Mr. Health Teacher

Real Education for the Real World

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The Key to Curbing Campus Sexual Assault Lies in High School Health Class

I was very glad to be part of this story.


Sarah C., a senior at a small public high school in New Jersey, remembers her freshman year health class for all the wrong reasons.

“In ninth grade, my health teacher wouldn’t say ‘vagina,'” said Sarah, who spoke on condition of partial anonymity because she is still a minor.

Her teacher, an older man, was labeling the female reproductive system. “He was drawing a diagram, saying all of the terms out loud, then he got to the vagina and couldn’t say anything,” she said.

In 11th grade, another health teacher lectured Sarah’s class about a gang rape that occurred at Vanderbilt University in 2013, offering it as a cautionary tale for female students. “He basically told us, ‘You won’t get gang raped if you don’t drink,'” Sarah said.

“For three years you learn that nothing in these classes is going to help you — it’s all scare tactics,” Sarah said. “Then you get into the final health class where they’re teaching you some really important things you need to understand to go to college, or work or whatever, but no one takes it seriously.”

According to a report in March from the Guttmacher Institute, an advocacy group that focuses on reproductive health, 26 states still require high school health courses to stress abstinence as the best way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and avoid becoming the victim of sexual violence. But in practice, such programs tend to emphasize abstinence exclusively and fail to equip students with information about consent. Lack of information has consequences: States with abstinence-only education have the highest rates of teen pregnancy.

More troubling, when high school students move on to college, abstinence-only education can leave them woefully unprepared to navigating new friends, new relationships and new expectations when it comes to dating and sex. One in 4 women will experience unwanted sexual contact during their college experience, and 98% of rapists will walk free.

The legislation: In October, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 329, mandating comprehensive sex education for students in grades 7 through 12. The legislation — the first to establish a legal definition for consent aimed at educational institutions — also revised the state’s anti-rape mantra from “no means no” to “yes means yes,” signaling that the absence of a “no” is not enough to green light a sexual encounter; to establish full consent, all parties involved must consent actively.

i heart consent.pngThe legislation made California the first state to require high schools to teach affirmative consent in the nation, serving as a model for states like Michigan and New York, whose legislatures later followed suit in upholding “yes means yes” as a new standard.

“Affirmative consent legislation isn’t just about the more than 20% of young women and girls who will have to live as assault survivors,” wrote California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Hannah-Beth Jacksonthe authors of the “yes means yes” bill, in the Washington PostIt’s about the 100% of women who have to live every day, never quite certain of their physical safety. Research shows that with affirmative consent education, we can create a culture of respect.”

Despite colleges’ best efforts to prevent campus sexual assault by trotting out crash courses on consent during freshman orientation, by then the lack of comprehensive sex education has already done its damage.

Shafia Zaloom has been encouraging high school students to talk about sexual violence for more than two decades. A health teacher at the Urban School of San Francisco, she said men who commit sexual assault in college do so disproportionately during their first six weeks on campus, a time college administrators and media outlets have come to refer to as the “red zone.”

With high-profile sexual assault cases at universities like Yale and Columbia, colleges have begun wake up to the epidemic of sexual violence on their campuses. Scrambling for solutions, schools across the country have expanded their Title IX resources and applied for millions of dollars in funding to help address student complaints over the way cases of sexual misconduct are handled, as well as bringing bystander intervention programs to campuses.

“If you want to prevent sexual assault you have to get in front of it and that starts with talking about it in high school,” Zaloom said.

Zaloom’s classes don’t just teach students the basics about sex ed — reproductive anatomy, menstruation, STIs — but address the questions and experiences teens face on a day-to-day basis. Rather than lecture, she encourages students to speak frankly about sexual identity, hook-up culture and healthy relationships. Zaloom asks students to imagine hypothetical situations that help them think through issues of sexual violence, dedicating targeted lessons to bystander intervention and consent. She said she starts out conversations on consent with a scenario: “If a kid takes your bike without asking, they’re stealing it,” Zaloom said. “But, if they have your consent, they’re borrowing it.”

