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Shattering My Implicit Bias Against the STEM Learners in My Classroom

By Kate Narita


My biggest aha moments in life have happened when I’ve become aware of an implicit bias that a few months earlier I would have told you I didn’t have. 

At the end of 2021, I would have told you with 100 percent certainty that I embrace and support STEM education as much as literacy in my fourth-grade classroom. 

I would have told you that, after a professor from Columbia University’s Teacher College heard me speak about science instruction, she asked me to co-present a session at the National Science Teacher Association’s 2020 conference.

I would have told you that the first subject I teach every day, and the subject I spend the most amount of time teaching, is mathematics.

I would have bolstered my argument by telling you that my dedication to STEM carries over to my literacy block because I often use STEM-themed books as mentor texts in my ELA lessons. 

And I would have told you about the thousands of dollars I’ve spent building my classroom book collection and making sure it includes plenty of nonfiction books about STEM topics. Heck, I even wrote a picture book that Kirkus Reviews identified as “a great addition to any STEM shelf.” 

All that’s true, and yet, I also would have told you my husband, who is a physics professor, and my younger son, a 19-year old mechanical engineering and physics major, weren’t readers. 

I’m not daft. I know physicists and engineers read scientific papers, but somehow I viewed that as a necessity, rather than recognizing the joy that comes from reading to learn. In my family, I identified only myself and my oldest son, a 21-year-old industrial engineering and business major, as readers because we enjoy reading and discussing fiction for pleasure.

I hadn’t seen my younger son read anything other than school assignments since sixth grade. After he became a smartphone owner in seventh grade, he was only interested in the screen. It never occurred to me that maybe he was reading articles there as well as playing video games and using social media.

When my husband, picked up a novel like Harry Potter, he’d read a few pages in the beginning, a few in the middle, and a few at the end, and say he was done. 

“That’s not reading,” I’d say. 

When my sons and I discussed Harry Potter, my husband would say, “I don’t remember that part.” 

I would reply, “That’s because you didn’t read it.”

Then, in January, my younger son mentioned a book he had read, Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe by Steven Strogatz. “Oh,” I said. “Sounds interesting. Did you read it for your calculus class?”

“Yes,” he said. “And I really enjoyed it.”

Did his statement about enjoying a book wake me up to my implicit bias? No. But I did feel a shift inside me. I was pleasantly surprised and excited because I love talking about books. If he had read something and was excited about it, I could read it and discuss it with him. Here was a way I could deepen my relationship with him as an adult. Even if it was just a one-time occurrence. 

I asked if I could read the book when he was done, and he brought it home the next time he visited.

Fast forward to February break. As my husband and I were packing for a trip to Maui to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, he spotted Infinite Powers in the pile of books I was sorting through on our ottoman and picked it up.

“What’s this?” he asked. When I explained, he asked if he could take it to Hawaii, and I nodded. I hadn’t read it yet because, to be honest, reading a whole book about calculus felt too daunting. Instead, I packed and read middle grade fiction and nonfiction books to prepare for upcoming interviews on my podcast, Chalk + Ink.

As my husband and I sat side-by-side reading on the beach, we talked about Infinite Powers. He told me that while he was enjoying the book, the author gave way too much credit to calculus and not nearly enough to physics. He was kind of cranky about it. Actually, he was truly irritated. His emotional response to a book, a nonfiction book, surprised me. The book had stirred up passion inside him, even though it wasn’t a novel.

Did his passion wake me up to my implicit bias? Not yet. But I did feel another shift. He was expressing emotion about a book, and I was listening. In the past, it had almost always been me expressing emotion about a novel and him listening. 

In our almost thirty-year relationship, I could only think of one other time when he had emoted about a book. It was Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman, which I read because he had read it multiple times and was so excited about it.

A few weeks later, when my younger son was home on spring break, I noticed him reading The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene–-but this time, it wasn’t for a class assignment. He had liked Infinite Powers so much that he wanted to keep reading and learning. 

I was thrilled. 

I looked over at my husband, and saw that he was reading an article about the Green Bay Packers on the internet. I suddenly realized that he was reading for fun, because the Packers are his favorite team.

In that instant, a lightbulb clicked on in my mind, and an awareness of my implicit bias washed over me like a tidal wave. 

My husband and younger son are readers.

They have always been readers. 

I just didn’t realize it because narratives and fiction aren’t their jam. But give them nonfiction on topics they find fascinating—math, physics, sports—and they’re all in. They’re curious people who read to learn. They want to know about the world, how it works, and their place in it.

Then came a question: If I had an implicit bias against the nonfiction readers in my personal life, did I bring it with me into my classroom?

Yes, I did. 

For my entire educational career, I have thought of students who excel in STEM subjects and express a love of fiction as well-rounded students. Meanwhile, I’ve thought of students who excel at STEM, but shy away from fiction, as non-readers. But I was wrong.

All this time I was wrong.

These students aren’t non-readers. They are analytical thinkers who read to learn. 

In my classroom, I noticed that these students did well during nonfiction units. But because their passion for reading didn’t carry over to our fiction units, I didn’t see them as multi-talented students. Instead, I viewed them as one-dimensional learners who only excelled in STEM, not literacy. 

Am I the only elementary educator who unknowingly has an implicit bias against info-loving nonfiction readers? I doubt it. 

In 2018, Melissa Stewart, co-author of 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books, asked more than 1,000 educators about their writing style preferences. Did they prefer expository writing (which explains, describes, or informs in a clear, straightforward way); narrative writing (fiction and narrative nonfiction that tells a story or conveys an experience); or did they enjoy both writing styles equally? Here are the results:

I myself fall into the “both” category. Even so, I harbored an insidious implicit bias against the info-loving expository nonfiction readers in my classroom. What about the 56 percent of educators in the “narrative” category? 

The U.S. consistently lags behind other countries in STEM education. In 2018, results from the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), an international test that compares students’ progress in reading, science, and math, showed that out of 79 countries and regions, U.S. students ranked 13th in reading, 18th in science, and 37th in math. 

Maybe implicit biases against readers who prefer STEM topics and shy away from fiction is one of the reasons students are doing poorly in science and abysmally in math on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). If we send the subtle—or not so subtle—message that these students are lesser than their peers, are we extinguishing a passion for STEM learning? 

Yes, we are.

So what am I going to do about it? 

I’m not sure yet, but I do know that my definition of a “passionate reader” has undergone a radical shift. I also know that, moving forward, it’s my job to teach other educators the importance of identifying analytical thinkers who read to learn and celebrating their passion for expository nonfiction. And one way to do that is by sharing my story.

Photo credits: author photo by Jillian Rollins Photography, family photo by Charlie Little PhotographyChalk + Ink banner by Sarah BrannenChalk + Ink slide from Slides Carnival.

Kate Narita teaches fourth grade at The Center School in Stow, Massachusetts. She’s also the author of 100 Bugs! A Counting Book and hosts Chalk + Ink: The Podcast for Teachers Who Write and Writers Who Teach. When she’s not teaching, writing, or podcasting you can catch Kate and her handsome hound, Buck, running or hiking on Mount Wachusett.

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