This is a brief reflection on a work in progress, but health education in school is very important to me. It is a brief reflection on a project to update and refine a Sex Ed sequence, bringing in a stronger element of values education, sexuality and attitudes. It aims to move away from the traditional ‘plumbing and don’t get pregnant or raped’ approach to a more powerful and relevant ‘plumbing, make good decisions and be a good person’ approach.
Towards the end of the year we had the opportunity to review and teach a G9 Sex Ed class, standing separate from the regular MYP PHE class and with a different staffing allocation. It comes at a time when the school is working out how to re-distribute health topics into PE, to make PHE, yet retain the balance of content work and physical activity. Sexuality education is a hugely important service schools provide students and their families and with this five-week (five hour) sequence we wanted to maximise the impact of the course. The course followed the end of a sequence of ‘peer group connection’ classes, which pairs up groups of older and younger high school students to discuss social and community issues. As a result, the groups come in fully-formed and comfortable with each other. The school has a very packed schedule, so finding time for all this with students is a challenge – they don’t get the weekly health & social class that I had been used to teaching from G6-10 in Bandung.
After a review of the existing course, the aim was to set up some lessons and supporting resources that gave students reliable information but which also led them to other useful sources. I wanted to make sure that we weren’t afraid to tackle difficult issues, so the flow of the course goes:
- Anatomy, Physiology (including ground rules for SexEd, discussion of purposes). This built on their pre-existing knowledge (which was minimal) from puberty classes. The ground rules were shown again at the start of each lesson.
- Menstrual Cycle, Sex and Pregnancy (lots of video, quite teacher-directed)
- Abstinence, Contraception & Avoiding STI’s (starting to open up discussions, looking at different approaches to safe sex and STI avoidance, includes condom/banana demo).
- Consent: Making Safe Choices (further into discussions of values, risks, pressures around sex and communication. Heavy emphasis on the nature of consent and ‘no means no’. Starts to explore attitudes towards sexuality and introduces alternative sexualities.)
- Attitudes & Behaviours (really focuses on being aware of and avoiding negative behaviours, including rape prevention not as a fault of the victim but as a responsibility of the potential perpetrator.)
Students each week received a double-sided sheet for notes, with clear statements for Understand, Know and Do, as well as vocabulary list, key content and links to the supporting resources on a GoogleSite. This all took a lot of time to prepare, as it was accompanied by discussion-cards and a presentation as well. The GoogleSite is filled with videos and further links to sources I’d vetted, in order to allow students to explore more in class and at home. Towards the end of the course, students were able to use the resources to answer their own questions.
Every week started with a tuning in exercise, usually a quiz or discussion based on the previous week, and ended with an exit ticket, used to inform teaching in the future weeks. The final lesson ended with an evaluation GoogleForm.
The course was very well received by students who completed the survey, and the dynamic in discussions improved as the prompts became more interesting. In one session I noticed a very quiet group of one-word answers, so for the following week adapted discussion prompts for a rotating discussion model, as seen in the presentation. This made a huge difference and came from one of our focuses for next school year in supporting all teachers to be language teachers.
Through formative assessment I noticed that students’ memories of the reproductive system organs were weak, though their understandings of the processes were strong. The emphasis on consent, respect and safe decision-making came through loud and clear, and I was grateful for that. Students understood that there were multiple factors influencing how we think about sex and sexuality and that “no means no; the absence of yes means no.”
We looked at a range of non-traditional, yet important, issues around sexuality, from masturbation and pornography to sexual harassment, discrimination, homophobia and sexual violence. We saw examples of campaigns targeted at men to prevent them from being rapists and discussed the victim-blaming nature of existing approaches and policies.
An important shortfall noted in the feedback was that the course felt too short and that there was not enough time to really explore some of the more current and interesting issues. For example, although I emphasised that we were not pushing only hetero-normative values, we did not really give students much opportunity to discuss LGBT issues.
In between the fourth and fifth weeks of the course, after looking at pressures around sex and going into a lot of depth on consent, the #YesAllWomen campaign exploded on Twitter. This was a powerful response to the misogny-fueled mass-shooting at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Some of the students had seen the news, few understood what was behind it. Some had seen the hashtag and we looked at the stream during class. At that time there were over 50 tweets coming through per minute, a steady stream of everyday (and extreme) issues faced by women.
“I noticed things in this course that sometime now I don’t like to notice,”
I asked students to watch the stream, note some of the hard-hitting tweets and try to clarify to each other what they meant. The girls got involved right away, with lots of ‘Oh, yeah‘s, but the boys took a while. When they got it, it led to some profound moments of reflection that I hope we can build into meaningful changes in attitudes and positive future actions. Over and over again, we stated that if we truly believe in equality for all, we need to change the mindset of the population to really move away from victim-blaming and into taking real responsibility for actions.
I am thankful for the opportunity to do this with the classes, even though it was an exhausting effort at the end of an overly-busy year. There is clearly some way to go in the development of these resources, and I’ll aim for a sixth more open-ended week next time. Approaching sex-ed in this way is a risk and needs confidence and caring in the classroom to make it work – I honestly can’t see it being successful if forced on those who don’t want to teach it this way. We are very fortunate at CA to have students who are capable of mature and compassionate discussion.
The materials and ideas for the course are pulled from many sources, all of which I checked as rigorously as possible for currency and accuracy. Many of them are posted on the course GoogleSite. Here are some key resources:
- Center for Disease Control Health Standards (USA)
- National Health Service Sexual Health Portal (UK)
- Advocates for Youth sexuality education (USA)
- AVERT.org, youth HIV & Sexuality organisation (UK)
- Planned Parenthood (USA)
This TED Talk on ‘The Great Porn Experiment’ is super-interesting – and highlights an issue in sexuality education that we would not have had to deal with (to the same extent) the in days before always-on, in-your-face internet exposure to sexual imagery.