When a Student Says, ‘I’m Not a Boy or a Girl’

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Sofia Martin, 18, a senior at Puget Sound Community School in Seattle, identifies as nonbinary — neither a boy or a girl — and uses the pronouns they or them. CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times

At the age of 15, after rehearsing in the shower, Sofia Martin made an announcement to the students at Puget Sound Community School.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am,” Sofia recalled saying at the morning meeting, a daily assembly of the school’s 52 students and staff members. “I’ve come to the decision that I’m nonbinary, which means that I’m not a boy or a girl.” Sofia asked the teachers and the students, who are in grades six through 12, to use the pronouns they or them, which they promised to do.

Over the course of the next year, Sofia, who is now 18, pushed for a gender-neutral bathroom and encouraged fellow students to name their pronouns when they introduced themselves. Today Puget Sound, a small, unconventional private school in Seattle, has converted a former men’s room into an all-gender restroom and four more students have made similar announcements in front of the whole school.

“I don’t want to suggest that we got this perfectly right, although I will say that doing something was right,” Andy Smallman, the founder and director of the school, wrote in an email about the restroom.

At some schools, teaching for and about transgender people is a battle, epitomized by nationwide debates over “bathroom bills.” But at others, educators aren’t battling against trans students or their needs. Instead, schools like Puget Sound are altering their policies to include transgender kids and, more broadly, to make gender a deliberate part of the curriculum. Students are leading the way, driving schools to adopt more inclusive teaching methods.

“Ten years ago, I wasn’t really talking at all about transgender in my classes,” said Emily Umberger, who teaches health at two private schools in Charlottesville, Va. Now, “the kids are very comfortable asking questions about gender identity, transgender stuff. It’s amazing how much that has changed in a few years.”

As alternative private schools test these ideas classroom by classroom, some larger school districts are enacting them more widely. The California Healthy Youth Act, which went into effect in 2016, requires all California public schools to teach students about gender expression and gender stereotypes. (Outside of the classroom, California just passed a law allowing a third gender option on state drivers’ licenses and birth certificates, for people who identify as nonbinary.) In Florida, Broward County requires middle school students to learn about gender identity.

Of course, not all schools or parents accept these changes. Glsen, a national nonprofit focused on L.G.B.T. issues in K-12 education, notes that in some parts of the country there are laws that forbid teachers to talk about gay and transgender people in a positive way in the classroom. Alabama, for example, requires teachers to emphasize “that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” Parents, too, can weigh in. Recently Chloe Bressack, a fifth-grade teacher in Florida, sent a letter to parents asking to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns like “they, them, theirs.” After some parents complained, the teacher was transferred to a different school in the district.

But at some schools — many of them rooted in progressive pedagogy, with an emphasis on hands-on learning and social responsibility — teachers and administrators are listening when students demand they catch up on gender. Educators then have to figure out the quotidian details: Can boys wear skirts and still follow the dress code? How should teachers explain that most people with uteruses will get their periods, but not all people with their periods have to be girls? And what to do about those bathrooms, anyway?

Many educators and students noted that the goal is not just teaching kids to be accepting of trans or gender nonconforming people. Instead, it’s about loosening up the whole idea of gender, for every kid.

“This is not about those kids,” said Deborah Roffman, a teacher at the Park School in Baltimore who has been teaching human sexuality for 40 years. “Everybody in this building has a gender identity, which exists along a continuum.”

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Sofia’s school has converted a former men’s room into an all-gender restroom.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times

Unlike the stark sex-ed films of the past (with messages that amounted to “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant, and die”), today teachers read aloud from books about transgender kids (or books about gender-bending crayons or same-sex penguin dads) to start conversations. Rossana Zapf, a learning and curriculum support coordinator at the Miquon School in Philadelphia, read the elementary students Jazz Jennings’s picture book “I am Jazz,” and Michael Hall’s “Red: A Crayon’s Story,” about a blue crayon who is mistakenly labeled red.

“That reminds me of my friend,” a kindergartner said after the reading.

Ms. Umberger in Charlottesville said she uses a little game to explain the gender binary, the idea that boys and girls are opposites and that people must be one or the other. “I’ll say, what’s your favorite color? Is it lime green or crimson? And they’ll say, actually it’s royal blue,” she said. By showing that sometimes two rigid options aren’t enough, she teaches them what it means to be nonbinary.

At the Green Acres School in Bethesda, Md., students are asking administrators to rethink the dress code for eighth grade graduation, says Ann Kappell Danner, the middle school counselor. Typically, the girls wear dresses and the boys wear suits and ties. Now the students are proposing that the dress code be gender neutral: a list of acceptable clothing with no determination of which gender should wear what.

