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 – damaging 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 – and 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.

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!