“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.

What I’m reading now: Back-to-School 2018

Hi, everyone!¬† Happy new school year.¬† Here’s a quick snapshot of my recent reading related to teaching, social justice, and play.

Inclusive Sex Ed Checklist РThis is the best resource about universal language in a sex ed context, ever.  I hope that if you have discussions with people of any age, but especially young people, that you will take a look and adopt these guidelines as a part of your practice.  Thank you SextEd & AIDS Community Care Montreal!!

Working and Discourse Norms – These are a list of norms that a coworker of mine brought from her previous school.¬† I was impressed with the list, especially “expect non-closure” and “Go to the source (or let it go),” which both seem pretty countercultural in a private school where conflicts can rumble for years and bringing things up without a quick and/or easy solution is verbally frowned upon.¬† SF-CESS¬†has many other free resources on their website.

Braiding Sweetgrass РThis book should be required reading for every American, especially folks who are not Native/indigenous.  I read this book this summer based on multiple enthusiastic recommendations from friends.  As soon as I finished it (tearing up even on the last pages that were about use of language) I wanted to start it all over again. The basic overview: Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist, mother, and a member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation.  She weaves together stories about practicing Western science, Native cultural perspectives and practice, and her experiences of history and the present day through vivid storytelling. Every chapter could be a book unto itself Рher intimate knowledge of natural forces and use of metaphor alongside evidence is breathtaking.  Most importantly, this book gave me insights into ways that the relationship between humans and nature could actually come into balance moving forward Рnot just reducing harm, but actually living reciprocally with non-human beings.  Blown away.  Read it now.  Tell a friend.

Key Facilitation Skills Series – this is a series of posts about issues that arise when facilitating collective groups.¬† They are super relevant to teaching as well, especially in classrooms where we try to empower students to participate in decision-making alongside us.¬† It’s only on part II as of this writing, but I recommend following it for some concrete ways of thinking about our roles as facilitators.

Bodies podcast РThis podcast does a great job of allowing people to tell their stories of how the medical system has failed to meet their needs.  I am especially impressed by the voices they raise up without stigma or spectacle Рnearly all of the stories focus on women, and include intersex experiences, disability, fatness, and sex work.  Discussions of sexuality are also sex-positive and centered on autonomy and self-determination.  Definitely worth a listen!

Nakani Native Program Resource page РThis past weekend, I had the privilege to hear from Ellany Kayce about native perspectives on justice.  Kayce does a lot of cross-cultural education work (Nakani is a Tlingit word for a person or entity which serves as a connector and go-between for different people, places and cultures) and spoke at a Quaker gathering centered on modern-day abolition.  This resource page has a number of excellent documents for anti-racist work, including the cycle of oppression, a guide for white allies to Native community, and comparisons between Native and Eurocentric values in justice systems, and a beautiful set of group agreements for social justice spaces.

AORTA guide to Cultural Appropriation РThis quick checklist of queries provides some conversation starters with friends, peers, and students about whether or not something that a person is practicing could be considered cultural appropriation.  I have found it useful recently in talking with my colleagues about how we choose to decorate our spaces while honoring and including the variety of cultural experiences in the room that we may or may not share.

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!