This is the third part in a series of guest posts written by Moses Rifkin, a physics teacher at University Prep in Seattle, describing a unit he teaches to his senior physics students about social justice, privilege and institutional racism in physics. Moses will be speaking about this curriculum to the Global Physics Department on February 18.
Part 1: Introduction and Day 1
Part 2: Days 2 & 3 Statistics and Thinking Systematically
Part 3: Days 4 & 5 Privilege and the Implicit Association Test
Part 4: Day 6 Closure & Evaluation
Day 4: Privilege
Small group discussion by optional reading choice
Students choose from selected quotes (A-E below) from Macintosh article, write/share/discuss
Class discussion: Does this article feel mostly true? What might stop us from seeing privilege?
Writing/Pair Discussion: in what ways does the idea of racial privilege apply to our lives? Is racial privilege present in our school community?
- If we agree that unearned racial disadvantage exists, mustn’t unearned racial advantage?
- Do organizations have a responsibility to balance their racial makeup? Why/why not?
- In what ways have we been the recipients of unearned advantage? How does that feel?
- Is color blindness the goal? If not, then what is?
- What can be done to dismantle unearned advantage?
My Not-So-Secret Agenda:
- As members of a private school, we each have some privilege; many of us have much more
- Recognizing our privilege is uncomfortable but also motivating
- Those who have privilege are in the best position to make change
Day 4 marks a pretty dramatic shift from talking broadly to talking specifically and personally about our own experiences. It’s pretty easy for students to recognize bias in society as a whole, I’ve found, but they quickly get uncomfortable when I start asking them to look at their own beliefs and roles. As hard and uncomfortable as it is, I feel it’s crucially important to make this conversation personal, to roll up our own sleeves instead of pointing fingers elsewhere. Even if it’s painful, I really think it’s what motivates us to keep acting. I don’t know this as a fact, it’s my gut feeling, but nothing I’ve seen in ten years of doing this has convinced me otherwise.
Inevitably, then, that means I am dealing with feelings. If I’m asking my students to recognize that many of them may have been given advantages that they didn’t earn themselves, I have to be ready to navigate the strong emotions that come up as a result. I spent my first few years with this curriculum cataloguing down possible student responses and how I might like to respond, but found that that became an impossible task. So now I just try to listen to the students, to really hear what they’re saying, and to trust my instinct and respond honestly. I can’t tell them what to think or feel, but I have to try to encourage them not to bail on the conversation, even if it gets messy; trying to be fully present with them is the best way I know to do that.
All of this is, you’ve probably guessed, a pretty big shift from the way physics class normally works. Throughout the year, things are relative informal but this project represents a further step forward: all desks facing inwards in a circle, all of us sharing personal experiences and talking about the sorts of things that rarely come up between friends, let alone physics students and their teacher. My use of “I” and “we” in this writing isn’t an accident; I find that I have to drop the pretense of having the answers and admit that I’m just another person trying to make my way through it. It’s scary – I generally finish these classes with my shirt damp with nervous sweat – but it feels honest and I’ve found that, by being honest with my students, it’s easier for them to be honest with me and with one another.
Speaking of having all the answers, it’s hard to communicate through these notes I’ve made that I’m guiding conversation but trying really hard not to dominate. It’s hard, because I know where I want the arc of the curriculum to lead and I do have some experience after ten years that the students don’t have. But everything I’ve ever read about facilitating challenging conversations stresses the need to listen and learn from your audience, and I try hard to do that. One thing that I’ve noticed more and more is that I should cede the floor to other students instead of trying to respond to everything myself. The dynamic is totally different when a student’s comment gets challenged by a peer instead of me, and I’m continually surprised (though I shouldn’t be) by how much wisdom there is in the room when I stop talking.
One heads up: in my experience, talking to high school seniors in the early spring about racial privilege leads to conversations about affirmative action in college admissions. I try to come to this class prepared with some facts that may surprise them (some of which I’ve listed in the Resources), because there’s definitely a gap between perception and reality when it comes to affirmative action, and I want to have a clear means of articulating the arguments for why taking race into account in admissions is more fair than unfair.
Day 4 Homework: Go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/ and take the “Race IAT” and “Gender-Science IAT” tests. Print out the results page but don’t put your name on it. Write in your journal and, if you want, there are optional readings if you’d like to learn more.
Day 5: IAT Debrief
Small group discussion by optional reading choice
Collect anonymous IAT results, add to student results dataset
Discussion of imperfections of the test – not a perfect tool but a useful/informative one
Sharing of student results dataset/national dataset, discussion
Sharing of research into IAT interventions: how to change subconscious biases that you don’t like
Having described the problem (black physicist underrepresentation), what can we do to address it?
- If the class data is to be believed, what does it mean for our school community?
- If the national data is to be believed, what does it mean for our society?
- Do our subconscious beliefs matter?
