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  • How STEM Students Create Systemic Change with Angela McByrd (Ep 62)

How STEM Students Create Systemic Change with Angela McByrd (Ep 62)

/ Jason Sholl

Angela is an eight year educator that has taught STEM in elementary, middle, and high school. She is currently based in Chicago, where she teaches high school math. Her teaching philosophy centers community - the classroom being a space where teaching and learning happens with all parties involved. She also focuses on student empowerment in STEM for Black youth, with the goals of instilling STEM confidence, increasing STEM knowledge, and providing students with the tools to create systemic change through STEM. Follow Angela on Twitter @wokeSTEMteacher and visit her website https://www.thewokestemteacher.com/.

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Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo podcast. I'm your host, Nathan Lane-Raad, and on today's episode we have our guest Angela McByrd. Angela is an eight year educator that has taught STEM in elementary, middle, and high school. She is currently based in Chicago where she teaches high school math. Her teaching philosophy centers around community, the classroom being a space where teaching and learning happens with all parties involved. She also focuses on student empowerment and STEM for black youth, with the goals of instilling STEM confidence, increasing STEM knowledge, providing students with the tools to create systemic change through STEM. Enjoy this episode where Angela talks about culturally responsive teaching.

Angela, I am so excited to have you on the podcast, thanks for being a part today.

Angela McByrd: Thank you for inviting me, I'm really excited to chat with you today.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, I saw you on Twitter and you were posting just some really thought provoking, wonderful things and I thought, I've got to have Angela on the podcast, so I'm just happy that you said yes.

Angela McByrd: Yes, thank you, thank you so much. I'm always all over the place on Twitter, sometimes. Things just come to me about the work that I do each day.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, you are in one of my favorite fields. You work a lot in the STEM field, and you and I, before we started recording, were talking about some of the really cool work you're doing with STEM, and then with math, and then also with social justice, and the social justice lens within the math context. So I'd love for you to talk more about your work in blending, because those are two very different worlds there, so blending the two of them are is very interesting to me.

Angela McByrd: Yeah, I think it's really easy for people to confuse what the difference is between a social justice curriculum and culturally relevant curriculum, and in the work that I've been doing since, so I've taught middle school science and I'm currently teaching high school math, when I first started teaching I was teaching middle school science, one of the main things that I wanted to focus on with my students is giving them the opportunity to apply the knowledge that they were learning to answer questions to empower their lives and the lives of those around them in their local state and national community.

So in doing that, it has been a difficult process, because like you have mentioned before, that math, science, technology, engineering are difficult concepts to incorporate into a social justice curriculum. I'm not going to say it's been easy. It's definitely been a process, and something that I've slowly been working on over the past few years at getting better at. I think that I can do a really great job of creating culturally relevant curriculum, social justice curriculum is just a little bit, it requires a lot more effort and thought put into the pedagogy for students.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, I'm thinking, as our listeners are listening to this right now, and our teachers, if they were interested in either designing specific lessons for their classroom, if they want culturally responsive lessons, what advice you would have for them? Maybe they don't have necessarily had access to creating a curriculum, or they're not in a role where they're creating curriculum.

Angela McByrd: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: But if they just want to plan with their teams to make sure that they are planning in a way that's culturally responsive, what advice would you have for them?

Angela McByrd: I think a few things have to... I think we have to deconstruct our beliefs around certain things, one being that the topics that we are teaching in our classroom have to be a linear thing, so that students have to know the foundational skills first before they can get into the deeper concepts. I think, just in thinking about how sequential math is, and how teachers are very, very much focused on building those foundational skills, I think that is a thought process that we have to remove ourselves from. And I also think that our belief that this can only be done in the humanities content areas, so in our ELA classes and in our history classes, that as STEM teachers we only have to focus on the direct content, as opposed to incorporating culturally relevant things into the curriculum. I think that's another thing that we have to remove ourselves from.

