Where do you teach? What do you teach? How long have you taught? Describe the school, the student population, the school’s resources and anything else that makes it a great place to teach.
I teach at Hazlehurst High School in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. This is my second year at the high school, and I teach three classes: Chemistry, Physical Science, and AP Environmental Studies. Prior to this I taught six years at Crystal Springs Middle School (8th and 5th). Hazlehurst High School is a Title I school (actually, we are a Title I district), having 100% free lunch. Our district consists of three schools, and we would be considered a rural district. Our school (and city) is predominantly African American, and there is an emerging Latin immigrant population. We have students from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other such places. Some of them are native to Mississippi, and others are new immigrants. Like most small towns, we rely heavily on state and federal funds.
I love teaching at Hazlehurst because of the small town. I see my students and their parents at the grocery store, and several of them live within a mile of my home. I have students with whom I go to church. I am from Denver where I attended school and taught in a much larger district, where you were unlikely to know people outside of your immediate area, and even more unlikely to teach in your neighborhood school. Hazlehurst has extremely intelligent students, who are open to experiential learning and academic challenges. The resources and opportunities are simply not available in this district.
What three things guided you in deciding to be a science teacher?
I never intended to become a teacher. It took some prodding from several high school teachers and administrators who thought that I was wasting my degree working at Target. I have a bachelors in Chemistry, and I minored in African American Studies. When I struggled to find a job in the industry, I moved back to Denver (from California) and took a job at Target.
Reason #1: I have a bachelor’s in chemistry, and my alma mater hired me as a tutor/sub. With my science background, they constantly put me in the math and science classrooms, and I realized how much I loved the content, the students, and the “aha moments.” Oddly, I worked as a chemistry TA, and worked with other e-board members from our undergraduate NSBE chapter (National Society of Black Engineers) to schedule and run peer tutoring sessions. We saw a good amount of improvement in members who came to our tutoring sessions. When I finally became a teacher, the only person surprised by my decision was me.
Reason #2: After some of the negative experiences that I’d had in science, I felt like it was my responsibility to give my students a much better experience. Black, White, Gay or otherwise… I felt like every student should at least leave my room feeling like science was something they “could do.” I had so many students walk away from tutoring or classes where I subbed, and they would say, “Ms. Wylie we were hoping you would be in our class today,” or “this MIGHT be the first time I’ve ever liked science.” I suppose after some of that positivity, I realized that I had found my niche.
Reason #3: Representation matters. I am a 36-year-old African American female who has a BS in chemistry, two master’s degrees, and two degrees in progress. My students need to see that academic success is a possibility. I wear my natural hair, and do so knowing that if my students think I’m cool, they’ll be more comfortable embracing themselves the way they are. And, they will at least be more open to careers in science. If Ms. Wylie can try it, it isn’t so bad. We come from the same financial and familial struggles, we have/had similar life experiences, we have/had/will make many of the same mistakes. Our hair is the same, our skin looks the same, we speak the same way. Students need to see people who look like them, doing something “different.” There is nothing more rewarding than hearing my students say, “I didn’t even know that was a thing. Then, I didn’t know it was a thing that I could do. Now I want to try it.”
You are really into scuba diving. How do you infuse it into your science teaching? What do you hope the students will gain from your experiences with the ocean, scuba diving, and being out in nature?
I just got my scuba certification in July. I intend to do a lot of planning over the next year to really bring it into the classroom. First, I am soaking up everything that I can about the science of scuba diving. There are concepts of density and buoyance, respiration, chemistry, atmospheric and water pressure, and marine life all tied into diving. As I make these connections, my plan is to develop culturally specific lesson plans, resources, and demonstration videos or labs that I can use in the classroom. I may have to use some of this in the programming that I put on through my non-profit organization STEMSouth, but there is a significant amount of conceptual understanding tied to scuba diving.
In addition, my plan is to develop a program where my students undergo scuba training, receive their certifications, and then feed into the Youth Diving with a Purpose (YDWP program). I’ve come across the resources to start small, with a snorkeling program. There are always backup plans, but I am confident that whether it be my students or participants at STEMSouth, the show will go on.
How do you define “culturally relevant pedagogy” and how does your teaching reflect it? Feel free to provide specific example(s) with students (just change the names of your students to protect their identities).
I’m not the biggest fan of the term “culturally relevant pedagogy.” Not because it is bad, but because so often we use it as another check box. It’s the educational equivalent of “diverse.” We tend to say it because it sounds good, and I have literally seen it as a box to check on lesson plans.
Gloria Ladson-Billings defines culturally relevant pedagogy as “a pedagogy of opposition.” It is a method of teaching wherein students learn to embrace their culture, become more rooted in critical consciousness. In short, it is simply good teaching. I use this teaching regularly.
Last year I had my students do a project where they had to build, yes build, an amusement park. Prior to building, they had to develop a complete business plan. Students were required to locate a site for purchase within this county, and explore environmental and building options that would not negatively affect the health and well-being of their community. When they insisted on moving their plans to other locations, I stressed the need for them to apply science in a way that helps their people, and their communities. As I put it, “When you take your knowledge and skills elsewhere, your people cannot benefit from it. How does this community ever become better if you don’t build it up?” We discussed issues of environmental racism, financial inequality, lack of employment and such. I wanted them to apply the science they were learning as a means of potentially solving these problems. While I do not believe that I did a sufficient job in incorporating cultural knowledge, I emphasized cultural and communal responsibility at each juncture. Their knowledge is their tool of resistance.