Christopher Pepper, a health teacher at the San Francisco Unified School District, had been working on a new health curriculum for four years when Brown passed California’s landmark legislation. Alongside a coalition of teachers, public-health workers and employees from community-based organizations, Pepper has helped standardize the city’s sex education with a 24-part curriculum called “Be Real. Be Ready.”


“Just like other subjects in school, health education should begin early and continue throughout the educational life of a student,” Pepper said. “We do that with math and reading and social studies, and I think that should be the case with health as well.”

Pepper said sex ed opponents often assume teens are too immature to handle information about sex. But he has found the opposite to be true.

“Teens are eager for information about what’s going on with their bodies and want a safe space to discuss healthy relationships and the challenges and decisions they might have to contend with during high school,” Pepper said.

“Teens are eager for information about what’s going on with their bodies and want a safe space to discuss healthy relationships.”

Pepper’s curriculum includes exercises that require students to practice communicating their sexual limits. In one lesson, he asks students to write down what each character would say in a hypothetical sexual encounter to tell their partner what they’re comfortable with. What should Leina say to Eleazer if she wants to have penetrative sex but only if they use condoms? What should Bryant say to Chris if he doesn’t want to do more than hug and kiss until they graduate high school?

Pepper then discuss how drinking and drugs could affect these decisions and who students can go to if they need help setting boundaries.

“Having those conversations in a classroom setting in a frank and direct way helps lay the foundation,” Pepper said. “If the baseline understanding is that consent is vital, and you talk about things that can interfere with consent like drugs and alcohol, you’re preventing future sexual assaults and unwanted sexual encounters.”

Those who cringe at the memory of having “the talk” with their parents might wonder what it’s like to have these discussions with your teacher in front of all of your peers.

Lydia Sears, a sophomore in Zaloom’s class, said that while she feels comfortable going to her parents with questions about sex, she prefers bringing them to class.

“Asking questions and being honest in class is easier for a lot of students, including myself, because there stands a sense of confidentiality within classroom discussions that may not exist in direct discussion with parents,” she said.

Brian Elliott, a parent at the same school, said that while he’s had conversations about sex and sexual assault with his son, sometimes parents aren’t the most equipped to have them. Eliot’s experience with sex ed three decades ago didn’t include topics like consent.

“These are young adults who are going out in the world and you want them to be as prepared as possible,” Elliott said. “This is not about values — this is about how you handle social pressures, dangerous situations and those things happen to everybody at some point.”

Sears said Zaloom has always encouraged students to ask whatever they want — no holds barred. “Of course there have been funny or awkward moments,” Sears said. “Talking about sex is an inevitable call for some giggles.”

When students in Pepper’s classroom want to laugh, they laugh, he said.

“It can be a funny, unusual thing to be talking about penises and vulvas and sexual activity with students in schools, so sometimes we laugh and that’s totally fine,” he said. “I think providing some space for laughter but also making it clear that these are serious topics is important.”

Now students are demanding change too. At Laurel, an all-girls private school in Shaker Heights, a small suburb in Ohio, a group of students expected more of their teachers — after all, part of the school’s mission is to “inspire each girl to fulfill her promise and to better the world.” When health classes failed to touch on consent, Laurel’s feminist society started having these conversations themselves — and spurred concrete curricular change.

Alumna Lissa Blitz, a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, said when she joined the feminist society her first year at Laurel, the group’s upperclassmen were railing against the school’s sex ed. When the senior graduated and it was her class’s turn to lead the organization, Blitz said they remained devoted to holding discussions about sexual assault at weekly general body meetings.

“Since Laurel school prides itself on such feminist values and comprehensive, inclusive sex ed is very directly intertwined with those, it’s very contradictory that our sex ed is lacking especially with regards to sexual assault and consent,” Blitz said.

She said as the feminist society continued to address these concerns, more and more students joined the group to talk about what Blitz called “the missing pieces of sex ed” at the school. Since she’s graduated, Blitz said Laurel has integrated lessons on consent once largely relegated to their fem society meeting to the ninth and 10th grade curricula.