And then I also think that it's important that teachers are serving students, and I do this at the beginning of the year, serving students about their interests, the things they are actually interested in learning, and I think that's one thing that doesn't happen often enough. We plan our curriculum just based on the things that we have to cover and we don't necessarily incorporate student input always. So yeah, those are the things that I think have to start, that's like a starting place for us, but in gaining input from our students and recognizing what's important to them, what their interests are, finding the overlap between their interests and how can we have some type of overlap of the content and applying it to the real world.

Nathan Lang-Raad: You said lots of things there that I have so many questions about. I'm going to take a step back now too and just ask you if you could define, because I'm wondering, we talk about a culturally relevant resource or curriculum.

Angela McByrd: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: How is that connected to social justice, how is it connected to anti-racism, are there connections there? I'm curious, because I want to make sure that our listeners understand in the different contexts we're talking about here.

Angela McByrd: So I think when we're talking, I don't want our listeners to confuse the two.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah.

Angela McByrd: Because culturally relevant curriculum and social justice curriculum are not the same.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah.

Angela McByrd: Culturally relevant curriculum and any discussions around talking about racism and talking about representation are not the same thing. So I think that is where the conversation has to begin, distinguishing between the two different things. Culturally relevant curriculum is empowering students using cultural references to deliver the knowledge, the skills, and the things they need to learn. Social justice curriculum, on the other hand, is taking it a step further. So now that the students have this knowledge, these skills, they can use that information that they have learned to answer questions or things about their communities, and empower themselves through that work.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. I think it's a really wonderful stage setting that you've just given us here, because it definitely helps, and obviously both, I believe both are so needed-

Angela McByrd: Yes, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: In our current context. But I think it's really helpful, it's good to define. I feel like every school would have a little different focus in where they want to go depending on the needs of their community and their needs of the students and the teachers.

Angela McByrd: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: Am I right on that?

Angela McByrd: Yes, yes, yes, definitely. And that's why I said it's really important to garner that interests from students, but also recognize, okay, how can we translate this over to how this information you are learning and the things that you're interested apply to the real world.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. The work you do is fascinating, and you said a really key word earlier about empowerment. As teachers we all are very familiar with intrinsic motivation and getting students excited to pursue STEM, because especially, you talked about teaching science and math, and I was also a science teacher.

Angela McByrd: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: A lot of the concepts that we teach can be abstract and can be inherently disconnected from the world of a student. And so I'm curious if you could share more about this intersection of student empowerment and the complex ideas of STEM and science and math.

Angela McByrd: So I'll give an example of a unit I did, I actually did this unit with, I was teaching elementary and middle school science. This was at the time that the Flint water crisis was being heavily discussed, so I did two different activities with students. For my younger group of students we were learning about the process, so this is science, we were learning about the process of cleaning water, and we actually did an experiment, they were able to make the water as dirty as possible, and then we went through this like process of cleaning the water. But we only got it to the point where the water was clear, and we discussed the concepts of, well, are there other things that exist in this water that could be detrimental to your health, even though we've got it to this point where it is clear, it might look like it's okay, it's drinkable, and that also led us to conversations about water scarcity across the world.

And so in thinking about those real world connections, just like that, something that is being heavily talked about, at that time it was, it still should be, honestly, and that's another conversation. It's upsetting that it's still a problem. But just having that conversation with students and getting them to understand why this issue exists at the scientific level. So what is happening? Why is this water considered contaminated? And then with the older students talking about, I did a class with students that was a cross-curricular thing that involved not only discussing the corroded pipes, but also the politics behind what was happening in Flint. And so that was a very interesting conversation, and we actually had some students from University of Illinois at Chicago come in and have discussions with our students around that. So it's very much a doable thing, but it definitely takes some time to actually plan these things out, and I think it becomes a bit easier when you can focus on things that are happening currently, things that are happening now that they can actually relate to.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, that example was a really great example of, a few things I noticed in that project specifically, one was it was very relatable in real world, especially for students who might live in a community that is struggling with having clean water. And like you said, it's awful and ridiculous that we're having to even talk about this right now.

Angela McByrd: Yeah.

Nathan Lang-Raad: And so you have that, connected to their current world.

Angela McByrd: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: But then you also have this aspect too that I heard of students feeling empowered to do something about it.

