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.

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:

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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!