Classroom Issues · In My Class Today

Identity Development in the Physics Classroom

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Why do you teach? It’s certainly not for the competitive salary, the great respect from society or the flexible work schedule. Do you remember writing that philosophy of education statement? What did it say then, what does it say now? Most statements say something along the lines of “I believe all students can learn” “students learn at different rates” “students need to be met where they are at” so on and so forth. What is critical here, is the use of the word “all”.

The reality is that while every teacher might say they believe in “all” our school systems are not designed for “all”. They never were designed for all. When the rubber hits the road and we’re deep in the muck of teaching we categorize “those” students, whatever that means. “Those students” will go straight to military/factory/automotive shop so “they” aren’t interested in higher math or physics. “Those” students don’t need physics because they aren’t majoring in science. A far more insidious part of this reality is that “those” students are overwhelmingly growing up in poverty and are often our Black and Hispanic students.

Furthermore, in spaces such as physics, this idea of “who” does physics is even more exacerbated in the larger scientific community. The work of identity building, literacy development and social justice do not exclusively live in the realm of english and history courses and “African American Study” courses, it is work that belongs to every single teacher who claims “all students” deserve the opportunity to learn and grow.

This work is challenging and it begins with most of us sitting with a lot of discomfort. It also involves a large volume of reading and listening on our part. In physics, especially, this work can seem even more challenging (and some argue unnecessary!) because it is not clear how this work fits in the scope of a physics class or perhaps if you are ready to tackle the work you are unsure where to begin.

I had the pleasure of diving into two incredible books this year, Culturally Reponsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond and Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Mohammed. I truly believe that these two texts together serve as an excellent foundation for engaging in the work of narrative shifting within you classroom. Hammond shows us how our cultural underpinnings shape the way we interpret and learn information while Mohammed brings hundreds of years of Black excellence and literacy to the forefront of education in today’s classroom.

Muhammed lays out what she calls the Historical Relevant Literacy (HRL) framework. In the framework she identifies four critical components: identity, skill development, criticality and intellectualism. One of the most important details of the framework is that culturally relevant learning should not be a one-off lesson in a particular month to celebrate a particular group, but rather engrained in every fiber of the curriculum to consistently give students the opportunity to learn about others and themselves within their coursework. 

Physics Identity Encounters

For the last few years I’ve made a deep dive into issues of representation in physics and the largest recurring theme is the importance of developing a physics identity. It became clear to me how the HRL framework could apply to my own classroom. With the added challenge of the pandemic I knew that trying to recreate and do everything with excellence would quickly lead to burn-out and failure, so I made the decision before the year began that I would make connections and relationships my number one priority, with identity development as a critical component of that priority.

Twitter and the sweeping social justice conversations has made it easier than ever. With everyone working, teaching and learning from home, many people began to develop content that was accessible to all in the form of webinars and other livestreams. I began to integrate these opportunities in a rather fluid manner into my classes. For each, I asked students to reflect on what they had heard. Specifically, I asked them to do the following:

  • Discuss a concept or theory that resonated with you
  • Discuss a concept or theory that challenged you
  • Discuss a concept or theory that left you wondering
  • Discuss a concept or theory that resulted in an “aha” moment for you.
  • Last, (if not included already), discuss how the concepts discussed might apply to you as a student.

In October I livestreamed an event from Women in Science that featured Dr. Jessica Esquivel (here’s a link to the talk). She talked about identity and the sciences, but perhaps more importantly she told her story as an AfroLatinx woman from Texas who wanted to pursue a PhD in physics and what that meant as she navigated conversations with her family, peers and colleagues.

Dr. Esquivel was also a foundational member of the #BlackInPhysics movement, which was primarily geared towards college physics students. The movement included a roll call, in which black physicists used the hashtag to introduce themselves and their work. Through this movement I learned about Tamia Williams who has put together an incredible project called Being Seen of interviews where physicists and physics students talk about how they integrate physics into their passion for the arts. Her participants reflect an immense diversity of backgrounds. Aside from the obvious coolness of this, many of my students are part of our district’s highly competitive creative and performing arts program.

The last guest of the year was a former student of mine who is finishing her physics degree. She already has an incredible story about her own journey and future plans. Not only did my students get to interact with someone who is underrepresented in physics, they heard it from someone who has truly been in their shoes.

Student Reactions

Students shared how much they enjoyed the assignments. Many of my students saw themselves in the stories that were shared. One of my students, after reflecting on her shared experience ended her reflection with, “I think videos like this should be shown more often to high school students. It was inspiring to me so I know it will be to others as well.”

Students shared themes of resilience and recognition of the systems in play in their reflections. “a theory that blew my mind was that if you can’t go down the path that you want. then you should make your pack and do not let anyone bring down your path and not let you reach your goal.”

“How and when can we all breakout of that cycle and until when will we be able to help each other instead of judging and being ashamed of mistakes that we will learn from? She really opened my eyes to see how not just physics in general but all types of sciences are competitive expertise and how some people really struggle with the subject and that it’s ok to not get it right away. Her words were comforting for me and now I really have a different perspective and input on physics from listening to her.”

Another reflected (unknowingly) on stereotype threat, “Most of the time I do ask whatever questions I have to those around me but I often hesitate in doing so for fear of sounding unintelligent. But like Olivia Lowe said, we’re all learning. No one in the class is an expert in physics. It’s likely everyone’s first course and even if it isn’t, physics is a difficult subject. It’s okay to be confused. No one should have a fear of getting the help they need.”

I was also really impressed by the impact the assignments had on my white students. One shared “I was just wondering why people struggle for being different. I don’t understand because I have never had that experience.”

I could say all of these things to my students all day long, but hearing it from someone who is in the field, who is a current student and who has shared lived experiences is far more powerful than anything I could ever lecture them about.

In case you were wondering, this is what I believe about teaching and learning. As a teacher in physics, and as a female teacher in physics, I believe it is my obligation to give all students who come to me the opportunity to expand their minds not just as students of science, but as stewards of our world and society. I belong to a school where the rich student diversity in background and expression is what gives life and vibrance to our school hallways. As an educator it is my responsibility to show students that they belong and are capable of success in any course of study they desire, because we need that same vibrance from diversity of thought and experience in order to tackle the complex problems in our world.

Teaching is so much more than ensuring students have content and content-related skills. We have the very special opportunity to help children envision and create their future trajectories in life. This is a great responsibility that we can never forget.


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