“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.

Teaching Biology as Anti-Racist Practice: Reflections and Share-outs from Fred Hutch’s Biology and Social Justice Working Session

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to participate in a fantastic workshop put on by the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center’s Science Education Partnership. The day included talks by Brian Donovan, a researcher with BSCS who focuses on humane education and how biology education shapes students’ racially biased beliefs, and Jason Foster, a high school teacher who centers his year-long curriculum around issues of social justice and race. We also did a hands-on lab activity that transformed a typical genomics conviction lab into a framework where DNA testing can be used to exonerate those wrongly convicted of crimes.

Three teachers pipette DNA in an exoneration lab during the Biology and Social Justice Working Session on March 23, 2019

Both during and after this workshop, I repeatedly felt like my brain was on fire with new ideas and reframing how I think about science education in a fundamental way. Here are a few of my main takeaways from the event:

Biology educators have a moral obligation to teach students about race. Several peerreviewed studies have shown that the way genetics and race are taught in biology classrooms has a direct effect on students’ concept of genetic differences between individuals of different races and their ideas of how much of the disparities between racial groups can be explained through biology. This long-lasting misconception has its roots in the early years of evolutionary science, where (overwhelmingly white and male) biologists applied the rules of genetics to justify racist ideologies and practices. That same logic is a critical underpinning of white supremacist arguments used to lure individuals (including children) into their bigoted and violent social movements. It is imperative to use evidence-based practices to displace problematic misconceptions about genetics, race, and inequity from our teaching and replace them with interventions that move students towards accurate ideas of what differences exist between racial groups from a biological and genetic perspective.

Race is a powerful social construct with real and potentially deadly influence on human lives. However, biology does not support the stereotypes and distinctions that society imparts on individuals with different racial and ethnic heritage. I’m not going to linger on this much here, because many others have written or presented on this topic with significantly more expertise than I have. One of the coolest parts of being in this workshop was hearing from biologists and geneticists about the cutting-edge research in this area showing that there is very little genetic diversity in the human race as a whole compared to other species, and that there is more diversity genetically within geographical/racial groups than there are between them. Check out this presentation from the conference (which includes presentation notes for context) and this article for more details on the science behind genetic diversity and variation.

Biology, and science more broadly, can be used for anti-racist means and must be framed as tools of liberation. I have taught about the racist history and modern practices of biology and medicine in my classroom, but it wasn’t until I attended this workshop that I saw the transformational power of using biology itself as a tool for social change. Many labs that I have used in the past can easily be changed into pathways for fighting for social justice. One example, mentioned above, is providing context for how DNA testing can exonerate those wrongfully convicted of crimes, folks who are overwhelmingly Black and Latinx. Mr. James Foster shared about a Daphnia lab (remake of the classic lab used by many biology teachers to demonstrate the effects of stimulants and depressants on heart rate) he does with his students focused on common pollutants that are emitted by local factories. After collecting data on how the Daphnia were affected, students write to factory owners and local politicians to share their data and any concerns they have about the impacts those factories are having on local communities. Unsurprisingly, many affected communities are disproportionately black, brown, and poor compared to surrounding neighborhoods that don’t have factories in them. How many other examples are there of ways to reframe the work we are already doing to provide students an avenue for fighting back against oppressive systems?

Anti-racist teaching practice cannot be handed out in a single curriculum packet, nor is it something you earn as a one-time event. Mr. Foster is often asked if he can provide examples of his lesson plans so that other teachers can implement them in their classrooms. His response is consistently no – from his perspective, teachers must first do their own identity work and find their relationship to anti-racism and social justice in their teaching. Then, they need to be attuned to who their students are and identify their needs as a community. Once this work has begun in a deeper way, they will be able to create their own curriculum that meets the needs of those students in an appropriate, timely, and integrity-based manner. This resonated for me deeply. It is incredibly challenging to create this kind of classroom environment, where identity, oppression, and marginalization are at the center of daily practice. However, there is no “one-size-fits-all” curriculum that could possibly tackle the issues faced by individual communities. I left feeling rejuvenated about the ways that this work is complex, ongoing, and individual to the teachers and students in each classroom community.

