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?

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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!

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 🙂 )