Lessons from Jesus and the Samaritan Woman: Teaching Science in Culturally Responsive Ways
Regina McCurdy reflects on Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well and what this story has to show us about teaching science in culturally responsive ways.
While Jesus was on Earth, many of his followers, curious acquaintances, and religious leaders referred to him as “rabbi”, a respected teacher who is proficient in the Hebrew texts and Jewish law. He had the ability to draw in people from all walks of life with his parables that were full of rich insight and examples of the way of God and his kingdom. His teachings were very unique and unlike most religious leaders of his day.
Today, we tend to focus more on the whys and meanings behind Jesus’ teachings. Yet, given my background as a science teacher, it is significant to also explore how Jesus taught. So, what can we learn from Jesus about teaching in culturally responsive ways, particularly when it comes to science?
Before moving ahead, let me clarify what culturally responsive teaching is. Dr. Geneva Gay, renowned professor, author, and leader in multi-cultural education, defines culturally responsive teaching as, “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits,” for effective teaching.
When teachers welcome and use references from students’ lived experiences to relate the content in a more personal way, students pay attention. This type of teaching makes students feel seen. They feel that what they have to share and who they are in the learning community matters to their teacher, peers, and the subject matter as well. In science, culturally responsive teaching utilizes the ways students make sense of the natural world from their various ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds.
[Jesus] had the ability to draw in people from all walks of life with his parables that were full of rich insight and examples of the way of God and his kingdom.
You may be thinking, “How does culturally responsive teaching connect to Jesus’ teachings, and how we should teach science?” To make this connection clear, I want to direct us to John 4, one of my favorite stories of Jesus. This is not a parable, but an interaction—Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It holds significant insight for what teaching and learning should look like if we teachers want to give our science learners the best learning experience possible. To help us dissect this story, I highlight specific ways Jesus’ actions align with culturally responsive teaching. I also provide examples and questions we can reflect on as science teachers.
This passage is endearing to me, because Jesus makes no bones about needing to go through Samaria. This is a critical piece of the story, because the relationship between Jews and Samaritans was anything but polite. Jews hated Samaritans and went out of their way to avoid traveling through Samaria. But Jesus acted differently than a typical Jew of his day. He was breaking cultural norms. He had a purpose, and his purpose led him to make decisions that were challenging but necessary. In 2022, a wave of mandates are sweeping school districts and classrooms across the country that make it very difficult to expose students to culturally diverse perspectives. In light of these decisions, the voices of the marginalized are increasingly silenced. Jesus’ intentional mission calls us to find ways to make necessary changes in how we teach science.
Reflect: Are we intentional in our classrooms about addressing the ways in which people from diverse backgrounds have contributed to scientific knowledge and understanding? How can we be more intentional about this?
Engaging learners in cross-cultural conversation
Throughout this encounter, Jesus initiates and brings the Samaritan woman into meaningful discourse. He meets her right where she is, at Jacob’s well, a place of meaning to the Samaritan woman’s religion and ethnicity. She offers information about her cultural background and lived experience. Jesus makes a request that he knows will convey literal and figurative meanings. “Please give me a drink.” The fact that a Jewish man even spoke to her catches her off guard. She appears to sense Jesus is providing a safe space for dialogue. In turn, she opens up about the obvious cultural differences between them and continues the conversation by asking him a question.
Reflect: How do we create a safe space in our science classrooms to hear the diverse funds of knowledge our students have about science? Do we dive right in to tell them what to think, how to think, and what to do? Or do we try to meet students where they are, lead them into meaningful conversation, and listen to what they already know?
It is easy to ignore the plight some of our students have due to their race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic status…we must acknowledge them in such a way that, like Jesus, we can meet students where they are.
Sparking curiosity and a different perspective
Jesus answers her question with what many scientists and science teachers would identify as a hypothesis statement. “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.” His words and his continued engagement leads her to be more curious and ask even more questions. As a result, she offers more about her upbringing and her people’s history. Her preconceptions and misconceptions begin to surface, and she feels safe enough to verbalize them. She even questions him, challenging him and what he knows. Still, he refrains from reacting and negating her experience. Instead, he responds by offering her a different perspective and way of thinking.
Reflect: How do we organize class discussions to elicit students’ critical thinking? Do we give students the opportunity to connect their growing science understanding to their everyday lives?
Acknowledging cultural and social contexts
After her excitement about having this eternal living water, Jesus makes a request for her to go and bring her husband to him. Many sermons have stemmed from this part of their exchange. Many historical and current readers of this story assume the Samaritan woman was adulterous, a prostitute, and/or unwelcome in her local community, largely because of her five husbands and her current relationship.
Yet, as New Testament scholar Dr. Caryn A. Reeder describes in her book, The Samaritan Woman’s Story: Reconsidering John 4 After #ChurchToo, there are many culturally and socially acceptable reasons for her marital status, such as her husbands’ deaths, family financial decisions, divorce, or even abuse. Essentially, our limited societal and cultural upbringing may have inaccurately shaped what we read into Jesus’ words.
When we read John 4 in light of the context of that time period and geography, we simply see Jesus’ acknowledgment of the woman’s lived experiences, and his pleasure at her truthfulness and recognition of him as a prophet. We also see Jesus breaking gender, ethnic, and religious boundaries. Despite whatever prevailing cultural contexts that existed, Jesus chose to reveal who he was in an unexpected counter-cultural way: to a Samaritan woman.
