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Brighton Academy Students Explore Race through Interdisciplinary Projects

This is a photo of a classroom of students, sitting in rows of desks, looking at each other as they have a class discussion.What is race? Does science play a role in its definition?
Eighth graders at Brighton Academy recently embarked on a monthlong project examining these complex questions. In their Science and Social Studies classes, students examined race through different lenses, making connections as they conducted research, examined maps and completed discussions.
In Science, students studied how heredity influences traits from generation to generation. They learned that not all traits are specific to one gene (for instance, eye color can be determined by genetics while skin color cannot), and that genes can be influenced by the environment. In Social Studies, students analyzed political cartoons, videos, and the poem ‘White Man’s Burden’ to help them better understand white privilege.
In Science, they analyzed migration maps, sun exposure maps, evolution and natural selection, and the beneficial features of traits in sun/heat. In Social Studies, they looked at the impact of imperialism on race beliefs, as well as how the Jim Crow Laws and other societal influences impacted scientists.
8th grade student Samnessa Cuyler said the project helped her make connections she otherwise may not have.
“We learned that people had to migrate,” Samneesa said. “But because of the climate, your body needs a certain type of hair to stay cool or warm. Your skin has to have a certain amount of melanin because of sun exposure. Science has a lot to do with it – but I had never noticed the connections until we studied this and looked at these things in Science and Social Studies. A long time ago, scientists found that the brains of white people were bigger than brains of black people, so they thought white people are superior. In reality, no one is superior – no one is different genetically; the differences were caused as peoples’ bodies changed as they migrated and adapted to their environment.”
Science teacher Kathleen McKenna and Social Studies teacher Alicia Whitmore, who helped lead the interdisciplinary project, both said these discoveries and discussions were helpful to staff as well!
“The kickoff video we shared for this project was extremely valuable to our knowledge – including to us as staff,” Ms. Whitmore shared. “It helped us all recognize where the idea of race really originated. It wasn’t a way that people were categorized prior to Thomas Jefferson! Students had predicted that the idea of race has been around for thousands of years, when really in the United States, it’s only been since about the 1800s. Knowing who really pushed the race agenda and being able to make connections linking the science and the social aspects was powerful.”
“This project really helped create that real world connection for our students,” Ms. McKenna added. “It made Social Studies and Science mean more to the students because we’re talking about things that exist in their daily lives. Racism is something they have to navigate starting at a young age, and it’s something they’re passionate about. Bringing it up through these academic lenses has helped to keep them engaged in the content we’re teaching, while also making connections and clearing up some misconceptions. It’s been a lot of learning – not just for students but for all of us. There have been so many meaningful conversations!”
After students completed their classroom activities, they participated in a culminating EL Education Socratic Seminar, allowing them the opportunity to answer one of the guiding questions, supporting their stance with evidence gathered during the project.
Eighth grade student Syriana Hicks said the project helped her develop her thoughts in a way that will allow her to express them with others. She suggested that other in-depth, interdisciplinary projects, would help she and her peers better understand complex topics.
“Growing up, you know there is racism but you don’t know the details or how it came about,” Syriana said. “I was surprised to learn about the Jim Crow Laws and how we were separated because of the color of our skin. I was shocked when in Science, we learned that we all have the same features but some of them, like our hair or our skin color, changed over time because we had to adapt to our environment. Race is such a big deal still today – sometimes, we separate ourselves based on these things. I feel like I can explain racism way better – I have way more information to go off of now. Because of this project, I can explain why things happened. I think this project helped me learn a lot and doing more projects like this would really help us learn better.”
What a great way to help bring learning to life and help students become #SCSDCivicReady!  
Anthony Q. Davis, Superintendent
725 Harrison Street
Syracuse, NY 13210
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