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 “busy work” 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.

Reflections on NSTA Milwaukee

I just wrapped up my third NSTA regional conference, this time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  As always, I left feeling refreshed and energized in my chosen profession – there are few groups of people more innovative, passionate, fun-loving, and caring than science teachers and I learned a lot from my colleagues and elders in the field.  Here are a few of my highlights from this year’s conference that I wanted to share!

Using linguistics to teach science.  I went to an awesome presentation put on by Suzanne Loosen and Kelsie Pattillo, two Wisconsin linguistics teachers who connected the study of language to anatomy, physiology, computational thinking, logic, zoology… and more!  I love thinking about the systems that we are immersed in every day and their connection to science – students kept language diaries in their classes to observe differences in how language is used in different contexts, watched language development in young children (! metacognition, anyone?!), and used activated charcoal to track how sounds are made in the mouth.  The North American Computational linguistics Olympiad has a lot of cool resources to get kids thinking about how language works – their problem sets would make good warm-ups, teambuilding activities, or building blocks for logical thinking and proofs in math or computer science.  Also, linguists apparently love coming in as guest speakers.  🙂 Will definitely use this in both my human biology classes and my computer science elective!

Equity conversations: why do we always focus on undergraduates and professionals?  We had the honor of hearing from Jo Handelsman, a groundbreaking bacteriologist and the Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama.  Her talk, titled “The Fallacy of Fairness,” provided some basic statistics and information about inequities that persist in academic science and the ideologies that scientists at major research universities use to justify perpetuating inequalities between men and women and between white folks and people of color in academic science.

Her talk did a fabulous job outlining what research exists to try and demonstrate the existence of bias that hurts women and people of color (her term was “minorities,” which I intentionally do not use) – especially the defensive backlash that she received over and over again from (presumably straight, middle-/upper-class, cis) white men that a. they themselves/their organization do not have personal bias, and b. they earned whatever honors they have and bias did not benefit them in any way. She also found that when videos were made featuring stories of women’s experiences in the STEM workforce, men who watched them consistently did not believe that the stories could be true while women overwhelmingly confirmed having had similar experiences.

Important takeaways from the research she cited included that people justify hiring decisions that favor white people and men after hiring decisions are complete by identifying the characteristics those candidates had and asserting that those characteristics were the most important in the search.  Identifying those key components before the search begins removed much of that bias.  She also found that scientists who denied personal bias had deeply entrenched ideas about being bias-free that are rooted in self-identity as a rational scientist, despite the fact that when scientific research was done on their own institutions/the individuals themselves, it was shown that bias existed.  This paradox was particularly striking… and shows that something major has to shift in how those who benefit from bias are taught as children to cope with this reality.

I left the talk feeling a little baffled by how little research is typically presented about the impact of bias on students in K-12 settings.  It is one thing to talk about the impact of bias on professionals who have graduated with advanced degrees in STEM fields (or are even undergraduates in those programs) – it’s another thing to investigate the ways that bias inevitably appears in our classrooms, the language and actions used to encourage or discourage students, and the ways that STEM topics are framed.  Moreover, I felt as though classroom culture and peer relationships were not acknowledged at all, which must have a huge impact on students’ self-identification with science and their experience of bias and marginalization in STEM spaces.  If you have resources that are easy to read on these topics, PLEASE share them with me!!

Discrepant events rock!  There was a really great “Exploratorium” put on by preservice teachers at a local university that showed discrepant events for a variety of phenomena.  These engaging “hooks” get kids interested and can even serve as the overarching phenomenon for an entire unit on a traditional subject like optics, density, or the laws of motion.  My favorites from the many excellent demos were this density bottle, a battery-magnet monorail, the floating rice bottle, and a pendulum catch.  I especially appreciated the biology-focused ones, including a bobby-pin nerve test to measure two-point discrimination, many optical illusions, a brain-body connection test, and the classic, fun, and squicky “naked egg” demo.

