“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.

Trans awareness week: highlighting cissexism and transphobia in anthropology and beyond


November 12-19th was Trans Awareness Week, a time set aside to promote the voices and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming people.  It is a week of celebration and resilience leading up to the long-standing Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR), a say set aside to remember the many people who have been lost to transphobic violence.  Personally, I like thinking of TDOR as the Trans* Day of Rage and Resilience, both of which highlight the many ways that we as trans folks survive and fight back against the systems designed to endanger us and make our stories invisible.  

This year’s Trans Awareness Week felt especially personal for me as a U.S. resident because of a Trump administration memo that was released earlier this year indicating that they intend to remove protections for transgender people under Title IX, perhaps the most important form of protection for trans people, especially trans youth in schools.¬† Receiving this news made many people in my community afraid of what the future holds for us, myself included – without federal protection, I could be at risk of losing my job, healthcare, housing, or other rights and freedoms that I currently possess.¬† It is even scarier for the many people in my community that have other intersecting marginalized identities, especially trans folks of color, trans youth, undocumented trans people, and disabled and sick trans folks.

Most distressingly to me as a science educator, the leaked memo referred to sex verification using “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable,” such as the sex assigned at birth or DNA testing.¬† Not only is this extremely invasive, it is blatantly inaccurate!¬† As a science educator, I decided to take one step towards reducing ignorance about both the science of sex* and gender AND the ways that cissexism, transphobia, and interphobia show up in institutions of power over and over and over again. (To read one intersex person’s reaction to this memo, check out the awesome blogger Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello at¬†¬†“The Intersex Roadshow”!)

Gender unicorn bones

As a wrap-up to my unit on the skeletal system, I created this presentation about the science of intersex experience** and nonbinary identity, both of which are frequently erased by conservatives who assert that science says you are born either male or female, end of story.  As it turns out, science shows that there is incredible diversity in human sex and gender across time and culture.  Moreover, teaching students that sex is either male or female, end of story, is damaging in SO many ways Рdamaging to intersex students and transgender students whose realities are erased, damaging to cisgender binary-assigned students who believe that upholding cissexism and interphobia is normal and acceptable, and damaging to our collective liberation from science that believes that children are not capable of understanding the full complexity of the diversity of human experience.

The unit was based on a case study by Dr. Alison MacIntosh, who studies ancient bones of female people and compares them to living cisgender women’s bone development.¬† Strikingly, she was one of the first people to examine female remains with comparisons to living women’s bone density – other studies used cis men’s bone density numbers to determine strength, showing one tendril of the deep-rooted vines of institutional sexism in science.¬† I think Dr. MacIntosh is a total badass and I am proud to share her work with my students!¬† I also wanted to talk about the ways that anthropology intersects with cissexism and interphobia, and bone development being a secondary sex characteristic seemed like a perfect place to discuss this.¬† One example is the rating scale used to determine the sex characteristics of bones in a skeleton in the field, which can sometimes be ambiguous or conflicting, with no guidance for scientists about how to interpret those data. There are also examples of skeletons that demonstrate sexual and gender diversity in ancient cultures, with little attention paid to them beyond tabloid coverage that focuses on spectacle rather than science.¬† Our trans and intersex ancestors’ history and remains are no doubt present and overlooked or missed because of the ways¬† that scientists were trained to never expect to find them.

If you want to talk about integrating intersex and nonbinary awareness into your curriculum, please reach out!  I am always excited to network with other educators doing the important work of dismantling the structures of ignorance that support the oppression faced by me and my transgender siblings worldwide Рand our intersex family as well.  

*In my presentation to students, I used the term “sex” to describe the physical characteristics of a person’s body that are considered sex characteristics.¬† In my own life and work with adults, I try to move away from using the word “sex,” especially “biological sex,” because of its ambiguous meaning and its role in transphobia, especially transmisogyny.¬† Read more about this topic from Julia Serano (Medium) and Mey (Autostraddle)!

**It feels important for me to note here that I am not intersex, and emphasize that the needs of intersex and transgender communities are very different (though many people identify as both intersex and transgender).  I personally believe that destigmatizing intersexuality is an important step towards liberation of all communities who experience body-focused, sexual, and/or gender discrimination, including transgender people among many others.

