(Photo taken in 2019)

Growing up I had to learn so many different scientists’ names in my science classes. Despite the fact that knowing their names had little to do with mastering content or understanding larger scientific concepts, they were ingrained in my head because their science teachers had ingrained it in their heads, and so on and so forth. While it didn’t help me understand the science better, it did make it clear that there were a lot of people that looked like me that did science.

So much of how a student grows, engages with learning, and masters material happens based on the choices we, as teachers, make every day. What materials we use, the messaging, and how it’s delivered ultimately influence a child’s comfort and confidence to thrive. As this year challenges us in ways we have never been challenged, it is critical that culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) stays a focus in our classrooms.

Culturally relevant pedagogy is thrown around a lot as a buzzword in education circles. I believe Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings was the first to use it and she described the three parts of CRP as academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness. At its core, it’s thinking through our curriculum and materials through the lens of our students. What do they know, what should they know, how can we capture their engagement and give them ownership in that learning process?

Right now, in the world of middle school science, we are learning about constructing and performing investigations (SEPS.3). Admittedly, in our hybrid reality this has been exceptionally difficult but students are resilient and we’re making it happen. You know the old expression, “When life gives you lemons, wire them together to create a circuit and power an LED lightbulb!” Er — something like that.

Part of this unit involves reading, “Hidden Figures,” where we learn how real-life scientists and engineers use the scientific process. Of course, the use of the scientific process is just one small part of the book. What makes the book resonate so much with my students is the challenges the mathematicians faced, not from the math, but because they were Black women. It is these moments in the book where students can talk and process authentically what they’re feeling that makes it a powerful instructional tool.

Eventually the students will also build rockets and we’ll talk about their designs, the physics, etc. But it’s the combination of math, English, social studies and science together that makes the unit work and I would argue, makes it culturally responsive.

Honestly, I considered cutting the book this year given how hard it would be to teach in this learning climate. It was a choice I had to make like the other one thousand that are asked of us every day. I don’t know if it will be as successful as it normally is, but based on the past few days, I’m definitely optimistic. Our students need to learn about people that look like them doing the things we’re talking about in class.

My challenge to those teachers reading this would be to find a way to incorporate culturally responsive pedagogy into your classroom. It might not be a book or even an article. Taking a brain break to watch a short video, do a mini research project with your homeroom, or even having a guest speaker (virtually), are all ways you can work toward creating a community in classroom that recognizes different voices than maybe you had growing up.

When a student leaves my classroom, it’s okay if they don’t remember the names of the three women in “Hidden Figures” (though I hope they do). What I want to make clear is that there are people that look like them doing this work. My job is to make sure they have the skills to do it too.

Written by:
Mr. John (Jack) Hesser

Science Teacher
Harshman Magnet Middle School (School #501)
Indianapolis Public Schools