One of my greatest hopes as an educator is to facilitate students having genuine investigations about phenomenon in the world that are interesting and relevant to them. We often describe culturally relevant or sustaining pedagogy as lessons that have meaning to our students real lives outside of the walls of schools and classrooms. My current wrestling with culturally sustaining pedagogy is that there is no average student, so culturally relevant may be entirely different for my 80 or so students that I have each year. However, this doesn’t mean that I should just give up on culturally sustaining pedagogy in one lesson, across a unit, or across an entire curriculum.
In fact, if I don’t aim to be culturally sustaining, then I can contribute to being “culturally erasing” in my classroom.
If culturally sustaining pedagogy is the goal, then how do I help facilitate students diving into important questions that they have using scientific tools and reasoning?
Ladson-Billings (2012) poses that most students come to school with an interest in science and are excellent at developing questions about the world around them. She also suggests that there are ways that teachers can draw out this intrinsic nature of students or shut it down. I agree that teachers have the ability to elicit genuine questions or cause students to fear asking them. I have seen myself do this well in times where I cared more about what my students had to say. I have also seen myself do this poorly when I felt like I needed to “get to _______ important part of this lesson… because they need to know ___________”.
So how can we learn what is culturally relevant to students and use that as a starting point for them to conduct their own science investigations?
A. Student chosen phenomena
I was recently finishing teaching a unit on energy, enzymes, cell respiration, and photosynthesis. I had one class left before I wanted to have students ready to do a performance task where their goal was to transfer what they had learned to a new, but similar phenomenon to what we had been investigating.
In one of my classes that day during the Do-Now, students were arguing about “Are all babies born white… and then just turn different colors later?” There was a rich discussion guided by them that included biological, sociological, and cultural reasons for why they were interested in this phenomenon and how why they thought that either babies are born white, or babies are born the color that they will be later in life.
I was so excited to hear my students talking about an incredibly interesting topic that blended science and race. In fact, they were touching on what we would be discussing in the next unit – reproduction and genetics. However, in my head I thought “I wish they could save this discussion for next class because we really need to get to ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ today.” Thankfully though I suppressed that feeling and continued the discussion with students, forming a mini “Gotta Have Checklist” that students could use to in the coming weeks to investigate their question.
I did nothing impressive here. In fact, I didn’t even elicit student ideas. I just took a breath and a second to hear what students were interested in talking about. Now, they have created their own anchoring phenomenon to explore.
B. Connectedness throughout a unit
I remember in high school each day felt brand new in the sense that I didn’t know what I was going to learn that day or why I was learning it beyond having to pass the class and pass an exam. I had fun and interesting science labs, but I never really knew how it connected to what we learned the previous day or how it would be used the next day.
The way each lesson was introduced sounded something like:
“Today we’re learning about cellular respiration”
“Today we’re learning about photosynthesis”
Instead, my goal is to introduce lessons like (with some of these voices being me and some of these voices being students”
“Yesterday we investigated how we make energy for themselves through cell respiration using oxygen and sugar…
… but how do we get oxygen and sugar in the first place?…
…Today we will be investigating how we get oxygen and sugar in order to help us explain [insert phenomenon here, e.g How can Allyson Felix prepare for her big 400 meter race at the Olympics this summer?”
If lessons aren’t connected, then students may not be connecting their learning to their original question and see how it is important to their investigation.
Culturally sustaining pedagogy is the goal so that students are in charge of what they are learning and can use and apply that to their lives. Hopefully, I can allow for students to choose what they want to investigate and then continue each day and each lesson connecting what they are doing that moment back to their original question and investigation.