Holding brave conversations, inside and outside the classroom

Last week, I was able to present on a topic near and dear to my heart: holding brave conversations with individuals and small groups around important issues.  I was presenting for the latest cohort of Out in Front leaders, a group of LGBTQIA+ adults working in their fields to promote equity and social justice.  We had a rollicking good time, and I learned a lot in the mutual exchange that took place that Saturday afternoon.

As teachers, we have a huge responsibility to live and act according to our values Рhundreds of eyes are on us daily.  In the classroom and in the faculty lounge, sensitive topics inevitably come up that require vulnerability, empathy, and care.  I would argue that these same steps that were designed for use in conflict between adults are just as useful when discipline issues persist in the classroom, or when two students need help working together collaboratively.

Based on a variety of resources and personal experiences, I created this presentation and handout that outline 5 steps to effective communication around sensitive topics.

  1. Prepare yourself.  Identify your goal in the conversation and find ways to begin with a clear, grounded presence.  Imagine what success looks like before you begin.
  2. Question with an open mind. Enter the conversation with the other people as though you know nothing about their perspective – because you don’t.¬† Even with the people we know and love the best, there is a lot we do not know about their experience, so we have to start by asking open-ended questions.¬† (It’s also helpful to avoid empathy blocks that come up in conversation!)
  3. Mirror and paraphrase.¬† Reflect back what you think you’ve heard.¬† Ask: did you miss anything?¬† Did you change things in your retelling?¬† Listen to and reflect what is beyond the words, too, like body language and tone.
  4. Speak your heart.¬†¬†It’s not until all that prep work happens that we can begin to share what’s coming up for us that led to the conversation in the first place!¬† Be direct and clear about your experience and requests.¬† Ask for the same undivided attention and mirroring you provided to the other person when possible.
  5. Make a plan.¬†¬†Don’t expect resolution or clarity from these conversations, especially at first.¬† However, if you are able to think through possible solutions, build off of one another’s ideas and try to see ways that you can move forward that keeps everyone safe and seen.¬† Make an accountability plan – even if it just means talking again in a few days to see if new ideas have risen to the surface.

I also generated some real-world scenarios for us to practice with, which have a focus on the issues that often arise for social justice organizers in a variety of spaces.  (Spoiler alert: they are almost all from the lived experiences of me and my friends in community.)  Check them out and let me know if you would add or change any of the information Рespecially if you have more quality resources to share on this important topic!

Thinking like an expert, part 2: Ambitious Science Teaching and the power of story

A while back, I wrote about a powerful perspective shift I had while taking a class on teaching physics by inquiry.  Recently, I have adopted the teaching practices of Ambitious Science Teaching, which center units around reasoning and sense-making with complex anchoring events.

I have been familiar with the AST framework for several years, but this is the first time I have dived in head-first into planning all of my curricula around anchoring events.¬† It was hard at first to imagine using specific models and moments to teach the systems of the body, especially because traditional inquiry models tend to fall apart in this discipline.¬† I wanted to have an equivalent of the Physics by Inquiry way of developing schema about a topic that helps kids leave with a bigger picture than just the body’s parts in isolation.¬† I have found that using puzzling phenomena as anchoring events for each unit has been a great way of providing a structure that helps kids identify what is important and how to fit pieces together in a meaningful way.¬† If you read this blog post and want to learn more, I highly recommend exploring the free resources on the AST website and purchasing the new book, Ambitious Science Teaching by Mark Windschitl, Jessica Thompson, and Melissa Braaten to learn more!

-How is this different from project-based learning (PBL)?¬†¬†For a long time, I was directed by administrators at my school to the Buck Institute of Education‘s vast resources on PBL to apply to my own curriculum creation.¬† While I have found that framework useful in some contexts, AST is specifically designed to get kids thinking and working as scientists and engineers over the course of their unit.¬† The reasoning work needed for students to understand anchoring events is very similar to the essential questions of PBL, with the added benefit that the science content and practice connections are made explicit through the dynamic, multifaceted nature of the phenomenon.¬† In my experience, PBL focuses on essential questions that are morally complex, which is perhaps the equivalent of the complexity of anchoring events that require many layers of scientific understanding and reasoning – some pieces directly observable and some not – to fully explain the event in a “gapless” way.

