I often found myself wondering this exact question while attending my MAT program 4 years ago. Although the materials we read were interesting and eye-opening, I thought it was a topic that would be more appropriate for humanities classrooms. We talked about cultural competency, inherent bias and micro-aggressions in teaching. It made sense that I should be reflective on how equitable my classroom management techniques are. I agreed that I brought some biases with me that needed to be explored and perhaps reconsidered and changed. I also knew that I did not want any of my students to feel like I said or did anything hurtful to them because of their race. Otherwise, how was it possible that the topic of race would make its way into my science classroom?
I can now confidently say that I was wrong. Conversations about race make their way into my science classroom frequently. But more importantly, they are valuable and should be given the time and space to have them when they do arise. I understand the pressures to teach our content standards can feel overwhelming, but if my students do not feel safe, valued and heard in my classroom, they will not learn the things that I try to teach them.
To that end, last year I started incorporating restorative justice practices into my classroom. Every day, I opened the class with a circle where we talked together for 10 – 15 minutes. In these circles, students all face one another and everyone is included, on equal ground and has the choice to speak their truth. We started with fun, low-stakes questions (e.g. What is your favorite food memory?) and by the end of the year, we were tackling some of life’s most difficult, but very relevant topics (e.g. race, gun violence, gender equality, etc.). At the end of the year, I surveyed my students to gauge what impact, if any, this had in their learning. Some of the comments were as follows:
“I don’t trust people easily and this made me trust
my classmates. It made me feel like I could
participate in class more.”
“I actually got to know people in this class. I don’t
know anyone in my other classes.”
“It felt like we were a family.”
My original question could fit a multitude of categories: race, religion, gender, sexual preferences, etc. For example, “How can I help students learn about evolution in the science classroom, while still valuing and maintaining their personal faith?” Or, “What perspectives might non-binary students bring to a discussion about biological sex versus identified gender?” The point is that your students’ come with a wealth of identities that define them and each one of those deserve a place in your classroom, science or otherwise. The beauty of restorative circles is that they provide a space for your students to be themselves, they bring equity to conversations, and they provoke raw, real-world discussions. Sometimes that means they are tough conversations to have, but we have them together and grow together as a result. My classroom and my teacher identity have evolved through this practice and I’m incredibly grateful for these experiences and to be able to share them with my students.
Kristina Lewin (MAT 2014) is a secondary life science teacher at Tacoma School of the Arts.