“What Makes a Baby”: 8th grade edition!

Image description: the cover of the book "What Makes a Baby" by Cory Silverberg. A smiling sperm and egg look at each other.

The fabulous book What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg came out in 2012 to much acclaim and excitement from folks across the spectrum of diverse families, caregivers, teachers, and kids. It tells the story of how babies come into the world in an accurate way without ever implying the gender(s) of baby creators, parents, or the relationship between those people. [There’s also an awesome reading guide for caregivers and teachers who use it in their classroom – check it out!]

As I prepared to teach a unit on CRISPR with a specific emphasis on the story of He Jiankui’s claim to have genetically edited zygotes that were later born as babies, I wanted a way to talk about pregnancy and birth (especially IVF!) that didn’t involve a lot of inaccurate and dysphoria-ridden resources that link what gametes people make and their gender identity or relationship to future genetic descendants.

In-vitro fertilization (IVF) was an important concept in my unit on genetically editing zygotes. [Image description: a student illustration of a needle pointing at an egg in a petri dish.]

I was excited to use the book in my classes, but as an 8th grade teacher, it felt odd to simply read a book designed for small children and leave it at that. Moreover, some of the detail that I wanted to dive into wasn’t included in the book, making it an imperfect resource for my purposes. I developed a lesson that uses the book as a launching point for students to illustrate their *own* What Makes a Baby, involving student-led investigation and illustration with much delight and personal flair. ūüôā

I started by writing an 8th grade level text that matches the flow of the original book. (Feel free to adapt and share widely – and provide feedback if I have any inaccuracies or things that you think could be more complete. I worked hard to fact-check, but unfortunately, nuanced information about sexual and reproductive health is often hard to find, especially for us trans people!)

Image description: One student's stunningly detailed illustration of the ovulation cycle from maturation to menstruation.

You’ll note that in the text, I use the term “gene giver” to describe a person who contributes an egg or a sperm to create a new human. The fabulous Christine Zarker Primomo introduced me to the idea of inviting students to create their own language when the language we have is insufficient, especially in this specific case. Even using terms like “genetic parent” implies that the relationship between someone who provides the sperm or egg that becomes someone *is* their parent. We also create gender-neutral (and gamete-neutral!) language, since not everyone who makes eggs is a woman or a mother, and not everyone who makes sperm is a man or a father. Ideas students created included:

  • Gene givers (or “GGs”)
  • Biological Life Transmitters (“BLTs”)
  • Spawners
  • DNA Deliverers
  • Trenaps (“parent” spelled backwards)
  • Storks – This one was my favorite, since it is so playful, easy, and universally kid-appropriate.

After reading through the original book with students (in my experience, kids of ALL ages love to be read to, and it brings out a particular curiosity in them that can be fun to engage with), I split the class into small groups and assigned each of them one section of the “upgrade.” In their small groups, they had to read through the text, do some more background research, and illustrate 1-2 pages that would go with the text.

This student group illustrated the germ layers of an embryo and their developmental trajectory into different parts of the body.
This student wanted to illustrate AND write the text for her piece. [Image description: a pregnant body next to a clock with a passage about birth.]

During the illustration phase, students encountered lots of things they were curious to learn more about, and I was able to answer those questions or direct them to strong resources that could provide the answers they wanted. We had fun talking about common misconceptions about ovulation and menstruation while also digging into harder questions about medical and legal rights for pregnant individuals, ethical questions about IVF, and the differences between preventing pregnancy and preventing STI transmission. Moreover, when we finished our book and read it out loud as a class, we had created a narrative that was cohesive, inclusive, and supported students’ sense making around how IVF functions in the larger picture of pregnancy and birth.

Students often loved - or avoided! - illustrating one of the passages about birth.  I gave student groups free choice of what part of the book they were interested in illustrating. [Image description: A medical worker is performing a C section and surgically removing a baby from the body of a pregnant person.]

If I had more time, I would have loved to have students write the text as well as illustrate it, possibly as an end-of-unit assessment. Given the time constraints we were under, I thought students’ work was thoughtful, detailed, and clear. I hope that over time, more and more resources will become available for teaching students of all ages about reproductive science in an accurate and inclusive way – until then, I’ll be creating them alongside my students.

Science Square Dancing: Learning and Moving to the Music!

Six young people have their hands in a hexagon, with each person's hand grabbing onto the wrist of the person in front of them. A brightly colored floor is in the background.

This week, I have the pleasure of presenting my favorite lesson of the entire school year at the regional National Science Teachers’ Association (NSTA) Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.¬† That lesson is: Science Square Dancing!

I learned to square and contra dance as a high schooler and immediately fell in love with the quirky community, safe physical connection to others, and rich music and dance heritage that connects many generations of social dancers.¬† I learned to call in college and found that many of the skills I used as a dance caller applied in classroom¬†teaching.¬† I began to wonder… could I combine the two worlds?

Turns out, it was a perfect match.  As a 6th grade science teacher, I used square dance moves as a platform for reviewing cell organelles and the families of the Periodic Table.  In addition to learning and reviewing these basic concepts, kids also practiced important skills:

  • Dancing with their peers, regardless of their relationship, and overcoming interpersonal conflict or discomfort
  • Practicing asking for consent before engaging physically with someone, and learning to say and hear “no”
  • Being willing to make mistakes publically and look a little bit foolish – all in the name of science!

Attached are the handout and slide deck I made for my presentation, which led the group through the process of teaching square dancing to a class for the first time.  We did the Periodic Table lesson as an example, but square dance moves can easily be applied to any number of content areas Рthe possibilities are endless!  The best candidates have a large number of important vocabulary words that are meaningfully different from one another in their function.

Six young people are holding hands in a circle in a colorful science classroom.

Here is a blank template with the Periodic Table samples as a reference for thinking through your own possible curricular ties – be sure to share them back so that others can use them in their own dancing adventures!

The slide deck and handouts include links to videos where appropriate.  More information about square and contra dance moves are available online Рtwo examples that work well for my brain are here & over here.

You can also find a dance near you and practice on your own!  The best way to learn is by doing and practicing the moves yourself Рand bring a friend along for the fun.  Who knows where square dancing will go next?