BIPOC Voices: Black Love: Learning to Teach from Within
Ti’Era Worsley is a third-year doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who researches informal science education with middle-school aged youth in STEM. Ti’Era works with historically marginalized youth in informal makerspaces at a local Boys and Girls Club and refugee center. Ti’Era’s current research interests include looking at how a politicized care pedagogical approach supports youth establishment of rightful presence. Specifically, she is looking at how critical relationship building and the integration of youth voice and interest supports their STEM onto-epistemologies. Ti’Era has a strong interest in Environmental Education from her prior Peace Corps experience and is a Certified Environmental Educator and Certified National Geographic Instructor.
What are the qualities of a great teacher? Is patience most important? Or kindness? Maybe it would simply be to have someone who looks like me? When I reflect on the values that I uphold as an educator, especially as a Black educator to Black youth, it comes down to a simple question: what would my younger self want or need from a teacher?
My career as an educator began in 2014, with environmental education. I have worked with historically marginalized youth in both domestic and international settings. During this time, I have considered what youth need in order to feel that they have succeeded in a learning space. The answer seems clear. Youth need educators who care about them and what they do. Caring, to me, is a combination of building relationships, integrating youth voices and interests, and acknowledging their varied ways of learning.
The conceptual framework I propose, Black Love, has emerged from my lived experiences within formal and informal settings, through the work I’ve done on the ground within the community, and through my current teaching of STEM to Black youth. I began developing this framework by focusing on the question: “What values and pedagogical practices would I want to see in someone who took over my position?”
As I reflected on this question, I created a list of imperative practices and values that this person would need to follow or embody. Three emergent tenets from the list are critical relationship building, integration of youth voices and interests, and STEM-related onto-epistemologies. I will describe each of these in more detail below. I then identified frameworks that represented these tenets: politicized care (McKinney de Royston et al., 2017) and rightful presence (Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2020).
I work with youth in grades 6–12 who struggle to see themselves as doers of science, at a community-based informal STEM makerspace (a local Boys and Girls Club). In this weekly program, I encourage and support youth to engage in science in ways that are meaningful to them. The program, which has been offered for the past nine years, is part of an NSF-funded AISL Project: Research in Service to Practice: Equitably Consequential Making Among Youth from Historically Marginalized Communities (Award# 1392586) by Dr. Angela Calabrese Barton (PI) and Dr. Edna Tan (Co-PI). An essential insight that has emerged from my work with these youth over the past three years is that when youth can merge their interests with STEM, they begin to enjoy engaging with it.
Framework 1: Politicized Care
Politicized care (McKinney de Royston et al., 2017) highlights the importance of good relationships between teachers and students, in which teachers can use their professional capital to support the whole child. Politicized care has four tenets: political clarity, communal bonds, potential affirming, and developmentally appropriate. Political clarity is being transparent about the nature of oppression, which influences how Black educators and Black youth interact. Communal bonds are the community developed by educators and youth that strive to disrupt systems of inequality. Potential affirming is maintaining high expectations of youth and recognizing what they can do, rather than focusing on culturally based deficits. Teaching in a developmentally appropriate way refers to creating a space that sees and acknowledges the vulnerability of Black youth. For my conceptual framework, I use the specific concepts of political clarity, communal bonds, and potential affirming.
Framework 2: Rightful Presence
Rightful presence (Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2020) “focuses on the processes of reauthoring rights towards making present the lives of those made missing by the systemic injustices inherent in schooling and the disciplines” (p. 4). Rightful presence goes beyond giving youth equitable access to learning spaces. It asks whether youth feel that they can authentically be their whole selves within spaces. Rightful presence has three tenets: political struggle, rightfulness established through presence, and culture of disruption. In political struggle, educators extend to youth the rights to reauthor themselves within learning spaces. Rightfulness established through presence lies at the intersections of injustice in youths’ lives and disciplinary learning, and leads to new possibilities. Culture of disruption refers to moving from traditional practices that are steeped in the dominant ideology through the reauthoring and extending of rights, creating a shift in classroom hierarchies of power.
Tenet 1 of Black Love: Critical Relationship Building
Critical relationship building is developing bidirectional relationships that lead to community. Building any relationship takes time and requires both parties to be authentic. Through the sustained weekly STEM programming that I do, I build critical relationships with youth. In order for both parties to be authentic, the space needs to be designed so that youths’ multiple identities can establish their rightful presence. To facilitate the relationship-building process, I have found that it is important to humanize youth, sustain engagement, and provide transparency and accountability.
● Humanizing youth supports youth to be their authentic selves and welcomes their lived experiences to support their learning. Within the STEM program, humanizing youth involves acknowledging youths’ feelings, learning their names and using them, actively listening when youth share their experiences, and creating space for the critical conversations that youth want to have.
● Sustaining engagement is crucial because it creates the time for critical relationships to develop. Because the STEM program takes place every week, it provides educators with consistent opportunities to interact with youth and get to know them. This helps me to plan my pedagogical approach.
● Transparency and accountability to youth can lessen the power dynamics in the classroom and help youth to feel like more active participants in their own education. Transparency means being open and honest with youth as they develop their expectations of me. Accountability includes showing up consistently and letting youth know when I cannot be present. It also includes admitting when I do not know an answer but assuring them that I will work with them to find out.
