Persevering in the Face of Adversity

By Michele Haney

Embedded within academic learning is, and should be, learning how to deal with the challenges of being human. That is, overcoming stereotype, forming an awareness of your own biases, and cultivating strength to persevere in the face of adversity.

In middle school, students are confronted with all of these challenges and more, but don’t always have an opportunity in the classroom to discuss ways to respond to and overcome them.

In particular, young female students who dream of a career in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) may not feel capable of pursuing such goals due to imbedded stereotypes. Young male students may not be aware of how powerful their support of their female classmates in typically male-dominated fields can be.

Thus, a module at Cascade Middle School was born through a collaboration between teachers Tyler Bryan and Alexa Lachman and weaver Michele Haney. The lesson centered on the premise that a huge inequality still exists when it comes to the number of women in STEM careers and that much of this is due to social and environmental barriers such as stereotype threat and implicit bias.

To provide students problem solving skills surrounding these challenges, the lesson took this "3-A" approach:

  • Awareness: What does stereotype and bias look like? How can a person acknowledge and make positive change?
  • Appreciation: Who deserves our appreciation for overcoming stereotype? How can we show our appreciation? 
  • Action plan: How can we get from where we are now to where we want to be in future career?

First, students were given prompts to perform tableaux about stereotypes that affect men and women. In groups, students planned and performed these stereotypes, and then a reverse, “growth mindset” version of the stereotypes. Being expected to act out both a negative stereotype and a positive response gives students an ability to experience, rather than simply imagine, the emotional stress surrounding stereotype threat and implicit bias.

Elissa, Claire and Fern tableaux the stereotype that a woman can’t keep up with the demands of a career in science the way a man can.

Elissa, Claire and Fern tableaux the stereotype that a woman can’t keep up with the demands of a career in science the way a man can.

Next, students were asked to choose one woman to research. Students complete a worksheet with questions ranging from the woman’s biographical details to how the student could grow to become more like her and what Studio Habits of Mind they would need to employ to do so.

When students finished their research, they were asked to write a first-person narrative about their chosen woman. This narrative was designed to explain about the woman’s life and career, obstacles she has needed to overcome, and what she hopes others will take from her work. For certain questions, students needed to use their own critical thinking and imaginations to provide answers. Through this lens, we discovered that male students also related to the skills that these women in STEM have needed to persevere.

A lesson on composition design, including color theory, using focal points and various font and bolding choices led to the final project: turning the narratives into illustrated final drafts. Students thought carefully about the inventions and events associated with their women to make artistic choices.

Jackson’s narrative about Marie Curie.

Jackson’s narrative about Marie Curie.

Jakob’s narrative about Emily Calandrelli.

Jakob’s narrative about Emily Calandrelli.

A project that began with a discussion about gender stereotypes culminated in over 95 thoughtfully and creatively designed narratives about inspiring women in STEM careers.

Maddy’s narrative about Sarah Boysen.

Maddy’s narrative about Sarah Boysen.

As a weaver, I plan immersive and often demanding modules because I want students to know that they are powerful, capable and talented individuals. I have high expectations because I want them to believe in their abilities to invent, create and support meaningful work in their lifetimes.

As I read through the final drafts, I have no doubt that these students will go forth with kind hearts and resilient spirits.