But across the country, students like Sarah are still forced to reckon with these difficult topics on their own. To fill in blanks in her education, Sarah said and her female friends have had to take it upon themselves to educate themselves. Talking to friends and family as well as reading articles people share on Facebook and Tumblr have helped her make up for what teachers won’t teach.

More worrisome though, said Sarah, is what will happen when she goes away to college where most of her peers have also been denied comprehensive sex education.

“For girls my age now, this is something you think about when you apply to college,” said Sarah, who is heading to a small New York liberal arts college in the fall. “You hear enough of these stories about campus sexual assault and you know when you go to college someone will be assaulted and that person could be you or someone you know.

“Throughout the whole experience of being educated in a public school, the focus has really been weighted toward, ‘as a woman, how do you prevent it from happening to you?’ and much less, ‘as a man, how do you not sexually assault someone?’ If you talk about consent earlier — if you plant the seed — it makes a huge difference.”

‘Yes means yes’: Teaching teens affirmative consent

I was very glad to be part of this KALW radio story, which I encourage you to listen to (the audio version is really great!)


Jordan Diaz-Boutte is a sophomore at Phillip and Sala Burton High School in San Francisco. From her perspective, consent is still an ambiguous issue.

“Right now, I think that people don’t really think of consent as anything. Like they know the phrase ‘no means no,’ but when it comes into that situation, they’re like ‘oh well,'” says Diaz-Boutte.

In 2014, with SB 967, California became the first state in the nation to write affirmative consent into law, defining it as “affirmative, conscious and voluntary engagement in sexual activity.” Under the old “no means no” approach, consent is the default unless you specifically hear the word “no”; the updated “yes means yes” says that consent requires ongoing verbal agreement between both parties at each stage of sexual encounter.

The new affirmative consent standard was first implemented at the college level, but this year, a new state law, SB 695, takes it even further, mandating that “yes means yes” be taught in high schools. So what does this actually look like?

I decided to ask Hanna Pastrano from Expect Respect, a peer-education group from City College of San Francisco that teaches about consent in San Francisco’s School District. While Pastrano’s been a sex educator for three years, this semester she’s changing things up to comply with the new law. Because of timing issues, I couldn’t get into a classroom, so I asked Hanna to simulate a workshop for me instead.

“So we’re all different, right? So we’re all going to do this a little different. But I want you guys to feel your ‘yes’ and feel your ‘no.’ So, feel what your own voice sounds like when you’re saying this, right, because we want to get this practice in,” Pastrano says.

She proceeds to ask me to strike a pose that feels like my “yes”: a thumbs up, or something like that. I feel self-conscious at first, but wanting to get the full experience, I open my arms to the air and say, “Yes!” She then continues with a series of questions, which I respond to.

“Consent is fun for both partners?” Pastrano asks.

“Yes!” I answer.

“Consent means both people are equally into it?”


“Consent is enthusiastic?”


“Consent is sexy?”


I’ve never been asked to pay attention to what saying “yes” actually feels like. And I have to say, it feels good!

We move on to practicing saying “no.”

“Ok, so now we’re going ask you to say ‘no,’ and feel free to do your power pose, to all of these rape myths,” Pastrano says. “So, do you owe a person sex if they’ve paid for the date?”

“No!” I answer.

“Do you owe a person sex if you’ve been flirting with them?”


What about if you’re dressed in a really sexy way?”


I was surprised, but doing this exercise, hearing myself say “yes and “no,” actually made me feel more confident. According to Pastrano, that’s exactly the point. Consent is about feeling empowered to communicate. But, while these exercises are a good start, she says real life situations might not always mirror what we learn in the classroom.

“I feel like if you haven’t been there yet, necessarily, than, it might sound like ‘Well, if I say no, they’re going to back off.’ But I think that in that situation, it’s not so easy to just state your boundary and be done with it.”

Practice (and pizza) makes perfect

Christopher Pepper was a primary editor for SFUSD’s sexual health curriculum called “Be Real, Be Ready.” As a health educator, he says that starting these conversations about consent early—in the ninth grade in San Francisco schools—is important so that when the time comes, young people will be ready.

“Better relationships and better sexual experiences come out with people more fully expressing their desires and their wants, and being comfortable saying what they don’t want and what they aren’t comfortable with,” Pepper says.

