Supporting students in transition: Trans Awareness Week 2019

As an out transgender teacher, I often found myself the default person helping coordinate students’ name, pronoun, and gender identity changes at school. This is for several reasons – first of all, I had volunteered to be a resource at school for supporting trans students; I believe that my school would have honored a request to bow out of this work. It’s also true that for teachers with marginalized identities, including trans teachers, students who share those identities tend to gravitate towards us because they see us as people they can trust.

As such, one major reason that I think I often ended up advocating for trans students during times of major change is because I’ve been there before, and it is easy for me to empathize with students about the challenges and frustrations of living in a system that continually refuses to acknowledge that you exist.

So, I want you to imagine for a moment that you are a transgender student in the school you work in preparing to share your identity for the first time. You have likely thought about coming out for weeks, months, or even years before you had the courage to tell a single person what you are going through. As you prepare to share your story with grown ups and students in your life, you likely did hours of research online, getting advice from other trans people about their experiences and comparing them to your own.

Don’t we owe those students the same level of preparation?

Luckily for us, we don’t have to start from scratch. At the Gender Odyssey conference this year, I met Maria Al-Shamma, a social worker who works with LGBTQ middle school students and helps coordinate student transition plans in the San Diego, CA area. Transgender students are explicitly protected in California under AB 1266, the School Success and Opportunity Act. I was really impressed with Al-Shamma’s district-wide student transition plan which acts in accordance with this law – it is clearly laid out and standardized while leaving room for individual students’ needs to be determined by them and their support team. In particular:

  • Students do not need to have a legal name change. Not only is getting a legal name change prohibitively expensive for some students, it is a stressful process that can involve a lot of barriers and unwanted publicity, depending on the state. Finding a way for students to be able to change their functional name at school while maintaining the mandatory legal name records may be a little complicated, but it isn’t impossible.
  • Students can choose to have a gender marker that is not M or F. I actually didn’t see this in the paperwork, but any comprehensive transition plan will include a way for students to have a gender marker in their records that is neither M nor F. This now has official precedence in several states, including my home state of Washington. If the management system you use doesn’t allow for this, ask for it. Consistently. Incessantly. If they don’t change it, make a plan for a new system that can do what you need it to do.
  • A students’ caretakers may or may not be aware of their transition. This is something that a lot of educators, understandably, get concerned about when considering to use a new name and/or pronouns at school – “Does the child’s family know?” In some cases, parents are super supportive and will be excited about their student’s journey. In other cases, students face punishment, abuse, or homelessness because of their identity. Trust students to know when it is safe for them to come out at home. Support them in what they want and need – what a gift that they can be themselves at school regardless of what things are like at home.
  • It doesn’t leave behind a student’s deadname to out them as trans to anyone accessing the system. One thing I really, really appreciate about this plan is that it explicitly prohibits administrators from leaving information in the system that outs students as trans or makes it easier for teachers to make mistakes with deadnames and wrong pronouns. This is especially important for administrators, health and social workers, and substitute teachers who may be encountering a student for the first time (or the first time in a while) and want to affirm their identity. Having the default system be the one where the students’ real and current name and gender marker are present – with nothing else – is essential to supporting this process.
  • It doesn’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach to transition. Every student is different and will want different things with their official records and transcripts. I love that this form asks students about the contingencies and makes a plan for each one of them.

Educators, what have you seen in your schools and districts that works to support students in transition? What would you add as advice to others creating plans for students coming out as trans at school?

Stay tuned for more ideas and suggestions about supporting transgender students after transition and creating schools that help transgender teachers and staff thrive.

“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

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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.

Snapshots from Equity presentations at NSTA Reno

I am incredibly grateful to live and work in the area with the University of Washington College of Education & Learning Sciences, where teams of people are doing powerful work around social justice and culturally engaged teaching practices.

These are a few highlights from a recent set of presentations done by folks in that community, shared by Philip Bell on an awesome Facebook group called “Advancing Ambitious Equitable Practices.” (It’s closed; it’s worth it.¬† Science and STEM teachers, join in the conversation about Ambitious Science Teaching!)¬† I was not able to go to the fall NSTA conference in the West this year, but got to check out a few resources from the conference, including these presentations.

These three slide decks from that conference cover a variety of topics related to equity in STEM education.

Supporting Equitable 3D Science Learning Using Assessment, Phenomena & Community Engagement РPhilip Bell

Designing and Using Equitable 3D Formative Assessments  РEllen Ebert and Philip Bell

Learning to See the Resources Students Bring to Sense-Making – Philip Bell and Ellen Ebert, with support from Megan Bang, Deb Morrison, and Enrique Suarez

Snapshot #1: reframing student participation and “misbehavior”/”misconceptions”

Slide5

Slide1

One thing I think about a lot is how I mishear or misinterpret student behavior all the time, including in ways that they are authentically trying to connect with learning goals.  I also observe peer teachers frequently with some audience irony Рthat is, knowing something that the other teacher is not aware of, and seeing the painful results of miscommunication.