Real-world connections and strong story-telling are the keys to good (science) teaching.  I was lucky enough to go to two of six sessions put on by Debbie Goodwin and Andrew Nydam (both Polymer Ambassadors) related to materials science, the chemistry of solids, and teaching the science and engineering behind how cars work.  All I can say is – WOW!  The compelling way they interweave very advanced science into everyday phenomena – teaching content that is new to many experienced physical and chemical science teachers – is stunning.  If you have a chance to hear them speak or attend one of the free week-long summer trainings they are a part of offering – do it!  The major takeaway of their presentation for me is how disconnected traditional science curricula are from the real-world materials that kids will encounter throughout their lives, whether that’s as engineers and scientists, car or home owners/renters, or simply as people curious about what 90% of the world is made of.  To truly understand a subject, students need to be able to apply it to the real-world things they encounter and have an intuition about how things fit together.  Whether it was a new way of thinking about chemical compounds through solids, applying energy conversions in the process of the sun’s energy becoming the fuel in a car, or why plates break when they drop to the ground, these folks are thinking holistically about chemistry in a real-world way.

Double Dare is the perfect teambuilding resource.  This is not from NSTA, but “Ask Me Another,” my favorite game show, did a segment on Double Dare games that reminded me how weird and perfect Double Dare physical challenges were for engaging the child-animal brain.  I use teambuilding activities as a way to bring my advisory together, help lab groups communicate, or review content, and I am always looking for new games to play with kids that are cheap, fast, and engaging.  Many of the challenges are pretty messy, so I wouldn’t necessarily use them as-is, but the basic principles of games can extend pretty far in the classroom!  Here are some lists of physical challenges from the show.


Science Square Dancing: Learning and Moving to the Music!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuff that works:

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

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

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

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

  • Listen to students’ 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 “Speak Up at School” 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’t hear the things that happen, show your students that you care and that you will listen when they bring things to you that they’ve 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’ 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’t 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’t 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.

A glimpse into my reading list

I am in the process of writing a conceptual framework for a research capstone that’s focused on inclusion, belonging, and self-identity as a scientist in the science classroom.  As such, I am reading a lot of good literature and I wanted to share some of my favorites with you!  Feel free to comment below if you have other suggestions of literature on this topic that you’d like to share.

Make Me: Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School

This book by Eric Toshalis was recommended to me through a friend who works in special education – it’s a fabulous read on the political, social, psychological, and pedagogical foundations that lead to student resistance in the classroom – and how to work with that resistance in a productive way that centers students’ desires and agency.

feminist theory: from margin to center

I’ve used the analogy of margin and center for years now, without ever having taken the time to read this classic of intersectional feminism.  bell hooks is a brilliant and prophetic author, whose work has paved the way for more inclusive spaces within feminism for a multitude of underrepresented voices.

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom

I read this book as a young teacher, and it informed the way I think about framing lessons and communicating with students and parents in a way that is clear and holds all students to high expectations.  Rereading it now after teaching for 5 years provides new levels of depth and meaning – and is an important reminder of the ways I have not been holding myself to a high enough standard in scaffolding teaching and communication to include all of my students.  Lisa Delpit also has an awesome book that I just started called “Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children” and I was almost late for work on Friday because I couldn’t put it down!

Small World: Constructing an Inclusive Classroom (No Matter What You Teach)

This article by Mary Armstrong creates an easy-to-read and follow framework for thinking about constructing an inclusive classroom space.  I think it would be a great read for a group of teachers trying to think about inclusive curriculum/classroom practices, even if some of them are thinking about that for the first time.  I didn’t want to lose track of it, so I’m putting it here 🙂

Creating Inclusive College Classrooms

This article, by Shari Saunders and Diana Kardia at the University of Michigan, outlines a number of interventions and techniques for constructing inclusive classrooms at the undergraduate level.  It brought up a number of memories for me about ways in which my college classrooms were mostly constructed in a way that felt exclusive and hard to access… and also raised questions about what the equivalent practices might look like in middle school.  Really excellent read if you’re interested in thinking through what a number of researchers have put together for thinking about inclusion on an institutional level.