-Doesn’t it reduce the amount of content they learn?¬†¬†When AST is used effectively, I would argue that is highly increases the amount of content students actually learn, while remaining similar in the scope of content standards (or Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) in the NGSS) that students are reaching.¬† Why?¬† Creating a framework by which students understand and weave together content standards increases their overall understanding and builds a schema they can continue to build on throughout the year and their lives.¬† When students are taught content in isolation, memorizing parts of the brain or the names of animal families, they are not creating meaningful organization that will serve them as they apply their learning in new situations.¬† The AST model is designed for backwards-planning using standards goals to ensure students are learning the required content in a framework that challenges them to think beyond the beginning and end of those three weeks of middle school.

-Is teaching this way equitable?  When considering equity in the science classroom, one must first consider the ways that engaging with content in a traditional way is often not equitable.  Memorizing large amounts of information, often through readings that center the work and logic of academics that are typically white and male automatically creates barriers to students whose cultural capital and

One of the things I love most about the AST model of teaching is the ways equity moves and tools are woven throughout the framework to emphasize¬†every student’s learning process and making learning visible in concrete ways.¬† Many of these are highlighted in the STEM Teaching Tools put out by the UW School of Math & Science Education, who also created the AST model.

-Why does it work?  Essentially, I think this model works well because it encourages kids to do the important work of sifting through massive amounts of information to identify what is important and build a schema around that idea.  All research is based on this work Рthinking like an expert to sift through the technical details into the heart of the phenomenon.  And so far, it seems to be working brilliantly.  I have never had such high levels of engagement from students across the spectrum of scientific interest and perceived ability Рincluding students whose learning disabilities or other challenges might have prevented them from even getting started in a more conventional setting.

-What phenomena have you used so far?  This year, I have taught using specific stories that connect to content standards in anatomy and physiology as follows:

  • Why does a brain injury heal slowly while a bone fracture heals quickly?¬† We followed the story of Sarah, a traumatic brain injury victim whose brain took years of healing to return towards some semblance of normal.¬† This was a unit focused on neuroscience, brain structure, and learning.
  • Why do human divers get the bends but whales and dolphins don’t?*¬† This unit covered the way that oxygen enters the body by looking at the phenomenon of decompression sickness, a.k.a. “the bends.”¬† Students learned about the effects of pressure on the size and solubility of a gas, and saw the specific ways the body is designed to bring in gasses at normal levels at sea level that can become dangerous in higher-pressure situations. *Please note that there is evidence that whales and dolphins do sometimes contract the bends, though they have evolved to have an easier time diving to extreme depths without major harm – check out this awesome video that explains the basics of the phenomenon!
  • How can scientists learn about the lives of prehistoric people using only their skeletons? This used the research of Alison Macintosh and other researchers exploring the strength of prehistoric female people using only bone remains.¬† This was the first study to compare ancient female skeletons to living cis females, also providing a lens through which to discuss the sexism present in many different aspects of scientific research.

Here’s a link to Part I of this series on thinking like an expert – getting students to high levels of understanding and application in the middle school science classroom.

Body breaks: 5 minutes of somatic learning

This year, I’ve changed my daily routine to include five minutes called a “body break”: a physical activity that either increases students’ understanding of current topics or gives them time to explore getting to know their body and brain better.

As students and teachers, we spend a lot of our time in our minds somewhere¬†else, whether that’s on the next step of our lesson plan, the reading we forgot to do the night before, or stressing about an email we have to respond to, like, yesterday.¬† Taking 5 minutes from my regular class time more than makes up for itself during “regular” instruction because it regrounds my students and me in the moment.¬† Pausing to take a breath and think about bodies from a physical perspective allows the brain to relax, focus, and really listen – it gives me and my students fresh eyes during each class period.

