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Flow in My DNA

Culturally Affirming Assessments of an Inheritance and Traits Unit Through Genetic Raps

What makes me me . . .

By Muz

What makes me me is my dad’s death
More notably the breakdown of his cells in a grave
But he still lives in me half of him
Is me his big forehead especially


My mom makes me me her temper seen in
Me her pride hope and joy all in me
But not gently but this is how she 
Raises me

Music makes me me sitting in my
Room alone letting the beats and melody
Cruising through each cell of my body
Almost like it’s connected to me like
It’s part of my DNA

Yes, DNA makes me me it changes me
Made me different put me through struggle
Of a small mutation maybe a G that
Meant to be a T but it still made me

My friends make me me more like
Blood like a cell needs a nucleus and 
DNA I need them to make it through
My day

Most important my name makes me
Those 7 words strung together to
Make a legacy almost like a song
When you say it. A pass down almost
As important as DNA and that is what made me

It is quiet for a beat after Muz stops reading. The moment could quickly pass unrecognized for what it is—a reclaiming of identity and a sophisticated display of her genetic knowledge. Then there are snaps, smiles, and shout-outs in her group: “G meant to be a T?! That’s sooooo good!” Readjusting in her chair, Muz confirms that this is about a switch in her base pairs, about albinism, about her whiteness among her Black family. The group sits in her story.

Muz, and her peers, have just concluded the first ninth-grade biology unit of the school year by reading raps they wrote to demonstrate their learning about inheritance, traits, and identity. Starting the year with this was intentional. We did not want our students’ first experience to be another biology unit that stopped short of naming and addressing issues of racism in science—developing credibility from a position of care was our priority. If we skirted or neglected the violent history of racism in/through the study of genetics, how could we claim to teach from a position of culturally relevant caring (Gay 2010)? We wanted to make our care for and allegiance to our Black and Brown students known from the start. Furthermore, we knew that teaching race as a societal construct, rather than a biological one, does little to disrupt racism. It is an approach that leaves students unprepared to be “Biological Antiracists” because their arsenals will still lack the scientific knowledge helpful for refuting racism and dismantling its influence (Kendi 2019). To effectively care for students of color, science teachers must give space for students to grapple with and speak back to notions that science and society are not raced concepts.

Furthermore, while drawing on storytelling and artistic expression is rare in science education, these modes helped us center what really mattered—our Black students’ personal experiences and authentic connections to genetics and inheritance. By forgoing traditional assessments that reinforce white standards of knowing and being (tests, formulaic lab write-ups, etc.) (Syverson 2009; Bang et al. 2017; Trumbull and Nelson-Barber 2019) and aim for quantity over depth of understanding (Cintron, Wadlington, and ChenFeng 2021), we refuted cultivating uncritical lab geneticists. Doing this freed us to set a much loftier and more important goal: legitimize students’ reasoning and communication about inheritance and traits ideas, including how these have deep social and scientific implications.

A quick overview of the unit

Over four weeks we challenged students to investigate dimensions of their identity through studying genes, meiosis, skin tone, mutations, phenotypes, the human genome, differences between ethnic populations, etc. Lessons were designed to teach canonical ideas about genetics but also to better prepare students to question and dismantle racism. For example, students learned how natural selection and genetics were influenced by pseudoscientific claims used to defend discrimination, which were then woven within societal systems that still exist today. Midway through the unit we pivoted toward liberatory science and studied current organizations and individuals who leverage scientific knowledge and expertise to combat systemic racism.

By the end of the unit our students were bursting at the seams to process their learning and tell the truths of who they are, not just truths assigned by science that often ignore their humanness (e.g., diabetes, asthma rates, body types). In response, we named the space they seemed to crave and framed our next steps by saying “because of this, we are doing something very different than a typical test or project—you will be processing your own learning, thinking and life through raps or spoken word.”

Preparing students to write

This would be our students’ first encounter writing science raps and, adding to the challenge, they had been tasked with integrating science content with their personal histories and futures. To support this, each step would need to be thoughtfully scaffolded.

The 90-minute lesson began with the class brainstorming vocabulary words, scientific processes, scientists, or other ideas from the unit. With the low stakes of a brainstorm, ideas flowed freely: “Meiosis and Mitosis!” “Gel electrophoresis.” “Proteins and amino acids.” “Alleles and phenotypes.” “DNA.” “Phenotypes and genotypes!” “Probability.” “Rosalind Franklin. Henrietta Lacks.” Soon the board was brimming with content—a resource they would later reference to generate new ideas.