Angela McByrd: Yes, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: And to feel like they have an impact in their world and they have the ability to affect change, and so you have also this empowerment piece too. And then the other dimension I'm seeing too is the understanding of the science part of this, and what makes the water unsafe, and then you also have the social political part of this as well. So you have all these dimensions that are so integrated, and I think that was a really good example of a project that has all the components of problem solving and critical thinking.

Angela McByrd: Yeah.

Nathan Lang-Raad: And these 21st century skills that we're also trying to help embed in our curriculum as well, so that's fantastic.

Angela McByrd: I really, really enjoyed that, and I think one of the main things I learned from that is we really have to be flexible as teachers. So the group that I did the science experiment with, so the school where I was teaching has students do these grassroots campaigns, and those students chose to focus on, so this was their interest, they chose to focus on water quality. And so when I found that out from their primary teacher I'm like, oh, okay, so we can do something with this in their science class that would contribute to the work that they are already doing. And so they wound up, I believe they sent cases of water to families in Flint, and they were doing fundraising, and things like that. SO it was definitely a lesson in being flexible and willing to work with other educators as well, because learning is, it takes a village to be able to effectively teach our youth, yeah.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. That specific project you mentioned, I wonder about the collaborative effort with teachers. This is not something that you just downloaded a PDF off of a website and said, "Hey let's follow this."

Angela McByrd: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: This was something that teachers collaborated around, or maybe an idea that you had and that other teachers were able to discuss and collaborate and determine what activities and scaffolding skills that we need to embed. And I'm curious if you could give us insight into what was the collaborative process like? Did everyone agree on the different activities? Was there any variance in how the teachers approached this project?

Angela McByrd: So I will say it was like I had a little bit more freedom, yeah, a little bit more freedom in how I could approach introducing the topic with the students. So when the teacher approached me with the topic of, "Oh, they want to focus on water quality, that's the thing that they want to learn about." That was all that she really left me with, and so it was like, "Okay, this is what the focus is, we'll do a little bit around the Flint water crisis, but you can pretty much have free rein." And I was the science teacher at the school, so didn't have to do much of-

Nathan Lang-Raad: [inaudible 00:17:53] the expert.

Angela McByrd: Exactly, which that has its pros and its cons. But once I was able to plan out, okay, focusing on water quality, thinking about the process that it takes to clean water, showing the students the visuals, doing the actual experiment, I had to acquire some additional materials that we had to order. It took a little bit of time.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah.

Angela McByrd: But their primary teacher was fully on board with it. And then I even wound up writing a little blog post about it after the fact, because the students, they really, really enjoyed it. They really did. And I mean, I was going to say, these are the younger students, so we even gave them the opportunities to watch an old Magic School Bus episode where they actually go through a water plant and they go through the process. So we went through the same process, without some additional steps that happen after, and we had a discussion in class about that as well.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I love following the connections you're making, and again, it really represents how learning should be in the classroom.

Angela McByrd: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: It represents very real world processes. It's not just a science lesson, it's just a math lesson, it's a very complex issue that requires lots of problem solving and creativity, and effective communication skills, and many people working together to make an impact.

Angela McByrd: Yes.

Nathan Lang-Raad: And so this really is a great example.

Angela McByrd: I think that last thing you said, many people working together to make this impact, is what is the most important. And I'm not going to say it's ineffective if there's only one, one teacher in the school that's doing this, I just know it has such a greater impact on the students when it is a collective effort and not just happening only in their science class. Yeah.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Agreed, agreed. Well, thank you for sharing that.

Angela McByrd: Yeah.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I know that the listeners want to learn a little bit more about you.

Angela McByrd: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: So I am going to take us into our lightning round, if you are ready.

Angela McByrd: Yes, let's go.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay.

Angela McByrd: Let's do it.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay. So we'll start off with a fun one. How do you recharge, what do you do for leisure?

Angela McByrd: For leisure. I watch a lot of TV, and this is probably more so pandemic related.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Right.