Learning with the body and putting this as the priority has also led me to develop a number of creative ways to think about anatomy, physiology, and health topics in a more kinesthetic and somatic way.¬†¬†I start my classes with five minutes of a “body break” each day.¬† I lead them Monday-Thursday, and a rotating student leader takes it on during Fridays (which are also our reading discussions).¬† Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Five minutes of mindfulness.¬† Taking a breath and noticing the sensations in your body are a great way to spend 5 minutes regrounding in the present moment.¬† I’ve used body scans, breathing exercises, and simple “body time” (where kids can just notice themselves and be in their own headspace without interacting with others) on many occasions, especially when a class seems particularly rowdy or stressed.¬† I once had a student enter my classroom crying and after just 2 minutes of sitting in silence, she was fine to continue class.¬† Silence is powerful stuff!
  • Building self-knowledge of one’s own body and how it works.¬† We practice stretching specific muscle groups as a way to learn about the anatomy and physiology of muscles, and look at the differences between muscles, tendons and ligaments in interesting parts of the body like the fingers. We also observe muscle strain and lactic acid buildup during anaerobic exercise by doing wall sits or planks, noticing how different it is to do repetitive motion versus sustained motion.¬† We also do proprioception practice, using balance and self-awareness as a natural relief for those experiencing stress at home or school.¬† Kids also love to share their favorite weird body tricks, including pressure points, double-jointedness, and proportions – did you know that your foot is about the same length as your forearm, for example?
  • Modeling anatomy and physiology features.¬†¬†In addition to looking at our own bodies, we can model major body systems and tissues using fun and engaging tactics!
    • Surface area to volume ratio: dodge ball!¬†¬†When talking about villi being built to maximize surface area, we modeled randomly moving nutrient particles using soft balls that were thrown while blindfolded.¬† We measured how many of the balls made it when student targets stretched out as big as possible, and how many hit when those students were crumpled up tight like a ball.¬† In general, the bigger the surface area, the more successful contact with the “nutrients” there was.
    • Peristalsis: hula hoop pass!¬†¬†We played this game while talking about peristalsis, which passes food down the esophagus using muscle motions that move in one direction.¬† Have the class race itself to see how quickly they can move that bolus!
    • Polysaccharides & enzymes tag¬† Like “blob tag” – students are all saccharides trying to join as one large chained molecule.¬† 1-3 students are enzymes that can split apart people whose hands are joined, creating a kind of homeostasis if the numbers are just right!
  • Core skills of¬†medicine.¬† Students can practice the skills that medical practitioners use in their daily operations!
    • Measuring heart rate/pulse with the fingers.¬†¬†During our cardiovascular system unit, we discussed a number of things that impact heart rate and why they change it.¬† We measured our pulse one day, then did experiments the rest of the week using aerobic exercise, mindfulness/resting, and even an ice bath!
    • Using a stethoscope and measuring blood pressure¬†are fun skills to practice if you have access to stethoscopes and cuffs.¬† Students learn a lot about blood and the heart through the physical nature of these tools.
    • Directions of the body¬†can be learned using motions on the body or around the room to learn and review important location terminology (dorsal/ventral, anterior/posterior, superior/inferior, etc.)
  • Content review.¬† It is always nice to be able to go through recent content with kids while playing a game or moving our bodies!
    • “Cerebrum’s Coming”: Uses the same model as “Captain’s Coming,” but the things that are called out are locations in the brain (relative to the whole classroom) or motions associated with parts of the nervous system.¬† (Amygdala = freeze in a “fight” stance, neuron = “nerve cell” with a salute, etc.)
    • Pepper is a technique from “Teach Like a Champion” that asks kids fast-paced review questions while tossing a ball back and forth as they answer them.¬† I always play it before quizzes and tests as a way to “warm up” and get kids in the zone for the assessment.¬† It can also be a fun body break reviewing from the previous day, or from a distant unit that kids haven’t thought about in a while!
    • Paprika is my riff off of Pepper, where kids are the ones asking the questions.¬† All students stand up, and I start by asking a question and passing the ball to a student. Then, that student asks a question about the unit and passes it on.¬† All students need to both ask a question related to our unit and answer a different person’s question correctly before they can sit down.¬† The benefit of being last?¬† You get to ask me anything you want!
    • “Oh Cells”¬†is based on “Oh Deer”¬†, a game I loved as an outdoor educator teaching about ecosystem dynamics.¬† In this game, cells are the ones looking for nutrients, water, and oxygen in the body.¬† When they reach the Hayflick Limit (3 turns), they go through apoptosis.¬† Later in the game, a twist comes in when cells develop mutations that lead to cancer: they don’t “pop” any more and cancer takes over the living system!

