Supporting students in transition: Trans Awareness Week 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What Makes a Baby”: 8th grade edition!

Image description: the cover of the book "What Makes a Baby" by Cory Silverberg. A smiling sperm and egg look at each other.

The fabulous book What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg came out in 2012 to much acclaim and excitement from folks across the spectrum of diverse families, caregivers, teachers, and kids. It tells the story of how babies come into the world in an accurate way without ever implying the gender(s) of baby creators, parents, or the relationship between those people. [There’s also an awesome reading guide for caregivers and teachers who use it in their classroom – check it out!]

As I prepared to teach a unit on CRISPR with a specific emphasis on the story of He Jiankui’s claim to have genetically edited zygotes that were later born as babies, I wanted a way to talk about pregnancy and birth (especially IVF!) that didn’t involve a lot of inaccurate and dysphoria-ridden resources that link what gametes people make and their gender identity or relationship to future genetic descendants.

In-vitro fertilization (IVF) was an important concept in my unit on genetically editing zygotes. [Image description: a student illustration of a needle pointing at an egg in a petri dish.]

I was excited to use the book in my classes, but as an 8th grade teacher, it felt odd to simply read a book designed for small children and leave it at that. Moreover, some of the detail that I wanted to dive into wasn’t included in the book, making it an imperfect resource for my purposes. I developed a lesson that uses the book as a launching point for students to illustrate their *own* What Makes a Baby, involving student-led investigation and illustration with much delight and personal flair. ūüôā

I started by writing an 8th grade level text that matches the flow of the original book. (Feel free to adapt and share widely – and provide feedback if I have any inaccuracies or things that you think could be more complete. I worked hard to fact-check, but unfortunately, nuanced information about sexual and reproductive health is often hard to find, especially for us trans people!)

Image description: One student's stunningly detailed illustration of the ovulation cycle from maturation to menstruation.

You’ll note that in the text, I use the term “gene giver” to describe a person who contributes an egg or a sperm to create a new human. The fabulous Christine Zarker Primomo introduced me to the idea of inviting students to create their own language when the language we have is insufficient, especially in this specific case. Even using terms like “genetic parent” implies that the relationship between someone who provides the sperm or egg that becomes someone *is* their parent. We also create gender-neutral (and gamete-neutral!) language, since not everyone who makes eggs is a woman or a mother, and not everyone who makes sperm is a man or a father. Ideas students created included:

  • Gene givers (or “GGs”)
  • Biological Life Transmitters (“BLTs”)
  • Spawners
  • DNA Deliverers
  • Trenaps (“parent” spelled backwards)
  • Storks – This one was my favorite, since it is so playful, easy, and universally kid-appropriate.

After reading through the original book with students (in my experience, kids of ALL ages love to be read to, and it brings out a particular curiosity in them that can be fun to engage with), I split the class into small groups and assigned each of them one section of the “upgrade.” In their small groups, they had to read through the text, do some more background research, and illustrate 1-2 pages that would go with the text.

This student group illustrated the germ layers of an embryo and their developmental trajectory into different parts of the body.
This student wanted to illustrate AND write the text for her piece. [Image description: a pregnant body next to a clock with a passage about birth.]

During the illustration phase, students encountered lots of things they were curious to learn more about, and I was able to answer those questions or direct them to strong resources that could provide the answers they wanted. We had fun talking about common misconceptions about ovulation and menstruation while also digging into harder questions about medical and legal rights for pregnant individuals, ethical questions about IVF, and the differences between preventing pregnancy and preventing STI transmission. Moreover, when we finished our book and read it out loud as a class, we had created a narrative that was cohesive, inclusive, and supported students’ sense making around how IVF functions in the larger picture of pregnancy and birth.

Students often loved - or avoided! - illustrating one of the passages about birth.  I gave student groups free choice of what part of the book they were interested in illustrating. [Image description: A medical worker is performing a C section and surgically removing a baby from the body of a pregnant person.]

If I had more time, I would have loved to have students write the text as well as illustrate it, possibly as an end-of-unit assessment. Given the time constraints we were under, I thought students’ work was thoughtful, detailed, and clear. I hope that over time, more and more resources will become available for teaching students of all ages about reproductive science in an accurate and inclusive way – until then, I’ll be creating them alongside my students.