Creating space for students to do their own reasoning, speak their minds to one another, and correct one another’s mistakes is so incredibly important.¬† Out in the world, there won’t necessarily be a teacher there when kids are sharing their ideas and trying to determine what is true and what is not.¬† Practicing deep listening to students’ ideas and not shutting them down is essential to building schema that support students’ growth.

Bell and Ebert recommended the free article What We Call Misconceptions May Be Essential Stepping-Stones Toward Making Sense of the World as another way of reconsidering student talk and scaffolding to better-understand students’ perspectives.

Snapshot #2: Equity in education is met through a variety of avenues

Slide2

I really loved seeing this slide and thinking about the many different ways promoting equity can look in the work of teaching.  Sometimes I can get down on myself for the ways I am failing to, say, increase who ends up in STEM fields or for not doing more explicit identity work in my classroom.  However, there are a lot of ways that equity focus in STEM teaching shows up in the classroom.  In particular, I think #2, #3, and #4 show up a lot in my classroom as ways to just be a better teacher, but it is important to remember the ways youth are so often disenfranchised and not seen as capable of making their own decisions and participating in scientific endeavors.  Just giving kids Рall kids in your space Рan avenue for feeling effective is enough to change their conception of both science and themselves.

Snapshot #3: Science education is cultural, no matter who your students are

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I have been reflecting on this last piece quite a lot this year.  I work in an affluent, white school culture where the reality of my students is significantly different than the one I grew up in.  Many kids have parents who are doctors, nurses, and medical personnel.  Kids are experienced travelers, and have hobbies that range from skiing to SCUBA diving to parkour.  Meeting them where they are at requires thinking about what matters most to them and honing in Рwhile also creating avenues for kids who might be more on the margin an avenue for understanding what the dominant culture looks like.

As one example, I have a large number of girls in my classes who row on a crew team this year.¬† The most recent phenomenon I chose as an anchoring event studied the bones of female crew athletes to compare them to prehistoric female bones as a standard for strength and endurance.¬† This provides a chance for those students who are crew athletes to connect with the phenomenon, and allows for conversations around how sexism shows up in science (this is the first study known to look at the bones of living female athletes as a baseline – all others have looked at males).¬† ¬†It also provides a space for kids who don’t know what crew/regatta are to understand those sports, which is an important equity tool for engaging all students in the culture of privilege and power – one big reason I am glad that I went to private school as a kid who grew up in a lower middle class household is because it gave me insights into the language of power that allows me to “pass” in wealthy spaces.

Anyways, there are many more things to draw from the presentations – definitely check them out and see how they can help shape your practice in ways that are effective and equitable!

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.

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!

The Human Biology Bill of Rights

For the past two years, I have used a tool in my classroom that has been personally enriching, challenging, and resonant with my values:  the Human Biology Bill of Rights.

It came out of a conversation I had with a student who was afraid to research marijuana, the drug she was studying for a neuroscience project for my class.¬† We were learning about the differences between drugs’ impact on children and adults and how it can change brain development in teenagers who use them.¬† I said to her:¬†You have the right to accurate information about¬†any question related to human health – not just ones that are considered “kid-appropriate.”

From there came this list – the ones with a * were added or edited by my students over the past 2 years.

Human Biology Students’ Bill of Rights

As a student in this classroom, you have the right to…

  • Accurate sources of information about all topics related to human health and the body.
  • Ask questions that interest you and have them answered to the best of our collective abilities as a group of scientists.
  • Study topics relevant to your real life and well-being.
  • Resources that reflect your identity and lived experience.
  • Engage in discussion without fear of teasing, harassment, or judgment.
  • Have your ideas be treated separately from you as a person, especially in times of disagreement.*
  • Disagree respectfully with other students or the teacher.*
  • Take breaks when you need to and choose to opt out of discussions or readings that make you feel emotionally or physically unsafe.
  • Be able to talk to an adult that you trust in situations when you need support.
  • Speak from your own experience and have others believe what you share and treat it with respect and dignity.
  • A workload that challenges you, but does not ask you to do ‚Äúbusy work‚ÄĚ or do more work than you can complete while staying healthy.

I revisit the BoR every trimester, asking students for their input and understanding of the items listed there.¬† I had some really rich conversations with kids this week about the reasons why each of these things is included in the list, and remind them whenever we are participating in something that might be harder for some students (such as conversations around medically/traumatic events, race/racism, drug use and its effects, or a variety of sexual topics).¬† I also use it for more mundane moments, like when kids are complaining about a homework assignment like my weekly reflections, or like my first student, afraid to do the research they were assigned for fear of being “found out” by a parent or administrator.¬† One kid asked if this could apply in every class, since he felt like he was expected to “busy work” in several of his classes – I recommended he took his concerns to his teacher, as it perhaps hadn’t occurred to him that he had the right to ask for something different.

I hope that as educators, we continue to frame conversations around things kids have the right to in every class, rather than just their responsibilities.  As young people, they are reminded too often of the things they are falling short on or still growing into.  Every child deserves some basic rights that are fundamental to education, especially in the realm of human biology.