade 9, Sutherland tried a traditional high school,

Northern Secondary. But when she contracted mononucleosis, the school issued truancy forms and treated her “like a number.” While recovering in bed, Sutherland read an advertisement for a new private girls’ school with a feminist twist. Called The Linden School, it claimed to help young women develop their “sense of self’ by encouraging noncompetitive learning—and by training an unwavering eye on women’s role in history, science and the arts. After one meeting, Sutherland was invited to help paint the new school. Soon after, she enrolled. “We work together on our education,” says Sutherland. “It’s an adventure.”

By pushing feminism to the top of its agenda, The Linden School is challenging the whole structure and content of what girls learn. With a number of high-profile supporters, including philanthropist Nancy Jackman and author Katherine Govier, Linden demonstrates how parents, educators and community members can customize a school to fit a shared ideal. At the helm sit co-principals Di-

ane Goudie and Eleanor Moore, two former private-school teachers who opened Linden to its first 45 students, in grades 4 to 10, last fall. Charging fees of $6,800, they boast a student-teacher ratio of 8:1. Lor Goudie, who met with resistance when she tried to implement her progressive ideas in her one-year tenure as headmistress of St. Clement’s beginning in the fall of 1991, the goal is to design a system in which young women will thrive. “The hierarchy and competition of regular schools,” says Goudie, “are designed to serve boys.”

While some educators disagree with Goudie’s premise, or protest that Linden is simply bragging about techniques that others already use, few can dispute the grassroots feel to her self-proclaimed revolution. Indeed, parents and students play a key role in ensuring that the school’s philosophy is put into

practice. Eberts, a lawyer, has donated books, a piano and her time to raise funds. “It’s different having my mother involved in my school,” says Sutherland. “But this place is different.”

In physical appearance alone, Linden looks like the discreet headquarters for a revolution. Students enter through a narrow alley behind a variety store and dry-cleaning outlet. Classes take place on the third floor of a nondescript building that looks better suited to housing office supplies than young women. But after mounting a series of concrete stairs, visitors suddenly encounter a hallway decorated with feminist quotes and splashes of lavender. “It’s a girl color,” according to one young student.

And “female” means power in the corridors of Linden. Textbooks by and about women line most of the shelves. Male authors who do appear on course lists are often indicted for their negative portrayal of women and minorities. “After reading about evil witches,” says Moore, referring to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “we talk about the witch as a healer in medieval society.” In fact, Linden’s teachers want to create a completely “woman-centred” curriculum. “We

call it herstory instead of history,” says Grade 9 student Lara Rabinovitch. “Instead of looking at men, we look at what the women were doing back then.” One assignment asks the student to take on the persona of a famous me dieval woman, such as Joan of Arc, and to write an essay from her perspective.

Goudie and Moore are also firm believers in the idea that how schools teach young women is as important as what they teach them. As proof, the co-principals point to the work of such researchers as Carol Gilligan, a Harvard professor of education, who argues that most girls lose their “voice,” or sense of selfesteem, once they reach puberty. Such findings, backed up with firsthand evidence, prompted Bonnie Mills to send Caitlin, 12, to Linden. “Caitlin was becoming withdrawn in her public school,” says Mills. “I wanted to get her away from that kind of competition and hierarchy. She already seems more confident.”

Still, many educators bristle at the notion that what Linden is offering is revolutionary. “Our girls work in collaborative groups for math class. We have an active Third Wave Club that focuses on feminist issues,” says Rev. Ann Tottenham, headmistress of the all-girl Bishop Strachan School in Toronto. “Why all this fuss about Linden?” Barbara Armbruster, principal of Montreal’s Trafalgar School for Girls, echoes those sentiments. “Every girls’ school in Canada works to teach in a more equitable environment,” says Armbruster. “We might not be bra-waving feminists, but we are not a finishing school either.”

Others challenge the entire notion that isolating girls from boys is a step forward—for either gender. ‘We recognize the differences and give equal stature to those differences,” says Paul Kitchen, headmaster of coed RCS Netherwood in Rothesay, N.B. “If girls’ strengths are rewarded here, they learn to feel good about them outside the school.” In 1989, David Hadden, headmaster of Lakefield College School near Peterborough, Ont., led the fight to transform his school into a coed institution—in order to benefit his male students. Boys’ schools, insists Hadden, reinforce aggressive behaviour, and the notion that girls are second-class. “Every male brought up in that environment,” he says, “is a casualty.” Undaunted, Linden’s leaders are clearly determined to keep boys out—and to encourage the flowering of distinctly progressive ideas. Parents are quizzed on their attitudes towards a

host of social issues before their daughters are admitted. Moore acknowledges that one girl was rejected partly because her father was openly disturbed by his sister’s lesbian lifestyle. We will not deal with anyone who has racist or homophobic beliefs,” asserts Moore.

Linden’s teachers, too, must commit themselves to taking a radically different approach to education. We don’t believe in top-down power,” says Goudie. “An idea from someone in Grade 4 is capable of changing the whole goulash here.” Moore points to a recent staff seminar that stressed group decision-making in the classroom. “Young women are intensely absorbed by relationships,” says Moore. ‘To say, ‘Keep it out of the classroom,’ invalidates them as women. They are very aware of sexism in the regular school system.”

Indeed, some might argue that Linden students are almost too aware of sexism. Even the youngest girls can recite a litany of horror stories about their lack of validation in a male oriented world. “My old music teacher used to pick songs that were so sexist,” says nineyear-old Sophie Perry. “I remember one song that had almost nothing about women in it. I’m a strong feminist, so that offended me.” For 11-year-old Saro Kumar, the indifferent attitude of a former gym teacher after a boy stole her position on a baseball field prompted her to call up the equity officer at the Toronto Board of Education. “I had to keep fighting for my rights there,” she says. “Everyone here is feminist except for one girl who is really sexist.” Hearing this, Grade 8 student Alexandra O’Donnell sighs and shakes her head. ‘That’s what makes me so sick about this school,” says O’Donnell. “In every discussion, someone is accused of being sexist.” But Kumar shouts back: “She wrote ‘Man holds back his greed. Man/’ Somebody like that does not belong here.”

For some Linden students, however, men are the one thing missing from an otherwise perfect school. “I would love to have the same school with guys and girls,” says one Grade 9 student, amid a chorus of boos. “We could have another side of the story,” she adds defensively. “I think the environment would be richer.”

But, with feminism at the very core of its identity, Linden has its focus clear. Once a week, the students and faculty discuss how to honor the voice of other women and organize activities to promote progressive social causes. The bulletin board is laden with articles on women’s issues and notices of related events. For parents and teachers, the commitment can be exhausting. But for certain students at least, the results appear to be liberating. As Moore hurries about the main office, a little girl boldly walks in and thrusts a craft in her direction. “I’m quite proud of this,” she says simply. Moore stops what she is doing to examine the piece of art. “You’re right,” she says. “I would be proud of this too.” And in the world of Goudie and Moore, a young woman’s pride is a precious commodity.

DIANE BRADY