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 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:

IMG_1087.JPG

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:

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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!

On spatial reasoning & the gender gap in STEM

I’m taking a physics course right now that is reminding me, repeatedly, that I have strong spatial reasoning skills compared with many other people.  Now, I’m not writing this to brag – I’m writing it because it has made this physics class much easier for me than many other students, despite having less formal training in physics than many other students, all of whom are science teachers.  I feel included in the community of the class by virtue of my ability to move shapes in my head, and quickly assign scientific meaning to visual structures both in my head and on paper.

When I was growing up as a female child, my mother knew how much a lack of spatial reasoning set her back in science and math.  She asked my grandmother, one of my primary caretakers as a kid and a retired math teacher, to train me to do spatial reasoning and logic.  We practiced different kinds of puzzles, games, and geometry problems that required my developing brain to manipulate shapes and determine how things worked together spatially.  Though it’s impossible to say for sure, I believe this early training had a huge influence on my spatial abilities as an adult.

Fast forward to today, and research is supporting that practicing spatial reasoning tasks can improve spatial reasoning skills – one of the persistent gaps between men and women in STEM training programs.  I first came across this finding at the Women in STEM Knowledge Center, whose Engineering Inclusive Teaching program provides resources to engineering faculty about creating more inclusive STEM classrooms.  One of their webinars focused on a group of undergraduate engineering students at University of Colorado, Boulder that took a 1-credit spatial reasoning course in their first year in the program.  Before taking the class, 88% of men and 68% of women passed a spatial reasoning pre-test.  After the workshop, that gap closed to 99% of men and 96% of women.  Similar results were seen for international students vs. domestic students: before the class, only 61% of international students passed while 85% of domestic students did.  Afterwards, this closed to 92% vs. 99%.

Turns out this is not an isolated finding.  Many peer-reviewed articles have uncovered similar results: that spatial reasoning is an essential skill in engineering that has a persistent gender gap, but that it is highly teachable.  I love this quote from a KQED piece on the topic:

“Spatial skills are an early indicator of later achievement in mathematics, they “strongly predict” who will pursue STEM careers, and they are more predictive of future creativity and innovation than math scores. In fact, a review of 50 years of research shows that spatial skills have a “robust influence” on STEM domains.

However, women generally score lower than men on tests of spatial reasoning — particularly measures of spatial visualization and mental rotation. Some researchers point to evolution as the culprit, while others have tied the discrepancies to hormone levels or brain structure.  As one researcher put it, “Sex differences in spatial ability are well documented, but poorly understood.”

Sheryl Sorby said she’s not interested in arguing about why the gap exists because training and practice can close it.”

As a trans person and a person assigned female at birth, I too am tired of science trying to put meaning onto a difference between groups as a result of hormones, chromosomes, or evolution when results turn out to be changeable.  Let’s do something about this gap rather than trying to justify it!

I brought this finding up to my physics professor, who was putting himself down for putting a very challenging spatial reasoning question on our mid-term exam.  I suggested that with more practice, more students would have been able to succeed.  Unsurprisingly, his response was initially one of disbelief.  His mindset was based in the idea that spatial reasoning skills are fixed – that “art,” “drawing,” and “visualization” are either talents you are born with, or are doomed to never have.

However, just like in athletics, training has shown to improve students’ spatial reasoning abilities overall. Not all students will become star visualizers, in the same way that not all students will become track stars if they start running every day.  However, we can all become more “fit” in our spatial reasoning through concerted effort and practice.

With these findings in mind, I am trying to collect good websites that have spatial reasoning practice for my students.  At times, I plan to make it required – as Dr. Cheryan pointed out, this is the only way to guarantee equitable impact – but I also plan to have it as an option for kids who are finished with their work to do something that is productive, challenging, and fun.  Have one to add?  Leave it in the comments!