Next, students collaboratively recorded connections between the content and their own personal histories and futures. This short activity grew from our realization during lessons earlier in the unit that students needed more robust opportunities to critique how science and society intersect to impact our identities and lives. So, prior to class, we hung seven large poster papers around the room, each titled with a different sentence stem to elicit these types of connections. In three-minute increments, students rotated around the room discussing and recording their additions to the starters. After the last rotation, we sat surrounded by shockingly honest and pointed critiques of science and society and the influence on our students’ identities.

Kiara: Society has taught us that… we need to look like Instagram girls.

Jacob: Science has made history by… lying about my people’s brain size and intelligence.

Ignacio: Science has told me that… I am not good at it.

Ayana: Science should rewrite history by… showing how people are equal, even if they look different.

Biruk: Science can… free innocent people from jail.

Tyriek: What makes me me… is football, music, and my baby brother.

Hana: Science has taught us that… men are stronger and faster than women.

Isaiah: Society has told me that… I am a troublemaker because I am Black.

Pop culture examples, modeling vulnerability, and assignment expectations

To transition, we told our classes that we appreciated their thoughtful and honest responses. We tried to make it clear that “our world needs more of this!” and that our classrooms were spaces to openly discuss these challenges. We then showcased creative examples of similar critiques by artists who weave science into songs (e.g., Kendrick Lamar’s rap DNA) and together dissected the liberating messages of identity justice these carried.

Figure 1
Dissecting Kendrick Lamar’s DNA.

Dissecting Kendrick Lamar’s DNA.

Next, we took a cue from San Pedro (2017) and modeled being vulnerable by nervously sharing raps we had written the night before. Our transparency was met with snaps and cheers. The students’ appreciation of our risk-taking and humanness was palpable as they asked clarifying questions. From this we learned that as science educators move toward critiquing science and ask students to connect learning to their personal histories and futures, we need to consider

  • whether we have earned this vulnerability from them;
  • if these asks are fair and just in themselves;
  • what we do with what they share; and
  • our responsibility to be brave, honest, and vulnerable back, if not first.

Following our rap examples, we shared and negotiated assignment expectations (Figure 2). We made it clear that any format was welcome—raps, picture poetry, haikus, mashups of songs, or simply filling in a blank template we had created with stanza starters borrowed from the previous activity. Of course, students wanted to know how this would be graded. Would we (their teachers) permit the raps to hold as much weight and importance as a test? How serious were we about validating their sensemaking and experiences? To be honest, although we wanted to transition away from traditional assessments in inheritance, traits, and genetics units, we were unsure how to recognize students’ connections and brilliance without giving all students full credit for whatever they choose to produce and share. However, we worried that this would send messages of low expectations and that the raps would fall short of the powerful critiques and connections we hoped would surface.

Figure 2
Figure 2 PowerPoint slide directions.

PowerPoint slide directions.

We addressed these concerns by presenting students with a reflection sheet they would complete to help readers unpack the significance of their words (similar to how we had analyzed Kendrick Lamar’s rap) and a rubric draft. The reflection sheet was straightforward, but the rubric required finalizing. To do this, the class discussed changes or additions with their table groups, and ideas shared were then adopted using a consensus hand-raising protocol.

Co-constructing the rubric seemed to increase student buy-in and students insisted on setting performance and audience norms before they began writing—in hindsight, it is clear they wanted validation that their work would be taken seriously and respected. For example, snapping during reading was class-approved but other sounds/comments needed to wait until the end. Other rules ensured that power lay with the presenter—it was the presenter who would decide to stand or sit when sharing. The presenter would also decide to take questions afterward or not, and ultimately, the presenter would decide who to share their writing with or to not share at all. Granting presenters this authority, and space to back out, may sound like a case of low expectations, but this was not so. Removing the presentation requirement seemed to lead to greater risk-taking; while counter-intuitive, this carries logic because who wants to be vulnerable and share personal stories, histories, and futures with peers who have not earned this knowledge? What students share and with whom is a right we need to respect through assignment expectations, and by allowing students to protect their personal and artistic privacy, many students will elect to share more because they are less concerned about peer judgement or critique.

Time to write!

As we launched writing time, we gave a final reminder that their raps would replace a test, so they needed to show us what they had learned, were questioning, wanted to know, or wanted to change about biology and society.

Students quickly dispersed from their desks to get privacy and space to think. Some used rhyming generators on their phones or listened to music as they worked but everyone was asked to stay quiet until one of the two stretch-n-share breaks. During work time, students also quietly moved around the room gathering ideas as they referenced the brainstorm list posted on the whiteboard, the sentence starter posters, or their lab notebooks. Our goal was to create a supportive writer’s oasis.