“The students are so hungry for this,” said Nora Gelperin, the director of sexuality education and training at Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based nonprofit that provides a free sex-ed curriculum for K-12 students which includes lessons about the range of gender identities. “When I’m in a school, the students are leading the way, and adults are desperately trying to catch up.”

As kids push forward, it can be difficult for even the most supportive parents and schools to know what the best course of action looks like.

A 36-year-old mother at a progressive school in Seattle, who asked not to be named because she was sharing intimate details about her young child, informed the school last year that her 6-year-old identified as a girl. The daughter, assigned male at birth, had been trying on dresses and playing around with girls’ names for about three years and she wanted to be recognized as a girl.

The teachers were 100 percent supportive, the mother says. They just wanted to know what to do. But that was exactly the problem.

“Just because I have a kid who’s going through this doesn’t make me at all an expert,” the woman said. “I kind of felt like I was drowning in information, but at the same time, very alone.”

She explained her daughter’s transition to the parents and other teachers at the school, and helped her daughter tell her class. But a year later, she still feels uncertain.

“It’s tough when people say follow your kid’s lead,” the woman said. “We’re talking about a 7-year-old who has no concept of what this looks like in the future.”

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At the moment, though, even little kids are grasping the big ideas. At the Advent School in Boston, Erina Spiegelman, who is an instructional coordinator, recalled that a teacher last year asked a group of students the big question: “What is gender?”

The first answer came from a second-grader: “It’s a thing people invented to put you in a category.”

Correction: October 25, 2017 
An earlier version of this article misstated the state where a fifth-grade teacher who asked to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns works. It is Florida, not Tennessee.

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The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams

Imagine you are a fly on the wall in a corporate training center where a management team of 12 is participating in a session on executing strategy. The team is midway through attempting to solve a new, uncertain, and complex problem. The facilitators look on as at first the exercise follows its usual path. But then activity grinds to a halt — people have no idea what to do. Suddenly, a more junior member of the team raises her hand and exclaims, “I think I know what we should do!” Relieved, the team follows her instructions enthusiastically. There is no doubt she has the answer — but as she directs her colleagues, she makes one mistake and the activity breaks down. Not a word is spoken but the entire group exude disappointment. Her confidence evaporates. Even though she has clearly learnt something important, she does not contribute again. The group gives up.

What happened?

In an earlier article, “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse,” we reported our research findings that teams with high levels of cognitive diversity performed better on these kinds of challenges. In these groups, we observed a blend of different problem-solving behaviors, like collaboration, identifying problems, applying information, maintaining discipline, breaking rules, and inventing new approaches. These techniques combined were more effective than in groups where there were too many rule-breakers, or too many discipline-maintainers, for example.

But in the case of these 12 managers, they did show a cognitively diverse approach. So what happened? We returned to our data to find out. In this team, as well as other under-performing teams, we observed a smaller percentage of the group contributing, longer intervals between testing ideas, and greater repetition of the same mistakes.

The groups that performed well treated mistakes with curiosity and shared responsibility for the outcomes. As a result people could express themselves, their thoughts and ideas without fear of social retribution. The environment they created through their interaction was one of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a dynamic, emergent property of interaction and can be destroyed in an instant with an ill-timed sigh. Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, people do not fully contribute — and when they don’t, the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealized. Furthermore, anxiety rises and defensive behavior prevails.

So the question is, how do you establish and maintain psychological safety with a cognitively diverse group?

The Generative Organization

Over the last 12 months we asked 150 senior executives from different organizations across the world to rate their organizations in terms of cognitive diversity, psychological safety, and the extent to which they consider their organization able to anticipate and respond to challenges and opportunities, i.e. their adaptability. Not surprisingly, adaptability correlated very highly with high levels of both cognitive diversity and psychological safety. We called these organizations “generative,” and labelled the worse-performing organizations oppositional (high diversity, low safety), uniform (low diversity, high safety), and defensive (low in both).

We also asked the same 150 executives to choose five words (from a list of more than 60) that best described the dominant behaviors and emotions in their organization. To identify which behaviors correlated with the best- and worst-performing groups, we matched the chosen words with the levels of reported psychological safety and cognitive diversity. The table below shows the most common behaviors selected by each group:

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In the Generative quadrant, we find behaviors associated with learning, experimenting, and confidenceTogether they facilitate high quality interactionInterestingly, “forceful” appears here too, which at a first glance might seem surprising. Exploring this further, participants were identifying the assertive expression and vigorous analysis of ideas. “Forceful” therefore relates to having the confidence to persist in expressing what you think is important. Psychologically safe environments enable this kind of candour without it being perceived as aggressive. Note that we also see more positive emotions in the generative and uniform quadrants.