  • 3D logic cube. Match the same-color squares to complete each level.
  • Interlocked – one of my personal favorites.  Rotate pieces, which are partially visible, to unlock the connections between them.  Lots of spatial reasoning here!
  • Tetrical – a 3D tetris game.  Challenging but fun! An easier, untimed version: Puzz3D
  • Blueprint – rotate a blueprint until you find the correct picture.
  • Shape fold – an easy tangrams-like game that involves rotating 2D shapes
  • Shape inlay – ultimate tangrams.  I could play this for hours
  • Fit it quick – mini-tetris
  • Magnets – a game I have already played for hours, and single-handedly helped me decide I shouldn’t be in research, because I found it too tempting by comparison. (Be forewarned, this is more an indication of how much I disliked research than how good the game is… and it’s impossible to get past level 5, as far as I can tell 🙂 )

Teaching human biology with case studies

It’s been an exciting summer, filled with lots of professional and personal development opportunities.  I’ll be spending time in the next few weeks summarizing some of the exciting new tools I’ve gathered in my time in the Master’s of Science in Science Education (MSSE) program at Montana State University during our summer semester.

One class that I was particularly excited about was “Teaching Anatomy & Physiology using Case Studies.”  The course focused on case studies as a form of minds-on learning that fits particularly well in an A&P setting.  As I shift from a primarily physical science focus to human biology, the inquiry format that I have used in past years no longer applies in the same way.  (Handing four kids a gerbil and saying, “Figure out how it works!” is hardly an reasonable – or ethical – task!)

Case studies provide students with a similar guided-inquiry environment where they are piecing together information into a meaningful story about a particular body system or phenomenon.  By using topics that are super-relevant to students, like caffeine consumption, athletic doping, or the Paleo diet, cases create engagement and relevance to human biology.  Cases also make it easy to integrate human society into everyday topics, including class, race, and identity – in ways that make teaching more powerful and effective without removing content.  I consider case studies a key tool in social justice science education.

Part of the class was participating in online case studies with our classmates.  In the process, I learned a great deal about human body systems, but I learned even more from observing our professor ask really strong, probing questions in discussion.  Her questions were well-timed, and pushed our understanding to the next level without getting off-topic.  Asking good questions is something I am always honing in my teaching craft, so I was grateful to be a part of that process.

As the final project, I wrote my own case study, which I wanted to share publicly so that others can use it.  It focuses on the allergic response as a lens to how the immune system works.  If you do use it, please let me know how it goes and what you changed!  Please forgive a handful of late-night typos 🙂

Do you teach using case studies?  What would you want to create a case study about?  What other ways exist for inquiry processes to fit into a human biology curriculum?  Share your ideas in the comments!

BONUS: In searching for content related to science teaching using case studies, I found a collection of case studies focused on diversity and inclusion to use in faculty & staff trainings, and a collection of cases where teachers are improving their science teaching.  Enjoy!

Readings and Resources from the past few weeks

Greetings!  I’m hoping to post some more content soon, but thought I’d put up a few articles/resources I’ve been looking through the past few weeks related to diversity, equity, and STEM education.

An Anatomical Model of Diversity This is something I have been thinking about a lot as I prepare to teach anatomy next year – the dearth, or absolute absence, of dark-skinned models in anatomical diagrams.  There are also essentially no anatomical diagrams that represent intersex and transgender people in a non-voyeuristic way.  A friend of mine is slowly starting up a push to create more PoC- and trans-centered anatomy and sex education resources… if you have any resources on this topic, or are interested in collaborating, please let me know!!

Parable of the Polygons An interesting mathematical model that can demonstrate how casual and slight racism can lead to drastic segregation.  I think this would work really well with middle school students.

Engineering Inclusive Teaching This resource provides guidelines for creating an inclusive teaching environment, especially for women and international students in the engineering classroom.  Lots of free webinars, handouts, and ideas… I highly recommend it, even if you don’t teach engineering!

9 Ways to Make Social Justice Less Elitist This simple article provides some great reminders/guidelines about the ways that social justice language can be just as exclusive and off-putting as not including that language at all.

Enjoy, and… happy almost-Friday!

Not All Fields Created Equal: an evening with Sapna Cheryan, PhD

This evening, I had the pleasure of learning more about the gender gap in STEM from Sapna Cheryan, a researcher at the University of Washington focused on interrogating the STEM fields with the largest gaps in gender parity: computer science, engineering, and physics.  Her talk was sponsored by the Evergreen School and was geared primarily towards K-12 teachers and parents.