Angela McByrd: But I've been watching a lot more shows. The two shows that I watched the most frequently, and I'll just watch on repeat, are The Office, I love The Office, it's a great way for me to recharge and get in a good mood.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah.

Angela McByrd: And Living Single, those are the two shows that I can just watch on repeat, it does not matter how many times I have seen them. And yeah, that's what I do to recharge, I'd say, just relax, kick back, just let it play.

Nathan Lang-Raad: We all need it. I know teachers, like yourself, teaching in a pandemic.

Angela McByrd: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: Need that time to do whatever they enjoy.

Angela McByrd: Yes.

Nathan Lang-Raad: So I think that's fantastic.

Angela McByrd: Yes, yes, yes,

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay, next question, a little bit more heavy.

Angela McByrd: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: What is the biggest challenge in education?

Angela McByrd: Oh, wow, that's a big one, because there are so many things that I could say.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, there are a lot of challenges.

Angela McByrd: I would have to say, I think trying to get all stakeholders on the same page about things, I think. Yeah, it's just very, very difficult when you have so many different personalities, so many different opinions, not everyone is always going to be happy with the decisions that are being made, whatever those decisions may be, which is also another topic because there's so much that needs to happen within education in this country. Yes, so I would have to say the various, getting everyone on the same page about what is best for our students.

Nathan Lang-Raad: What subject did you love in school?

Angela McByrd: I was a math and science girl through and through. Through and through.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay, all right.

Angela McByrd: Since I was young, my mom would put me in these summer programs, these STEM summer programs that I used to do. I loved the experimental things in science, and math for me I just love because I was really, really good at it, and I'd love just manipulating numbers and just exploring the different patterns, and yeah, I've always been a stem girl.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. Who's your favorite teacher, and why?

Angela McByrd: Wow. My favorite teacher, I would have to say one of my high school teachers, Dr. [Condi 00:23:38]. So I went to a boarding school for high school, little info about me, a little snippet about me. I went to a school for high school and it was for students who were gifted in math and science, and my first math teacher that I had at this high school was, without a doubt, my favorite teacher. And I'm still connected with him, he has sent me math lesson ideas, we're still connected today. Yeah, it's funny to come full circle with that.

In his class, so I took two different classes with him, one was just a basic algebra two class, the other was the problem solving class, and I think that was the class that really, really made me love him, because it was a fun and exciting class, and he wasn't the type of teacher that would put down students, he wasn't disrespectful to us in any way. I've had teachers who have been, unfortunately, but I've never felt like I was less than in his class, especially being a black girl who was interested in math and really, really enjoyed it, he never made me feel like, you can't do this, he was always very encouraging. And so I really, really, really, to this day, still love that teacher.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's so wonderful, what a gift.

Angela McByrd: Mm-hmm (affirmative), definitely.

Nathan Lang-Raad: All right. Yeah, and you may have answered this question already, but I'll ask it anyway. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Angela McByrd: Oh, okay. So when I was younger I wanted to be an astronaut.

Nathan Lang-Raad: All right.

Angela McByrd: I was obsessed with astronomy.

Nathan Lang-Raad: So cool.

Angela McByrd: And I'll say this, if I had seen the movie Hidden Figures as a young girl, that would have been the route that I had taken, seriously.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah.

Angela McByrd: But on the flip side of that, I used to pretend teach my sister, my younger sister and my two younger cousins, we'd have pretend class and I would teach them all these different math topics. It was always math that I taught them, and because I was older, I knew some of the higher level math topics.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah.

Angela McByrd: So we'd sit and I'd teach them these concepts. And my mom, my mom to this day she's like, "You were always meant to be a teacher, since you were younger." But I definitely wanted to be an astronaut. I was like NASA, yes, I'm so interested in this. Yeah.

Nathan Lang-Raad: And Hidden Figures is such a great movie.

Angela McByrd: Yes.

Nathan Lang-Raad: What an inspiring movie.

Angela McByrd: It's so inspiring.

Nathan Lang-Raad: And it's such an amazing story.

Angela McByrd: Yes, it is

Nathan Lang-Raad: Who had the biggest impact on how you have become?