By contrast, in the other quadrants we find words associated with control and constraint. These behaviors are conspicuously absent from the Generative quadrant. We see more negative emotions as well.

The Behaviors That Count

We choose our behavior. We need to be more curious, inquiring, experimental and nurturing. We need to stop being hierarchical, directive, controlling, and conforming. It is not just the presence of the positive behaviors in the Generative quadrant that count, it is the corresponding absence of the negative behaviors.

For example, hierarchical behavior is cited as one of the top 5 dominant behaviors 40% of the time in the non-generative quadrants. It is only cited 15% of the time as a top behavior in the Generative quadrant. This is not because the organizations in the Generative quadrant have a flatter structure — hierarchy is a fact of organizational life — but because hierarchy does not define their interactions. We see controlling cited 33% of the time as a top behavior in the non-generative quadrants compared with only 10% in the generative quadrant. We see directive cited 24% of the time as top behavior in the non-generative quadrants compared to only 5% in the generative.

When we fail to foster a high quality interaction, we lose out on the benefit of discourse between people who see things differently. The result is a lack of deep understanding, fewer creative options, diminished commitment to act, increased anxiety and resistance, and reduced morale and wellbeing.

A psychologically safe environment ignites cognitive diversity and puts different minds to work on the bumpy and difficult journey of strategy execution.

How people choose to behave determines the quality of interaction and the emergent culture. Leaders need to consider not only how they will act, but as importantly, how they will not act. They need to disturb and disrupt unhelpful patterns of behavior and commit to establishing new routines. To lay the ground for successful execution everyone needs to strengthen and sustain psychological safety through continuous gestures and responses. People cannot express their cognitive difference if it is unsafe to do so. If leaders focus on enhancing the quality of interaction in their teams, business performance and wellbeing will follow.


Alison Reynolds is a member of faculty at the UK’s Ashridge Business School where she works with executive groups in the field of leadership development, strategy execution and organization development. She has previously worked in the public sector and management consulting, and is an advisor to a number of small businesses and charities.


David Lewis is Director of London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme and teaches on strategy execution and leading in uncertainty. He is a consultant and works with global corporations, advising and coaching board teams.  He is co-founder of a research company focusing on developing tools to enhance individual, team and organization performance through better interaction.

Are Today’s Teenagers Smarter and Better Than We Think?

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Emma González, center, is among the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students leading the movement against gun violence. CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Today’s teenagers have been raised on cellphones and social media. Should we worry about them or just get out of their way?

A recent wave of student protests around the country has provided a close-up view of Generation Z in action, and many adults have been surprised. While there has been much hand-wringing about this cohort, also called iGen or the Post-Millennials, the stereotype of a disengaged, entitled and social-media-addicted generation doesn’t match the poised, media-savvy and inclusive young people leading the protests and gracing magazine covers.

There’s 18-year-old Emma González, whose shaved head, impassioned speeches and torn jeans have made her the iconic face of the #NeverAgain movement, which developed after the 17 shooting deaths in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Naomi Wadler, just 11, became an overnight sensation after confidently telling a national television audience she represented “African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper.” David Hogg, a high school senior at Stoneman Douglas, has weathered numerous personal attacks with the disciplined calm of a seasoned politician.

Sure, these kids could be outliers. But plenty of adolescent researchers believe they are not.

“I think we must contemplate that technology is having the exact opposite effect than we perceived,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult.” “We see the negatives of not going outside, can’t look people in the eye, don’t have to go through the effort of making a phone call. There are ways we see the deficiencies that social media has offered, but there are obviously tremendous upsides and positives as well.”

“I am fascinated by the phenomenon we are seeing in front of us, and I don’t think it’s unique to these six or seven kids who have been the face of the Parkland adolescent cohort,” says Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist and author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.”

“They are so direct in their messaging. They are so clear. They seem unflappable.”

Dr. Damour, who has spent her career talking and listening to teenagers, said she believes the Parkland teens are showing the world the potential of their peer group. “Those of us who live with teenagers and are around them can see something that is different about this generation,” she said.

There is still much to learn about the postmillennial cohort — social scientists haven’t even agreed on when this generation begins, although there seems to be a consensus forming that the year 2000, give or take a few years, is a good place to start. But data collected from various health surveys already show that today’s teens are different from previous generations in many ways.

