Social Justice in the Science Classroom: A Mini-Lesson on Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks’ story took 65 years to reach me.  Her story has illuminated the nuances of scientific research and medical advancements in Technicolor.

So, who is Henrietta Lacks?

According to Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she:

looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.  (p.1)

That “or right at the end of the quote is the beginning of this lesson.  How could the name of someone who changed the trajectory of medicine be one of three possibilities?  How come we wouldn’t know?

This lesson is designed as a primer or a hook to provoke questions and ignite healthy skepticism as it begins a conversation surrounding the complexities of science and when it is, or is not, socially just.  Perhaps, sometimes, it lies somewhere in between.

Mini Lesson

Objective: Students will identify moments in video and text that provoke questions and ignite healthy skepticism.  Through discussion, students support their selections with evidence-based reasoning.

Time: 60-75 minutes, but can be adjusted as needed

Materials:

Age Group: Upper middle school through high school

Teacher Planning:

First, preview Project Zero’s Red Light, Yellow Light thinking routine.  The goal of this thinking routine is for students to focus on spotting occasions in which they are skeptical and naturally ask questions.  We will use a modified version of this thinking routine twice in the lesson, with two different information sources: video and text.

The general steps of the thinking routine are: 

Next, preview the official movie trailer, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and try out the thinking routine for yourself.  What jumps out to you? How did you notate your Red Lights and Yellow Lights?  What teacher moves will you employ to facilitate this with your students?

Then, preview the prologue from Rebecca Skloot’s novel, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.  Ask yourself the same metacognitive questions as you did with the movie trailer.  The prologue is 2,300 words long and has a Lexile Level of 1200-1300L. You may want to select excerpts or plan to employ reading strategies you use in your classroom to scaffold the text and make it accessible for your students.

Last, decide how you’d like to structure your students’ experience.  Will they identify Red Lights and Yellow Lights on a two-column chart?  With red markers and yellow markers, like the sample below?  On sticky notes they then organize on chart paper? How will you round up the observations from your class in preparation for a share-out?  Prepare, gather, and print any materials you choose based on what you know your students need.

Procedure

Present students with an image of a traffic light flashing red, and ask them to describe what they see, and what message a red traffic light sends.  Then, present them with an image of a traffic light flashing yellow, and ask the same prompting questions.

Connect their responses in your introduction of the Red Light, Yellow Light thinking routine.  Tell students you are asking them to identify areas in what they’re about to see and read that are Red Lights and Yellow Lights.

Play the official movie trailer, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.  If playing the trailer once, describe how you’d like students to note their Red Lights and Yellow Lights before playing.  If playing the trailer twice, have students simply watch the first time, then introduce their notation strategy before playing a second time.

Monitor and probe as students digest the trailer and sort their thoughts into Red and Yellow Lights.  This could be done individually, in pairs, groups, or some combination of different groupings.

Round up students’ observations and facilitate a discussion around what patterns students notice in their responses, their reasoning behind identifying and categorizing specific moments, and what questions these Red Lights and Yellow Lights spur in their minds.

If you have shorter class periods, this is a natural stopping point.  You can resume the lesson plan during your next class meeting, or simply stop here and launch into the rest of your unit.  If you have more time, or want to extend the experience, continue below.

Present students with the prologue from Rebecca Skloot’s novel, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Explain how they will notate Red Lights and Yellow Lights as they read.

Monitor and probe as students digest the prologue and sort their thoughts into Red and Yellow Lights. Again, this could be done in any combination of student groupings, and you can select excerpts of the text, as needed.

Round up students’ observations a second time and facilitate a discussion around what patterns students notice in their responses, their reasoning behind identifying and categorizing specific moments, and what questions these Red Lights and Yellow Lights spur in their minds.  There might be an opportunity here to return to the questions students had after viewing the movie trailer and see if the text has provided information to begin to answer them.

Choose Your Own Adventure

This lesson is meant to be a primer or hook that can be used as a launching point to go in many directions.  Some directions could be:

  • For learners in Washington, DC:
      • Visit the National Portrait Gallery, and view Henrietta Lacks’ portrait, on view through November 4th, 2018.
        • Lead students through a close look at the portrait to uncover elements of the portrait the artist, Kadir Nelson outlines here, and to create connections of their own.
  • For younger learners:
      • Use the movie trailer and prologue to allow students to determine the meaning of the following terms at the beginning of a cell biology unit:
        • Cell, cytoplasm, nucleus, genome, mitosis, cancer, immortal
      • Have students consider the question, “How would ______ think about using Henrietta’s cells for science research?” from multiple perspectives, including:
        • Henrietta’s children/family, the scientists who did the research, a person who survived cancer, Henrietta herself
  • For older learners:
    • Conduct a book study, and delve deeply into the intersection of science and social justice through the lens of Henrietta Lacks’ life.  A longer excerpt from the book can be found here.  A Teacher’s Guide can be found here.
    • Facilitate a debate surrounding questions such as, “Was the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells ethical?,” or, “Could this happen in today’s world?”

What do you use to teach the intersection of science and social justice in your classroom? Comment below!

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