Small adjustments can lead to big changes. When asked what his biggest challenges in doing anti-racist biology teaching were, Mr. Foster said that it was always himself. A fear of failure pervaded his thinking and made him afraid of taking the first steps in developing his curriculum. “We are scientists and we must savor the iteration process. If we fail, we should bathe in the idea that we should look at what we did, change what didn’t work, and try again.”

It can be easy to fall into despair at the threat of failure, especially when there seems to be so much work ahead of us as biology educators dedicated to liberation. Some easy first steps to implementing changes in your classroom are providing a disclaimer before using problematic or oversimplified language in lesson plans, textbooks, or media used at your school. Next one can create ways for students to participate actively in driving conversations about identity, race, and lived experiences to shine personal context onto your curricular materials and make them more relevant to those in your classroom community. Beyond that, doing your own research, reading, and deep dive into how to add in new ideas or transform your own materials to be centered around social justice is an exciting adventure.

Overall, I left Saturday’s workshop invigorated and rededicated to connecting anti-racist practices to science education, especially in the biology classroom. If you have materials or ideas to share about how to promote further work in this area, leave them in the comments below!

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

taw-2018-main

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.

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.

Five things I need(ed) to hear when coming out

This is a letter I am writing for my younger self, and for myself in general – at age 12, 14, 16, 18, 19, 20, 22, 25, and 27 – all key ages when I “came out” as something to myself and/or the people around me.¬† A student in my world recently asked me for advice related to coming out as trans, and I wrote something specific to that student (shout out if you’re reading this!).¬† I wanted to adapt this to something more general and more specific – an open letter to myself, past, present, and future, for coming out and thriving as myself in the world as it is.

So, here you have it – my message to myself & others as they emerge on a particular place of “coming out,” whether that’s related to gender, sexuality, sexual preferences, or something else entirely!

1.¬†¬†Celebrate!¬†¬†Sometimes when queer and trans folks come out, we start worrying right away about what other people are going to think of us, how much discrimination we’re going to face, or how to deal with all this hecking dysphoria, internalized oppression, and body stuff that inevitably comes up.¬† The first piece of advice, that I myself need to do more often, is to celebrate.¬† Queer and trans people have been valued and revered around the world and throughout history because we have experiences that are unique, beautiful, and sacred.¬† Throw yourself a party, even if it’s just you in attendance.¬† Eat your favorite food, or go for a walk on a beautiful day, or make something with your hands to commemorate the day you felt open enough to start talking with other people about your queer and trans identity.¬† It’s incredible that you exist!
2.¬†¬†Don’t focus on passing, focus on being yourself.¬† If you are confident in who you are, that becomes clear to others that you are defining how you want them to see you. I won’t lie, regardless of what your body looks like, there will be plenty of moments when people misread your gender expression or identity.¬† But in general, it is more important to act the way that feels comfortable than to put on one specific set of behaviors that you believe people will read as a particular gender or sexuality.¬† There is no one way to be masculine, feminine, genderqueer, or agender; you get to decide how that looks on a day-to-day and minute-to-minute basis.¬† I recommend finding clothes you feel confident in, that show your body the way you want it to be seen – that’s how I ended up wearing sweater vests nearly every day, since they are coded masculine, came in bright colors, and hid my pre-surgery chest.¬† This may require a lot of experimentation in the dressing rooms at Goodwill and in front of the mirror at home.¬† ūüôā
3.¬†¬†Find a point person to talk to when you need support.¬† This could be a queer or trans person, or it might not – the important thing is that you know who you can turn to when things get hard or you’re feeling stuck.¬† My first support person was my 9th grade religious studies teacher, Pete.¬† When I came out to him as a young person as bisexual, he was kind of baffled, since he himself wasn’t queer – but when I came out as trans later down the line, it made since why I chose him to turn to for support.¬† He embodied a lot of the masculinity that I wanted in my own life, and I feel like I emulate him now as a teacher, a male leader, and a mentor for other students.
4.¬†¬†Be easy on yourself and others.¬†¬†You’re not going to figure everything out overnight.¬† Your friends and family will struggle, and it sucks, but we gotta be easy on them at least to start.¬† Be clear and firm in your wishes and boundaries, but don’t take it too personally if people are stumbling into their accomplice status.¬† Similarly, you may find that as you explore your identity more, things that you took for granted (including your gender identity, sexuality, and other identity markers) may shift.¬† That’s OK.¬† No one is going to ask you to “prove” your trans-ness – and if they do, send them to me so I can give them a piece of my mind!!
5.¬†¬†Remember, nobody knows your experience better than you.¬†¬†It took me a really long time to accept my identity as male (rather than as genderqueer/nonbinary) not because of things cishet people would say to me, or the pressure of my given family to conform – it was mostly other trans and queer peoples’ judgments that held me back.¬† It’s important to remember that the world is large and that there are lots and lots of people in our community who will “get” you – no matter who you are or what you’re experiencing.¬† I was very afraid to lose part of my chosen family if I was open about who I really am.¬† I totally had it backwards – I have only been able to build a strong, beautiful, and resilient chosen family by embracing all that I am, no matter what.
Keep being yourself and finding ways of sharing all that you are – whatever your identity – with the world!¬† It’s the best gift that only you can bring.¬†‚̧ If you want a much more comprehensive and in-depth list of affirmations that can be helpful as queer and trans people, here’s a link to an awesome set of cards that I use as a daily practice.

