My whole life, I’ve either been too white for some people, or too– Nakia, Ms. Marvel
ethnic for others. And it’s been this very uncomfortable, sucky in
Now, if you had told me a superhero television show is what would make my Tamil-Canadian identity feel validated, I probably would have laughed at you. But here I am quoting Ms. Marvel, because no better words perfectly encapsulate the dual identity experience. What’s groundbreaking about the new Marvel series is that it features the first ever female lead superhero who is of South Asian descent, specifically Pakistani American. The words above were spoken by the main character’s bestfriend, Nakia, while discussing her identity as a Muslim in America. Although spoken by a fictional character, the content of the quote is anything but fictional. The experience is all too familiar to anyone who comes from a minority household. This reality is what many students, including myself, struggle with—especially in the school setting. We are constantly in fear of losing our minority identities through the assimilation into western culture. I say assimilation because, especially as children, we feel we have no choice but to prioritize what is socially accepted to avoid being further outcasted for our differences. Thus, we are faced with a constant internal battle between these two identities. With school being such an influential space in developing young minds, I find it important to find ways to facilitate the co-existence and celebration of these multiple identities so students don’t feel stuck in a ‘sucky in between”.
I currently find myself learning to be a science teacher at the University of Ottawa, working with the Teacher Candidates of Color Collective (TCC) and the Urban Communities Cohort (UCC). Together, we are seeking ways to integrate practices that encourage the use of minority identities—particularly racial identities, within the classroom. TCC empowers me to utilize my experiences to cultivate my voice and approach in the classroom. The collective significantly helped me merge my identity as a Person of Color, with my professional career as a teacher. In addition to that, UCC allows me to work with a community whose goal is to bring inclusivity to high diversity classrooms. An important tool introduced to me through this community is the equity lens. Best described by Sensoy and DiAngelo in Is Everyone Really Equal, the lens we normally put on focuses on aspects of society that pertain to our particular positionality. However, when using an equity lens, we step beyond our positionality to consider others who experience racism, sexism, ableism, and/or classism, as well as their complex intersectionalities. Using this equity lens has been critical in developing how I use my voice as a Teacher of Color and what priorities I set in my teaching practices to address multiple identities in a science classroom. In this blog, I share three situations during my first year of teacher education that illustrate the importance of using an equity lens to combat racism in classrooms, support culturally sustaining pedagogy, and advocate social justice within the curriculum.
For my first practicum, I was placed at an urban priority school and had the opportunity to observe and teach chemistry courses. A day that stuck with me was when my fellow student teacher was running a game of family feud for the students to celebrate the last day of classes. One of the categories was to list the top 10 scientists of the world. Every single one of the scientists listed were Caucasian, and only two were women. Surprisingly, the students were able to name all the scientists correctly. After a moment, I realized how normalized it was for students—and by extension the general public, to be most familiar with Caucasian scientists and to think that they were the top in the field of STEM. How could students of color feel motivated to pursue STEM when they can’t find examples of anyone that looks like them in the field? I found this to be a major red flag, and a clear sign of the need to include BIPOC representation in classrooms. With this in mind, I had been approached by the Teacher Candidates of Colour Collective to take part in a project that would be the perfect platform to express how I felt about the lack of representation in STEM.
The Teacher Candidates of Colour Collective was formed in 2019 to help reduce barriers that both directly and indirectly harm marginalized teacher candidates of colour and other marginalized teacher candidates. One of the projects TCC launched to help decolonize the mind, body, and spirit, was the Critical Thinking Project which focuses on research that is either connected to the lived experiences of teacher candidates of colour or a form of allyship and solidarity. This research calls participants to immerse themselves in the exploration of intersections of class, gender, and race through an equity lens. For my project, I researched BIPOC scientists around the world—specifically women, as they are the least represented in the field. I made a point to find scientists of different disciplines to show the range and diversity that we are capable of. It took some digging around to find these scientists—ones who have made great achievements, but the difficulty I had finding these women underscores exactly what I’m aiming to change. Thus, I created a poster series highlighting these women and their careers. I drew portraits of these women in a way that remained authentic and true to their likeness (Figure 1). My hopes are to share these posters as a free resource to display in science classrooms, so that both students of color and female students can find people that look like them in the field of STEM. This is just one small effort to include BIPOC representation in the science classroom, but a necessary one.
Valuing Cultural Knowledge
The next situation I want to share emerged during one of my lab marking weekends. I put on a cooking show for casual viewing on the side. I caught a chef having a conversation with a group of South Asian food critics who specialized in Indian cuisine. They mentioned how difficult it was to get Indian dishes put into the food review column of big newspapers compared to European dishes. The only time it would happen was when a dish trended on social media. An example they showed was the popular South Asian spice, turmeric. Turmeric is a very common multi purpose spice used by South Asians for beauty, health, and taste. Growing up, my mom incorporated turmeric in our lives in many ways and so, I knew the significance of turmeric but only within the context of my Tamil community. Recently, I’ve been seeing the trend of hot turmeric milk tea, used exactly how my family used it but advertised by western health enthusiasts. This was exciting at first, as I was able to find turmeric powder in common stores and suggest it to friends who can now access these spices. However I began to notice that no credit or recognition was being given to its origin, it was only popularized because the ‘right’ people promoted it. In a sense, culturally whitewashing and appropriating the practice.