What do you think is the best approach to take when teaching students about their heritage, culture, and identities?
There is no “best approach.” But transparency is a great start. For white educators, I think the main thing is to not be afraid to dig deep. This means that some of your own attitudes, assumptions, and values might be challenged. In teaching students about their heritage, culture, and identities; a good educator is going to have to learn about their own. There is no need to “save students” from whatever imaginary deficits you perceive they have. Students can sniff this disingenuous attitude from a mile away. Teaching a unit in physics or engineering? Include work done by Benjamin Banneker. Teaching a unit on astronauts? Teach about Ed Dwight, one of the first African American men to undergo NASA astronaut training.
Don’t just mention that he existed, discuss his experience as a Black man, have students read his book. Can they relate to the challenges he experienced? So often when teachers undertake this task, we either romanticize history or teach children of color to be victims. Students should walk away from your class with a clear picture of the whole story. Ask them how they identify, who they are, and what they already know. Build on that foundation. Decolonize your teaching. If every author, resource, or text is written by White men, there is a lot missing from their educational experience.
If I could offer one universal suggestion to all educators attempting to teach students about these things, it is this: You, as the educator cannot give the student an identity, define their culture, or put their heritage in a box. Culturally relevant pedagogy extends beyond teaching students about themselves. Culturally relevant pedagogy is an academic journey wherein educators walk with students as they discover their history and humanity. Be a passenger on this journey, not the conductor of the train.
How do you build relationships with your students?
I used to strategically build relationships, and would start the school year with this frame of mind. Instead, I focus on establishing a safe space. We do not laugh at each other, I do not allow bullying, and offensive language is banned in my room. I encourage my students to correct me if I mispronounce their names; when I do so repeatedly I believe that I disrespect their personhood. Names and identity go hand in hand. I enjoy my content, and love my students. I laugh, tell jokes, smile, and regularly shout their names down the hallway with childlike excitement.
Further, I pay attention. I frequently check in with my students and if/when I notice behavior changes, I pull them to the side. It is my belief that as they get used to my personality, my genuineness shines through and they seek out relationships.
What project/lesson/lab are you most proud of that you implemented throughout your teaching career? Describe the most memorable lesson/project you use with your students.
I cannot say that I have a single item that I am most proud of. I think my challenge to build an amusement park last year blew my mind on so many levels. They complained, they struggled, they questioned, but in the end, they impressed even our district administration. With my younger students, they built roller coasters, so I simply added a layer of difficulty. Considering that we were virtual, their finished products touched me in a way that was unexpected.
Outside of seeing my students excitedly snapping “lab day” photos for their Instagram, perhaps my most memorable lesson is when I set my classroom up as a planetarium. I have done this almost every school year, and it is the experience that all of my students remember… even the ones who appear to never pay attention.
What resources, organizations, and technology do you regularly use to constantly upgrade your teaching? Do you have a specific learning experience you can describe?
Other than scuba diving? I attended the SEEC conference at the Houston Space Center, and it completely blew my mind. It inspired me to embrace more experiential and inquiry-based learning. Additionally, that experience eventually led to me applying for an internship with NASA. I have been interning there now for almost a full calendar year. Needless to say, I never forgot the things that I saw, learned, and experienced at SEEC.
To continually upgrade my teaching, I stay in school. I’m working on my M.A.T. in chemistry, and constantly read articles and materials written by other educators. I am a member of NSTA, ACS, and ASCD, and I try many of the activities I read on their websites or in their periodicals. I attend trainings throughout the summer, and have been partnered with a digital technology “coach” to help provide me with virtual lab resources and other such technology. I am a sponge. I believe that the best teachers are lifelong learners.
What has been the most important lesson you learned from one of your students during your teaching career?
During my first year of teaching, I decided that I wanted to brush up on my Spanish. I taught in a predominantly Spanish-speaking community, and could communicate only minimally with many of the students. I brought a Goosebumps books to school one day, and asked a student if she would sit with me and help me read the book. (I used to be good at Spanish, couldn’t be that difficult, right?) About halfway through the first paragraph she burst out in laughter. I felt mortified. There were other students in the room. Some laughed, others smirked, and many just stared in silence. I continued when she laughed again. This happened several times until finally I put the book away and said I was finished. “No, you don’t. Read, and read loud.” Upset, I asked her why she was laughing. I was really trying, and did not think it was funny. “Now you see how I feel when you make me read out loud.” It had never occurred to me that I needed to consider how my practices and behavior could hurt my students, even if I thought I was being helpful. I never forgot that lesson, I never forgot that moment, and I never forgot that student.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to first-year science teachers?
Teaching is about both forming and informing. I would advise first-year teachers to never shy away from “teachable” moments, even if it throws off your planned lessons. Do not teach the way you learned, teach the way they learn. Do what you tell your students to do… Ask questions, seek out help, and learn for the sake of learning.