In order to get comfortable with that, we have to practice, and that means making conversations about consent much more commonplace. To this end, Pepper says there’s a metaphor he likes to use, which he got from a sex educator named Al Vernacchio.

“When we think about consent it can seem a little complicated, so it might be better if we think about ordering pizza. When one person’s hungry, and they’re around a friend or a group of friends, they can say, ‘I’d like some pizza!’ And their friend can say, ‘great I’d love some pizza too!’ And if two people decide to have pizza together, that’s not the end of the conversation. Do they like the same toppings? Can they agree? Maybe one person feels like mushrooms that day. That doesn’t mean they always feel like mushrooms, but day they want to have mushrooms. And the other person wants pepperoni. Well, they work that out. Can they both agree on that, or not?”

Of course, consent is about much more than pizza. But, the point is that the more consent becomes a comfortable topic of conversation, the better our chances for creating a more safe and respectful environment. And that’s a pizza that everyone can agree on.

California’s New Sex Education Requirements

I was very glad to be part of this California Healthline story.


California schools are revamping their lesson plans to comply with a new state law that requires them to teach a sex education program at least once in middle school and once in high school.

Previously, districts were required to teach HIV prevention, but sex education was not required.

“Over 90 percent of schools were teaching some sex education, but because it wasn’t mandated, certain elements were slipping through the cracks,” said Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive justice policy director for the ACLU of Northern California.

“This bill creates a consistent, unified way that sex education and HIV education is taught in the classroom.”

The law, which took effect in January, requires the curriculum to include discussions of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex trafficking, as well as information about contraception and HIV treatment.

“This law has kind of caught up with the times that we live in,” said Keith Bray, general counsel for the California School Boards Association. “It’s 2016. The law reflects some awareness as to lifestyles and additional tolerance where it’s needed.”

The bill, authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), bolstered previous curriculum requirements and added new ones. Instruction must:

  • Be age appropriate and medically accurate, and may not promote religious doctrine
  • Recognize different sexual orientations and include same-sex relationships when providing examples of couples.
  • Include information about all FDA-approved methods of contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Address gender identity, sexual assault, relationship abuse and sex trafficking.
  • Describe abstinence as the only certain way to prevent pregnancy, HIV and other STIs. However, abstinence-only instruction is not permitted.
  • Parents or guardians must be notified that their child will receive this instruction and be allowed to see the course materials in advance. The law allows them to opt out with a written request.

Because the bill was just signed into law last fall, districts are scrambling to comply.

“This will be a process, probably over the next six to eight months, when districts will catch up with the Legislature,” Bray said.

Some school officials have reached out to the San Francisco Unified School District, which a few years ago created a high school sex education curriculum called “Be Real. Be Ready.”

With some minor exceptions, that curriculum already meets the law’s requirements, said Christopher Pepper, the district’s health project coordinator.

“We make the curriculum available for other educators to use for free,” he said. “I know some teachers in Marin County are now using it.”

The San Francisco district is working to bring its middle school offerings into compliance, he said. The high school curriculum is taught as a separate, one-semester course, while middle schoolers get sex ed from science or physical education teachers.

“Sometimes, there’s just not time to fit in enough of those lessons,” Pepper said. “We’re working with middle schools to expand the number of lessons.”

Before the law, the Fresno Unified School District’s high school sex ed curriculum included six lessons taught in biology class, said Elisa Messing, director of curriculum, instruction and professional learning. This year, it has hired the group Fresno Barrios Unidos to teach four additional lessons to bring the curriculum into compliance.

At the middle school level, the district is training teachers to incorporate the new topics into the lessons they already teach, and it may consider contracting out to supplement middle school instruction in the future, Messing said.

“This is Beta year, we’re learning,” she said.

Barrios Unidos will start teaching lessons this week, the first of 183 presentations it expects to make by the end of the school year at 14 high schools, said executive director Socorro Santillan.

“Some parents and teachers think we’re giving the students this information because we want them to be sexually active,” she said. “But we’re giving them information they’re going to need to be able to thrive in their communities. For some students, the fastest way to end a college education is through an unintended pregnancy.”