We also encouraged students who prefer to think aloud, or benefit from writing support, to find a spot in the hallway and quietly audio record ideas on their phone and then transcribe their words. Using this strategy, Tyvon, a student with an IEP in communication and writing, surfaced as one of our most skilled rappers. He wove together unit concepts in unexpected and sophisticated ways that spoke to his unique identity.

Other students sought permission to take artistic liberties. Jessica asked, “Can I talk about what it is like to be African Black? It is different in some ways, like how I talk and my family traditions, but it is the same too—like the base pairs for skin tone.” Similarly, Kai made the task about weaving his first language (Hawaiian) between ideas about the genotypes and phenotypes proudly shared with family members.

Taking the classroom stage

With raps written, some students were eager to share. Self-congregating in groups of about eight, nearly all students elected to present their work. Balquisa opened her rap by drawing on the intersect between her religion and phenotypes:

My brown hair, brown eyes make me, me.
This hijab on my head,
these glasses on my face,
these shoes on my feet makes me, me.
Don’t you see?

Others, like Damian, alluded to activities we had done and how science could set the world aright:

There has been a crime
We have a suspect cell
So let’s make the agar gel
The criminal is now in jail, doing his time
We practice science
So we don’t make mistakes
We don’t want to repeat history issues

Ani stunned listeners by opening up about being adopted and what it means for her to know herself. Like others, she received an explosion of gratitude and awe—her rap was brilliant.

I never knew my real mama
Nor if I had a poppa
I liked to think I had a brother
Make me go crying to my mother
Then I learned of my genes
And learned what all this means
Maybe why I cry in a movie like Moana
And hold on to phrases, “Ohana”
Why I don’t like chocolate
I can keep secrets put it in a box lock it
Evidence schmevidence
Who needs it?
I hate matches, I watch it be lit
I learned poker from Oceans 11, give me a hit
Can’t put this on a bar graph
my smile, my wickedness. My laugh
I all chromosomes but so much more
I like standing on beaches watching the waves crash the shore
Stock marketing, politics are a bore
Flesh. blood
Loyalty. love
Science that.

Notice how Ani was able to participate although she doesn’t have a shared history with her biological parents. The inherent freedom of this assignment meant that she was able to meaningfully engage with the inheritance content at a personal level but also on her own terms. This contrasts with most inheritance and traits units that place more constrained assignments like family trees or individualized Punnett Squares on pedestals as ways to make learning more personal. However, these are problematic and not culturally relevant. For students without a shared history with their biological parents, who are in strained relationships with relatives, or have a lineage saturated in shame or pain, these tasks are charged with negativity and harm. Our students need us to rethink what it means to teach genetics in culturally affirming and caring ways.

Lessons learned

By listening to our students, we were reminded of how important it is to couple learning about one’s biological self with one’s human selves. Moving forward, we must recognize that words and personal stories in science have immense power to affirm diverse identities and begin healing scientific spaces that have been traditionally inhabited by systems of oppression. Furthermore, we need to mindfully construct activities to support students in exploring their own identities and mark on this world. ■

Online connections

Table 1. Big Ideas and Activities: https://bit.ly/37ePkdv

Figure 3. Genetic rap reflection sheet and rubric: https://bit.ly/3Nvl3Yn


Kelsie Fowler (knp7@uw.edu) and Saraswati Noel are PhD students and instructors in the Teacher Education Program at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

References

Bang, M., B. Brown, A. Calabrese Barton, A. Rosebery, and B. Warren. 2017. Toward more equitable learning in science. In Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices, eds. C.V. Schwarz, C. Passmore, and B.J. Reiser, 33–58. Arlington, VA: NSTA.

Cintron, S.M., D. Wadlington, and A. ChenFeng. 2021. A pathway to equitable math instruction: Dismantling racism in mathematics instruction. Stride.

Gay, G. 2010. Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Kendi, I.X. 2019. How to be an antiracist. New York, NY: One World.

San Pedro, T. 2017. “This stuff interests me”: Re-centering indigenous paradigms in colonizing schooling spaces. In Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies, eds. D. Paris and S. Alim, 61–82. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Syverson, M. 2009. Social Justice and Evidence-Based Assessment with the Learning Record. Forum on Public Policy Online. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ864839.pdf

Trumball, E., and S. Nelson-Barber. 2019. The ongoing quest for culturally-responsive assessment for Indigenous students in the U.S. Frontiers in Education, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2019.00040.

Biology Equity Inclusion Interdisciplinary Teaching Strategies High School

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