Maine: Don’t Dodge Diversity in your Instruction

Author’s note: This week I have been enjoying a computer science training (ECS) Exploring Computer Science offered by the Maine Math and Science Alliance, but before you leave this post, you need to know, what I have to share has almost nothing to do with computer science.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with where I work, I teach in the whitest state in the US.

One of the major strands of the Exploring Computer Science program’s approach is looking at Equity in its many forms:  Technological equity, equity for students with various physical and mental disabilities and also racial, cultural and gender equity. In computer sciences, female, African American and Latino/a students are vastly underrepresented in the career field, the college programs and in high school enrollment in computer science classes.  This might seem like just a national issue or an urban problem or a problem for large schools–it’s not.

When I look at my own school (which is 96% white, non-Hispanic) I see and hear a lot of people eschew diversity because “we just aren’t very diverse”.  Statistically, they aren’t wrong.  But we need to think about our role as educators.  I don’t believe many teachers in Maine think they are preparing their students for careers and lives in their own community since studies show a large number of Maine students leave the state after graduating from high school or college.  So if we are tasked with preparing students for their futures, we are talking about a more diverse, more multicultural world.  But what does preparing students for that future actually look like in a small rural Maine classroom?  It looks like…Cornrows.  Not the kind with the tractors in a field, the hair styling technique.

A sample lesson we participated in as mock students this week looked at the hypothetical idea that Computer Science students were asked to design an app or computer program that would help hair stylists design custom cornrow art for their clients.  Though this concept may be unfamiliar to most rural white students in Maine, but that’s the point.  We often plan with student’s prior knowledge and experiences in mind to better introduce new concepts to students.  That is sound pedagogy, except when it makes us insular, short-sighted, or unwilling to explore possibilities for cultural awareness.  In this lesson, we researched the history of cornrows, from it’s strong family and society roles in ancient African tribes, to it’s eventual suppression, symbol of black defiance against white slavers, to it’s cultural acceptance in both the civil rights and hip-hop eras.  But that’s not all.  The lesson highlights the intricate math concepts that are integral to the carefully styled designs and how Computer Science might use these to code a program.

This curriculum was originally developed within the context of more urban, diverse school districts and seeks to leverage topics like this to engage minority student groups, and it should.  But it serves a dual purpose in our Maine classrooms: one of perspective, awareness, and inclusion.  We can say we value other cultures, other peoples, and other differences, but if we truly do, are they represented in our curricula?  Our materials? The role models we put forth?

As teachers, our lack of knowledge about diversity cannot stop us or paralyze us to stick to our same, safe materials and routines. I plan to use this lesson this year and I plan to try to look for other opportunities to provide windows into the cultures, histories and perspectives of my underrepresented student populations.

3 thoughts on “Maine: Don’t Dodge Diversity in your Instruction

  1. An insightful point about teaching in Maine, and an exciting activity! Here I also see the importance of two kinds of “diversity awareness”: teachers providing common reading experiences based in diverse cultures (my sts often cite Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian as the book that speaks most powerfully to them), but also teachers being aware of learning/experience diversity in the classroom. Economic diversity is a hidden issue, I think–Alexie’s novel confronts poverty head on!–that has a deep impact on our students’ world views and aspirations.

    Many ideas percolating in my head right now. . . Thanks for raising an important one that links not just to CS but to all topics under all teachers’/admins’ concerns.

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