Sex Ed Now Required in California Public Schools

I was very glad to be part of this KQED Radio Story, which I encourage you to check out.


A new state law in effect this year requires all California public school students to take sex education beginning in seventh grade.

Parents who don’t want their kids to learn about issues like body image, contraception and HIV awareness and prevention will have to formally opt out by submitting a document to their school or district.

For years, sex education has been optional. If parents wanted their children to take a sexual health class, they had to sign up for the instruction.

The law, called the California Healthy Youth Act, attempts to standardize and update sex education in the state, which also now must include gender identity.

San Francisco Unified has one of the most comprehensive sex education curriculums in the state, covering everything from sexual orientation to abusive relationships.

Health educators in the district say seventh grade is the best time to start teaching students about sexual health.

“Their bodies are developing, and often young people start to develop crushes on other students,” says Christopher Pepper, a San Francisco Unified health teacher. “They’re dealing with effects of hormones in their body, and understanding all those things can be a little bit challenging.”

Developing a more comprehensive sex education curriculum is expected to be challenging in more conservative areas like Clovis Unified, which was found to have violated the state’s pre-existing law on sex education by providing students with inaccurate and biased information about sexual health.

The big question is how the state will monitor school districts, and whether there will be an uptick in families opting out.

Camille Giglio, with the group California Right To Life, says this curriculum goes too far.

“This comes into a whole new category of being forced to listen for six years to one version of so-called sexual health,” Giglio said.

The California State PTA supports the new law, saying students should have medically accurate and unbiased information.

From pet therapy to yoga, schools address kids’ stress

I was happy to be included in this story from USA TODAY

From deep breathing exercises to flexible schedules and even recess at the high school level, schools are instituting programs to help students better handle their stressful lives.

As school counselor Jennifer VonLintel gears up for the start of the school year at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School, there are new students to enroll, files to update and schedules to plan — including the schedule for Copper, her registered therapy dog and a popular presence in the hallways of the Loveland, Colo., school.

Three days a week, the 3-year-old golden retriever’s assignments can include mingling with kids during recess, being assigned to students who struggle with reading or math anxiety, and providing general companionship and support in the classroom, during counseling office visits, and during after-school programs. Any time a friendly, furry face can provide an extra measure of comfort and assurance, says VonLintel.

When there’s a death in a family or a child receives bad news, “with the parents’ permission, we’ll introduce Copper to the situation,” she says. “Kids find comfort in petting him, and sometimes the parents do, too. “

Pet therapy is just one way that schools are attempting to dial down the level of stress and anxiety facing students today and help them prepare to better handle such situations. Among others:

• Montpelier High School in Vermont is adding a daily 20-minute recess starting this school year and encourages students to get outside and play during the break.

• Shakopee High, southwest of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, has a 25-minute flex period built into each student’s daily schedule during which they are free to check in with teachers, counselors, coaches, go to the library or get started on homework.

• Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, has a “Quiet Time” program, consisting of two 15-minute sessions a day in which students have the option to sit quietly and rest or practice Transcendental Meditation (TM), which is taught at the public school.

• Both Belfast High and Camden Hills High schools in Maine have “wellness rooms” in which students, faculty and staff can sign up for massage therapy, acupuncture, and other stress-relieving therapies, all donated by local practitioners.

In the past decade there’s been “an increasing recognition of the connection between mental wellness, success in school and better life outcomes, so schools have started to implement more supports and services,” says Kelly Vaillancourt, of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Whether a nagging sense of unease or an overwhelming feeling of pressure and anxiety, stress can interfere with all aspects of well-being, including sleep, emotions, focus, even how people eat, all of which are important to the ability to learn, says Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child.

Greenland trains teachers, counselors, therapists and other adults working with kids and teens in using mindful awareness — “an enhanced ability to pay attention” through breathing activities and other strategies — to help kids “focus and calm (the) mind and body” when they’re “over-scheduled, over-pressured and stressed.”