Takeaways: One thing that I LOVE about body breaks is that it turns our classroom into a laboratory.¬† As an anatomy & physiology teacher, the kinds of inquiry-based labs I used to do when teaching physics don’t work in the same way… unless kids are doing things that are feasible with their own physical selves.

Another thing that body breaks emphasize is how¬†different each body is from others.¬† Textbooks tend to imply that everyone’s insides are identical, or that the way each brain is wired is precisely the same.¬† In reality, though the basics are the same for every human being, there are distinct differences for each individual that make each body unique.¬† Not weird, or wrong, just different – that’s the beauty of the human experience!

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?


Some thoughts on sex ed from a queer/trans* perspective

A while back, I wrote a guest post on the GLSEN blog entitled “6 Ways I Make My Science Class LGBTQ-inclusive as a Trans* Teacher.”¬†(Technically my title used the acronym LGBTQIA+, but moving on…)

I love the ways that being openly queer and trans allows me to teach sex ed in a different way than if I was closeted.¬† I also love the ways that my experiences as a queer and trans person whose truth is CONSTANTLY minimalized or erased in biology and health language, medical studies and research, health curricula, and textbooks allows me to see through a lot of attempts at including LGTBQIA+ voices that don’t actually meet our needs.

I think of sex ed in terms of universal design¬†– how do I present information in a way that makes sense for the needs of any student walking in my door?¬† The lessons I teach should be relevant to an intersex student without throwing something in about intersex conditions as an afterthought.¬† Trans* kids should see themselves reflected there, and so should cisgender students.¬† A well-designed curriculum doesn’t even need the term “inclusive” – that implies that it takes extra work to put marginalized voices into what’s there.¬† Instead, it should intentionally point out that all bodies are different while sharing common principles, something that¬†I try and weave into everything I teach about human anatomy and health.

So when I was able to meet with a group of young people who wanted to talk sex ed at an interscholastic GSA social event, I was *stoked.*¬† Here is a run-down of the things we talked about, in a group of middle- and high-school students grades 6-12 (mostly grades 6 and 7) – the black “-” column were negatives from their experiences with sex ed in the past, and the blue “+” column were positives or aspirations for the future:

A whiteboard reads text from students' notes about sex ed. Negatives: Dumbed down/too kiddish. You're not ready. Teacher not comfortable. Only learn about assigned sex/segregated. Not trans-inclusive or LGBTQ-inclusive. Just puberty. Emphasizes sex "binary" and not accurate. Questions not completely answered. Too short. Does not reflect complexity of identity. Focus on reproduction and preventing reproduction. PiV intercourse in hetero context only. Positives: Nice, funny teacher - comfortable with role. Tools. Not awkward/cheesy. Pads on shirt. Includes the complicated stuff. Sex! Not just puberty. Identity & LGBTQ topics. "Methods" included. Pleasure included. Sex positivity. Acknowledging/educating about LGBTQ communities. More explicit & direct information at younger ages. On the side of the whiteboard is written other notes: XX/estrogen/testosterone XY/testosterone/estrogen XXX XXY Scarleteen

Stuff that works:

  • The biggest thing that kids wanted was teachers who were comfortable talking about sex with kids.¬† It is unsurprising that many teachers end up teaching sex ed who aren’t actually comfortable, excited, or qualified to do that work.¬† Recruiting sex educators should be a priority for schools so that students receive a comprehensive education that doesn’t perpetuate discomfort¬†in talking about sex.
  • Having lessons about all kinds of experiences – not just those of a student’s presumed gender or assigned sex at birth – is really important, especially to kids questioning their gender identities.¬† Several kids expressed disdain over the combination dysphoric-and-potentially-triggering experience of being segregated into a group of people based on assumed gender and then talking about genitalia and hormonal changes that they detest for hours.¬† Don’t force kids to segregate by (assumed) assigned sex at birth.¬†¬†You may find that having a single-saab¬†group available is helpful for some students; you can offer this as an opt-in space that kids can go to if they would like (and let them choose which group to attend!).
  • Similarly, talking about the experiences/identities of queer, trans, and intersex people is important for all kids in the room, regardless of who they present as in the moment.
  • Acknowledging that sex is not just for reproduction, not all sex carries a risk of reproduction, and not all queer sex lacks a risk for reproduction… again, think “universal design”!¬† The same goes for talking about sex: don’t start with “normal” sex and get into the “weird” stuff.¬† Talk about sex in a universal way – pleasure, reproduction, and consent.¬† They apply to everyone who chooses to have sex, period.
  • A subset of this thinking for me as a teacher is also explicitly naming that what “sex” means to different people is different.¬† I do an activity that was modeled for me in high school where students receive an envelope with different intimate activities in it, ranging from cuddling with clothes on, to masturbating alone, to penis-in-anus sexual contact.¬† They have to rank the acts in terms of their own sense of how intimate they are, and then mark where “sex” starts for them.¬† Then, they look around the room: not a single list is the same, including the line of where “non-sex” ends and “sex” begins.¬† It’s a beginning to an important conversation about communication, clarity in how you talk to potential partners, and how we define our own relationship to sex and sexuality.

