Armor Down Girls book club
Submitted photo
Armor Down Girls book club Submitted photo

When Evanston/Skokie District 65 educator Felisha Parsons saw girls’ confidence levels in the classroom dwindling, she knew she had to do something to address what research has shown is a widespread occurrence with troubling, long-term implications.

“I think confidence sits at the cornerstone of a child’s life,” said Dr. Parsons in an interview with the RoundTable. She said she founded the Armor Down Girls program last year to create a space to help adolescent to young adult girls increase their confidence through literacy. This year, the number of girls in the program will more than double – from 22 to 45 District 65 students.

Survey data shows that Dr. Parsons’ concern about a shift in confidence levels in elementary school age girls is warranted. According to the authors of “The Confidence Code for Girls,” between the ages of 8 and 14, girls’ confidence levels fall by 30%. At 14, when girls are hitting their low, boys’ confidence is still 27% higher.

Research suggests that, even though girls in this age group generally outperform boys academically, girls often become risk averse, avoiding the process of risk taking, failure and perseverance that ultimately leads to increased confidence.

“But the good news is that confidence can also be encouraged, nurtured, even created during these turbulent years,” wrote “The Confidence Code for Girls” authors Katty Kay, Claire Shipman and JillEllyn Riley in “How Puberty Kills Girls’ Confidence,” published in The Atlantic.

Armor Down Girls (ADG) kicked off last year with a diverse group of 22 girls between the ages of 8 and 12 who met after school at Dr. Bessie Rhodes Magnet School of Global Studies, where Dr. Parsons taught before moving to Oakton Elementary School this year.

“The name ‘Armor Down Girls’ was chosen as a call to action for girls to ‘arm’ themselves with confidence and other stellar qualities that will empower and propel them through life. The long-term goal of ADG is for confident girls to grow into empowered women.” said Dr. Parsons.

As an educator with over 25 years of experience, Dr. Parsons said, “I am always trying to find that hidden agenda, that hook to get kids interested in learning.”

In thinking about ways to address the “confidence plunge” in girls that she observed in classrooms over the years, Dr. Parsons reached out to school librarian Tracy Hubbard, who helped her find books where the characters are girls, and where girls could build their confidence through reading those books.

“What a great way to build girls’ confidence levels and at the same time increase their reading comprehension. I think ADG is a win-win situation,” said Dr. Parsons.

Last year, ADG participants analyzed characters in the books “Double Dutch” and “Firebird” and read articles about Claudette Colvin, Misty Copeland and former President Barack Obama. They had in-depth conversations that focused on how mistakes become life lessons, self-advocacy, being an influencer and embracing one’s individuality.

“These ‘ingredients’ help girls to tap into their strengths, and in turn, boost their confidence,” said Dr. Parsons.

Fun activities that increase collaboration, a sense of belonging and camaraderie are also an essential part of the ADG program mix.

“There are so many lessons children, particularly girls, can learn through literacy characterizations to help them learn about themselves and to recognize their own potential that fosters self-awareness, independence and fearlessness, which are components of confidence,” said Dr. Parsons.

She said that many ADG participants have said they are more comfortable in speaking their minds and using their voices in the classroom and with their friends.

One student participant said Armor Down Girls has “helped me break out of my shyness and feel prouder of myself.” Another said it “helped me speak out in groups more.”

"Having confidence is believing in yourself. For example, the NBA player’s last shot wins the game. Believing that you will make the last shot is confidence.” said one participant.

When the school year ended, Dr. Parsons said, “There is no excuse for ADG participants to not read over the summer.” Grant funds from Delta Kappa Gamma Illinois State Organization Foundation for educational Studies, Inc. and in-kind donations from Evanston-based nonprofit Young, Black and Lit made it possible for ADG participants to receive five additional books, a summer reading journal and an ADG book bag created and designed by District 65 teacher ShaRita Alexander.

Summer book titles were “Hidden Figures,” “A Tear in the Ocean,” “The Sweetest Sounds,” “Who is Ruth Bader Ginsburg?” and “The Dragon Thief.” Each participant received a certificate upon completion of the program.

“Most of those girls are coming back this year,” said Ms. Parsons. She said she and her co-facilitators, Ms. Alexander and Ms. Hubbard, wanted to make sure the 22 girls in the 2019-20 program have space to come back if they want to, as it is opened to a larger community of 45 girls. Additional funding for the 2020-21 school year will come from a grant from Foundation 65.

Each session begins and ends with the ADG motto, a quote from Christopher Robin: “Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think!”

This year, the age group will be extended from 8 to 14 years old and will meet virtually starting in November. Applications can be requested by emailing maliempowermentgroup@gmail.com