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.

On being a white dude who teaches science

This weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in my first-ever unconference, titled “Unconference for the Resistance.” It was put on by the fabulous Lake Washington Girls Middle School, whose faculty and students continue to amaze me in their dedication to social justice, top-of-the-notch teaching methodologies, and extraordinary humility about what they are doing in the world.

As a part of the conference, one attender convened a space called a “Men’s Caucus,” where male-identified or presenting teachers could gather to discuss our experiences of teaching with masculine power.¬† I didn’t realize it until I walked into that room, but I had been craving such a space for years of my teaching career.¬† As a transmasculine person, I have experienced what it is like to be a teacher that students perceive as a woman and as a man, and I know the pain of being on the other side of what I would describe as “masculine capital” – power that men hold in positions of authority with children just because they are seen as men.¬† This intersects with my race as well; as a white person, I went from being a white woman in the classroom to a white man in the classroom, which was a step from one form of relative power and authority into one with even more power.

After our conversation, there are a few thoughts I’d like to share on my own reflections of how masculine power operates in schools that I’ve worked in.¬† These are my reflections after sharing space with other men in the caucus, and then gathering with the “Oppressed by Gender Caucus” that met at the same time across the hall.¬† Many thanks to all who participated and held that space for us to break down some of the ways gender intersects with teaching.

Masculinity, charisma, and what makes a “good teacher” all intersect when a cult of personality forms around a particular person.

Many spaces I’ve worked in, whether they are schools, outdoor education organizations, or communities of faith, have a tendency to pour affection or grandeur on specific teachers based on their ability to work well with kids.¬† These teachers overwhelmingly tend to be male.¬† As it turns out, kids are not immune to the ways sexism overvalues masculinity, as is indicated in studies where male teachers are shown to consistently get higher reviews and different descriptors than female teachers… including online classes where the “male teacher” was actually a woman behind the computer screen.

I painfully remember working alongside men in science education who would do little to no rigorous content with their students, accomplish little during the day, and get tons of credit from students and administrators alike for the work that they were doing.  Meanwhile, I was being harassed by my students for being gender non-conforming, trying to squeeze in content that was both rigorous and engaging, and would constantly be questioned by students as to my expertise or competence.  It was total hell.

And now?¬† Now I work on the other side of that divide.¬† Strangers who I am meeting for the first time often tell me that I “must be a great teacher,” which can only be a reflection of how they read my personality, race, and gender expression.¬† Administrators and parents who have never seen me teach gush about my gifts in teaching, while female colleagues’ talents are taken for granted or left unnoticed.¬† I often sit with this discomfort and am kind of at loose ends about how to wield this power I now have.¬† I try to spread the word about the awesome projects my female colleagues create, and highlight their hard work and talents for teaching.¬† I try to use my voice to step in when kids are perpetuating ideas about teachers or students that aren’t based in evidence, but on charisma.¬† However, since stepping out of the discomfort of never being believed and stepping into this privileged spotlight, I will admit that it is challenging to stay in touch with the experience of what it is like on the other side.

