Building a shared understanding of Black excellence in STEAM learning: Part 2

The cultural legacy of excellent Black teaching provides critical take-aways for creating cultural competency in STEAM classrooms

Today’s learners will tackle the challenges and successes of tomorrow through complementary skills in science, technology, math, creative thinking, and artistic expression. But, not all learners have the same access to relevant, high-quality STEM and STEAM learning.

Research shows that more than a third of Black, Latino, and Native American students start college wanting a STEM-related degree—but less than half of them finish with one. (Source: National Center for Science and Engineering).

To help build the number of high-quality, diverse, and equitable STEAM learning opportunities in our region, Remake Learning’s Pittsburgh Regional STE(A)M Ecosystem has set four goals around STEAM program quality and evaluation for students of color. They want to learn more about STEAM programs currently serving black and brown students, develop (or adapt) an evaluation tool to address program quality, build evaluation capacity among STE(A)M Ecosystem stakeholders, and provide constructive program quality feedback to program directors and educators.

These goals evolved into what the Ecosystem today calls the STEAM Observation for Cultural Competency Community of Practice. Two Ecosystem members lead the Community of Practice: Dr. Gretchen Generett of Duquesne University, and Yael Silk of the Arts Ed Collaborative.

In late 2019, Gretchen and Yael visited four classrooms—all with a majority of students of color and led by educators of color—to observe culturally relevant STEAM teaching in action. This time provided an opportunity for in-person learning and direct feedback to educators. Their experiences will also inform a protocol of culturally-responsive competencies for STEAM education, to be developed by the Community of Practice.

We invited both Gretchen and Yael to share more about what they witnessed and what they took away from their experiences. Read on to hear from Gretchen, and click here to hear from Yael. 

From Dr. Gretchen Generett:

Working from home this morning, I pray that all of you are doing well and staying healthy. These are extraordinary times and I would be remiss not to acknowledge the profound impact that COVID-19 is having on all of us. This virus has reminded me of what is truly important in my life and how overwhelmingly grateful I am for all the work that each of you do to serve your communities.  

Two people that I am grateful for invited me to collaborate on the STEAM Observation for Cultural Competency Community of Practice project; LaTrenda Leonard Sherrill and Yael Silk.  They have worked collectively as a Community of Practice to better serve black and brown students in STEAM. Through their leadership, this inquiry-based learning community centers pedagogical practices that honor the lives and schooling experiences of Black students.

Indeed, this is important work! In my work as a university professor, I prepare teachers and educational leaders who work in schools, non-profits, and for-profit spaces. The vast majority of them say that they want to create and lead more equitable educational spaces.  Some even say that they want to totally eliminate racism in their context. Their intentions are important, but it is the ultimate impact of their work that concerns me the most. My courses are designed to support educators to interrogate how class, race, racism, and power impact the educational experiences of students, teachers, and communities. For example, I encourage educators to allow their work to be informed by the power of place and the wisdom of the students they serve. In other words, I let them know that continuous learning about their own biases and their own relationship to power and privilege is a must.  

The work that I do is important, yet I am fully cognizant that whatever impact I have is limited. I can teach, present, and publish about my educational experiences and what I think should be done and how, but it is teaching, the actual implementation of theories and frameworks that directly impact the lives of students. There is no denying that K-12 teaching matters. This Community understands this and that is why the STEAM Observation for Cultural Competency Community of Practice is so important. It is important to observe Black K-12 educators who are excellent teachers so that this network (and others) can learn from them.  

I participated in observations for this project and the most recent one was particularly inspiring and enlightening for me. I witnessed culturally responsive pedagogy in practice and here is what I want to share with you:

Instruction & Delivery

  • Rigorous STEAM teaching and learning occur when instruction and delivery is multi-faceted and consists of various learning modalities (e.g. students – whole and small groups, pairs, & individual work; teachers – direct instruction, facilitation, and modeling).
  • Well-designed instruction utilizes a range of interwoven learning activities that are not the focus of the instruction as much as they are the foundation for the ultimate learning goals (e.g. writing, technology, planning, and problem-solving do not drive instruction, rather they are the tools that get you where you want to go).

Student Engagement

  • In order to engage students, a foundation of trust that is built on relationships (teacher to student and student to student) must be established.  
  • Expectations should be clear and reiterated through rituals and routines.
  • Students are engaged when content is situated in real life experiences that they can relate to in the moment and aspire towards in the future (e.g. learning fractions will help me do algebra and calculate how much money I will make in the future).

Personal Identity & Real-Life Application

  • Personal identity and real-life application are central to learning and are the foundation to all classroom interactions and instructional design (e.g. groups and pairs are collaborative and built of community norms/expectations, music and the arts are integrated into coursework and class aesthetics, and cultural symbols are presented through dialogue, gestures, and references). 
  • The physical space meets the developmental needs of students and is welcoming and personal.

During the observation I witnessed the cultural legacy of excellent Black teaching and the extraordinary power that teaching affords. I was reminded of the cultural wisdom and the passion for learning that Black educators transfer to their students. This humanistic approach towards black students is foundational to culturally responsive pedagogy. The above take-aways are important, but witnessing the teaching was much more impactful. The teacher modeled what educators everywhere need to understand—your intention towards equity and eradicating racism can only take you so far. Your ability to effectively teach students of color, the ultimate impact of your work, will be revealed in how much you value, respect, and love students of color and their communities.