My Not-So-Secret Agenda:
- We all have biases. They are dangerous and painful if not properly handled
- Having unconscious bias does not mean you act in a biased way; biases can be shifted
- We can use our privilege to improve the world
The Good News – Effects of racial bias (as measured by the IAT):
- “Racism Can Make You Stupid”
- Racial Generalization Means You’re Less Creative
- Implicit Bias Doesn’t Change With Age
The Bad News – How bias can be shifted through conscious intervention:
- Teaching people to differentiate within races can reduce implicit bias
- Seeing positive black role models was shown (2001, 2009) to reduce implicit bias
- A review of which interventions are most successful at reducing implicit bias (“The most potent interventions were ones that invoked high self-involvement or linked Black people with positivity and White people with negativity”)
Other places where implicit bias shows up:
- Implicit racial bias and NBA refs
- Implicit racial bias and MBL umpires
- Implicit racial bias and Craig’s List
- Implicit racial bias and realtors
- Implicit racial bias, pedestrians, and crosswalks
- Implicit racial bias in police officers’ decision to shoot/not shoot
- Implicit gender bias for women in science
- Implicit gender bias for elementary schoolers in science and its longer-term effects
When I first heard about the Implicit Association Test, I was intrigued. When I first took it, I was skeptical and frustrated. Over the years, though, I’ve come to see it as a powerful tool (and have shared it with as many people as I can). Taking this test is the most personal thing I require of my students, and I’ve set up the homework assignment and next-day debrief so that nobody is forced to share their results. But I collect and share the class trends to drive home an important point: year after year, my students and I are shown to have subconscious associations based on race and gender.
The test is personal and often upsetting, but the students also understand that they are not defined by their results. They recognize, in fact, that it’s better to know about your inner workings than to not know if the goal is to do something about them. I’m Not A Racist…Am I? had a beautiful way of normalizing these results without letting us off the hook: bias isn’t like tonsils (you have it but then you get them removed), it’s like plaque (you are swimming in a sea of factors that cause it to accumulate, and only by conscious and steady action can you work towards removing it).
This used to be where the curriculum ended: the world is scary, you’re a part of it, good luck figuring it out. But the feedback that I received from students made it clear that this wasn’t what they wanted, so I tacked on an additional day and we talk at the end of this fifth day about possible solutions that we can take. That’s no small task, but in the years where our conversation has gone best, the students now have a clear sense of the problem and some great ideas about what they can do. Tonight’s homework assignment came out of their ideas.
Day 5 Homework: Revisit your first night homework, in which you researched a black physicist working today. [If you’d prefer to focus on another under-represented minority, please do so.] Make an engaging and eye-catching poster emphasizing their achievements in physics and including their picture. If you’d like, there are optional readings that describe some of the research into and using the IAT.
The next post will cover the last day of this unit, the final project students complete, and follow-up.
My Honors Physics class continues to blow my mind. Today I had to leave class early to go to a meeting, so I told them I wanted them to work on this very challenging problem, and record themselves discussing the problem.
Here’s the video—remember, this is the last 15 minutes of class at the end of the day):
It turned out my meeting ended early, so I was able to sneak back into the lab and overhear them for about 5 minutes of this conversation while the class couldn’t see me. All a colleague and I could do is just stare awe of how the students were working so thoughtfully through this problem. Really, this video is one of those situations where I think if I had been there in discussion, I could have only made things worse.
This video makes me think about so many things I don’t understand why this class is like this? Why I can’t get my other classes, both past and present to work together like this?
It also makes me worry—will this class still be like this in February, when we are all exhausted and ready for spring break?
There are voices in this video that you don’t hear much, or at all. How can I help those students to be able to express their questions and ideas? How can I help the more dominant voices, to learn to draw out and build on the ideas of their less vocal peers?
Finally, it seems like we should be doing more than our standard curriculum of doing labs an solving problems. These students are capable of learning completely on their own. They should be able to devise and conduct experiments to test their own questions. They should be able to read and explore physics topics of interest to them. How do I facilitate this? How do we find time? How do I get them to reach the same depth with that kind of work that they are in this video?
I’m sorry that I’ve neglected this blog for so long. I’ve got so many drafts stored away that I need to finish, but too much has been going on to find the time to write.
But today, I have to write, even if it means I’m doing it in the middle of the night.
I just had my very best class that I’ve had in 15 years of teaching. And thankfully, I have it all on tape so that I can remember it.
I have this really dumb habit of tearing up in the classroom when things are going really well, and today, I was almost wiping away rivers of tears at the end of class.
We were working on the same BFPM bridging activity that I’ve written about before, but this time, we made a few more modifications. We felt the old activity forced the students to wrestle too much with what was going on when the box was accelerating, particularly since we haven’t studied acceleration or unbalanced forces, so we modified the assignment so that students wouldn’t consider the times when the velocity of the box was changing. Here is the revised activity as a pdf.
