Archive for August 2012

Sex Education

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 been getting attention in class. It’s been all over the news.

My state, California, expects us to teach comprehensive sexuality lessons. That means that 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 that some of them 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, 7 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, is joining the ACLU in suing to change that district’s sex education curriculum. She says that her daughter got no information about condoms, birth control or preventing STIs in health class. 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.

Can we all agree on that?

One of the choices teachers have to make is just how much information about themselves they want to share with students. It’s always a judgment call. For the past few years, I’ve been sharing the briefest of biographies during the first days of class and then pulling in stories from my life when I think they might be useful.

This year, however, I decided to try something different. I made a PowerPoint about my life.

Now, you may be thinking “How arrogant – why does this guy think the students care about his life?” That’s a valid question. The truth is, though, that students always ask about my life – they are curious, and they want to know if they can trust me. I thought that sharing a little more information about myself right away would help me build credibility with students, and if I got the tone right, would help me seem approachable, like someone they could relate to and trust.

I put up slides showing Wisconsin, where I grew up, and the University of Missouri, where I got my undergraduate degree. I talked about moving out to California and working as a journalist writing about science and health. I told them about volunteering at the San Francisco Sex Information hotline. It was there, answering calls from teens who were sometimes in real crisis (and sometimes just needed reliable information about their own bodies) that I first started thinking about becoming a teacher.

I also shared some details from my home life. I showed a picture of my 9-year-old son from our summer vacation, and talked a little bit about raising him. I showed a photo of my mother, and talked about how she’d worked as a college counselor her whole life.

I mentioned how excited I am that two women in my family are about to have babies, and showed photos of my sister and her husband, and my sister-in-law and her wife. At this point, a couple of students asked, with genuine curiosity, how a lesbian could get pregnant. I answered with a quick “Well, they used a sperm donor. We’ll be going over the details of pregnancy in a few weeks, and we can talk more about how it works then.”

I also showed some pictures from the 545-mile AIDS/Lifecycle bike ride I finished in June. I talked how I trained for months to get ready, how the students I taught last year helped with fundraising, and how good it felt to meet a personal athletic goal and raise money for such a good cause.

I was a little nervous to try this presentation out, but so far it seems like it was a successful strategy. I’m quickly developing rapport with the students, and before the week was out I’d already had two boys pull me aside to ask for help with personal issues. In my line of work, when a teen trusts you enough to ask for help, it’s a sign you’re doing something right.


The alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m. and a jittery flutter of excitement fills my body as I get ready for the first day of school. The morning routine is familiar — shower, shave, eat a quick breakfast, make sure my son is dressed and ready for his first day of 5th grade. Then I pack a salad, some almonds and a couple of apples into my bag, hop on my bicycle and make the 20-minute ride to work. I rehearse the day’s lesson in my head as I pedal along.

The bell rings promptly at 8:05, and I watch the first round of students stream in, some looking confused, some looking tired, a few trying to look tough. All students are required to take my Health Education class during 9th grade. It’s a one-semester class, so I will teach half of the freshmen this semester and half during the second semester, which starts in January.

The room is the definition of diversity. The 156 students I’ll see today are Chinese, Mexican, Samoan, Vietnamese, Brazilian, Honduran, Caucasian, African-American, Filipino and multiracial. They come from about 25 different middle schools — mostly public, but there are a few students who’ve gone to private or religious schools their whole lives and are just now starting in public school. Another handful of students are recently arrived immigrants from Asia and Latin America who are attending school in the United States for the first time.

I start class by having students announce three things: which middle school they attended, what they like to be called, and one healthy thing they like to do. This helps them start to get to know one another, and gives me an idea who I’m working with.

I ask what they like to be called because I teach a lot of students who have Chinese names like “Wenying” but go by nicknames like “Timmy” or “Henry.”

Asking about the healthy things they do gives me a chance to connect them with activities in the school (for example, letting the students who say they like running know that about the cross-country team is recruiting) and gives me a chance to slide in some mini-lectures on the importance of sleep and breakfast.

Once they’ve all had a chance to talk, we go over our school’s complicated bell schedule and get to the “do now,” a quick writing prompt that I use to kick off every class. Today’s questions: “How do you define “health”? What topics do you think (or hope) we will cover in health education class?

I take their answers and create a mind map on the board, making a visual representation of what they think the class should be all about. The picture in this post shows what one class came up with – and it’s a pretty good representation of what’s coming up in class.

When I tell people I teach 9th grade Health Education in an urban high school, I get a lot of sympathetic looks. People tell me they could never do it, that they would get too embarrassed or too scared, or they just wouldn’t know what to say when kids start asking them about drugs or sex. When I hear this, I usually just smile and tell them how lucky I feel that that’s my job.

However, when I start to break down the specifics of what I’m expected to do in this one-semester class, it can seem a little overwhelming.

I teach at a school with a “modified block” schedule – our class periods are 70 minutes long, and I see each class four times a week, or about 72 times over the course of the semester. I teach five section of the class at a time, which means I teach 300-350 students a year. I see my students when they are freshmen, and almost all of the 1,300 students at my school have taken my class.

In the limited time I have with them, I need to try to teach the students as much as I possibly can about nutrition, healthy eating, fitness, substance abuse, mental health, positive communication, eating disorders, puberty, reproductive anatomy, birth control, pregnancy, birth, STIs and healthy relationships. It’s a lot.

I came to teaching from journalism, and I often compare the process of planning my health course to editing – constantly looking for the best lessons, updating data and research all the time, and trying to find the right way to share what I know with the ever-changing minds of teenagers. I do all of this knowing that for many of my students, this may be the only time in their whole lives when they get to formally learn about and discuss these topics, and that they’ll be using the information they learn in my class to make decisions that could literally save their lives.

It’s never the same twice, and some days it does break my heart, but most of the time I feel like I have the best job in the world.