Pedro Francisco, 15, says the targeted breathing techniques he learned almost two years ago through the Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES! for Schools) program at his Los Angeles middle school has had a lasting effect. “It still helps me now to keep myself together” instead of automatically talking back in class or getting angry, says Francisco, a sophomore at Ánimo Ralph Bunche Charter High School.

Run by the non-profit International Association for Human Values, the program has worked in 127 schools since 2005 teaching students stretching, exercise and breathing techniques, along with life skills in conflict resolution and human values with the goal of managing stress, regulating emotions, resolving conflicts and controlling impulsive behavior.

“Whatever environment kids are in, they need to (learn to) negotiate their own stress level, their own emotional well-being,” says YES! co-director Elan Gepner.

A study conducted by UCLA researchers and published in July’s Journal of Adolescent Health found that students who participated in the four-week program felt less impulsive, while students who didn’t participate showed no change.

Even in schools that don’t have specialized stress-reduction programs, teaching students how to handle stress is increasingly a component of the health education curriculum, right along with substance abuse, nutrition and healthy relationships, says Christopher Pepper, a health education teacher at Balboa High School in San Francisco.

“I see health education class, for many of my students, as the only time in their lives, possibly, to have concentrated time to learn techniques to deal with some of the situations that will come up as they move into adulthood and help them prepare for the choices they’ll make,” says Pepper, who writes the Mr. Health Teacher blog.

Montpelier High’s new recess program is another attempt at reminding students of the importance of stepping back and recharging in order to stay emotionally healthy, says school Principal Adam Bunting. “The research about the learning gains (associated with) activity and rest on the brain is too powerful to ignore,” he adds.

Although the program is not mandatory, Bunting says that when classes start Aug. 28, he hopes students, as well as faculty and staff, will put down their books and pens during recess and get involved in some type of fun physical activity, from kickball to yoga.

Most Montpelier students welcome this addition to the schedule, which also comes with a switch from the traditional eight classes a day to a four-class block schedule, says Charlie Aldrich, 17, president of the Student Government Association. “It’s exciting to have that period just for relaxing, going outside and playing,” he says.

While Aldrich expects many students to take advantage of the recess when they can, there will be occasions when he thinks he and others will use the break to catch up on unfinished work or cram for a test.

“It’s high school, and kids have a lot of work to do,” he says.

Serving Up Food Justice At School

The latest issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine has a great article about teaching food justice in schools. It features two of my students and an interview with me about trying to incorporate “big ideas” about food into nutrition education. Here’s a preview:

Introducing students to food justice principles begins in the classroom. Take Balboa High School health teacher Chris Pepper. His ninth-grade health curriculum couples nutrition basics with the study of food origins and preparation. He shows Food, Inc., which gets students talking about animal welfare, industrial agriculture and food workers’ rights. His students also research prominent food justice leaders and organizations.

“Teaching about food justice helps make nutrition classes more engaging,” says Pepper. “Learning the story of where our food comes from is really interesting, and it involves some real critical thinking about how our world works,” he adds.

Read the whole story here:

Serving Up Food Justice At School,” by Michele Israel

It’s Time to Talk About Rape and Consent

Here’s a great post from another teacher about how important it is to have conversations with our teens about what rape really is and what “enthusiastic consent” is all about. As this teacher relates, it can be confusing and awkward to talk about these issues with teenagers, but they are listening. If we want to prevent terrible incidents like the one in Stubenville, they are topics we have to talk about and address frankly.

The Day I Taught How Not to Rape” by Abby Norman

Help Students De-Stress for Success

Drug addiction, pregnancy prevention, and eating disorders are all part of the curriculum in the high school health education class I teach. As attention-getting as those topics may be, I like to start the semester by focusing on a health issue that affects almost all teens in high school today: stress.

I’ve always taught about positive communication, the value of solid friendships, and the importance of preventing depression, but it took me a few years to develop a solid curriculum around stress reduction and relaxation. Over time, however, I’ve come to think of it as one of the most valuable skills I teach, with a tremendous potential to improve people’s lives.

There is a great deal of research showing that unremitting stress leads to increased levels of illness and infection, cuts years off of people’s lives, and generally cuts down on people’s happiness. If students can learn to deal with stress effectively in high school, and can carry those skills into adulthood, it can have ripple effects throughout their entire lives.