At first, I was a bit reluctant to make this change, since in the past, students ultimately were about to come to good conclusions about the accelerated portions of the motion. But I was totally convinced when we tried this out in class—by reducing the complexity of this task, we allowed them to build up more confidence, and piqued their curiosity, so that they naturally wondered and asked great questions about what was happening in the accelerated phase, with out getting bogged down with all the details.
One other thing I’ve been doing this year that I think is starting to pay big dividends is giving short metacognative lessons. I’ve had students complete a couple of assignments on canvas where they respond to articles about feedback and why it is good to fail on assessments. I’ve also tried to take a minute or two here or there to talk specifically about how they are discussing ideas in class and offer suggestions for how we might continue to improve. Today I asked them to focus on speaking to one another and making sure they were involving everyone in the conversation.
And here is what I got (they are working on the second page of the activity when this starts).
I hardly have to speak at all. These are students who just figured out N1L two days ago. At around 8 minutes I step in and push them to think about what’s happening when I push on a box at rest. They have a great discussion, build up lots of confusion, and then are totally happy with putting this question aside and moving on to the next part of the activity.
So we move on to the third page—and they just nail it, which is pretty much to be expected. But even when I push them on giving multiple ways to explain how to test that the puck is moving at constant velocity, they do it.
Now, here’s where I think it gets really good. In the 4th page, we get them to think about a situation where you are pushing the block first at a constant slow speed, and then later at a constant fast speed. They do a great job of discussing this, checking their work, and collectively, they all come to the wrong answer that when the box is moving faster, you are pushing harder. All I have to do is tell them they are collectively wrong and they should check their assumptions, and they come back with two amazing explanations:
- Maybe friction doesn’t depend on speed
- Or, Maybe N1L needs to be modified—perhaps CVPM doesn’t mean Fnet=0.
The points they raise in discussion here with minimal assistance from me are stunning to me. They even get to the point where they figure out that they need to settle this with an experiment, and they do this. All of this is stuff I used to simply walk classes through in the past.
Now, they talk about the result of the experiment, and use it to definitely answer the 4th page of the activity, and along the way they come to so many more realizations—FBDs don’t tell you the velocity of an object, other things the frictional force might depend on, the threshold nature of the static frictional force, how drag forces depend on velocity, and much more.
Even though I’m amazed by all these students did today, in watching the video, I see few of them are taking notes, and it makes me wonder if many of the insights we realized today might be ephemeral, and wonder what I can do to help them preserve the understandings they came to today.
And, this is 80 solid minutes of discussion. Students are whiteboarding in parts, and we do some experiments, but I see some yawns, and certainly not everyone is engaged at every moment. I can also tell this is mentally exhausting—it makes me wonder what we can do to help students be more engaged in discussions like this.
And in the last segment, I’m doing quite a bit of leading—I wonder if I’m going to be able to find a way next year to turn even more of that over to students. If I do, I think I’m going to need to remember to bring a box of kleenex to class.
Writing comments/reports whatever you call them, it’s something many teachers dread—for many of us it involves writing thousands of words, doing hours of work, knowing they won’t be read for a week or more until after you write them, and in some cases, wondering if they’ll be read at all. I often find myself struggling to understand the audience and purpose of these comments—should I direct them to the students, or to the parents? Are the formative or summative? Sometimes, I feel like I’m trying to speculate about a student’s motivation or a cause for his or her actions. And even when I write my very best comments, I’m not sure I’m giving a student’s parents the clearest picture into what a student is learning in my class.
Here’s what I’d like for my comments to be. I’d like them to be part of a conversation. I’d like for students to have some input into to content of their comment. I’d like to give them specific feedback and advice on how to improve, and I’d like to emphasize and highlight the things that the student is doing best, and to have a clearer picture of what’s motivating the student.
Here’s an idea I had after my latest 20,000 word comment writing adventure. Why not ask students to make a video reflection before each comment writing period? I think I could ask each student to compose a 5 minute video showing me 3 things:
- Show me an example from your work that shows strong understanding of a physics concept.
- Show me and example from your work that shows improvement in your understanding of physics.
- Show me an example from your work that shows a concept that you are still working to improve your understanding.
I could then ask students to comment on their work and study habits, goals and more. What I find most useful about this is that like screencasts, I think this video would paint a clear picture of that student in my class. Students who are doing well in the course would present clear and specific answers to the three points above, which vague responses would be one more indicator of struggle.
My comments could then be written reposes to these student videos, which would allow me to enter a conversation with the student and make specific comments on the understanding demonstrated in the video. Maybe one day, my comments could even be videos themselves.
So what do you think? At 5 minutes a video, it would take an hour and 15 minutes to watch all of the videos for my class (assuming I didn’t watch them at double speed). This seems like a reasonable investment for significantly improved comments.
I’d welcome any thoughts or suggestions you may have to ease the comment writing process.