Ideas for Teaching Feminine Spirituality
About this article
Looking for some concrete ways to help adolescent girls think about the experience of gender and how it affects their spirituality? Julia Keller highlights activities used in her course in women's spirituality that range from a look at Carol Gilligan's work and modern literature and films to spiritual autobiographies and children's books.
In 1994, I started teaching a course on women's spirituality for seniors at Holy Names High School, an all-girls school in Oakland, California. Finding materials for such a class was a challenge. No textbooks or other resources existed that were appropriate for high school students. The materials I used in graduate school were way above the academic and experience levels of a seventeen-year-old girl. So through trial and error--and a whole lot of listening to my students--I came up with a workable curriculum to help girls think about the experience of gender and how it affects spirituality. What follows are a few successful activities from the course.
Popular Gender Psychology
A study of gender psychology is a great way to walk the students through the connection between experience, gender, and spirituality. Carol Gilligan, the author of In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Harvard University Press, 1993), has done wonderful work in this field. In the classroom, we discuss professional researchers' observations about men's and women's experiences of life. The students then compare the theories with their own experiences. For example, we look at the theory that girls lose their identity during adolescence. The girls talk about whether or not this is true for them and their friends. We then wrestle with questions about how the loss of identity might affect the way we relate with God.
Modern Literature and Films
Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982) and Dorothy Day's autobiography The Long Loneliness (Harper, 1952) are excellent books on the spiritual journeys of two very different women. Both books are also available in film versions. However, in the film The Color Purple (Warner Home Video, 1987), the treatment of spirituality is not as explicit as it is in the book. Entertaining Angels (Warner Brothers Home Video, 1996) is an excellent and engaging movie portraying Dorothy Day's life.
After we read and discuss the book or view the movie, the students write an essay describing the effect of gender on the spirituality of the main characters and relating their insights to their experience.
Women in World Religions
The students work in small groups to examine the roles of women in different religious traditions. Together the group members write a research paper and do a class presentation summarizing their work. Topics may include the different religions' attitudes toward women, the roles women play in worship, and the part of women in the leadership of the religions' institutions.
Women in the Scriptures and Tradition
Mary is the predominant female spiritual role model in the Catholic Tradition. Though she is indeed a wonderful model, other strong, holy women are out there waiting to be discovered by today's young women.
For this assignment, the students each research a woman of the Bible or a female saint and write a short essay. They also each present their holy woman to the class in a speech or a creative project.
The girls answer four questions in their research:
- What is the woman's story?
- Why did you choose her?
- Why is she a good spiritual role model for young women of today?
- What was the most significant insight you gained from studying her?
The spiritual autobiography is a rich part of our Catholic heritage. In class, we talk about the tradition of the spiritual autobiography. Then the students read excerpts from well-known works, such as those by Catherine of Siena or Dorothy Day. As an assignment, they write a five-page autobiography, paying close attention to their experience of being female and how it influences their spiritual growth.
A popular assignment in my course is to write a book for children about what it means to be a girl today. After telling the students to identify the age of the girl they want to address, I ask them to think about the question, "What advice would you give to this child about being a girl or a young woman?" They are to include advice for building a relationship with God. I encourage the girls to be creative with the format. Some of them produce well-documented books that are wonderfully elaborate and full of wisdom!
Julia Keller, who lives in Arnold, California, is currently working on her elementary education certification. She is a member of the original steering committee for The Voices series.
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Published October 1, 1999.