To emphasize just how big a health risk unmanaged stress represents for people, I like to show sections of the National Geographic film “Stress: Portrait of a Killer.” (Here’s a clip.)

The film focuses on the work of Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who has spent his life studying how stress impacts the brain. He explains how unmitigated stress manifests in the body in both mental and physical ways, causing irritability, insomnia, clogging arteries and increasing the risk of a heart attack.

The film’s website features Sapolsky answering questions about why psychological stress triggers the stress response and how using stress reduction techniques may improve a person’s health. After hearing what Sapolsky has to say, it would be hard to deny the intense effects stress can induce in people.

After showing my students how harmful chronic stress can be, I take some time to teach a few basic stress reduction techniques. A few of my students attended Visitacion Valley Middle School, a school that has a well-established, in-school meditation program, and a few of them have done yoga, but most of them have never done any focused, intentional stress reduction.

When I first introduce this topic, I remind students that everyone’s body is different, and that they should try a number of different stress-reduction techniques to see what works best for them. I also remind them that the environment they’re in — a small, crowded classroom surrounded by lots of teenagers — is a very difficult place to fully relax. I encourage them to try these techniques in the classroom, and then repeat them at home, which may provide a more relaxing place to learn.

I start by asking students about the techniques they already use to relax. Common answers include watching TV, taking a nap, and listening to music. (Sometimes students suggest quiet or instrumental music, but a significant number endorse the stress-reducing qualities of blasting loud, aggressive rock or rap.) We go through other simple suggestions, like laughing with a friend or playing with a pet. And of course, being health class, we talk about how exercise can be a great stress reducer, and how they should make time for physical fitness every day.

We then practice other simple stress-reduction techniques, with the idea that they can learn and practice them in class and then pull them out later when they need them.

One technique is deep breathing — simply breathing in slowly for a count of four and out slowly for a count of four. It’s amazing how much this simple act of mindfulness can slow things down and create a sense of calm and ease.

We also try visualization. I ask students to think about a place that’s relaxing to them, and imagine themselves there. Often people think about a quiet redwood forest or a warm beach, and they can use this technique to transport themselves there any time they feel stressed.

To teach a technique called “progressive relaxation,” I ask students to clear off their desk and sit or rest as comfortably as they can in their desks. I dim the classroom lights, and then play a recording from the University of Wisconsin’s Health Services office that guides students as they try to relax their bodies from head to toe. It’s important to set the tone while introducing the technique, because it’s easy for one student to disrupt the whole room with a loud laugh.

Once they give it a try, there are always some students who find it highly effective. In just a few minutes, they look rested and relaxed, and they regularly request that we “do that relaxation thing” again.

Sometimes teaching about positive mental and emotional health is seen as an extravagance or a luxury, but UC-Berkeley’s Vicki Zakrzewski argues that it’s increasingly clear that teaching young people to manage stress can help them in a multitude of ways. “Simply making a daily effort to cultivate mindfulness and a caring classroom can do wonders for students’ emotional well-being,” she writes.

With so much clear evidence of the harmful effects of stress, it seems clear to me that stress reduction should be part of every school’s curriculum. It’s a skill that can really help improve — and maybe even save — the lives of our students.

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original.

Students Deserve Real Sex Ed

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 reportfrom 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?

edutopialogo_smallThis post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. Please take a look and share a comment there!

The Smoking Fry

I love the movie Super Size Me, and my students always respond well to this story of a man who eats nothing but McDonald’s for a month — and the horrible things that happen to his body because of it. Two of the most affecting scenes in the movie, however, don’t revolve around Morgan Spurlock‘s growing midsection.

In this first clip (included as a bonus feature on the DVD of the film), Spurlock shows what happens to a selection of McDonald’s sandwiches and fries when he leaves them out, unrefrigerated, for several weeks. The results are pretty incredible.

In the next clip, Spurlock uses animation to show how Chicken McNuggets make their way to a fast food tray. It’s a great distillation of the problems with industrial agriculture and processed food in less than 90 seconds.

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