Draw a Scientist 2014

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One of the primary  goals that I have for my second graders in rural Maine is to become more aware of the world around them. As someone who is interested in social justice, I also aspire to have them recognize injustices and to envision a different world than the one that we currently inhabit.

I try to educate my second graders about stereotypes throughout the duration of the school year. The first lesson that I do on this topic coincides with our study of science beginning in earnest. Prior to beginning our first science project, I ask my students to pause and to picture what they think a scientist looks like and does in their heads. I then ask them to draw that image and collect and display their images in a “scientist gallery” for everyone to see.

Once the images are hanging, we have a discussion about what we notice about our images — how they are similar to and how they might be different from one another. This leads into a discussion about how the stereotyped image of a scientist — of a crazy-haired, older male chemist is, in fact, just one narrow version of what scientists actually do.

This is the second time that I’ve done this lesson and I was pleased when I saw that this year’s bunch had much less stereotyped versions of scientists, at least around gender. In a class with more boys than girls, there were 7 pictures featuring female scientists and 7 pictures with male scientists. This was significantly different than last year, when only my drawing and two others featured females, even in a class heavily dominated by girls.

In terms of what the scientists were doing, however, “potions” continues to rule the day. My students had 9 scientists using potions and 6 doing “something else,” with some of those something elses being awfully close to the lab scientist image. Hopefully we will expand on these notions of “what scientists do” by the end of the year.

I follow up this activity by reading aloud “Me…Jane” by Patrick McDonnell. The students are always captivated by this charming text and it really helps to affirm that stereotypes are narrow and often limit our thinking about what the possibilities are for ourselves and those around us.

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School in the Summer?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ll be working at an Upward Bound program in Maine for the next six weeks. If you want to learn more about Upward Bound, here’s a link to the official government site about it. (http://www2.ed.gov/programs/trioupbound/index.html). And this is my program: http://www2.umf.maine.edu/upwardbound/. Essentially, my summer program is designed to giving rising sophomores, juniors, seniors, and college freshmen an academic boost heading into the next school year and to help connect them to resources and people who can support them in their efforts to become first generation college students.

My role in the program is primarily as an English teacher. I teach four sections of students (the rising sophomores and juniors) three times each week. In addition to my classroom responsibilities, I am also in charge of an “advisory group” — a small group of students that functions as sort of a “family” while we’re here, am involved in evening study sessions and “free time,” get to plan and organize activities for evening events, and live in the dorm on the girls’ floor. The amount of time that I can spend interacting with these adolescents over the next six weeks is truly boundless!

We started our classes on Monday and I was feeling quite nervous about making the transition from teaching second graders to teaching high schoolers. But, so far, things have been wonderful! The depth of our discussions and their engagement in my English class has been unbelievable so far. It is blissful to not have all of the (charming) interruptions of the younger set and to be able get through everything that I have planned without getting sidetracked by behavior or other issues. I’m sort of spoiled, because these students applied to be here and are highly motivated, but it is just so fantastic to work with them. They talk with me about what we’re doing in class in the lunch line (really!) and are thinking hard about the issues that we’re discussing around the media and technology — even outside of class. It’s been really invigorating — even more so than I could have possibly imagined!

While I’m loving the program and feeling great about being part of such a grand vision for supporting these students who will really benefit from the hard work all of the staff is doing, I can’t help thinking from time to time about how there were students who applied to be here who didn’t get accepted. I hate that programs that do such good can’t take on all students. Everyone who wants an opportunity to pursue an education ought to have that chance — it really frustrates me that the deck is stacked against so many students and that for each student who does get to engage with a program like Upward Bound, there are others who get left behind. I’m trying hard to stay upbeat and focus on doing everything that I can for the wonderful students who are here, but I can’t help but think about the other kids at their schools who were not as fortunate as they were in the application process.

Of course, it’s not the job of one program to solve all of the problems relating to inequality of educational opportunity, but I think it’s worth thinking about what we, as educators and citizens, might do to help make sure that no one falls through the cracks, that all students get a chance to feel like they can realize their dreams and live the life that they’ve imagined. It’s something I know that I’ll keep thinking about in the weeks ahead, while I spend time with students that may not appear to be obvious college-material on paper, but who are flourishing in the rich environment here at Upward Bound.

Open Minds to Equality

I’ve always loved Rethinking Schools, so I figured that one of their two publications on my reading list would be a good place to start my education reading this year. After devouring Open Minds to Equality this week, I think that I may have already found the most useful book that I will read from my list.

If you are remotely interested in social justice education in the elementary grades, I advise you to go buy this book right away. I cannot believe that it has been sitting on my bookshelf for two years and I’d never so much as opened it. If there was one book that I regret not reading before I started my first year teaching, this is it.

