Before students walk into Laura Cancillieri’s Social Studies classroom at West Babylon High School in West Babylon, New York, they’re greeted in the hallway by images of inspirational women in honor of Women’s History Month.
Well-known American icons, like Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks, sit alongside politician Phoolan Devi, India’s “Bandit Queen” who championed the poor, and Hypatia, a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher in ancient Greece.
Positive role models are a staple of any student success, and Laura believes it’s especially important for girls to learn about the women who’ve come before them.
“Spotlighting historical female figures makes girls realize that women are strong, smart, and should never be underestimated,” she says. “When you take the time to incorporate those things, it sends a message.”
Laura says girls sometimes get lost in the fray at school. She sees a lot of girls come in bright-eyed as freshmen, but lose confidence by the time senior year comes around. It’s the reason she weaves women’s issues into her curriculum whenever she can.
Inside her classroom, conversations with students frequently revolve around past and present women standing up for equal rights—hopefully inspiring the girls to think about their own lives.
“I try to model that it’s okay to have an opinion,” she says. “I want girls to be unafraid to ask questions.”
This Women’s History Month, the suffragists of the 1900s have particularly resonated with students.
Laura showed her classes the true-story inspired movie Iron Jawed Angels, in which suffragists were arrested, laughed at, and insulted in their fight for voting equality. Her students were shocked that these women, who often put their lives at risk, were treated that way.
“‘[Voting] was not something handed to us. And the only way to make changes in our nation is to have a voice,” she says. “The most influential way to be heard is at the polls.”
In addition to the film, Laura made a Powerpoint for her class that included images of the 1960s marches for women’s equality, as well as a few of her personal pictures of the recent Women’s March on Washington.
In a sense, it’s Women’s History Month for Laura all year long. Long after the images of historical women come down, topics about women’s rights still come up. Aside from the American worldview, Laura is intentional about teaching history from a global perspective.
A few years ago, when Malala Yousafzai was injured by a Taliban gunman on her way to school, her students were again shocked. In Laura’s Current Events class, her students wrote to the UN advocating for better girls’ education around the world. The letter writing that year helped her students reflect on their own access to free public education in the United States.
“They don’t realize on some level that we’re lucky to live in this country and have the rights that we do and that we’re all in school, learning,” she says.
While she’s been challenged for opening dialogue around women’s issues at times, Laura says it’s worth it. Former students have thanked Laura for teaching them about women’s issues, saying it changed the way they saw themselves and the world. One student, who went on to major in criminal justice in college, made women’s rights a focus of her career.
Laura, who has a young daughter herself now, says that she will continue to champion women and girls.
“Although progress has been made, society still indicates to girls that they are not valued the same as males,” she says. “I want girls to know that women are invaluable and there is nothing we cannot accomplish in this world.”