Social Justice in Science
4.15.15 By Andrew Faiz
Six months ago I just watched and took notes. I stood in the back of my room at Boston Community Leadership Academy as my collaborating teacher (CT) taught her biology class of twenty-seven students. I was observing her and frantically taking notes on all her teacher moves as she began teaching Unit One on Evolution. I wanted to be ready for when my time came.
Five months ago I was teaching bits and pieces of lessons. Maybe I got the class started with the “Do Now,” or led the debrief of an activity. I was getting a good feel for being up in front of her students, and quickly became comfortable teaching them for a little bit each day. After every lesson, I received feedback from my CT on things I could improve and strategies I could use.
Four months ago I was teaching whole lessons, and doing some planning. I was loving teaching my students, even as they began to challenge my authority with their behavior. As I was learning not to smile while reprimanding students, I was also learning how to plan lessons. By my “Lead Week” of Teaching, I planned and taught everything for a full week to what now felt more like my class. I don’t think I ever felt particularly “ready” to jump into Lead Week, but it happened, and I was in it as I taught Unit Two on Ecology.
Three months ago I was planning and teaching an entire unit. Unit Three: The Carbon Cycle. This unit was my baby. I remember when it was just a little rough outline of content I needed to cover provided to me by my CT. But I raised it over the course of a month, invested so much time and effort in it, and spent my Christmas break and New Year’s with it (or trying to at least). I wanted it to grow up to be perfect by the time I taught it.
Ever since that first unit plan back at the beginning of January, lead teaching has been in full swing. Time flew by as we breezed through Unit Four on Energy and transitioned into our penultimate Unit Five on Homeostasis. For me, taking the lead in teaching meant I could plan so that my students’ high school biology experience wasn’t like mine—rote memorization out of a textbook. After all, effective teaching is defined by planning and teaching engaging, cognitively demanding lessons.
Through lead teaching, I have learned a lot about what social justice looks like in a classroom: differentiating instruction, providing accommodations to students with special needs, establishing a culture where every voice matters, always eliciting student thinking, and sticking with students as they work to explain their reasoning. But for a while, I have wondered:
What does social justice look like when it comes to teaching biology content?
This past week my students began learning about feedback loops in the human body and how they work to maintain a state of stable, internal conditions, known as homeostasis. The last couple of lessons of the week focused on the blood glucose feedback loop in particular. They understood the role of the pancreas and the secretion of insulin as the mechanisms of bringing blood glucose levels back to normal. With this knowledge in hand, students shared their experiences of family members with diabetes, eagerly asked questions, and worked to try to understand what their family members were suffering from. Engagement was remarkably high. Today, my kids saw biology not just as a collection of theories and facts about life, but as a subject inviting them to make sense of the living systems in their world.
The facts of how the blood glucose feedback loop worked came to life in my classroom. It was real, and things were about to get more real when we explored the question:
Do you think everyone is equally at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes?
I had planned a jigsaw activity where students analyzed particular sets of data and statistics about diabetes in the State of Massachusetts before discussing in small groups, and then as a whole class. My sophomores were making insightful connections between race and income. They were discussing the affordability of healthy food options for low-income individuals and were hypothesizing why hospitalization and mortality rates were higher for Blacks and Hispanics in terms of education and access to healthcare. In a classroom of young, mostly Black and Hispanic men and women, this was personal. They ultimately tackled two big questions:
1. How might knowledge of the blood glucose feedback loop help lower hospitalization and mortality rates?
2. Whose responsibility is it to do something about the increasing rates of diabetes among low-income and racial minority groups?
There’s a lot to think about when lead teaching. It’s easy to fall into the routine of obsessing over content, trying to anticipate all possible student ideas, perfecting your methods of data tracking, and learning the best management strategies. Yes, ultimately the measure of good teaching is student learning, but student learning cannot just be a measure of content knowledge through formative and summative assessments. Good teaching must also take into account fostering students’ critical awareness of the social inequities that create the barriers and struggles they are up against.
As a biology enthusiast, sure, I want my students to leave my class in June remembering all the vocabulary and content, and with an appreciation for the diversity of life. But more importantly, as an educator, I want my students to leave my class in June with the ability to think critically, make informed decisions, and lead themselves and others as the next generation of proponents of social justice.
more from Andrew Faiz on the blog