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Incorporating Anti-Racism in Elementary Science

By Brandon Davis and Dr. Terra Tiller Smith

Posted on 2020-10-29

You might ask, “What is the appropriate age to expose science students to anti-racism? How do I accomplish this in the classroom?” Simply questioning mainstream viewpoints broaches (or provides multiple entry points to) teaching anti-racism curricula. This is not just relevant for students of color, but also for all students. Our students value and model our behavior as educators. If taught mindfully and given the right tools, students will voice their stance on issues that impact their communities and become powerful community allies.

Anti-racist teaching must be part of students’ everyday experience in the classroom, not only during racial change movements or Black History Month, and whether teaching face-to-face or virtually. This includes exposure to diverse and inclusive instructional resources that encourage students of color to explore the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Anti-racist teaching must be embedded into our daily routines and practices.

Creating norms in our science classroom is essential in creating a respectful and equitable learning community. Students truly want to drive their conversations and classwork. As educators, we need to create a framework to allow students to effectively understand the importance of asking questions, understanding the impact of race in their community, and exploring their identity. We need to create opportunities for students’ questions around a phenomenon or problem to drive the learning. Their questions might lead to uncomfortable conversations, and that is absolutely okay. This model of culturally responsive teaching enables students to learn from one another and promotes equitable decision-making skills in the real world.

Anti-Racist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi is a useful tool to facilitate social justice conversations for all ages. Statements in his book provide space for students to question racial norms in a powerful way. For example, he writes, “1. Open your eyes to all skin colors. Anti-racist Baby learns all the colors, not because race is true. If you claim to be color-blind, you deny what’s right in front of you.”

Using this as a thinking stem or circle conversation norm will provide a safe space for understanding race in their community. In a classroom, students can use this statement to discuss and understand how communities experience scientific phenomena through the lens of race. For example, “When I opened my eyes to all skin colors, I noticed that black people were more/less affected by Hurricane Katrina compared with white people because ______.

Feeling uncomfortable or challenged is crucial because it helps students engage and explore their growing identities. We don’t want to force students to participate, but allow them to grow into this routine as it gradually becomes the classroom norm.

Elementary science can often be subjected to reduced instructional time. In my classroom, I chose science trade books for my students to read during ELA instructional time. This supported learning in science and addressed diversity and inclusion.

It is important to remember that increasing diversity and inclusion within the classroom should not be viewed as a single event, but as an integral part of instruction in each unit of study. For example, during a unit on space exploration, instead of focusing on the well-known astronauts, use the book Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. This book provides a strong example of the limitless possibilities for students of color, despite both systemic racism and discrimination against women. Integrating science and literacy can be seamless and can support diversity, equity, and inclusion within student learning experiences.

It is important for students in all demographics to engage with diverse and inclusive instructional resources that incorporate the contributions of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers from varied backgrounds, and this should be done year-round. We need to intentionally map out our curriculum and note places where there is a lack of diversity and inclusion within the instructional resources used. It is critical for students of color to see scientists who resemble them and share a similar cultural background. This gives students concrete examples of careers they can pursue. It also provides real-life examples of what type of impact they could have on a national or global scale in the field of science. We see tremendous value in providing year-long exposure to diverse and inclusive instructional resources that encourages students of color to explore the STEM fields.

You can ensure your instructional plans contain diverse and inclusive instructional resources and strategies by asking the following questions:

  1. Can I locate diverse voices, historical figures, and representations from different cultural backgrounds in my curriculum and instructional resources?
  2. Do the instructional practices and strategies support students of all backgrounds and allow for access to learning and student voice?
  3. When was the curriculum last updated, and what ways should I supplement it to account for areas needing reinforcement?
  4. Whom do I need to engage with about expanding the science curriculum and instructional resources to be more diverse and inclusive?
  5. What opportunities do I have this year to advocate for a more diverse and inclusive science curriculum?

The answers to these questions will help you determine if there is a need to supplement the instructional resources or instructional strategies to create a diverse, inclusive, and equitable learning environment for all students. It is also important to determine what long-term steps you can take to be involved in district- or campus-wide updates to curriculum and instruction. To ensure that diversity and inclusion remain important to all stakeholders, you will need to continually advocate for it. Take action and stay the course so that you can be a part of the long-term solution in creating learning environments that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable for all students.


Brandon Davis

Brandon Davis, an elementary science specialist with the New York City Department of Education at P.S. 142, creates and implements K–5 social justice practices in the science curriculum. By having students recognize the ways that climate change directly affects their local ecosystem and community, he actively engages them in environmental justice and sustainability. He is passionate about science and environmental equity and consistently collaborates with other educators to improve students’ educational experience. Davis earned a B.Ed in elementary education at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and an MA in Labor Studies at The City University of New York.

Dr. Terra Tiller Smith

Dr. Terra Tiller Smith is an experienced public school educator (grades PreK–12) and professional learning facilitator for educators. Smith’s online programs are focused on transforming educators and parents in implementing student-centered strategies to support homeschool/virtual learning and cultivating children’s mindsets to support diversity, inclusion, and equity. Smith earned her Bachelor of Arts in History and Master of Arts from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Smith earned her Doctorate in Education from the University of Houston.

Note: This article is featured in the October 2020 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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