Students need access to BIPOC and LGBTQ perspectives across content areas
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"I wish every month was Black History month."
"Shut up about it already and get over it; it's over, accept it and move on."
A year later, this conversation between two of my Black students at the end of February still haunts me. The month of February at my school is filled with events that show appreciation for Black history, and then inevitably, February ends, and everything goes back to "normal." By "normal," I mean the contributions of Black people fade into the background, and White narratives dominate the conversation once again.
Every day, Black and Brown students sit in classrooms learning from whitewashed textbooks and are bombarded with images and examples of prominent historical figures that look and sound nothing like them.
Depending on where and what you teach, some of us experience an increasingly regulated and restrictive curriculum. We are pressured about what we can teach and how we can teach it, and we place unrealistic expectations on ourselves to go above and beyond. After all of this, we ask ourselves, am I really doing everything I can for all of our students? What can I do within my limitations?
First, take a deep breath.
If you are anything like me and place high expectations on yourself, it can be all too easy to view these hurdles as insurmountable. Growing up, I never questioned the lack of representation or diversity in school despite living in a racially and ethnically diverse area in South Florida. It was not until my teacher preparation program that I started grappling with the extent to which myself and others were denied access to histories and stories that do not fit the Westernized narratives schools perpetuate.
During my teacher preparation program, I read the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings on Culturally Relevant Teaching, which opened my eyes to how important it is to support students in developing critical consciousness. I sought out more of her work on my own, and it inspired me to incorporate ways of teaching that prioritize all voices.
As I started teaching, I wanted to incorporate diverse perspectives into my teaching. As a White woman, I felt it was of particular importance to make sure I was including a variety of voices and perspectives beyond my own, but I felt unsatisfied with the textbook and other materials the school provided. I have always taught in schools where most of the students were Black, and I was shocked in my first year of teaching at how whitewashed the curriculum was.
I have sought out professional development opportunities. Unfortunately, they are often facilitated by people who have never, or at least not recently, been in a k-12 classroom. They explain what we need to be doing without providing real, applicable strategies for how to do it.
I am here to share a strategy that was a huge game changer in my high school science classroom and can be applied to any classroom and any grade level.
Throw Out Your Textbooks. Center BIPOC and LGBTQ Perspectives
Or at least put them out of sight, out of mind.
Each year I start class by telling students to get rid of their science textbooks. This is my students' favorite part of the beginning of the school year. They love to see a teacher ditching the textbook, and I love to see the relief on their faces when they realize they will not be constrained by a textbook in my class.
Textbooks are full of narratives of people that are White, male, and straight despite the significant contributions throughout history from BIPOC and LGBTQ people. It is not just important to include BIPOC and LGBTQ perspectives for students that identify with an underrepresented group. All students benefit from learning diverse perspectives.
I wish I had learned these stories growing up instead of retroactively relearning important parts of history as an adult. Students from the dominant culture must understand how society silences marginalized voices of Black and Indigenous people. As teachers, we should be preparing students to make informed decisions in an increasingly diverse world.
Regardless of which subject or grade you teach, textbooks tell stories that never fully address and often disparage perspectives that go against societal norms. What kind of message does this send to our students?
Well, I think this comment from one of my students sums it up best:
"We're learning about another White dude?"
Use BIPOC and LGBTQ Oral Stories, Books, and Videos
Now, you might be thinking, if I don't use the textbook, where am I going to find texts to replace it?
Often, we resort to using the same old texts that we learned from because they are familiar. It makes sense- use what you know, right?
However, there are so many resources out there, especially in this digital age! Don't feel restricted to repeatedly using the same texts. Expand your definition of what counts as a text to include oral histories, nonfiction books, or videos.
● Seek out people in your local community or use podcast interviews that can give an account of events from a different perspective.
● Nonfiction books can provide a firsthand account of a person's story in an interesting and compelling way.
● If you can't find good examples, use the existing resources you have and challenge students to imagine a situation from a different point of view.
Just last year, I started an ecology unit with an interview with Clan Chief Kwaxsistalla, Adam Dick of the Kwakwaka'wakw, an Indigenous group from the Pacific Northwest. They shared how mariculture was used for thousands of years before Western scientists became aware of and started studying it. Some of my students were surprisingly very interested in learning other ways of knowing.
Students are so used to hearing the same stories over and over again. You might also be surprised how much more willing a student is to pay attention when learning doesn't involve a text with half of the words completely unrecognizable.
We have managed to reduce fun and interesting topics into technical jargon that requires a dictionary just to understand a definition.
Teach Erased BIPOC and LGBTQ Stories
Once you start varying your source material, now it is time to start looking at WHO these stories are about.
Take a look at who your students are. We should be sharing the stories and perspectives of people they can relate to, including BIPOC and LGBTQ authors. If you ask any current student in a science class who Charles Darwin is, they could probably tell you something about him because they learn about him in almost every single grade. We tend to latch onto the same examples and drive in these points over and over and over.
But, if you ask about Chien Shiung Wu, you would probably get blank stares.
The difference is Charles Darwin was a White male scientist, and Chien Shiung Wu was a Chinese female scientist.
I started offering passages and videos about a woman who died in her quest to discover the structure of DNA, a transgender man who was a prominent figure in the fight against tuberculosis, and a Black woman who developed the first cure for leprosy only to have her work stolen and published by a man in a position of power over her.
I set up my lessons with stories of the people who have been erased from history and the important roles they played in getting us to where we are today.
Now, my high school kids actually look forward to 'story time' in which I weave a story of the underrepresented people that played important roles in science but go unnoticed because of who they were. They tell me they had no idea about these people even though they learn these same topics in every science class.
Students tend to be fearful, intimidated, and often bored when it comes to STEM subjects especially. We can tell students that they can be scientists and engineers and statisticians until we are blue in the face. But what kind of message does that send when all of our examples and histories are of people they can not relate to and will never be?
Small Changes Make a Big Difference
At the end of the day, all of us have varying amounts of flexibility and control over our curriculum. But there are ways to still meet the required expectations and find a way to talk about the important people and lessons that schooling and curriculum try to minimize.
If you teach at a school that requires the textbook as a text and has a rigid curriculum, you can incorporate BIPOC and LGBTQ stories in addition to the textbook in order to include multiple voices into the conversation.
My biology curriculum was very strict about what I was required to teach students. For example, I was expected to teach students about Watson and Crick, two white male scientists that are credited with the discovery of DNA. However, textbooks leave out the important contributions of Rosalind Franklin and the unethical manner in which Watson and Crick stole her data and were credited for her work. By adding her story into the conversation either orally or through supplemental texts, students can still learn what is required by the standards but also have access to information beyond just the textbook.
Every month should be Black History Month, and Indigenous History Month, and LGBTQ History Month, and so on and so forth.
We can make it so by just making a small effort to include more varied source material that is representative of not just your students but the people beyond your city and your community.
I know that I started seeing more engagement and interest from my students when I stopped asking them to open a textbook.
Felisha Drake has a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in science teaching from Florida State University. She taught middle school science and high school biology for five years in Central Florida. She currently teaches science pre-service teachers and works with current science teachers to develop a curriculum that integrates family and community connections and promotes authentic science learning for all students. Drake is currently pursuing a PhD in science education and advocates for improvements in science teacher preparation and promoting culturally sustaining and social justice centered science education in k-12 schools.
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