Many risky behaviors have dropped sharply among today’s teens. Cigarette smoking among teens is at a historic low since peaking in the mid 1990s. Alcohol use has also declined significantly — the number of teens who have used alcohol in the past 30 days is down by half since the 1990s. Teen pregnancy rates have hit historic lows, and teens over all are waiting longer to have sex than their parent’s generation. Teen driving fatalities are down about 64 percent since 1975. Some of that is attributed to safer cars, but teen crashes have declined between 10 and 30 percent in states with tiered licensing systems, and teen drunken driving has dropped while teen seatbelt use has increased.

While most health researchers celebrate these changes in teen health, some scientists think the trends suggest a lower level of maturity among today’s teens. Perhaps teens are safer simply because their reliance on social media and smartphone use means they are getting out less. In September, the journal Child Development published a study by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, noting that there is a decline in a number of “adult” activities among today’s teens. In seven large, nationally representative surveys of eight million American adolescents from 1976 to 2016, fewer adolescents in recent years are having sex, dating, drinking alcohol, driving, working for pay and going out without their parents.

“The big picture is that they are taking longer to grow up,” said Dr. Twenge, whose latest book is “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

In an article in The Atlantic last fall titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” Dr. Twenge argued that teens are more comfortable in their bedrooms or on smartphones or social media than at a party. While they are physically safer than past generations as a result, rates of teen depression and suicide are on the rise. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” she wrote. “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

But a number of social scientists and adolescent health researchers disagree with that conclusion. While teen depression and suicide rates are worrisome, there is no causal link to show those trends are the result of smartphones and social media. In fact, a literature review by Unicef researchers in December found that moderate use of digital technology tends to be beneficial for children’s mental well-being, while no use or too much use is associated with a “small negative impact.” The larger issues that affect a child’s well-being are family functioning, social dynamics at school and socio-economic conditions, the report concluded.

Don Tapscott, author of “Grown Up Digital,” said he believes today’s teenagers are better communicators than any previous generation. “They didn’t grow up being the passive recipients of somebody else’s broadcast,” he said. “They grew up being interactors and communicators. In the 1960s we had a generation gap. What we have today is a generation lap — they are lapping their parents on the digital track.”

The clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel interviewed groups of middle school and high school students around the country in 2015 and 2016 for her new book, “Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It and When to Listen.” Dr. Mogel spoke with diverse kids from various regions and walks of life, but found herself consistently impressed by their thoughtfulness, how much they liked their parents, and how much they cared about the world around them.

“The press and general public like to see them as spoiled and not having to work hard for anything except grades and being very entitled,” Dr. Mogel said. “But they’re courageous, energetic, optimistic and really smart.”

Neil Howe, a historian whose books include “Millennials Rising,” said that unlike earlier generations, today’s teens have accepted the structures of society and have learned to work within those boundaries. “They’re very good at using rules to make their point, and they’re absolutely excellent at negotiating with their parents, and negotiating in a reasonable way about how to bend these rules in a way that will make them more effective and give them more space,” he said. “This is not a ‘throw the brick through the window and burn stuff down’ group of kids at all. They’re working very constructively, arm-in-arm with older people they trust, to make big institutions work better and make them stronger and more effective.”

Ms. Lythcott-Haims notes that the current crop of teenagers is the first generation to grow up with active shooter drills since kindergarten. “I think what we might have here is a generation that really defines itself by the markers of their childhoods,” she said. “In addition to being marked by these gun violence tragedies, they came to consciousness with a black man in the White House and smartphones in their hands.”

What does all this mean for the future of today’s teens? All of the researchers agreed there is still much more to learn about this cohort, but what we know so far is promising.

“We are in the process of distilling the data and discerning who they are, but I am excited,” said Ms. Lythcott-Haims. “We don’t know who they will be in their 20s, but already they have agency, the sense of your own existence, your own right to make decisions and your own responsibility for outcomes and consequences. That’s what we need to have to be mentally well. I think these folks could turn out not to be just leaders, but to be a generation that we look back on and end up calling one of the greatest.”

Can Teachers Learn to Think Differently?

EdWeek

Editor’s Note: Karen Martin, elementary teacher and instructional coach for Denali Borough School District in Alaska, traveled to Finland as a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grantee. She visited over 50 different classrooms and observed almost 70 different teachers and teacher trainees. Her biggest takeaway: that Finnish teachers think and teach in a way that encourages inquiry. Here’s how she brought this lesson back home.

