Strategy Share: Support Classroom Discussion by Incorporating Students’ Culture

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Claire Trainer, a 7th- and 8th-grade science teacher, after her expedition to the Arctic. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Claire Trainer by Maureen Mackin
Claire Trainer teaches science at Sauganash Elementary School in Chicago. Photo by Maureen Mackin

Student discourse is a major component of any classroom. Teachers work to create a learning environment that fosters critical thought and provides a safe space for new ideas. There are a wide range of facilitation techniques designed to support classroom discussion, but they don’t always allow students to voice ideas based on their own understanding of the world. When we facilitate dialogue that feels separate from students’ lives, we limit the connections they can build.

After traveling to the Arctic as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, incorporating the scientific aspects of the expedition into my life science curriculum was relatively straightforward. However, I didn’t expect the experience to inspire a shift in my classroom dynamic as well. Science aims to eliminate bias, focusing on evidence and reasoning, so it is easy to forget that science is a human endeavor. As a population, we research topics that hold importance within our society at the time, and our background experiences naturally influence our focus areas.

Claire visited Thule ruins while on expedition. Photo by Claire Trainer

I was reminded of this on expedition when we learned about the ancient Thule culture (in what is now Greenland and Canada) through visits to ruins and presentations by archaeologist Margaret Bertulli. I was fascinated by how the Thule winter home ruins supported scientific ideas of glacier melt and receding seas. The ruins were found away from the current coastline, but the Thule people would have constructed their camps in close proximity to the water for hunting, suggesting that the sea has receded over time.

Although the Thule culture ended around 1500 AD, their direct descendants are still present as the Inuit population. I learned how ancient and modern scientific knowledge from the Inuit has been largely ignored by Western society. The marginalization of this culture made me reflect on the students in my own classroom. Children can also be thought of as a marginalized group of people, whose voices are not highly considered. Upon reflection, I felt that this marginalization might be especially acute in science classrooms, and I set out to address it with my students.


I began the lesson by sharing some expedition information and photos with my students, focusing on the Thule culture. Directly following, we began to learn about the Ways of Knowing, as discussed in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Theory of Knowledge course: Language, Sense perception, Emotion, Reason, Imagination, Faith, Intuition, and Memory.

I asked students to reflect on how they know about their worlds and identify knowledge that has been passed down through their families. Following the reflection, students picked an example and created storyboards to share with the class. Once everyone presented, students wrote about how their way-of-knowing related to science.

For example, some students could sense possible danger by a feeling in their stomach, which they connected to using their senses and responding to stimuli. Others talked about feeling weather changes through broken bones, which they connected to shifts in air pressure. A few students wondered about the science behind home remedies and were excited to research a possible scientific connection. You can view my lesson plan here.

A storyboard shows two students deciding to return home from a park because one has a feeling it will rain.
Students created storyboards reflecting their personal ways of knowing and shared them with the class. Image courtesy Claire Trainer

This activity took roughly two class periods, and it has had lasting impacts among the students. My classroom environment is much more open. Students make connections that go beyond the immediate content being learned. They freely share their ideas and build upon classmates’ ideas. I have become more intentional with asking questions that allow for multiple perspectives and access points.

I believe my students have developed an appreciation for science because they now feel connected to it in a new way. Science is a part of their everyday life, and we have simply highlighted how it complements a way of knowing that the students already possess.

This activity could be used in any grade or subject area, and the Thule culture presentation could be substituted with a personal way of knowing. For example, a teacher could share a story about a time in their life when they went with their gut feeling and relied on their intuition to solve a problem. Then students could share their stories, and the class could discuss the importance of incorporating evidence into our decisions, which can be tied to concepts in math, language arts, social sciences, and other disciplines.

The key to this lesson is sharing how we access and make sense of the world in varied and personal ways. When a teacher is willing to open up about their ways of understanding, it creates a safe environment for students to discuss their thoughts and reasoning. Inviting my students to voice their personal knowledge has deepened classroom discussions, increased student participation, and strengthened student understanding.

A storyboard shows a baseball-playing student struggling with wrinkly gloves. Her father suggests adding shaving cream, a trick he learned from his father.
Students’ storyboards reflected a range of different ways of knowing. Image courtesy Claire Trainer

Lindblad and NGS

The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.

7 thoughts on “Strategy Share: Support Classroom Discussion by Incorporating Students’ Culture

  1. Claire,
    I really appreciate your blog about incorporating students’ culture in the classroom to support discussion. As a pre-service teacher studying at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, I am learning a lot about how to be a culturally responsive teacher. Your experience is a very powerful first-hand account of culturally relevant pedagogy and I enjoy hearing and reading about these anecdotal experiences because it puts a sort of “face” to the theory. I would love to learn more about the specific topics your students engaged in that got them the most excited to participate in rich class discussions.

    Additionally, I am personally interested in the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship you were involved with. I think traveling and working in the Arctic is a unique and valuable experience for a teacher and I wonder what it took to pursue that endevear in terms of time away from teaching and your personal life. What id you learn about in addition to the ancient Thule culture? Did you get to bring home any special artifacts? Would you ever go there again? How interested were your students in the Thule culture, specifically?

    Of course, you don’t need to answer these questions. I just wanted to let you know some of the things I was thinking about as I was reading your blog post. Thank you for sharing your experience and insight into this topic of student culture in the classroom!

  2. I love how you challenge your kids and teach them to apply basic science concepts to real life experiences.

  3. Very cool! This article was really detailed and written well. I liked how the article did a good job at describing the different things you did on your expedition and everything you learned.

  4. I like how you pointed out how students are marginalized. Many adults overlook students actions and opinions because of our age. They think that kids aren’t smart or experienced enough to make our own decisions and help the world become a better place.

Leave a Reply