This post begins the monthly guest education blogger. I want to thank this blogger for their awareness and dedication to integrating diversity in student identities to their conversations in science class.
Teaching Biology Beyond XX and XY
Regardless of what subject you teach, education is, by default, political. As educators, we make choices to expose students to certain information, and it is our responsibility to provide accurate and thorough access to a variety of ideas. We must recognize that students come to us with a wide range of experiences and that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, deserve to be respected and to hear their own stories echoed within the classroom.
In my science classroom, I specifically aim to empower students to become scientifically responsible global citizens who can make educated decisions about their roles in the world. Students will often debate about climate change or the evidence for evolution, but sometimes it is more personal: when learning about heredity, a student might begin to wonder what genetic traits his or her child will have.
My primary responsibility when introducing genetics to teach students about how we’re biologically programmed. Half of all adults have eggs, the other half contain sperm. If we choose to mate with someone of the opposite sex, our offspring will have a calculated likelihood of expressing specific traits. Seems simple, right?
As I look around my classroom, I realize that it might not be so simple for many of my students. Inevitably someone is brave enough to raise a hand and ask, “but what if we don’t know our family tree? What if we don’t know what our parents look like?” I take the opportunity to thank them and share my other introduction to genetics – the political one. Here are the ground rules for studying genetics in our classroom:
- From now on, we will refer to parents as biological mother and father. Yes, it’s an extra word, but it’s important. While many of my students are raised by their biological parents, some of my students have parents who have chosen to raise them through adoption. Others may live with grandparents or single parents, and may not know both biological parents.
- In this classroom, you will never be asked to identify your own biological family tree. As an alternative, we will predict the genetic babies of celebrities! In recent years students have predicted the offspring of President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, J.K. Rowling and John Green. This assignment engages students and allows them to personally invest in the learning.
- Next rule: Yes, in this class two boys or two girls can have a baby. One caveat: you must understand the genetics! Two females will only have girls (XX) and two males have a 25% chance of an automatic miscarriage (YY). Sad – sorry – but that’s the biology. (As a side note: it is not me who makes this rule; every year I have had at least one student ask to have same-sex parents).
There are many advantages of approaching genetics this way, and it doesn’t require additional time or resources. First, for all of my students who are adopted or have same sex parents, they can honor both sides of their family – the genetic and the chosen. For others students who are not heterosexual or cisgendered* (and thus may be questioning what their family may one day look like), this allows them to envision having a family when they grow up.
Some people may argue that I’m making this too confusing or that I’m inviting in controversy. They are partially correct – our world is becoming more and more complex! However, as legal protection for LGBT individuals gains momentum and the spectrum of “typical” families broadens, we can’t continue to teach in the heteronormative two-parent traditional framework. As long as we stay within the bounds of accurate biology and age-appropriate vocabulary and concept (yes, this content is middle school appropriate), we owe it to our students to invite all voices into the discussion.
Hopefully by approaching genetics this way my students will gain both content knowledge (how reproduction and genetics work) as well as compassion and understanding for our similarities and differences; although our circumstances may appear different on the surface, we all crave the love and comfort that we call family.
*Cisgender is defined as: a person whose self identifies as the gender that corresponds with their biological sex