Justina Jackson, Ph.D., Research Scientist, CEISMC, Georgia Institute of Technology
Katherine Boice, MEd., Research Associate II, CEISMC, Georgia Institute of Technology
Meltem Alemdar, Ph.D., Associate Director and Principal Research Scientist, CEISMC, Georgia Institute of Technology
Over the past three years, like so many of you, our research team grappled with complex questions around how to become more intentional in our social justice research agenda. The year 2020 was a painful reminder of the persisting inequity and injustice for racially and ethnically minoritized groups in the United States (Romano, 2021; Sidik, 2022). We collectively experienced what Gloria Ladson-Billings called “four pandemics,” used to describe the merged state of COVID-19, racism, economic uncertainty, and environmental disaster (Bowen, 2021). She noted this moment as an opportunity to position towards justice not only in education, but in all sectors of our society. The past few years have seen widespread suffering, anxiety, and outrage, leading us to a critical conversation about our role as educational researchers to work alongside teachers to meet this call. Headlines of major events from January 2020 through July 2021 remain prominent in our collective memory and inspired our team to renew our commitment to the teachers and students we serve.
In response to these events, we asked ourselves, “How can we do more justice-oriented work?” Part of this process included the reading of Calabrese Barton and Tan’s (2020) award-winning article, “Beyond equity as inclusion: A framework of ‘rightful presence’ for guiding justice-oriented studies in teaching and learning.” Their work with STEM learning and the conceptualization of this critical justice framework inspired a new venture we would pursue in our work with teachers. It also sparked deep introspective work to name our positions, identities, and even ancestry as we considered how our feelings in the present are connected to our past and future. This reflective process reminded us of the colonized past and the need to acknowledge indigenous and enslaved people and their contributions erased from history through violence and slavery. This reflective process also prompted us to examine the ways racism and white supremacy have been perpetuated in STEM fields, in the name of scientific, nationalistic, or economic advancement (McGee, 2021). We focused our efforts on what we knew to be true: there is a profound need for teachers to affirm students’ intellectual, racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic identities to foster academic success and empowerment (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Moreover, teachers must be prepared to identify and interrupt bias, injustice, and racism within the educational system.
Our blog is part of a series addressing the theme of “culturally relevant learning experiences and justice-centered STEM education”. We aim to advance the conversation beyond inclusion and toward justice, while embracing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) as a transformation of STEM education to address real-world issues in the classroom. Specifically, we will: (a) describe a teacher professional learning program focused on learning about rightful presence in STEAM classrooms and (b) encourage classroom practices to support rightful presence, while recognizing our responsibility as researchers to support this endeavor.
Supporting Teacher Professional Learning for Rightful Presence in STEAM Classrooms
Future progress towards a more equitable educational system requires diverse perspectives, many of which have not been included in standard curriculums. We have seen teachers come under intense scrutiny and, in many states, under direct legislation that limits their discussion of race and identity conversations in the classroom. These attempts to silence teachers are chilling and impede a more equitable and just education system. As educational researchers, we felt an ethical and moral responsibility to share our understanding of the research and to involve teachers in our conversations around tools that could help them navigate an increasingly harsh political climate.
Through our involvement in an ongoing teacher professional learning program, we saw opportunities to engage teachers in a series of reflections, readings, and conversations around social justice and, specifically, the rightful presence framework. Calabrese Barton & Tan (2020) developed this framework rooted in the following tenets:
- Allied political struggle is integral to disciplinary learning: the right to reauthor rights.
- Rightfulness is claimed through presence: making justice/injustice visible.
- Collective disruption of guest/host classroom relationalities: amplifying the sociopolitical (pp. 436-437).
Based on these tenets, we recognize that student lived experience is integral to developing disciplinary knowledge, and we acknowledge the importance of time and reflection to increase consciousness to illuminate and call out injustice. We aim to disrupt these power systems by amplifying the voices of minoritized groups.