I’m still learning and growing as a sexual health educator – and I’d love to hear your thoughts about what resources have been helpful in your own sex education.¬† I’ll leave my favorite resource, Scarleteen, here – share others in the comments!

Student recommendations for creating inclusive classrooms for queer, trans, and questioning youth

I have the privilege of being the faculty advisor to our middle school Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA), a space set aside for kids who want to co-create a safer school for queer, trans, and questioning students.  I asked them for their recommendations of ways that faculty and staff can help create safer spaces for all students, especially those who might be questioning their gender or sexuality or have a gender or sexual identity other than cisgender and straight.  Here is a list of their suggestions:

  • Listen to students‚Äô comments to each other. ¬†Call out bigotry when you hear it. This is the comment I hear the most from students about how adults can help create a more supportive community at our school for everyone.¬† Speaking up when you hear unkind comments about a particular identity (and this extends far beyond gender and sexuality!) really demonstrates to students that you care about them and will stand up for them when they need it. ¬†(For more information/ resources, check out ‚ÄúSpeak Up at School‚ÄĚ for teachers).
    • Students also recommended that adults get “up to date” on what hateful language might look like for the particular age group they teach.¬† Asking students for help identifying those moments is a great collaborative project and can lead to some powerful conversations.
    • Another part of being ready for these moments is being knowledgeable about and comfortable with discussing topics related to identity – and gender, sex, sexuality are just the beginning.¬† May I recommend The Gender Unicorn?
  • Even if you don‚Äôt hear the things that happen, show your students that you care and that you will listen when they bring things to you that they‚Äôve seen or heard. ¬†Follow up with them to try and create a classroom and school environment where students are accountable for their words and actions.
  • At beginning of the year, ask students for preferred name and gender pronouns. ¬†This is one way to include space for students‚Äô identity to be affirmed in your class from day one.
    1. Model how to share preferred gender pronouns before students share their own, and explain how they work and why we ask for them.  (This is a great bonus lesson in grammar!)  Be sure to follow up with students who may joke about pronouns or not understand the process.
    2. Make explicit that pronouns change & kids can approach teachers if that happens.
    3. Practice using students’ preferred pronouns, and gently correct students who mispronoun other students in the moment.
    4. If students have pronouns that they use at school but not at home, please ask them to make that clear.  An adult they trust should follow up and encourage them to discuss with parents ASAP, as long as it is a safe/supportive environment.
  • Don‚Äôt make groups by (assumed) gender.¬† Similarly, don’t assign tasks, costumes, vocal parts, or sports teams that way.¬† Here are some suggestions for other ways of splitting the class into multiple groups:
    1. Month of your birthday
    2. First letter of your first name
    3. Favorite ice cream flavor
    4. Using playing cards/picture cards made in advance
    5. Other ideas here, here, and here.
  • Don’t assume gender!¬† Gender identity and gender presentation are different.¬† That’s why it’s important to ask all students for their gender pronouns (if they are comfortable sharing them), and not just kids that you perceive to be trans or gender non-conforming.
  • Normalize conversations that include non-normative genders and sexualities.¬† Use examples that include queer or trans people, but not in a “look a gay example!” way: this can be seen as tokenizing and harmful.¬† Practice being comfortable talking about identities different than your own so that when those topics come up, you can model conversations about those topics in a respectful, non-aggrandizing way.¬† Practice using “they/them” pronouns for people in the third person and practice using those pronouns during everyday conversations with students.
  • Incorporate diverse forms of gender identity and sexuality into your curriculum. ¬†For humanities teachers, this means providing examples of literature and historical figures/events that represent a diversity of LGBTQ identities. ¬†For STEM teachers, this means using inclusive language when describing phenomena, not oversimplifying biology, and not using simplistic ideas of gender and sexuality when taking data and analyzing statistics. ¬†For all teachers, this includes evaluating current materials and ensuring they don‚Äôt center specific kinds of relationships and families at the expense of others. Check out the Safe Schools Coalition Curricular Resources for more information.
  • Be open to students’ feedback.¬† Ask for feedback regularly, and provide ways for students to let you know when things that you’ve done have un/intentionally excluded them from being comfortable in your space.¬† This happened to me multiple times this year.¬† It was super hard, and it was an incredible gift from those students that have helped me become a better teacher.¬† It is also awesome to model making mistakes and changing behavior for students.
    • Feeling like practicing new words or pronouns is hard?¬† That’s OK.¬† Keep working on it.¬† You can share that it’s challenging with your students, but please don’t say it’s “too hard” for you.¬† You just haven’t mastered it yet, much like our students working on any number of skills that make them vulnerable and ask them to practice making mistakes on the daily.
  • Honor students’ expertise.¬† Sentences like “You’re too young to know X” or “Let me tell you what you are feeling right now” are patronizing and remove agency from students who know themselves better than anybody else.
  • Honor students’ right to confidentiality.¬† If a student discloses their identity or questioning status, even in front of other people, it is always a good idea to check in with them before sharing that with another faculty/staff member or student.¬† This is especially important when interacting with other members of their family, since not all homes are open to diverse sexual and gender identities.
  • As much as possible, eliminate institutionalized heterosexism and cissexism.¬† Are intake forms for your school inclusive of many gender identities?¬† Do students need to report their legal name instead of their preferred name in public spaces like class or email?¬† Are there bathroom and locker room options available for students that work for their access needs?
  • Be gentle with yourself.¬† One of my favorite things about my students is that they really see teachers as people, and know that making mistakes is a part of this process.¬† They want you to know that you can do it!¬† Treat yourself gently and take care of your own emotions while going through this process.

