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Project SERVE: What can teachers do about inequity?

Project SERVE: What can teachers do about inequity?

Education is the Most Powerful Weapon

For years, teachers have strived to bring fair and just practices to their classrooms. Many have worked to provide equal opportunities for all students, but is equality the correct goal? Over the past few months, I have heard more and more people expressing how providing students with equal resources does not mean that they will have equal outcomes. Unfortunately, we live in a world filled with racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and countless other prejudices that put many people at a disadvantage from the second they are born. Providing the same resources to someone who is privileged as to those who have been at a disadvantage their whole life will not produce the same outcomes. Instead of focusing solely on equality by giving students exactly the same supports, teachers need to focus on equity by providing students with what they need to succeed.

Since I am currently in school to become a teacher, I am constantly bombarded with information about what should be important in my classroom. Sometimes it just seems easier to put equity on a back burner. But equity should be at the forefront of every single conversation I have about education. It should be a teacher’s number one priority to give every student the individualized support that they need to succeed. So, we should shift from talking about whether we should work for equity to discussing how we will achieve that goal.

I had the opportunity to attend a recent seminar hosted by Noyce Project SERVE titled, “Overcoming Inequity in the STEM Classroom”. At this meeting, we heard from panelists Josh Males (K-12 Math Curriculum Specialist at Lincoln Public Schools), Dr. Sharmin Sikich (Associate Professor of Chemistry at Doane University), and Emmeline Watson (Visiting Assistant Professor of Math & Engineering Mathematics at Doane University) about their opinions on how to increase equity in our classrooms. Each of them gave some wonderful insights on this, and I will highlight some of the significant points they made.

One of the first topics that the panelists spoke about was their vision for the ideal STEM classroom. Dr. Sikich and Professor Watson both talked about the importance of students not being scared to ask questions or share their ideas. Many students, especially young girls of color, are afraid of making mistakes, so they choose not to speak up at all in their classrooms. These students already believe at an early age that their answers do not matter, and they cannot succeed academically.  All students need to be told and shown that their voice is important and that making mistakes is ok and part of the learning process. We need to create a classroom environment that supports and encourages the diverse student population in our schools today.

We then heard from the panelists about who is really affected by inequities in education and how detrimental this can be. Emmeline drew from her own experiences of speaking English as a second language to share how difficult it is to navigate the educational system in a country set up only for English speakers. Almost everything in this country is written and spoken only in English. Even on websites with the option to translate to alternate languages, you need to know English to find where those translations are available. This makes it very difficult for students who are learning English to succeed when there are so many barriers to their success.

Mr. Males also shared some very insightful thoughts on how harmful inequity in classrooms can be. He stated that if students have too many barriers in school, they will not feel like they are welcome. They will feel ostracized and isolated from the rest of the students who do not have those same barriers. Since school is such an integral part of our society, they will in turn not feel welcomed in society. This is an unfortunate but very real truth in our country and is yet another reason teachers need to work to overcome inequity in the classroom.

To overcome inequity in our classrooms, we must be able to recognize it. Each of the panelists shared some specific examples of how they have seen injustice in their own classrooms. Sharmin shared about how many students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds simply do not have access to the same supplies because their families cannot afford them. She also raised the issue of focusing on a “token minority” in predominately white schools. Dr. Sikich indicated the negative impact of isolating these students, as they are constantly in the limelight due to their race. Emmeline brought up the inequity of treating students differently because of the ways they dress. Members of different cultures and races often dress in diverse ways, yet schools typically expect students to conform to the norms of white culture. Before deeming an outfit a “distraction”, we need to consider that students should be able to express themselves appropriately through their choice of wardrobe. Finally, Josh talked about how in-class questions are distributed to students. Too often, only the white male students are given the high-quality questions while the students of color and girls are asked simple questions that do not encourage them to think critically.

But what can we honestly do about these inequities in the classroom? Emmeline, Sharmin, and Josh provided nine concrete ideas for how we can reduce inequity in our own classrooms:

  1. Increase wait time for questions. This gives more opportunity for students who may be less confident or need more time for processing in order to answer questions.
  2. Offer retakes for exams. The goal of teaching is for students to learn and improve.  Allowing exam retakes highlights this goal by enabling students to demonstrate their learning whenever that takes place. This is especially important in STEM because so many topics build on each other.  So, students must acquire foundational knowledge of the topic before moving onto the next one.
  3. Use mastery-based grading. This method goes along with offering exam retakes because it focuses on student learning rather than grades.
  4. Do hands-on activities. Students who may not do as well in typical academic settings often flourish when given more tangible and authentic activities to perform.
  5. Listen when students ask for help. This point may seem pretty obvious, but it is vital. We need to reinforce the idea that asking questions is ok and that teachers are here to help.
  6. Celebrate learning milestones. Students need to be aware of what they have learned so that they can be proud of themselves. When we highlight what the students have learned during a class, this can boost their self-confidence.
  7. Engage students in local issues. This can be impactful for every student, but especially for minorities. Since many minorities do not feel welcomed by the dominant culture, involving them in something that connects them to their own community can produce positive and meaningful learning experiences.
  8. Be critical of classroom procedures and norms. Most of the inequity that happens in our schools is not done with ill-intent by the teachers.  Instead, unjust practices are often perpetuated because the teacher did not consider that a classroom norm was unfair to a sub-set of their students. We need to be critical of how we structure our classrooms, manage behavior, and teach content to ensure the same outcomes for all of our students.
  9. Be self-reflective. We need to continually think about our own biases and how they are affecting our classroom. We may unconsciously be fueled by prejudices that we did not even know that we had.

Schools have a long way to go before they are free of injustice.  The recent Noyce Project SERVE seminar has provided some concrete steps that we can take to move closer to justice in our classrooms. The nine tangible suggestions provided by the seminar panelists provide a good place to start. Educators need to continue actively working to end inequity in schools and in our whole society. While teachers may not be able to end racism and bigotry on their own, I am confident that we will do our part to make our students feel valued and respected for their diversity and unique contributions.  This will undoubtedly make a difference in our country.

Naomi Kirkvold (’21) is a Noyce scholar in the Doane University Fast Track Teacher Preparation program.  Upon completing her teacher certification, she plans to teach science in a high-need secondary school.