As part of a larger research program that supports in-service STEAM teacher professional learning, we developed a short summer course to build a community of teachers around the topic of social justice in STEAM education (Boice et al., 2021). The course addressed the following topics: (a) Belonging in a STEAM Classroom, (b) Discussion of Rightful Presence Tenets, (c) Assessment Practices in STEAM to Affirm, and (d) Addressing Injustice in the Classroom and Beyond. Additionally, a research study was initiated to explore: To what extent can teachers identify and apply the tenets of the rightful presence framework to their work in K-12 STEAM contexts? Teachers used reflection and discussion to examine and identify their educational biases, teaching philosophies, and socially-just teaching practices in STEAM. One year later, they participated in follow-up focus groups to discuss their teaching related to the rightful presence framework. Using multiple data sources (reflections, discussions, artifacts, and focus groups), teachers and researchers co-constructed an understanding of teaching practices that affirmed students’ rightful presence in the classroom, as well as potential barriers they might face.
In our study, recognizing the humanity of students was paramount. Many of the teachers were willing to risk “good trouble,” evoking the words of late Congressman John Lewis, to meet this end (Lewis, 2018). They described caring for the identities and experiences of their students beyond the classroom. McKinney de Royston and colleagues described this as politicized care, or a “consciousness about the sociopolitical realities of their students in ways that authentically engage students rather than essentialize, pity, or fear them” (2017, p. 34-35). The teachers described increased trust between students and themselves. For some, it meant advocating for advanced coursework for students or supporting students’ gender identities. For others, it meant rejecting deficit labels assigned to students and being willing to risk conflict in doing so.
Teachers conveyed concerns about discussing certain topics related to systemic racism, history, and political struggle but recognized the importance of creating space for students to discuss these topics. One teacher compared this act to “walking on eggshells” but acknowledged that teachers are “good at it.” Being truthful and transparent with students was of utmost importance, and teachers described sharing more with their students about their own experiences, families, and backgrounds. Teachers who practiced this intentionally described feelings of increased trust between themselves and their students, creating a classroom culture where students could share their own feelings, ideas, and experiences. This was foundational for relationship building, supporting an environment where students felt able to bring up injustices they witnessed in their world, and giving teachers the opportunity to help students process these events.
With ongoing support from the STEAM professional learning program, teachers considered STEAM teaching practices that might cultivate increased trust with students. They considered how their existing practices and curriculum might be transformed through centering students’ interests and experiences. For example, teachers identified ways to provide flexibility in assessment through student-developed rubrics and student-led topics in STEAM education. While many felt that the short summer course reflected their existing orientations and beliefs, they indicated that the introduction to the rightful presence framework validated their work and gave them terminology to describe ideas and positions to be more intentional in their efforts. Additionally, the teachers expressed excitement and confidence in their commitment to engage with students in discussions around injustice.
Future Action Toward “Necessary Trouble”
In our state of Georgia, there is legislation intended to limit the discussion around systemic racism. Teachers experience additional barriers (e.g., testing requirements, lack of administrative support, and inadequate curriculum) that do not allow adequate time and reflection needed to address injustice in education. With these challenges in mind, we identified teaching practices to shift power towards more justice-oriented classrooms. This shift toward rightful presence can start with simple practices. A teacher who aims to create a space for rightful presence seeks to validate student lived experiences and amplify student voices toward new action. The following steps illustrate a range of practices, from everyday interactions with students to curriculum planning to assessment strategies.
- Learn the correct pronunciation of students’ names and pay attention to the pronouns they use (and whether this differs outside of school).
- Get to know students’ potential rather than relying on deficit-focused labels.
- Design classroom community guidelines that respect each classroom member.
- Support the cultural identity of students by affirming their home languages and ways of communicating or demonstrating knowledge.
- Where “gaps” exist in the curriculum, especially around STEAM contributions of historically minoritized groups, offer a counternarrative to show a fuller account of history in STEAM.
- When considering assessment, empower students through the student-led development of rubrics and projects that demonstrate content mastery.
- Notice “off topic” or “side” conversations that may be an opportunity to address injustice.
- Believe and validate students when they bring up injustices they notice in their school or in the world.
- Make real-world connections explicit by sharing how STEAM applies to students’ lives.
- Identify other teachers or community members who can be your partner in this work.
This blog describes how an existing collaboration between researchers and K-12 teachers was leveraged to co-construct understanding and application of the rightful presence framework. For researchers, we must problematize our roles, listen with empathy, and humbly reach out to teachers and community members to amplify their efforts. We encourage the STEAM education community to develop partnerships, study existing and emerging scholarship, and solicit teacher expertise on theoretical perspectives. Researchers and teachers are familiar with complexity and together can identify how to move onward as partners in a changing world.
Thanks to ARISE Blog Editor, Dr. Okhee Lee, for inviting the research team from the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology to share their important research.