Tenet 2 of Black Love: Integration of Student Voices and Interests
As an educator, I recognize the power and influence that I have. Even though I am not their formal classroom teacher, youth still hold me to a standard as their educator, and my actions and thoughts can influence them. For this reason, I want youth to be involved in planning and designing programming. Integrating youth voices and interests into this process transforms power dynamics and gives youth the agency and confidence to advocate for their own learning. In some formal classroom settings, where science is taught in a traditional way, it can be difficult for youth of color to engage or identify with the information. To engage their interest, educators should plan collaboratively with youth, actively notice their interest, be flexible with programming plans, and advocate for them.
● Collaboration helps youth feel that they have agency in their learning. I create choices for youth by opening the learning planning conversation to them. I have observed that they are more engaged with science projects when they feel connected and when it is something that they want to do.
● Because the program in which I teach occurs every week, I have the opportunity to notice how youth learn, work, and create connections in their learning environment. Their environment includes educators, other youth, and the resources that are available to them. I observe the ways that youth engage with the material and with others and then use my observations to support their learning. Two key aspects of active noticing include just-in-time teaching and identifying what culturally “stimulates” youth in STEM. Just-in-time teaching is a responsive form of teaching to what youth need in the moment to get them to the next step. Culturally stimulating material emerges from youths’ interests and serves as an entry point that engages/hooks youth.
● When working within informal community-based environments, it is important to remain open and flexible. While I have control over STEM programming, I still have to work within certain constraints, such as resources, time, and space, and have to take into consideration the needs of senior researchers. Sometimes programming does not go as planned, and I have to quickly adjust and make changes.
● Youth advocacy involves acting on their behalf to make sure their voices are heard and pushing back on negative deficits. Because I work within a community setting, the educators with the program often have check-in meetings and plan for future events with people who have more power. Usually, youth do not attend these meetings, so it is my responsibility to represent them. I work on their behalf to disrupt power hierarchies by echoing their voices and ensuring that their voices are heard.
Tenet 3 of Black Love: STEM-Related Onto-Epistemologies
STEM-related onto-epistemologies are the intersections of who someone is (ontology) and how they develop STEM-related knowledge (epistemology). The two are inextricably linked, constantly working with and against each other. When I design programming, I have to think about what and who are being valued in the programming and what understanding the lesson is working to achieve. Supporting various methods of engagement helps youth to develop their own science identity. Youth develop their science identities, or STEM-related onto-epistemologies, through interacting with various STEM tools, having opportunities to consistently iterate their work, and having educators who encourage them. The sustained engagement of the program in which I teach supports youth as Black doers of science. As an educator, I value various ways of knowing and engaging in science, maintain high expectations of youth, position youth as science experts, and create opportunities for them to share their success.
● The process of learning science has traditionally been presented in the context of the scientific method, which includes observing, asking questions, forming hypotheses, making predictions, testing a theory, and being able to iterate that theory. However, science is not static, and neither is the process of learning science. Engaging in science requires trial and error. Youth often focus on being correct or doing something the right way. It is important for them to know that messing up is a key part of the learning process, and I tell them that knowing what does not work is just as important as knowing what does work.
● Maintaining high expectations sets a tone for the learning environment and reinforces the narrative that youth “can.” High expectations ask youth not only to do the activities and projects but to put forth a significant effort and take pride in their work. With youth, I reinforce that they can do science even if they do it in non-traditional ways. This is a form of speaking positively to youth and encouraging them.
● As youth develop their own sense of what it means for them to engage in science, they begin to imagine their future selves as doers of science. They must navigate what it means to be Black and to do science. As they develop their science identities, I share my own experiences of being Black and engaging in science, which can guide them on their own journeys.
● When youth and I create projects together, I want the experience to be meaningful for them: to help them form connections, to feel determined to make it work, and to successfully complete the projects. When youth put forth such effort, it is critical for them to have an opportunity to share their success with others. This experience reduces the power dynamics of the classroom, because when youth explain their own projects to others, it positions them as experts, a feeling that they may not often have. Not only do I strive to create opportunities for youth to share their expertise, I also try to prepare them to share their expertise. Being prepared includes practicing presentations, making sure that projects work, and having the necessary tools and materials. These resources can include Preparation is critical for two reasons. First, as Black youth they will already be viewed through a deficit lens, and they will need to work harder than others to “prove” their knowledge. Second, having a successful experience with sharing opens them to possibilities for themselves that they might not have considered before.
As educators, whether we teach in informal or formal environments, we have a responsibility to support the learning of each youth, and to foster a learning environment that values critical relationship building, youth voices and interests, and STEM-related onto-epistemologies, in youth-centered, socially just ways. As a STEM educator, I help foster a community where youth feel comfortable expressing themselves and have strong ownership of the experience. These youth work together, support each other, and know when they speak up and make suggestions that their voices are being heard. Through my conceptual framework of Black Love, I strive to be the educator my younger self would have wanted to have and to embody the practices I would want my successor to follow.
Calabrese Barton, A., & Tan, E. (2020). Beyond Equity as Inclusion: A Framework of “Rightful Presence” for Guiding Justice-Oriented Studies in Teaching and Learning. Educational Researcher. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189x20927363
McKinney de Royston, M., Vakil, S., Nasir, N. S., Ross, K. M., Givens, J., & Holman, A. (2017). “He's more like a ‘brother’ than a teacher”: Politicized caring in a program for African American Males. Teachers College Record, 119(4), 1–40.