Reflect: Do we assume that our students have (or should have) the same view of science concepts that we have? Do we hold space for a different way of learning that is different from ours a.k.a. “the norm”? Do we make judgements about what science knowledge our students have because of what they look like, where they live, or what others say about them? Do we offer a variety of ways for students to explore and explain what they are learning?
Empowering informed decision-making
Jesus provides more context into what living water means. He uses the religious backgrounds of Jews and Samaritans to make these ideas clearer to the woman. He then gives her critical information to empower her to make a decision about what she will do next. The Samaritan woman then sees similarities between Jesus’ teaching and her own knowledge about the Messiah.
It is also important to note that Jesus’ disciples were not thrilled about him interacting with a Samaritan woman. They saw Jesus speaking with the woman in a meaningful way, contrary to their own upbringing. Jesus openly demonstrated that the Good News of the Gospel was not limited to a chosen few. He showed that all people groups could have access to this Living Water. He also showed respect to the Samaritan woman in front of those who may have treated her negatively because of her ethnicity and gender. Jesus also empowered his disciples to make informed decisions about his mission. From this, we learn that culturally responsive teaching can benefit all students. All students, particularly those from majority cultural groups, need to witness their teacher highlight and respect the backgrounds and expertise of culturally diverse students.
Reflect: Do we provide ways for students to notice similarities among various indigenous science methods? Do we highlight creative approaches and different ways of knowing that diverse students may have or represent? Do we provide all students with critical information necessary to make scientifically-informed decisions?
All students, particularly those from majority cultural groups, need to witness their teacher highlight and respect the backgrounds and expertise of culturally diverse students.
Application to the science classroom
It can be pretty easy to consider culturally responsive teaching in theory. I am sure some of you reading this may be asking, “How do these principles relate to the actual practice of science teaching? Or, how can we use this biblical story and these aspects of culturally responsive teaching in a real science classroom?”
First, I want to highlight a central object in Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman: Water. Their entire conversation originates from Jesus asking for a drink of water and the woman needing to draw water from the well. Jesus uses water as a symbol of himself and his intentional mission on Earth. The main idea is that water is essential to life. People, plants, and most other living things cannot live without water in some way.
Secondly, because water is essential to life, it is also central to K-12 science standards. It is regularly addressed in science lesson plans and curriculum. The wondrous covalent bonds between two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom provide water with amazing properties that are worth exploring in any grade and in any science class.
Given these two thoughts, I have provided examples of how culturally responsive teaching approaches can be incorporated into science classrooms with water as the focus of the science lessons. These teacher prompts hinge upon the lessons we gleaned from Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
Teaching about water in a culturally responsive way
Teachers can engage learners in cross-cultural conversation by asking students: “What do you know about water? Do you know where your water comes from? In what ways do you, your parents, relatives, and other people you know use water? Are there any stories or beliefs about water you grew up hearing about?” These types of questions provide students with an opportunity to share their prior knowledge and significant connections to water with their classmates. Teachers can find ways of including aspects from students’ anecdotes and cultural histories into their lesson as a point of reference for all learners.
Teachers can spark curiosity and a different perspective by giving students a real-world scenario. “If all the water in the lakes, rivers, canals, and other bodies of water were to suddenly dry up, what do you think would happen to you, others, and your local environment? Explain.” This task cultivates students’ creative critical thinking. It allows students to consider what their own lives would look like without water. It also helps them brainstorm about solving problems of water shortage.
Teachers can provide students with pictures or video clips of different cultures of people using water in different ways to acknowledge cultural and social contexts. Then they can tell students to observe how different people around the world use water.
“How can we better understand the characteristics or properties of water from the way these individuals use it?” Depending on the images used, students may relate to, marvel at, and/or empathize with people’s varied access to and use of water. It is important for teachers to acknowledge students’ responses, allow them to voice their thoughts, and give them choices in how they choose to represent what they are learning from various cultural lenses.
Teachers can empower all students to make informed decisions about the use and access to clean water by having them work collaboratively in researching local or global water-focused concerns. Teachers’ questions like, “What socioeconomic or cultural factors affect a person’s access to clean water? How often is water in various communities tested for harmful substances? Compare the health of people, animals, and plants in different zip codes in our state (or country). How does examining this data affect your views about the use of water in your community? What are some actions you can take to make clean water more accessible for more communities?” These research questions challenge students to consider issues of equity, social justice, and sustainability surrounding water. These also challenge misconceptions students may have had about certain groups of people whose access to clean water affects their standing in society.
For centuries, science education has overemphasized fact-based learning at the expense of having students understand science in more relevant and holistic ways. Culturally responsive teaching weaves in students’ cultural experiences and knowledge into science classrooms. It offers a pathway for all students to gain and contribute towards a conceptual understanding of science that includes pieces of who they are inside and outside of the school building. Jesus created an environment in which the Samaritan woman felt safe to share a piece of her cultural identity with him. As a result, she became an enthusiastic witness for anyone who wanted unlimited access to the Living Water. This story challenges us science teachers of faith to discover respectful and meaningful ways to teach science to diverse learners and be open to the ways students’ cultures can enrich our science teaching to all and for all.
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