Black female science teachers are finding ways to incorporate anti-racist teaching into their classrooms, according to a new study.
Examples might include learning about the practices and systems that have led to high rates of diabetes in black communities or discussions about the water crisis in Flint.
In a series of interviews and Sista Circles (group settings for Black women to develop and exchange ideas) in 2020, 18 Black women (teachers grades 5-12) shared their teaching practices and efforts to build critical awareness among their students and colleagues, and connect history and culture with science. The findings appear in Journal of Research in Science Teaching.
“Science education is typically approached in a neutral, apolitical way that fails to acknowledge injustice,” said lead author Alexis Riley, an assistant professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “This work examines what scholarly content or inquiry means for students and teachers who draw on their racial, gendered, and classed experiences. It asks how or in what ways do Black women teachers talk about their implementation of anti-racist practices through their science teaching?’
The researchers uncovered four themes in their analysis:
Bringing something new to the community while acknowledging the norms and culture of the students
Teachers sought to provide new experiences for their students, including field trips or participating in science fairs that were not required in the curriculum. “For example, Dr. Porter took students outside their community in Brooklyn, New York so they could engage with natural phenomena outside the classroom and the city,” the authors wrote.
Using established science curriculum standards by promoting scientific and sociological questions
Teachers made cultural and sociopolitical connections to science while using K-12 science content standards known as Next Generation Science Standards, specifically encouraging students to ask questions. According to the study, “[asking] issues in science can be tied to social justice because science is usually presented as facts, and facts have historically hurt marginalized groups when not questioned. Consider the Tuskegee syphilis experiment from 1932 to 1972, or the results shared by the eugenics movement of the 20th century.
Teaching at the intersection of learning and teaching history, culture, and science
Teachers provided historical, social, and cultural contexts to the science discussions. For example, the authors describe a teacher who would include history in his “science education courses. As a teacher trainer and non-formal science teacher, she revealed one of the main reasons Africans were enslaved and dragged to America – because of their agricultural skills…”
Building critical awareness in the science classroom
Teachers empower students to think critically about the ways in which the dynamics of privilege and oppression are present in real-world problems. “When she taught in Detroit, Mrs. Perez taught about diabetes, a disease that greatly affected people in the black community. She encouraged students to ask questions about the sociopolitical factors in the community that created these conditions, such as redlining and food deserts,” the authors wrote.
“Teacher education programs have the difficult task of preparing an 80 percent white teaching force to teach in communities of color where most teachers have little experience or knowledge. Teacher education programs must also address the diverse needs of teachers of color based on their diverse racial, class, and gendered experiences,” Riley says. “To connect science teacher education to the realities of today’s classrooms, we must radically change the model of teacher education by weaving racial and cultural studies into all aspects of our learning spaces and developing more urban science education programs.” “
The study was co-authored by Felicia Moore Mensah of Columbia University.