Journey-mapping in the science classroom

Hi, everyone! ¬†It’s been a while. ¬†Here’s some updates on things I’ve been thinking about in my classroom and my graduate program.

Back in November, I went to a workshop with the fabulous Deb Morrison, a professor at the University of Washington College of Education. ¬†The focus was on activities and practices that increase equity in the science classroom. ¬†I left with a number of amazing tools, which are cataloged in this Google Doc which you should feel free to use and distribute, with attribution! ¬†The one I want to focus on today is “The Path Here – Educational Journey Maps.”

As a part of the activity, students are asked to map out the “key events, people or things in your life that have contributed to your science education.” ¬†This allows students to examine the ways they have been encouraged or discouraged in science, provides information to teachers about students’ personal relationships with science topics, and allows students to see trends in the ways different students have engaged with science in the past/reflect on how that impacts students’ current work and sense of belonging in the classroom.

I hope to use this with my students next fall, but as an experiment, I decided to create my own journey map of how I came to be a science teacher. ¬†Here’s what I have so far:


Until I completed the activity, I would never have noticed a few striking trends:

  • Middle school is basically absent from my timeline – it is like a gap in my experience of education. ¬†Many of my middle school memories have been blocked out, in large part because of hormones (or at least that’s my theory)
  • I have had¬†very few positive relationships with science teachers. ¬†With the exception of two or three college professors and my 5th grade teacher, no conventional science teacher has really had a positive relationship with me as a student. ¬†This is striking, given how much I enjoy teaching science now.
  • I had a¬†lot of pressure growing up to become a scientist, and I was very resistant to that pressure. ¬†My mother’s parents were both scientists, and I was a bright student as a kid, and as a result I was pushed hard into STEM topics. ¬†As a result, I pushed hard back. ¬†Especially as a school-aged girl, I felt like there was an expectation that I would go into STEM to break stereotypes about women in those fields.
  • Interestingly, I spent a lot of my free time as a kid working on STEM-related projects, like taking apart electronics, spending time in the woods, and learning to identify birds. ¬†However, I never really got to connect those passions to the work we were doing in classroom science until I got to college. ¬†I spent a lot of high school avoiding science by testing out of those classes based on knowledge I had from reading and being cared for by my grandparents. ¬†As a result, my best connections are with humanities teachers who allow me to pursue topics of interest and push me to critically think about issues of justice and representation.