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?

Journey-mapping in the science classroom

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Table 2

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

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

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

Fighting impostor syndrome by providing meaningful feedback

Let’s talk for a minute about impostor syndrome.

For any teacher, this phenomenon will be present to some extent, but in STEM it is especially dangerous for female-identified students and students of color.  There are many responses to impostor syndrome, including creating safe community within your institution for underrepresented groups, discussing the challenges facing those who aren’t well-represented in their chosen fields, and decreasing language that activates stereotype threat.

However, one article I read last year by Beth Andres-Beck stood out in its approach to battling stereotype threat: providing clear, direct feedback that is backed up by concrete evidence.  The author writes about working in various coding environments where insufficient feedback (positive or negative) created a vacuum in which the particular coder could insert whatever self-image they wanted: being the best coder in the world, or conversely, being the least qualified coder of all time.

The trap of impostor syndrome in this scenario is that by choosing to believe that you are an unqualified coder but continuing to work as one creates an urgent need to hide whatever it is that you are doing.  This cycle of perpetuating lack of authentic feedback constructs a fragile identity as an impostor – one that even occasional evaluation can’t break through.

“The genius of imposter syndrome is…we don’t have to disregard when we fall short, for such failures fit our internal narrative.  …When we succeed, we can believe it is part of our act.  Look how well I have fooled everyone by doing work they think is good!  …We have trouble accepting real feedback, since any feedback is based on our facade and we “know” better.  Imposter syndrome also brings with it anxiety and shame, preventing us from feeling the thrill of accomplishment when we do succeed.  It robs us of the joy we earn.”

As a teacher reading the article, it was impossible not to wonder how I create such vacuums of authentic feedback in my own assessments.  And when choosing between the three options of self-concept in an environment with insufficient feedback – good science student, bad science student, and bad science student who everyone believes to be a good science student – it is clear from personal experience that the latter two are usually the perspectives taken by my female students and my students of color.

In response, I am trying to collect tools that will enable me to provide detailed feedback to my students, either from me as a teacher or from peer assessment, that is clear, authentic, and non-threatening.  Below I have listed a few possible strategies – if you have other ideas, please chime in!

  • Frequent formative assessment By using formative assessment probes on a regular basis, students will receive feedback about their own learning in a timely, non-threatening manner.  I highly recommend the work done by Page Keeley on FA in both science and mathematics – her book “Science Formative Assessment” was one of the first texts that got me motivated to become a science teacher.
  • Using detailed rubrics Though writing narrative comments are often more specific and useful, having rubrics that link to the targets for a specific assignment makes it easier for teachers to provide detailed feedback on many assignments in a timely, meaningful manner.  Provide rubrics when the assignment is given (not just at the end) and add specific detail so that students understand the goals set for the assignment.  There are great resources on rubrics at the Buck Institute for Education, which focuses on best practices for Project-Based Learning.
  • Anonymous peer assessment & online discussion The “anonymous” piece of this is incredibly important, when it is feasible.  By creating spaces where students can give feedback to each other/engage with each other without knowing the recipient’s identity, they are less likely to base their comments on their concept of the student receiving the feedback.  Especially given that male students are more likely to be rated as “smart” by their classmates, this is incredibly important to the process for everyone involved.  Anonymous online discussions (see STEMming the confidence gap) are also shown to promote comfort for female students and create parity in male and female participation in discussions.
  • Focus on learning targets Instead of highlighting how smart a student is or their effort, provide feedback specific to the learning targets of the assignment.  Frame your feedback as how the student is or is not meeting the goals of the assignment or unit, and if there is a gap, how it can be successfully bridged by the student.  This is a natural outcropping of standards-based grading, which many schools and districts have adapted more and more to provide more meaningful, learning-focused assessment to students.

What ideas do you have to add to this list?  Other thoughts on fighting impostor syndrome?  Leave them in the comments!

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

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

Take a look… what do you see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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