Classroom Posters & Thoughts on Belonging

A while ago, the Never The Less podcast released a series of beautiful Women in STEM posters. I already had a set of posters, but these ones were just beautiful and full of people I had rarely heard of before. I convinced my school to print several copies of them for me to hang in my classroom and to hang in other classrooms. I also printed out every slide presentation on #CSforSF’s Cultural Heritage page to hang up alongside these. I also had just recently done some recruiting for my classes so I had a bunch of photos of my students leftover from that too, including a series where I had students standing under the phrase “My name is ____ and I like computer science because…” then holding up a whiteboard with their own handwritten reason on it. All of these factors channeled my childhood hero, Captain Planet, and combined to form this new display on my wall as soon as you walk in:

Oh! I forgot – our school had also recently partnered with First Books so I had been able to order some STEM-y books too. Like this 50 Women in STEM book.

My intents / hopes / thoughts are: I want this to be one of the first thing students see when they walk in so they see people who look like them doing / discussing STEM things. I also want the pictures of my current students completely embedded in the display, hopefully to create the subliminal message that you deserve to be on this wall just as much as these people do, which I hope does some subtle inspiring and future-planning and combats the “you can’t be what you can’t see” problem with the history of STEM and media representations of Computer Science. I want to make student work visible and hold that work on the same pedestal as these other important figures in STEM history.

But there’s a bigger point I’ve been reflecting on and want to write about…

This Was Very Easy For Me To Do, And I Recommend You Do It Too, Because It Can Have A Profound Impact On Our Students

Here Comes The Reflection & The Reasoning: I teach Computer Science in a school that does not require it for all students and does not have an established program, so recruitment and retention are things I think about. Over the last year, my thoughts on retention have transformed into thoughts on belonging – if my students see themselves as belonging in a computer science classroom, then I’ll have a much higher chance of convincing them to stick around for the next year. But if I don’t cultivate a classroom where they feel like they belong, then I’ll never keep them – belonging is a necessary condition for my program to survive.

‘Belonging’ exists on a sliding scale, and some demographics of students are much closer to feeling like they belong (ie: adolescent white boys) than others (ie: female students and students of color). There are lots of strategies to help engage & support these students that I can incorporate into my teaching practice – culturally responsive teaching & projects, collaborative structures to help novice programmers (ie: pair programming), normalizing mistakes with a growth mindset – lots of stuff that I’m still discovering. In fact, considering that I’m still learning how to teach computer science and am sometimes only one day ahead of my students, trying to wrap my head around these larger curricular and pedagogy changes can be tough. It’s valuable work, but tough to balance with everything else. I’m always looking for new ideas to try, especially those that seem impactful and doable while I try to (metaphorically) stay above water.

Which Brings Me To: Last summer I attended CSTA 2018 where I heard a keynote from Michelle Friend, a Computer Science researcher in Omaha. In her talk, she referenced a research study about how just the decorations in a computer science classroom can have a profound impact on students in the room. Maybe you can tell which classroom below feels more inviting to students compared to the other…

Our findings show that classroom design matters — it can transmit stereotypes to high school students about who belongs and who doesn’t in computer science

Alison Master –

As the year progressed and I kept finding new resources, this idea of representation, stereotypes, and self-perception kept appearing again and again as something that needed to be overcome. That there needed to be intentional effort to make a connection between the students in my classroom and role-models that looked like them in STEM fields to help counter these narratives and societally imposed self-perceptions. And, surprisingly, it looked like one low-stakes way to counter these issues was to add STEM role models to the design of my classroom

Research from Girls Who Code and Microsoft (and I’m sure others) highlight the impact of providing inspiration, encouragement, and role models to underrepresented students as a way to help them see themselves as computer scientists (and thus: more likely to belong). And, frankly, it’s really easy to do this. There are so many places offering posters / flyers / infographics that highlight underrepresented groups in STEM fields that there’s no reason not to dedicate classroom space to increase this sense of belonging. It’s such a low-stakes intervention with potentially high-impact results, which I’ve anecdotally seen firsthand:

So, I hope more people add posters to their classroom because it seems to be one of the most impactful / least intense interventions we can make to engage, support, and encourage our students. Here’s where I got my posters:


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