Based on this work, I included a question about teachers’ paths to science on a recent interview done with 6 teachers in my professional learning community. ¬†I was working on some interview practice for an upcoming research capstone in my graduate program, and was asking teachers to reflect on their inclusive practices in their classrooms. ¬†Below is a table summarizing those teachers’ responses to thinking about moments when they were especially included or excluded from the grade school science classroom:

Table 2

The most striking trend I noticed was in teachers discussing a specific project, paper, or lab that drew them into the practice of science.  One teacher described breeding a specific kind of fruit fly on her own using multiple generations of reproduction and her knowledge of genetics.  Another talked about a paper written in a seminar that she had worked especially hard on that had been appreciated by her professor.

As I enter into leading a long-term research project for the first time as a science teacher, I am excited to try and create this sense of excitement, personal investment, and challenge for my students. ¬†It would not have occurred to me before completing this exercise that this could be listed as an inclusive practice within science teaching, but it is clear that both in the experience and teaching of science content, having authentically engaging and challenging independent tasks is a keystone for many students’ ability to see themselves belonging in that space. ¬†More to come on how that plays out in the near future!

What are the key moments from your own STEM education that led you to feel included or excluded in that space?  Share in the comments!

Think like an expert: teaching kids to see the big picture, Part 1

I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently enrolled in a(n awesome) physics class.  On the first day, our professor showed us this photograph:


Take a look… what do you see?

At first, it looks like a sea of random dots.  However, when you look at it more closely, in the center of the frame is the outline of a dalmatian, surrounded by leaves along a road.

This, our professor said, is seeing like an expert Рtaking in a whole system of dots, like equations, theorems, specific experiments, and seeing the larger pattern that unites them all.  This image can never be unseen Рit becomes an internalized part of your way of seeing the world.

Students, on the other hand, come to our specific disciplines and typically try to memorize as many dots as possible.  They create mnemonics to make certain clusters of dots more recognizable, practice finding dots quickly over and over before an exam, and crate long study guides covered in every possible iteration of dots to prepare for any kind of question we might throw at them.

Ultimately, our goal as teachers is to help our students see science like an expert.  Instead of partitioning body systems into concrete boxes, we hope students will understand them intuitively as interacting in a larger system aimed at homeostasis.  Instead of thinking of Newtonian physics with a series of equations, we encourage students to develop intuition about particular phenomena, based in science rather than their naive conceptions.  When approaching a calculation, we hope students will think first of what magnitude they expect their answer to be before applying an equation into the mix.

I have been blown away by how clearly this has been taught in my physics course, which uses the Physics by Inquiry curriculum developed by Lillian McDermott and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington.  Our two-week intensive has covered the topics of basic electrical circuits and the phases of the Moon Рboth topics that I have taught in the past Рand breaks down those topics into student-led, direct inquiry lessons that build models from the ground up.

Instead of starting with equations, the curriculum encourages students to create an intuition about phenomena that rises out of observed patterns in their data.¬† Starting with something as simple as creating a complete circuit with a battery, a single wire, and a light bulb (Guess what? There’s 4 different ways to do it!), the curriculum builds an intuitive, qualitative model of electrical current and voltage.¬† Only after the groundwork is laid and set – a good 30+ hours of instructional time into the unit – does anything like Ohm’s law enter into play.¬† By then, it’s almost a given!

I cannot recommend this curriculum enough.  Even going through one of the units yourself is an eye-opening experience for any science teacher.

After completing this course, with its many “aha” moments in both teaching and physics, I have been energized to dig into the literature and see what other curriculum planning tools and constructed curricula exist for teaching science effectively.¬† Specifically, as someone teaching human biology for the first time, I wonder how these same research tools could be applied to teaching that much less mathematical and systematic discipline.¬† More on what I’ve dug up from the MSU library in future posts!