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

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November 12-19th was Trans Awareness Week, a time set aside to promote the voices and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming people.  It is a week of celebration and resilience leading up to the long-standing Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR), a say set aside to remember the many people who have been lost to transphobic violence.  Personally, I like thinking of TDOR as the Trans* Day of Rage and Resilience, both of which highlight the many ways that we as trans folks survive and fight back against the systems designed to endanger us and make our stories invisible.  

This year’s Trans Awareness Week felt especially personal for me as a U.S. resident because of a Trump administration memo that was released earlier this year indicating that they intend to remove protections for transgender people under Title IX, perhaps the most important form of protection for trans people, especially trans youth in schools.¬† Receiving this news made many people in my community afraid of what the future holds for us, myself included – without federal protection, I could be at risk of losing my job, healthcare, housing, or other rights and freedoms that I currently possess.¬† It is even scarier for the many people in my community that have other intersecting marginalized identities, especially trans folks of color, trans youth, undocumented trans people, and disabled and sick trans folks.

Most distressingly to me as a science educator, the leaked memo referred to sex verification using “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable,” such as the sex assigned at birth or DNA testing.¬† Not only is this extremely invasive, it is blatantly inaccurate!¬† As a science educator, I decided to take one step towards reducing ignorance about both the science of sex* and gender AND the ways that cissexism, transphobia, and interphobia show up in institutions of power over and over and over again. (To read one intersex person’s reaction to this memo, check out the awesome blogger Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello at¬†¬†“The Intersex Roadshow”!)

Gender unicorn bones

As a wrap-up to my unit on the skeletal system, I created this presentation about the science of intersex experience** and nonbinary identity, both of which are frequently erased by conservatives who assert that science says you are born either male or female, end of story.  As it turns out, science shows that there is incredible diversity in human sex and gender across time and culture.  Moreover, teaching students that sex is either male or female, end of story, is damaging in SO many ways Рdamaging to intersex students and transgender students whose realities are erased, damaging to cisgender binary-assigned students who believe that upholding cissexism and interphobia is normal and acceptable, and damaging to our collective liberation from science that believes that children are not capable of understanding the full complexity of the diversity of human experience.

The unit was based on a case study by Dr. Alison MacIntosh, who studies ancient bones of female people and compares them to living cisgender women’s bone development.¬† Strikingly, she was one of the first people to examine female remains with comparisons to living women’s bone density – other studies used cis men’s bone density numbers to determine strength, showing one tendril of the deep-rooted vines of institutional sexism in science.¬† I think Dr. MacIntosh is a total badass and I am proud to share her work with my students!¬† I also wanted to talk about the ways that anthropology intersects with cissexism and interphobia, and bone development being a secondary sex characteristic seemed like a perfect place to discuss this.¬† One example is the rating scale used to determine the sex characteristics of bones in a skeleton in the field, which can sometimes be ambiguous or conflicting, with no guidance for scientists about how to interpret those data. There are also examples of skeletons that demonstrate sexual and gender diversity in ancient cultures, with little attention paid to them beyond tabloid coverage that focuses on spectacle rather than science.¬† Our trans and intersex ancestors’ history and remains are no doubt present and overlooked or missed because of the ways¬† that scientists were trained to never expect to find them.

If you want to talk about integrating intersex and nonbinary awareness into your curriculum, please reach out!  I am always excited to network with other educators doing the important work of dismantling the structures of ignorance that support the oppression faced by me and my transgender siblings worldwide Рand our intersex family as well.  

*In my presentation to students, I used the term “sex” to describe the physical characteristics of a person’s body that are considered sex characteristics.¬† In my own life and work with adults, I try to move away from using the word “sex,” especially “biological sex,” because of its ambiguous meaning and its role in transphobia, especially transmisogyny.¬† Read more about this topic from Julia Serano (Medium) and Mey (Autostraddle)!

**It feels important for me to note here that I am not intersex, and emphasize that the needs of intersex and transgender communities are very different (though many people identify as both intersex and transgender).  I personally believe that destigmatizing intersexuality is an important step towards liberation of all communities who experience body-focused, sexual, and/or gender discrimination, including transgender people among many others.

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!