By Addison Martin
Strong Girls, an after-school program and integrated study, is a project whose inspiration lies close to home for its creators.
Associate Professor Renita Schmidt and Associate Dean Amanda Thein of the University of Iowa College of Education started the program for fourth- through sixth-graders in the fall of 2014.
Schmidt said the idea for the project, which teaches young girls to be strong and courageous through characters in literature, was triggered by the tragic death of a colleague of hers and Thein’s, a woman killed by a man she met through the internet.
The shock from the death of someone they saw as a strong woman, in addition with their love of literature, sparked the creation of Strong Girls.
“We both feel like books sort of made us who we are,” Schmidt said. “I was raised in a really small community; there was no library in my town … there weren’t a lot of books that had strong girls in them.”
The lack of strong girls in common literature was a reason Schmidt and Thein felt they needed to start the group. The group highlights books that have a female lead who could teach young girls important life lessons.
UI Ph.D. student Laura Szech got involved through Schmidt and now is writing an in-depth paper about her experiences, which she said are always very positive.
“One of my favorite things is when the girls see us, they come running and give us hugs before they can even get into the classroom,” Szech said.
She said the girls not only discuss issues of binary gender but also have aspects of the LGBTQ+ community and gender queer or homosexual characters in their books.
“In one of our books one of the boys was gay, and one of the girls said she thought it was inappropriate for kids to read books with gay kids in them, and another girl disagreed and said ‘I think it’s really important because gay kids need to see themselves in books just like you and me,’ ” Szech said.
These little moments of maturity and positivity, Szech said, are always amazing to her.
UI graduate student Blair Brown, another Strong Girls volunteer, said the improvements she sees from week to week are part of what makes her Friday afternoons with Strong Girls so enjoyable.
“What they think makes a strong girl during our first meeting can be totally different by the end, and that, to me, is progress … The word ‘strong’ begins to take different meanings by the end of the semester,” Brown said.
She noted that it is a joy to spend time with the girls.
“It’s a supportive environment and serves as a safe haven at the end of the week,” she said. “What better way to kick off a weekend than spending time with a room full of smart, brave, silly, strong girls? I leave every Friday feeling proud to be a woman with this opportunity, and I hope the girls leave feeling the same way.”