Sunday, July 10, 2016

#BlackLivesMatter in the classroom

via Odysey, Nicole Gentile

What does biology have to do with #BlackLivesMatter?
What does teaching have to do with race?

I can do what many biology teachers do, and dismiss this whole race thing as a social construct, with little basis in biology. I'm a pale male, after all, I can "rise above" it.

The art of science is making observations, see patterns, describing those patterns, and making predictions based on those patterns.

Science does not seek "truth" as much as it seeks sense in the natural world, but because it's a human endeavor, even the stereotypical staid, data-driven scientist is ruled by his biases.

And maybe that's its value--to let students see that their vision of "reality" is skewed by the world already constructed in their minds.

Crispus Attucks, the first American (or whatever you call a fugitive slave whose homeland is here) killed in the American Revolution, was a person of color.

His killer, Hugh Montgomery, a white man, was defended by John Adams (yes, that John Adams). Adams summed up the soul of white racism, arguing that Attucks' "very looks was enough to terrify any person."

Michael Brown died for the same reason:
[H]e looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon."         Officer who shot Michael Brown

It looks like a demon.

What does teaching high school science have to do with any of this?

Well, depends, I suppose, on why science matters to you. Matters to me because I keep clawing at reality, or whatever I perceive to be reality, so science keeps me sane.

We see what we see based on the model we already hold of the universe. The same universe that allows "us" to justify our behaviors over and over and over again is a world of fear, of order imposed by our authority, of a twisted version of a dominant religion that lost its way generations ago.

I used to believe I teach young adults science because I wanted them to share in the love and beauty of the universe I know. Now I am not so sure. (Oh, I'm still sure of my love of nature, just not sure that's reason enough to impose my world view on theirs.)

So why teach biology? The kumbaya answer is to say that deep down inside, we all have the same needs, that race is not biological, then go on to mutter some nonsense about the mitochondria being the powerhouse of the cell.

Here's a better reason--teach children to develop a critical lens when looking at the world.
Claim. Evidence. Reasoning.

What makes #BlackLivesMatter so empowering is that it does just that, a big reason, perhaps the reason, it is so feared. The claim is that black lives matter less in our culture than white lives, the evidence is overwhelming.

You don't need to be a scientist to see that--but if you apply a rational eye to the evidence around us, you will arrive at the same claim.

The first step is to observe, simply observe, and find the patterns.


Mikaelle0 said...

This post put language to a lot of things I have been feeling but have been unable to express in words. As we face tragedy after tragedy in this country I found a lot of students turning to me for guidance. The High School I work is predominantly brown and per usual the teachers are predominantly white. And then there's me who is a black female age 23. I'm happy that my students feel a sense of comfort with me and want to discuss these issues but I'm torn between following my curriculum and spending time helping my students make sense of the world around them. More often than I'd like, an administrator comes walking into my classroom as my students and I are talking about race relations in this country. As a biology teacher I'm often told to stick with the standards or asked "what does this have to do with science." I feel that after reading this post I can explain why I think analyzing these events is worth the time it takes away from discussing osmosis.

Thank you

doyle said...

Dear Mikaelle0,

Thank you for your words--it gets to the heart of teaching. High school science too often breaks down to a poor substitute for a second language, memorizing vocabulary no one will ever use.

The power in science is getting kids to distrust the "experts," validating (or not) by appealing to the evidence. (I keep Feynman's quote on our wall--"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.")

"I'm torn between following my curriculum and spending time helping my students make sense of the world around them." What else is science if not the latter? =)

Good luck--we need more young teachers like you!


Emily Shorette said...

I don't like to be off-topic, but I have a problem which I hope you can help me. My problem is when I have Blogger on my computer. (All other areas seem to be fine) Whenever I press the "new post" button it seems to take *forever* to get to to the proper screen. It just says "loading..." at the top. It does eventually get to the proper screen, but this is after 45 minutes or more. Have you had this problem, and what did you do to solve it? My computer is a HP Chromebook 14. Thank you very much.