“Little learners today, little leaders tomorrow”: teaching feminism to English learners through Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History.

This is the first article to my project of teaching a resource pack which is an introduction to the themes of Vashti Harrison’s book, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, to English learners in Catalonia.
International Women’s Day 2018, Manresa.

The 8th of March was International Women’s Day. International Women’s Day (IWD) is historically a day for striking and fighting for working class women’s working rights. 2018 in Spain saw its ‘first’ huelga feminista (feminist strike) on IWD. Despite currently living in Catalonia my school did not go on strike so I clearly had to change all my lesson plans to teaching a bunch of teenagers about IWD – it’s history, it’s purposes and its problems! Whilst researching this year’s campaign for my lesson plans I stumbled across a resource pack of an introduction to the themes of Vashti Harrison’s book Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History; a beautifully illustrated book celebrating forty black women (in American history) who have changed the world!

Sojourner Truth, Little Ladies Series. Illustrated by Vashti Harrison.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History is Harrison’s first published children’s book. It is based on her Instagram posts from Black History Month in 2017. Harrison began posting Little Ladies, a series of illustrations of black women throughout history. Her first post was about Sojourner Truth and captioned: “‘Ain’t I a woman?’ Kicking off #blackhistorymonth with a new series of #littleladies through history, starting with probably the first recorded intersectional feminist #sojournertruth abolitionist, activist, author, mother, emancipated slave ❤️#blackgirlmagic #kidlit #kidlitart”. Her series went on to post about women in lots of different fields, from civil rights activist and gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, to Bessie Coleman; the first African American women to receive her pilot’s license in the USA.

The aim of Little Leaders is to represent Black Women’s achievements in fields from ballet to science, because “to be able to see yourself in someone else’s story can be life-changing. To know a goal is achievable can be empowering.” Harrison goes onto explain the importance of representation through Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel to space;

“It’s hard to know what a reader is going to connect to but it often doesn’t take much, just a little connection, just a little push. Mae Jemison always saw herself in space, but wasn’t convinced there was a place for women at NASA, let alone black women. But, she was finally inspired to apply to the Astronaut Program because of seeing Nichelle Nichols play Lieut. Uhura in the original series of Star Trek. I love thinking about all of the kids who are inspired to have faith in their dreams and abilities because of these stories.”

As part of the IWD campaign this year, #PressforProgress, IWD in collaboration with Penguin Schools have created numerous free school resources that not only teach students about women in history but question stereotypes and offer inspiration. This year’s campaign is highlighting overlooked history and shows how history can be used to change our present. It gives children agency; they are not treated as passive bystanders in history as they are often made to feel. The creation of free resources is wonderful as it provides interesting and well-researched lesson plans in a sector where most people (and mostly women) are overworked and have to use their own time to create projects like Little Leaders!

I work at a school in Catalonia as an English conversation assistant. My 6th primary class have just been learning about professions, and through a presentation on Malala Yousafzai, we started to discuss the type of change they wanted to see and be in the world. After Easter (or Semana Santa here) me and the English Teacher are going to begin the Little Leaders project with them. I will blog about my experience of teaching it in a classroom of English learners. From how the exercises work in the classroom to my positionality as a white English cis-woman teaching it. This will be my attempt at joining the #PressforProgress; “It’s time for your class to join the conversation – how will they change the course of history?”

iwd teachers resources
International Women’s Day Classroom Resources. Credits International Women’s Day Website.

I am excited to begin this project and want to end this first article with Harrison’s words on the impact she hopes her book will have, and I hope it gives to the children I teach;

“I want readers to know, like Mary [Seacole], even if you get turned away, your dream doesn’t have to be over. I want them to know it’s okay to take your time doing the thing you love like Alma Woodsey Thomas, who didn’t gain mainstream success for her art until she was 80 years old. I want them to know it’s okay to have multiple passions and one day you can find a way to bring them together like Mae Jemison! Most of all I hope readers walk away from this book full of ideas and possibilities for their futures!”

More about the author…

Vashti Harrison is not only the author Little Leaders but is an illustrator and film-maker. I am now a loyal follower of her Instagram, where she shares her illustrations. I would also recommend checking out her Vimeo for her films. I particularly love Monroe. Monroe is a short film about photojournalist Monroe S Frederick II. He photographed famous Black Celebrities, like James Brown, to political activists, like Eldridge Cleaver. He also created the Heritage Postcard Company which makes postcards celebrating achievements of Black Americans. Harrison’s film is about remembering Monroe S Frederick as a famous photographer and her “Uncle Monroe”- her dad’s best friend. This film explores the history and impact of this man in the public and in the private arena and ultimately how they are not separate but always interlinked. In the film she says she created this film as a diary to the memory of Monroe as she didn’t know how to remember him and represent his legacy. I love this film, as it beautifully intersects personal history with wider public history; this is shown in how Harrison begins the film with Monroe S Frederick’s iconic photographs for Jet and ends the film with his photographs from her Dad’s wedding.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s