UI education professors teaching girls about strength through literature
Friday, November 18, 2016

A weekly after-school program at a local elementary school is using books to talk with girls about how to be strong.

Strong Girls is the brainchild of University of Iowa College of Education faculty members Renita Schmidt and Amanda Thein, who wanted to start the program after their female friend—a former acquaintance and colleague from another university—was killed by a man she met online.

“It was crushing to us,” Schmidt says. “How do we help girls know how to be strong when things like that are still happening in the U.S.? We have to talk about that as women, so this is sort of a response to that. We see it as publicly engaged work; it’s something that we believe will make a difference in the world.”

As part of Strong Girls, Schmidt and Thein take UI education student volunteers every Friday to the book club to read with and lead discussions among fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade girls. After sharing a snack, the girls split into small groups and take turns reading aloud. Then they gather as a larger group to talk about the stories, the characters, and their own experiences.

woman reading to girl
College of Education faculty member Renita Schmidt listens as an elementary school student reads during a Strong Girls session. Photo by Mei-Ling Shaw Williams.

The girls recently finished reading the graphic novel Ghosts, by Raina Telgemeier, which is about two sisters who move to a new city that’s rumored to be haunted. The younger sister, Maya, who has cystic fibrosis, drags her older sister along in search of the ghosts.

Schmidt and Thein say they make it a point to pick stories with characters from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences.

“We try to bring them books that really represent diversity in life experiences as well as social class and race, gender identity, things like that,” Thein says. “And we try to bring them books that reflect their own experiences in some ways. Our girls are socioeconomically and racially diverse, so we have brought them books by Sharon Flake, who writes a lot about African American girls.”

While reading Ghosts, the girls talked about how Maya would likely die much sooner than most people because of her disease, and how it would feel to be Maya or her older sister, Catrina. One girl shared that her little brother suffered from an illness that affected his brain. “I’m so sorry,” said another.

The girls also learned about the Day of the Dead and relished in acting out the sound effects in the graphic novel.

“We talk a lot about how being a strong girl isn’t about being a particular kind of girl,” Thein says. “Strong girls are girls who make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, who have imperfections, who have agency within their own circumstances.”

Kristine Buchheim, a UI senior elementary education major from Cedar Rapids, says volunteering with Strong Girls has taught her how to lead small, in-depth discussion groups.

“I was surprised by how excited the girls were to come to book club every Friday,” she says.

But now, Buchheim says, she sees how much they enjoy spending time with their peers at a place that’s just for them.