I became passionate about and did a lot of research and reading around social justice education while I was in college and in graduate school. The trouble with many of the excellent publications around social justice education (some of which I will also be reading this year) is that they are often very theoretical or focus on implementing these ideas at a secondary or college level. Open Minds to Equality opens with two quick chapters summarizing why social justice education is worthy of pursuit and then follows with 9 chapters full of brilliant activities for having elementary students explore many different dimensions of discrimination. The chapters build upon one another in complexity and I could imagine my second graders being able to complete many of the lessons with some minor modifications. (The ideal grade range for these lessons is probably 4-6).

I’ve already begun a list of activities from this book that I hope to incorporate this year, but I think that the foundational activities for building trust and classroom community will really set the tone for my classroom next year. (Again, that sense of regret that I didn’t read this book sooner!) Many of the lessons would map well onto any curriculum already in place in an elementary classroom — I know that I found many lessons that will help to amplify the critical lenses that my students bring to my advertising unit and there are several activities about calendars that I plan to use during my holidays unit next year. I also appreciated that many of these ideas could be applied to any content that a teacher might have to cover.

Another excellent feature is the extensive resource section in this book. I have been quite frustrated with my efforts to find non-biased books for my classroom and have worked hard to piece together many of the brief lists that seem to be out there for specific topics. Open Minds to Equality has a lengthy bibliography of fiction, nonfiction, and media resources for supplementing these lessons but which I will also use to continue to build a diverse classroom library.

I feel as though all this praise makes it sound like I’m trying to sell the book to you all — I only wish that I had some affiliation with Rethinking Schools. In the midst of a rough January in my classroom, this book has left me feeling inspired not only about the things that I will put into place next year, but about the lessons that I can use right now to rejuvenate my students and to deepen the sense of trust and community in my classroom.

I think that I’ll end this review here. Next up on my book list — the classic Real Boys by William Pollack, which will likely only inspire me to use the countering-sexism lessons I found and flagged in Open Minds to Equality!

Biographies: Tackling Science and Gender Stereotypes

I began my lesson on Thursday afternoon by having my paper passers hand out a piece of “one-side good” paper to each of their peers. I invited my students to close their eyes and to picture a scientist in their minds. Once they had an image in their heads, I asked them to translate their vision into a drawing. My students diligently worked on this task and as they finished, I had them use a magnet to hang their drawing on our white board. The ending result was a “scientist gallery.”

My second graders' scientist gallery.
My second graders’ scientist gallery.

Once everyone had a chance to contribute our scientist gallery, I asked my students to take a few minutes to think about what was similar and what was different about the drawings that they had produced. My students commented that they all looked slightly different, but that most of them were in a lab working with “potions” and that they were doing science inside. Once students discussed their observations, I had them brainstorm and contribute to a T-chart about who scientists are and what they do.

scientistchart
Our scientist T-chart.

I used their comments as an opportunity to introduce the word and concept of a “stereotype.” Prior to this lesson, I expected us to debunk the stereotypes that scientists are mostly men and that scientists all work in a lab. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the majority of the girls in the class actually drew female scientists! (Apparently this stereotype either hadn’t trickled down to them just yet or — just maybe — they won’t fall prey to it. I’m curious to ask them about math now…) After we briefly covered the concept of a stereotype (this was just an initial exposure to a concept that we’ll return to again and again this year), I had students brainstorm other places where scientists might work and what materials they might work with other than “potions.”

This lesson provided a segway into one of my favorite biographies Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell. This particular text highlights several of the key themes of my biography unit — all famous people were once children not unlike my students and that childhood dreams and habits can shape who we become.

More About My Biography Unit:
As I mentioned earlier, my first thematic unit of study has been about biographies. The emphasis in this unit has been on students feeling inspired by remarkable individuals; realizing that they, too, can become someone important; and getting to know one another. I’ve also woven in math and history topics related to schedules, telling time, and dates in history.

We began our unit with a KWL chart – my second graders came up with some great questions about biographies.

biowanttoknowI used the questions that the students brainstormed to shape the discussions that we had during subsequent read-alouds and guided reading sessions. We have had some quality discussions about the types of illustrations included in biographies and the methods biographers use to conduct research about their subjects.

I’ve been really pleased with how interested the students are in biographies and autobiographies — it’s been a really accessible jumping-off point for introducing students to some of the key features of nonfiction texts. My students have made extensive use of timelines (including adding key dates to our classroom timeline from their own lives), glossaries, and author’s notes.

Here’s a list of some of the texts we’ve explored during the unit:

We’re wrapping up our unit this week with the students completing and sharing their own autobiographies, revisiting and answering some of our initial questions about autobiographies, and thinking about things they might do to bring their own passions and goals to fruition.

This unit has been a great way to get our year rolling because it’s given me ample opportunity to expose students to some of the issues that we will be exploring throughout the year, including race, heritage/ethnicity, gender, and social justice and diversity more broadly. It’s also given me a chance to start pushing them to think beyond their small rural community — and its largely homogenous population — to the broader world in which they will one day be (and already are) citizens.