By guest blogger Karen Martin

It is difficult to observe, let alone internationally benchmark, thinking, but one of the most profound lessons we can learn from Finland is how to nurture the development of a “thinking profession” of teachers. If we want to create an intellectual, thinking culture for our students, it is imperative that it also becomes the norm for teachers.

Through many conversations and interviews with Finnish teachers, I began to realize that they fundamentally approach their work differently than American teachers. These teachers are the product of an intentionally designed education philosophy called research-based teacher education, which has as its central goal to educate inquiry-oriented teachers. The outcomes of this type of training are competencies that empower teachers to utilize scientific skills and thinking to critically examine their own practice and to make reflective changes in the moment as they teach. The integration and development of a scientific understanding of educational research and the research process supports a mindset of reflection and evidence-based inquiry that infuses throughout their pedagogical knowing and practice.

How Do You Help Teachers Develop a Research Mindset and Skills? 

The question I carried with me throughout my adventure in Finland was how could I transfer my learning to my own context to benefit the professional lives of my colleagues? When I returned to my school district, I worked with a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to create a continuing education course titled, “Engaging Teachers in Action Research.”

karen_martin.pngThrough this course, my teaching colleagues and I developed the basic technical competencies to design participatory action research projects. Through the course, my colleagues could begin to understand how research thinking can be used to more objectively tackle recurring problems of practice and use new types of evidence to critically inform our decision-making, reflections, and our impact.

In the first year of our action research work, eight teachers collaboratively designed investigations to better understand and affect student engagement. Our collaboration forged relationships of authentic trust as we exposed ourselves to the vulnerability of opening up our classrooms to each other, sharing our fears and struggles in teaching, and working collectively to find answers to difficult problems that have persisted throughout our teaching careers.

How Do You Change Teacher Thinking?

One of the most powerful lenses and sources of evidence that my colleagues and I continue to utilize in our action research is a method of analyzing our own thinking in moments of teaching. This is accomplished through a method called “guided reflection” that uses video analysis. In our action research projects, we use video recordings to capture our classroom teaching for analysis of evidence. We then watch the videos of our teaching with a colleague within days of recording a video.

In the videos, we choose critical incidents that help us understand our pedagogical decisions related to our research questions. We analyze these critical incidents by asking what happened, why did it happen, what were we thinking when it happened, and why were we thinking that?

Through this intentional method of developing reflective thinking, we gather evidence directly related to our own impact within our classrooms and have increased our strength and capacity to inquire into our teaching practice at a deeper level. The use of video study has made us more mindful and changed our interactions and metacognition while we are present with students.

Can Experienced Teachers Learn to Think Differently?

During the second year of our action research, our cohort decided to investigate the concept of learned helplessness to better understand how we as teachers influence the ability of our students to persevere and develop positive beliefs about learning. Collectively, we asked:

  • How do we influence these behaviors in our students?
  • How can we influence our students’ beliefs about learning?

Fundamentally, these questions are at the very core of our most important and transferable work with students—their ability to become self-regulated learners and their productive beliefs about learning.

The year-long investigation included seven different classrooms in our K-12 school and helped us to better understand what our students believe about learning. We engaged students in conversations about making mistakes, we structured student reflections around making thinking visible, we explicitly taught content about how the brain learns, and we made discussions about what learning feels like part of classroom culture.

Most importantly, our work involved video study analysis of the specific language we used with students and how we interact with students in the moments of teaching. These video reflections helped us realize how we needed to change our teaching behaviors to allow students to do the rigorous work of learning. It is only through video study that we observed how often we rushed in to help our students and how the specific language we used rescued our students from productive struggles and learning.

Through action research, including the use of video reflection, we have witnessed a powerful shift in the embedded beliefs of experienced teachers (some with over 20 years of experience), who had never stopped to question their own thinking and actions. We are experiencing some of the principles and outcomes of Finnish research-based teacher education.

By investigating our own practice and learning to reflect deeply on our pedagogical thinking and decision-making, we have initiated a powerful shift in our classroom cultures that has more firmly placed learning in the hands of our students. The impact of this work on our students and teachers is tangible. Teacher action research and the use of video study for guided reflection can change teacher thinking in a way that positively impacts the culture of learning for students.

Connect with Karen and Heather on Twitter.
 Image created on Pablo

References:

Husu, J., Toom, A., & Patrikainen, S. (2008). Guided reflection as a means to demonstrate and develop student teachers’ reflective competencies. Reflective Practice 9(1), 37 – 51.

Kansanen, P. (1991).  Pedagogical thinking: the basic problem of teacher education.  European Journal of Education, 26 (3), 251 – 260.