English, History, DEI Lessons Take Flight Through "Flygirl"

During the Ellis English department’s formal review of the Middle and Upper School curriculum, faculty sought to ensure that the literature studied in their classes represented students’ diverse lived experiences and voices. A key piece of student feedback that was collected as part of this review came through loud and clear: students wanted to read stories that incorporated more empowering female characters, particularly women of color.
Enter Flygirl, an award-winning novel by Sherri L. Smith about a young Black woman who trains to be a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) during World War II. Now in its second year of being read as part of the grade 7 English curriculum, Flygirl provides an enriching and interactive learning experience that incorporates elements of English, history, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Flygirl
tells the fictional story of Ida Mae Jones, whose greatest passion is to fly. In order to fulfill her dream of becoming a pilot, Ida must rely on her lighter skin to hide her identity as a woman of color, which she soon learns is a heavy burden to bear. To prepare the seventh graders to better understand and be able to discuss the subject matter of Flygirl, Dr. Denise LaRosa, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, visits Amy Rigsby’s English class and leads them in a pre-lesson before the unit begins. An extension of the identity work she does with Ellis’ middle schoolers during DEI advisory lessons, Dr. LaRosa’s pre-Flygirl presentation focuses on colorism, or discrimination against individuals with a darker skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. In collaboration with Ms. Rigsby, Dr. LaRosa and the students discuss when, why, and how colorism started and its effects, which they will encounter examples of throughout the novel.

"If students approach the book already having this context, as well as a shared definition and understanding of colorism, then they’ll be ready to truly engage with the story and have richer, more profound conversations about what they’re reading,” explains Dr. LaRosa. "It sets them up for success in absorbing all that Flygirl is and what it’s about. They can speak about what they’re learning from the book from a place of knowledge.”

Equipped with this contextual information and valuable perspective, the seventh graders are able to dive into Flygirl and think critically about the story. They practice close reading, thoughtfully analyzing the text and paying careful attention to the author’s word choice, and learn how to identify symbolic actions and objects. They also focus on character development, engaging in class discussions about how significant turning points have affected the main character and making informed predictions about what will happen next.

To enhance the history lessons Flygirl’s content offers, students conduct their own background research. This includes reading articles about groundbreaking women in aviation, discussing women’s place in the workforce during the war, and investigating the origins of Fifinella, the female gremlin who served as the official WASP mascot. Students also reflect upon the experiences of women and people of color during World War II and the 1940s, examining the novel through various lenses.

The Flygirl unit culminates in a multifaceted project in which each student creates a custom uniform patch for Ida and her WASP squadron. Students can choose to draw or digitally design their patch, which must incorporate four distinct visuals that connect to the text. There is a written component to the assignment, as well as the opportunity for students to share their work with their classmates. 

"This project isn’t a traditional essay,” says Ms. Rigsby, “but it does give students the opportunity to really showcase all of the different things they have learned. They’re using their design skills; they’re incorporating what they’ve learned about symbolism; they’re writing explanations of their interpretations and connecting to quotes; they’re presenting their work to their classmates. Students are given the freedom to design something original and represent this main character that they’ve become quite connected to, and they do so in such creative ways.” 

By the time they finish Flygirl, students have experienced a mash-up of English, history, and DEI lessons that expand their knowledge base—and their idea of what it means to be a changemaker. The main character of Flygirl faces many challenges in standing up for herself and pursuing her passions, and students discuss as a class whether they agree with her choices or if they would have handled things differently. Ms. Rigsby believes these conversations inspire students to broaden their perspectives and reflect on the ways they can affect change in their own lives.

"I think Ida represents the more challenging side of being a changemaker,” she says. "She shows that being a changemaker can come with a lot of weight and tough decision-making. But through all the characters students encounter in Flygirl, they learn that life, and people, can be very complex. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ they learn to examine motivations, how societal expectations can shape who people are, and also the idea of how you can be a changemaker in your own way. Maybe you won’t fly an airplane or appear in history books, but you can find ways to stand up for yourself or help others when they need you. Just as decision-making is part of being a changemaker, so is having empathy.”
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