Dr. Cheryan focused on two factors that make a particular field unwelcoming to women: masculine culture and insufficient early experience with those particular fields.  The former is a combination of beliefs, norms, structures, and interactions that cause women to feel a lower sense of belonging in a particular institution or field.  The latter focused on ways that early training is biased against equal exposure and skill-building across STEM fields, leading to unequal outcomes.

One of the most striking findings Dr. Cheryan shared had to do with the effect of physical space on how welcomed and interested students were in a particular course.  One study she cited asked high school students about their interest in taking a hypothetical computer science course being offered.  Students in the two experimental groups had the same class described to them – it had a male teacher, met a certain number of times per week, and focused on the same amount and rigor of content.  The only difference between the classes was the physical space the class met in.  One class met in a stereotypically “geeky” classroom, with Star Trek ephemera, visible electronics equipment, and action figures present in the classroom (left image, University of Washington).  The other classroom offered was a more neutral space, with plants, art pieces, and water bottles around the classroom (right image, University of Washington).

How much of a difference can a physical space make?  As it turns out, quite a lot!  When asked about their interest in taking the course, students seeing a stereotypical classroom showed typical gender disparity in their interest.  When viewing the neutral, non-stereotypical classroom with the plants and water bottles – that gap in interest disappeared.

Moreover, students sense of belonging in the course showed a similar trend.  This led Dr. Cheryan and her team to coin a term for this: ambient belonging.  She defined ambient belonging as how one senses a “fit with the material components of an environment and with the people who are imagined to occupy that environment.”

This concept of ambient belonging struck a chord for me personally and for many in the audience.  Spaces reflect those they are designed for, whether that be literal physical access for people with disabilities, comfort by seeing images of people with shared identities for people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks, or the way that objects can invite a particular set of cultural norms, be that Star Trek figurines or exercise equipment.

One listener invited those attending the talk to think about ways that we can teach our kids and students to observe their sense of ambient belonging and use that awareness as a tool of empowerment.

I am inspired to bring this to the leadership at my school, where we are in the process of planning and building a new middle school building.  I also feel challenged to think about the ways my classroom may be a more or less welcoming space to specific students based on their identity, values, and socialization.

When discussing insufficient early experience in computer science, physics, and engineering, Dr. Charyan discussed the advantages of requiring those types of courses instead of making them optional.  When students are not required to take classes in a particular STEM field, students who don’t see themselves reflected in the work of those fields based on stereotypes or their own conceptions often opt out.  They are not exposed to the real work of the discipline, nor are they able to develop the groundwork for further learning if they were to discover an interest later in their education.  This is certainly true at my school, where computer science and physics are both electives, and no explicit engineering course is consistently offered.

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As the conclusion to her talk, Dr. Charyan gave advice that she would give to her own high school, a STEM-focused research school at the University of Indiana.  Of the suggestions she provided, the one that struck me most was the last – send students to colleges with good cultures within STEM.

I attended a small private liberal arts college well-known for being a hotbed of social activism from its very founding.  Yet when I studied Economics as an undergrad, an out queer person and a person perceived as female in an overwhelmingly cis male department, I found very little empathy or acknowledgement from faculty that I was in a challenging position.  The one tenured female faculty member in the department gave me the same advice she had been given, that had enabled her to survive in a cutthroat, male-dominated field – suck it up.  No acknowledgement of the challenges of the culture, no conversation about disparities was ever posed as even a possibility, even in one-on-one interactions with faculty.

It can be easy to say that in order for students to survive in the broader world, they need to be prepared for the reality of white masculine culture and the disparities faced by women, people of color, and people with disabilities in STEM fields.  It is crystal clear, however, that this focus on “toughing up” is not only ineffective, it sets talented future scientists on the path to burnout and failure.  Identifying healthy, equity-focused school cultures and sending our students to those institutions is the solution to success, not telling them to suck it up and learn to live among the powerful.  Instead, taking that biased “reality” and queering it to our own ends is one step on the path to equity.