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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Health education includes a lot of topics -- nutrition, fitness, substance use, mental health, violence prevention and communication skills, to name a few -- but the one that always gets the most attention is sex ed. And lately it's not just getting attention in class.

It's been all over the news.

My state, California, expects us to teach comprehensive sexuality lessons. That means we provide young people with medically accurate information about human anatomy and talk frankly about birth control options, sexually transmitted infections, safer sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual choices (including, but not limited to, abstinence).

When I started teaching 11 years ago, we were right in the middle of the "abstinence-only" years, and most students in the United States were getting very little in the way of real sex education in schools. Thankfully, in the wake of the overwhelming evidence that abstinence-only programs fail to keep anyone abstinent or safe, more states are now offering at least some real sexuality education.

I have to admit the first time I met parents at a back-to-school night and told them that I would soon be teaching their 14- and 15-year-olds about condoms and pregnancy prevention, I expected some might be upset.

I didn't expect what actually happened, which is that a bunch of parents came up to shake my hand, saying things like, "Thank you so much for teaching my daughter about that stuff. I know she needs to learn it, but I just don't know what to say."

The truth is that most parents in our country want their kids to learn about abstinence and birth control in the classroom, as shown in this new report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Furthermore, from the same report, seven in 10 adults believe that teen pregnancy prevention programs that are federally funded should primarily support those programs that have been "proven to change behavior related to teen pregnancy" -- just the opposite of the abstinence-only programs, which have been repeatedly proven not to work.

Some parents aren't waiting around for things to get better. Mica Ghimenti, a parent in the Clovis Unified school district, joined two other parents and the ACLU in filing a lawsuit to change the district's sex education curriculum. Ghimenti says that her daughter received no information about condoms, birth control or preventing STIs in health class and that lack of information presented a health risk for students.

She told the L.A. Times, "I want there to be medically accurate, scientifically based education for all youth in Clovis Unified. If we don't give them the information, they won't be able to make good, healthy decisions."

When I first introduce myself to students, I make a pledge to them -- I will never lie to them; I won't exaggerate things to make them seem worse than they are; and if they ask about something I don't know about, I will do my best to get them a real answer.

Like Ghimenti, I don't think it's fair to expect students to make responsible decisions unless they have truthful, reliable information on which to base those decisions.

Resources for Teaching Sex Ed

  • Scarleteen A frank and terrific information and advice site aimed at people in their teens and 20s.
  • Future of Sex Education An organization dedicated to "creating a national dialogue about the future of sex education and to promote the institutionalization of comprehensive sexuality education in public schools." They recently released their "National Sexuality Education Standards."
  • Sex, Etc. A great sexuality information site from Rutgers University written "by teens, for teens." They also publish a print magazine that can be used in classrooms.
  • SexEdLibrary A library of downloadable sex ed lessons, including lessons on human development, sexual anatomy, puberty, sexual orientation, body image, dating, abstinence, and more.
  • Planned Parenthood's "Different is Normal" video, designed to reduce anxiety and body image issues among teenagers.

What sex ed policies does your district have? Do you think they are effective?

Comments (2)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anya Manes's picture
Anya Manes
chemistry and biology teacher, San Francisco CA

I work at an all-girls Catholic high-school in San Francisco, and it is shocking what they don't know. We have a 9th grade PE/health class, but it is only one semester. At one time, we had a 9th grade integrated science class, and we covered human reproduction, but the UC's refused to recognize integrated courses anymore, so it gave way to Conceptual Physics. What does this mean? What is covered in 9th grade health is very limited. They know very little by the time I meet them in 10th grade biology.

My students have so many questions about their bodies. They really don't understand the digestive system or what choking is or any of the "basics," especially and including human reproduction. When we get to human reproduction, we go over it all: male and female anatomy, identical and fraternal and conjoined twins, fetal development, STIs, birth control. Yes, I get to teach them about birth control at a Catholic school, as long as I explain the position of the church. Our health insurance won't cover birth control pills, but I can teach it in the classroom. I have the honors students study the menstrual cycle in this unit as well, since understanding that hormonal cycle is basically the same as understanding how birth control pills work.

I don't know what SFUSD's policies are, but if I can teach it all in a Catholic school, it would be pretty sad if it wasn't getting taught elsewhere. Is it effective? Yes, I think so, but I wish I was teaching them this stuff when they were 6th or 7th graders, not 10th graders.

Feel free to email me for lesson planning materials.

CandiceR's picture
CandiceR
Learning from the Frontline Warriors in Education

I am on the "in-road" track to education, looking to change careers. However, I find my experience with youth carries over. Working in Christian ministry, I once thought it was not appropriate to expose children and youth to "all the options" assuming they would choose the option that would keep them out of trouble while entering into promiscuous relationships. However, the more I speak with students the more I realize that most do not desire "one night stands" and simply want to feel trusted by the authorities in their lives to make the right decisions based on the options available.

One fault I find with so many public schools is the tendency to divorce this subject from the family. This is a sensitive topic that carries "values" language and should incorporate the family at all possible levels. Schools should not take the place of the parent, but rather support parent/child conversation, especially in the area of their sexuality.

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