Learning Like a Girl is Diana Meehan’s empowering personal story of the search for an appropriate education for her young daughter, and how it became an overwhelming and amazing adventure.
The whole "shining adventure" (as she calls it) revolves around a single idea: “What do girls need to thrive and prosper?” The quest for the answer involved partnerships, research, trust, self-reliance; a lot of sweat, tears, energy
and effort; some luck and
money and time. Coming from a strong background with
a core belief in the power of education, and having thoroughly researched the educational, social scientific, political, historical
and biological gender differences in learning, Meehan comes to the realization that private, single-sex education is not only a viable option but perhaps a necessity for her child
- and she does a wonderful job of illustrating why it should be an option for all children.
The trappings and terrors of our current, materialistic society – and its impact on young girls especially - are not underestimated by Meehan or her peers, as they begin the long and arduous process of creating what will eventually become the Archer School
in Los Angeles. The goals of the school are both
simple and enormous: It’s about having a safe space
for girls, where they can explore and experiment as a means to learning. Where their individuality is embraced, and the environment is inclusive for all.
Where there is a real sense of community – built through tolerance, mindfulness, mutual respect & responsibility. Where there is much expected of them,
and they are held to high standards. And where they
are given – through a girl-centric curriculum, role models, and the best teachers as their guides – a sense of discipline and active ownership about their learning. The single-sex educational experience also gives the girls the opportunity to eschew stereotypes and enables them to study things that they’ve been told (by society, other schools, other kids) don’t interest them – like robotics or physiology.
The journey to create this school of their “dream in a hurry” is not an easy one: From the snotty head of a national girls’ schools organization, to the lack of a physical space (almost to the point of desperation), to incompetent teachers and through a four-year court battle with neighbors and their anti-teenager attitudes, Meehan and her two founding partners struggle through with admirable (and, at times,
naďve) perseverance. Of course they did have others
fighting on their side – lawyers, professionals, other girls’ only schools; the Archer girls & their families, a variety of women who showed up and did what was needed to get the school on its feet (she calls them ‘godmothers’), and the surprise support of a city councilwoman who made all the difference.
There were also many questions along the way, not all of which are answered: Can a school, organized around and oriented to a feminist theory, accomplish its goal (“girls should achieve their potential”) under the direction of a man? How
many of their achievements can be attributed to small class size, or the interdisciplinary nature of their school? What about boys? (Meehan
does devote a chapter to this.) What happens when these girls start entering the "real world" - will their educations have prepared them well
Meehan overgeneralizes a bit (most girls are empathetic or dislike competition), which can obscure the very real issues she’s addressing, but that’s a danger that’s hard to avoid. In most of educational literature, including the kind supporting all-boys schools, where an author is attempting to address the needs of as many students as possible, some generalization is necessary.
Although she does touch on the fact that there are different groups within the school (rebels
and nerds, for example), she fails to address any significant downsides that must be a part of Archer’s environment:
the girls who attend seem a bit too perfect, at times. There’s none of the gossip or cattiness that often intrudes into female relationships at that age.
Having attended a female-only college, I can say that eliminating men didn’t eliminate all conflicts, and I would
have liked it if Meehan had talked about how her school handles some of those issues. But Meehan obviously knows shat she’s talking about when it comes to the subject of how girls learn. She covers all the important differences that recent research has shown - the girl pause phenomenon, the idea of empathy as a tool for learning, the importance of "wholeness of environment" and connected learning experiences – and even details some of the lessons
and skills that have worked well in her school.
When they finally get the right people, in the right place, at the right time, what emerges is a portrait of a school that encapsulates all their
goals: Giving girls the time, place, people, and tools necessary for them to “figure things” – vital things about themselves, their world, and their futures – “out.” Meehan’s fascinating and passionate writing about an exciting
and current topic make Learning Like a Girl an excellent resource (for parents
and educators alike) and a fantastic read.