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Teaching Tolerance: An Interview with Chris Widmaier

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    Amanda Neville

In recognition of his efforts to promote social justice and respect in and out of the classroom, Chris Widmaier, a science teacher at Rochester, NY’s World of Inquiry High School, was recently named a recipient of Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Award. Southern Poverty Law Center is a nonprofit organization specializing in civil rights advocacy that works to toward a vision of equal justice and opportunity for all.

The Teaching Tolerance Award is given every two years to five K-12 teachers nationwide who successfully promote respect and justice among students and in their school community. We recently had the opportunity to interview Widmaier to learn more about his views on social justice, how it relates to the natural world, and how EL Education has contributed to his success as an educator:

EL: What does it mean to you to receive this award?

CW: It means that there is an opportunity for me to share what we are doing at World of Inquiry and in Rochester to create educational opportunities that reduce discrimination and bring increased equity and justice to our community.

EL: What do you define as social justice in this day and age and how can students relate it to science?

CW: Social justice means that everyone has access to the opportunities and resources that are their right. Science relates to social justice in a couple of ways. We must first recognize how science has been misused to justify injustices. Next, we should figure out ways to create a more just world to illuminate and correct situations where people are having their right to a healthy environment taken from them through the actions of governments and businesses.

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EL: What inspired you to become a science teacher?

CW: Our natural world is incredible in its complexity and diversity and science is way of knowing that makes everything more understandable but at the same time leads to an appreciation for how awesome it is.I am a science teacher because I want to lead others to a similar understanding about the world through experiences that build their relationship to their environment and the communities we exist in as well as themselves.

EL: What role has being a part of the EL Education network had on your teaching practices? Are there any structures that are particularly helpful in your classroom?

CW: [EL Education] gave me a framework and set of skills that allowed me to bring ideas and theory into practice.The idea that learning expeditions should recreate the experience of real expeditions is one I always go back to.

Students need to be challenged in real ways through their learning and there should be a sense of accomplishment at the end. The structures that help me are protocols for work in the classroom and with colleagues.

As an EL teacher I have developed my thoughts about the role of education in developing critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication. These skills do not come naturally and must be practiced by both students and teachers. Protocols give us structures for effectively thinking and working together creatively.

EL: In the Democrat and Chronicle interview, you mention, “when people leave my classroom or this school, they should feel empowered by the knowledge and skills they have.” What is the one thing you would want them to remember above all else when they leave your classroom and ultimately graduate?

CW: My hope is that students remember that change is possible through conscious, collective action. Growth and change take hard work but when we work together great things can happen in our lives and the lives of others. I also hope that it is their responsibility to make their lives and the lives others better in both small and big ways.

Read more about Chris Widmaier and the Teaching Tolerance Award here.