As a white male teacher, my words hold power to white boys that others’ don’t.¬† This power should never be held lightly.

First off, I want to acknowledge that the experiences of my students are each unique, and when I make generalizations, I am pointing out trends that are not absolute.¬† In fact, these trends don’t point to any particular student on an individual level, only to larger societal structures that create the conditions for these things to exist and appear as patterns in my instructional space.¬† That said, there is a tendency in my student body for white boys to walk into my classroom expecting to be comfortable, expecting to have their opinions heard and supported, and to be confident in their own correctness.¬† This includes moments when those boys’ ideas perpetuate systems of power or put down others seen as inferior, either because they are not perceived as being in the room or because of structural inequality created by sexism, racism, ableism, etc.¬† This confidence and comfort is not a given for students who aren’t at the center of power, like girls (especially in STEM spaces) or kids of color.

As a white male teacher, I am in a position to challenge that comfort in a way that kids will respect more than if I was seen as female or non-white.  This is troubling, since as a white male teacher, I have the least experience with day-to-day oppression and the ways that can show up in language and action.  It is clear that with the power I carry comes a responsibility for careful listening, self-education, and humbling myself to the reality that I will continue to mess up in trying to push the comfort zones of all white guys in the room, myself included.

The power of an individual and the power of a subject can intersect as well.

Because STEM is connected to masculinity, STEM also holds masculine power.¬† As a white guy teaching science and computer science, there are so many layers to the intersections of my power in the classroom.¬† When a history teacher discusses issues of race and social justice, that is something that is expected or taken for granted.¬† When I talk about issues of race and social justice from a scientific perspective, that seems radical and new.¬† Moreover, the logic and reason associated with science make my arguments about how race and racism impacts health, well-being, and the history of science seen as more “real” than the “soft” study of history, social studies, or anthropology.

As a trans person, I have the distance from what is considered a “normal boyhood” that could empower me to redefine what creates a healthy development as a boy-identifying child.

This is one topic we talked about a fair amount, and something that I want to pursue further.¬† When engaging with boys in my classroom, there is a tacit assumption that as a male teacher, I “understand” boyhood from a first-person perspective.¬† In reality, I never experienced a boyhood – I was assumed to be a girl all throughout my childhood, and was treated through that lens until I was an adult.

While some might consider this distance a weakness (I certainly did in my first year as a male teacher… I was so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing!!), I would like to frame it as an advantage as a person who teaches boys.¬† Because I am able to observe boyhood from the outside, I am able to see more clearly the ways in which the practices of raising young men can fail to instill empathy, humility, and a healthy relationship to masculine power than cis men who see those things as “normal.”¬† I can call out those moments in a safe-r way for boys than other teachers might, since they see me as an ally based on our shared identity as male.

Tangentially to this, one thing I tried to imagine was what a productive all-boys educational space might look like, where boyhood was both celebrated and created in a way that was not destructive to gender diversity or femininity among those students or more broadly.¬† This is not something I’ve explored deeply & would love any resources you have for thinking about this in the comments/in a private message.¬† What would/does anti-oppression child-centered single-gender boys’ education look like?¬† Because the goals of co-education don’t always meet the needs of the boys in my classroom well!¬† That’s a whole new blog post right there…!

Male teachers need spaces to talk about masculinity and power.

Overall, I left the caucus incredibly grateful for the space and eager to dive into these topics further.  I want to invite other men that I work with to have these kinds of conversations in a way that is productive and allows us to start disentangling the many threads of the web of masculinity and power.

What are your thoughts?  How has gender, perceived or projected, impacted your relationship to teaching?  How can we create a healthy relationship to masculine power with the assumption that sexism exists, persists, and should be dismantled?