Angela McByrd: I would have to say definitely my mom. And as I mentioned before, she put me in so many different programs when I was younger. I think she was just like, I see the interests, these are the things that seems like you want to do so I'm going to make sure that I empower you and give you the opportunities that I didn't necessarily have when I was younger. And I mean, I did so many, so many math and science programs, my mom bought me so many different experimental kits that you could have. I had a microscope when I was younger, those are the types of things. And I think that is a huge part of why I am the woke STEM teacher, why that is my name and that is a huge part of who I am now.

Nathan Lang-Raad: What's the most positive change that you've noticed in education?

Angela McByrd: Oh, the most positive change. Well I'll say, within the past year, I think the pandemic sparked a large movement towards anti-racist educators and schools focusing more on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah.

Angela McByrd: I think it's a positive shift in the right direction, but I don't want it to just be a thing that just happened in the moment, it has to be a continuous thing.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah.

Angela McByrd: So part of me is like a little worried that we might revert back, but I do think it has been a positive change, at least within the network that I work with.

Nathan Lang-Raad: What's the worst advice you ever received?

Angela McByrd: The worst advice. Wow.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's a big one.

Angela McByrd: That is a big one. Okay, yes, okay, I got something for that. The worst advice I've ever received was when I was in college I was told by a professor that I should consider doing another different type of degree program, because I wasn't excelling at the rate that I should have been. So when I started college I was a chemistry major, and that gut punching, those words, caused me to switch to math. So I started studying math, the advisor that I had for math was amazing, I was so happy to have someone who was so much better who could give me that positive talk and push me to do well. But yeah, I think back on if I still could have pushed through with chemistry. It can be so defeating when someone tells you, "Maybe this isn't the best option for you."

And I actually did, so I did wind up, just because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, I wound up going back. I withdrew from the chemistry class I was taking at the time, I went back and took it and passed the class, I did extremely well. So it was definitely that mindset change of having an advisor who was very, very encouraging, very positive, and also that positive self-talk, "I can do this, I know I can do this," and turning around and making it happen.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. What's the best advice you've received?

Angela McByrd: I feel like that's an even tougher question. The best advice that I have received, I think I can sometimes be very... so I can accomplish something, but not think of it as a big deal, or downplay, yeah, downplay the things that I've accomplished in my life, or be very bashful about the things that I've accomplished towards other people. And I've had a friend say to me, "No, these are things that you've accomplished, you've accomplished things that other people have not been able to do, you need to celebrate those accomplishments to the fullest." And that's something that I'm still learning to do.

Most times I keep things very, very tightly wrapped, I don't share a lot of the things that I'm doing. I'm slowly trying to move towards that, it can be difficult though, because I can sometimes get caught up in seeing what others are doing, their accomplishments and thinking, okay, I'm here, but I'm not there yet. And just that advice of no, you are doing well and continue to do well and continue to show others, you are a representation for other little black girls who are interested in the same things that you are. So yeah, best piece of advice, hands down.

Nathan Lang-Raad: And we so celebrate you, and you are doing such amazing work, and I am honored and thankful that you decided to share just a little bit of the work that you're doing. And for those listeners who are completely jazzed up and excited and ready to learn more, how can they find you online or on social media?

Angela McByrd: Yes, so you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @thewokestemteacher, And then I have a website, thewokestemteacher.com. Yep.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's a great name, I love that.

Angela McByrd: Thank you. It took me a while to come up with that one. I went through so many trials of, I don't know what to call my page, but yeah.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Angela, it has been such a gift to have you on, thank you, yes.

Angela McByrd: Thank you so much, I really appreciate this time, chatting with you, sharing some of the things that I'm doing, and hearing about you and the work that you have done, so yeah, thank you so much.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I want to invite you to our second annual WeVideo Creator Community Summit, July 20th to the 22nd. We will have educators from around the globe presenting on topics like personalized learning, social emotional learning, and blended learning. The summit is free of charge and you'll receive a PD certificate for attending. For more information visit www.wevideo.com/wccs21. Hope to see you there.