On a summer morning in Edina, a group of girls stood next to a checkerboard-patterned carpet. It’s only 10 feet from one side to the other, but they could only use a few squares on the board to get across—and if they stepped on a forbidden square, the carpet emits a loud beeping sound.
One by one, the girls began to cross the carpet, only to step on a wrong square, hear the beep and head back, dejected, to the beginning. They slowed as they reached the end of the known path, aware that they were likely to step errantly—until their teacher, Patty Carney-Bradley, intervened.
“Girls worried about letting each other down,” says Carney-Bradley. She notes that the beeps were actually good information, because it told other students where not to step. The girls thought they had disappointed the others whenever they stepped on a beep. “But that was important!” Carney-Bradley says. “Nobody knew where they were until some bright person stepped on one.”
Patty Carney-Bradley has been teaching girls to take risks since 1992—and through concrete exercises like the electric carpet, she’s inspired countless women to help each other move forward. Her summertime Girls’ Academy ran for 16 years, teaching critical analytical tools about media and societal messages, as well as leadership skills and tools for self-reflection and discovery. Thanks to her, hundreds of girls have entered middle school equipped to deal with the pressures of adolescence—but when she began her career, empowerment was not on her agenda.
In 1973, Carney-Bradley began teaching home economics to a female-only class. After Title IX was implemented in 1975, all classes had to be open to boys and girls, regardless of subject matter. Suddenly, home economics changed completely.
“I saw these girls who were leaders before,” says Carney-Bradley, “and these same girls were coming back and not raising their hands anymore” in co-ed classes. “And I thought, ‘Wow, what’s going on?’ It really bothered me for a long time.”
That irritation became inspiration when Carney-Bradley went to see author Nicky Marone speak in June 1989. Marone had just published How to Father a Successful Daughter, and her speech focused on how social pressures were causing girls to underachieve—and how to combat those pressures. Carney-Bradley connected immediately. “I sat in that audience of over 400 people,” she says, “and the light bulb just went on. If I’m an educator, and if it’s people inadvertently stifling these girls, I might as well get this word out.”
So she began teaching a class for dads called Fathering Successful Daughters at schools, corporations, churches and community education classes. The turnout rate was huge, and after a while the fathers asked why she wasn’t directly involved with their daughters. It was a fair question, so in 1992, she piloted Girl’s Academy at a summer program for gifted students in the southern and western Twin Cities metro area.
“In my very first lesson plan, I had more than enough information to cover three hours … but the first thing I did was ask, ‘Do you feel that you might be treated differently in our culture because you’re a girl?’ The hands shot up, and I ended up spending three hours on that question. It blew me out of the water.” Carney-Bradley’s class of third-, fourth- and fifth-grade girls voiced complaints about feeling left out in pickup sports, and not being called on in class—and the American Association of University Women published a study in 1995 that echoed these feelings exactly.
That age group turned out to be a sweet spot. “What I learned over the years,” says Carney-Bradley, “is that [girls that age] are aware, but if I didn’t get them prior to middle school, they’d go underground and wouldn’t admit it anymore.”
Her methods were based on a core set of principles. Carney-Bradley strongly believes in the power of role models, so a focus on female history was an important aspect of the course. Girls created a poster about an important woman in history, but perhaps even more inspirational were their posters about women in their own lives. After creating them, Carney-Bradley encouraged her students to pass along their posters to their subjects—usually mothers, aunts, teachers and coaches. Combined with physical challenges, team-building exercises, journaling, and guest speakers (including a self-defense teacher), Girl’s Academy gave students the confidence they needed to face life after elementary school.
Now, many Girl’s Academy pupils are all grown up—living all over the country and leading successful lives. Students have ended up in Massachusetts and Maine. One is a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. One is a biology major in college, and one (yours truly) is even writing for Edina Magazine.
Now retired, Carney-Bradley plans to publish her curriculum to ensure another generation of young women is ready for the trials of adolescence and adulthood. “It should be done by people, in their own communities, with their own girls, because then there’s that continuity . . . all you have to do is leave an impact on one person.”
For kids: Star Girl by Jerry Spinelli
For parents: How to Father a Successful Daughter by Nicky Marone