Unfortunately, claiming cultural knowledge as their own or rewriting the history of cultural knowledge isn’t a rare occurrence in western society. Like the cooking world, the science curriculum can be very eurocentric and it becomes the teacher’s responsibility to include wider world views into the classroom. An approach to achieving this is through ‘culturally sustaining pedagogy’. Similar to Gloria Ladson-Billings culturally responsive pedagogy, Django Paris uses the term ‘sustaining’ to go a step beyond acknowledging and accepting cultural differences, by encouraging the use of cultural knowledge to navigate dominant norms and ideas in the classroom.
I had a chance to observe the use of this through a sample activity by a professor at UOttawa. We were encouraged to go out into our local community and to find a plant. Then we were tasked to research the plant’s Indigenous history. This includes finding the name of the plant (which varies depending on the region and the community inhabiting the land), and its Indigenous use. We were then asked to compare it to the use of that plant by Canadian society which was often commercialized. In this way, we were able to develop an appreciation and see the value in the cultural knowledge of Indigenous plant use for its sustainability. This activity can easily be incorporated within the general science and biology courses taught in high school, especially when looking at plant biology and environmental studies. Likewise, there are numerous funds of cultural knowledge that can be incorporated into the science curriculum that would make students feel like their histories are appreciated, celebrated, and sustained.
Incorporating Social Justice Education
The last situation I will write about where the equity lens was invaluable took place early on in my practicum. I noticed that some students did not stand up for the national ‘O Canada’ anthem during the morning announcements. I suspected it could be for the same reason many Canadians did not feel comfortable celebrating Canada Day when much reconciliation for Indigenous injustices still needed to take place. But before jumping to my own conclusions, I decided to simply ask the students why they didn’t stand up. Their replies were as I suspected. One student mentioned they felt weird about being patriotic on stolen land and several students collectively agreed. Another student chipped in about reading an article on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in their English class and feeling incredibly infuriated yet powerless. Personally, I empathize with these students but there was more that I could do than just empathize. I had the opportunity to use my teaching platform to educate my students on social issues that they clearly demonstrated were important to them.
At the time when I was observing this occurrence, I had just recently been assigned the Solutions and Solubility Unit in the Grade 11 Chemistry Curriculum. A major component of the unit was learning about the properties of water and how it connected to real-life applications like a water treatment system. It was around this time that I was also learning about the boil water advisories in many First Nation Communities across Canada through social media. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada had put together 94 Calls to Action, with #19 calling to ‘identify and close the gaps in health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities”. Access to clean water was an alarming health concern faced by FNIM communities and as an educator, I had a responsibility to share and bring awareness to this injustice. With this in mind, before teaching the students the chemistry and terminology involved in the unit, I introduced the BWA issue to gain their attention. I then provided them with the tools to understand this issue and to find ways to investigate it from a chemistry point of view. This included some lecture content on the properties of water and how contamination occurs, as well as a chance to build their own water filtration system. With a combination of the knowledge they gained and experimentation, they could begin researching a specific Indigenous community that was under a BWA. This activity was meaningful because it opened the door to using teaching as a platform for advocating justice for underrepresented groups. It was also astonishing to see students transform into critical thinkers when applying the knowledge they gained in chemistry class to understand and find solutions for real life social issues that concerned them. The success from this activity demonstrated to me the effectiveness and difference that incorporating social justice education in the science classroom can make.
It’s interesting to me that many of my teaching priorities were inspired by observing simple events through an equity lens, whether that be during a friendly game of family feud, watching a cooking show, or looking around during the national anthem. It goes to show how valuable the practice of using a lens for equity can be and how it can help us find inspiration to make change anywhere. For now, these priorities to address multiple identities in the classroom are what help me shape my lessons when I teach science but I know that the list will grow as my teaching journey continues. I also want to point out that these priorities should not be limited to POC teachers, but should be practiced by all educators of all identities. It is easier for those affected by an issue to address it, but the issue will never truly be resolved until everyone takes an active role in creating that change. And so, I end this post with one more Ms. Marvel quote:
Let’s be honest, it’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world.– Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel
Well…I say it’s about time we teach our students otherwise.
Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher. 41(3), 93-97. http://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X12441244
Sensoy, Ö., & DiAngelo, R. (2017). Is everyone really equal? (2nd ed.). Teachers’ College Press.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Calls to Action. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.