Mr. Health Teacher

Real Education for the Real World

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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.

Tips for Vegetarian Teens

When I teach about nutrition, I inevitably get questions from some teenagers about becoming vegetarian or vegan. I think it’s great that students are thinking about their own diets enough to even consider this switch, and I like to have some resources close at hand to help steer them toward healthy choices. After all, if they’re avoiding meat but gorging on Pringles and Pepsi, they won’t be doing their bodies any favors. In honor of Vegetarian Awareness Month, here are some great places for meat-free teens to find support and ideas.

KidsHealth has a great article on its site all about becoming a vegetarian. They do a great job of explaining the different types of veggie-centered diets and give some advice about how to deal with different health concerns people might face as they move away from meat.

Veggie Teens is a terrific site written by a teenager for other teens. Elyse May, the 17-year-old who created the site, has a whole cookbook full of recipes and suggestions, and she blogs regularly with new recipes and tips.

Harvard University has a meatless version of the Healthy Eating Plate complete with recipes created by esteemed cookbook writer Molly Katzen. The selections include delicious-sounding meals like Thai Eggplant Salad with Coconut Tofu Strips, Garlic-Braised Greens, and Roasted Squash with Pomegranate.

Teens who are vegetarians and athletes sometimes have some special concerns about how to get enough protein and calories, or what to eat for pre- and post-game snacks. Those concerns are addressed well in this article from the Vegetarian Resource Group.

If those sites aren’t quite enough, take a look at this 8-page guide to being a vegetarian teen from the California Department of Public Health, or head to your local library or bookstore and check out one of the many fabulous books on this subject.

Why We Need Sex Ed Now

Reproductive Health Education

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