I’ve written about my social justice unit a couple of times before (Year one, two). The third year I completed it (using the ever-awesome Underrepresentation Curriculum Project (disclosure bias: I’m an editor!)), I changed the timing of the unit to be integrated into the school year instead of an intensive block in the winter/spring.
Note: I have a somewhat unique situation so that I was comfortable making this change. The URC encourages in-class conversations around race, inequity, privilege, and justice. If students aren’t very comfy with each other (or with the teacher), the conversations may not be very fruitful. I work at a small, 6-12th grade school. All of my students have known each other for 4 years before they get to me, and other teachers train them on Socratic Seminars and holding respectful classroom conversations. They know how to do this with each other before I get to have conversations with them. This is a huge benefit for me, and I don’t have to work very hard to create the right conditions for discussions.
Approximately once per month starting in October (I think it was the first Thursday of the month or something), I chose a lesson from the URC. The night before our discussion days, I asked students to do three things:
- Go through the journal entry from last time. (This is a private, on-their-honor thing they do. I never look at it.)
- Go through two sources of information: one particular resource (read an article, listen to podcast, watch a TED talk, etc.) and another from a list.
- Take an anonymous survey about the topic at hand. Each student has picked an anonymous nickname, so I can track particular students’ ideas over time, but I have no idea who it is.
During class, we often start with small groups to discuss the second resource, and I’ll ask for connections to the required material or how it relates to science in general. And then conversations take off on their own. After class, I ask them to complete a journal entry and/or debrief with friends.
After a number of URC lessons around objectivity/subjectivity, racism in STEM, identity, and so on, students want to do something. Actions don’t have to be large and impressive things that make the news: they should have a purpose and a positive impact on somebody. I ask that they create and complete a project that improves something at school and give them two long days in class to complete this work. Their ideas range from creating lists of books for the librarian to get with grant money, to creating coloring books of scientists, to making informational posters about autism, to lists of free events for teens and the bus routes to get there, to lesson plans about LGBTQ+ history for our school mentoring program, to moving the disposable utensils and napkins in the cafeteria so that less waste is generated.
The benefits of doing the URC (or any discussions regarding social affects/effects in science classes) this way, in my opinion, are that it removes the confines of a 1-2 week block of URC lessons. The last thing I want students to say is, “oh gee, the week is done! No more of that!” While URC lessons aren’t generally associated with chemistry content, having the conversations refreshed on a monthly basis means they never really go away, and students bring up ideas about equity throughout the school year. A number of students have gone on to use these ideas for papers and AP Capstone theses.
I’ve been really pleased with how much my students have engaged in this material. My end-of-year surveys always have high marks of approval for the social justice materials. Of course, not every student is interested (and that can go for any class material in some ways), but by making this a part of their own world of school and community, I hope that they can see the power they have in not only producing small changes, but in small ways that they can affect change for the benefit of others who may not have their power (or may not have realized their power yet).
Last year, my school was online for much of the year, and then was split into online/in-person for the remainder of the year. Fewer students engaged in our conversations (it’s hard to have conversations with a bunch of blank non-camera boxes). However, the end-of-year surveys still reflected their interest in the topics we covered, and a request for more information. While it was really challenging for me to stay with it during the year, not hearing the usual banter and questioning, it was really nice to get the acknowledgement that students still saw the value in having the conversations.
I’ll be continuing the conversations this year.