Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Teacher is Center Stage

I’ve recently realized how difficult it is to teach.  Some of the big tasks a teacher has to accomplish are planning, creating a curriculum, keeping students’ attention, inspiring, and providing new knowledge and skills.  Additionally, something I never thought much about, is that during a lesson the teacher is always on “center stage.”  Even when not standing in the front of the room, they are permanently the main focus.  No matter whether the lesson is at the beginning, middle, or end point, whether they are lecturing, setting something up, or observing an activity, eyes are always on them.  This is true whether the teacher is a daily classroom teacher, a lecturer at a seminar, or a facilitator in a workshop.
            Although this idea of always being watched may make me sound paranoid, I believe it is very important to think about in order to fully recognize the position of power and influence that teachers possess during a lesson.  This awareness I have of always being on-stage when teaching is significant to me because it has helped me to think about the fact that throughout a lesson all of my emotions, reactions, intonations, body language, and expressions are being observed.  How the teacher acts can impact the tone and feeling in the room as well as influence what a student learns from a teacher.
            Silberman (1990) discusses body language by citing the old adage, “It’s not what you say but how you say it (p. 226).”  He goes on to say that research indicates participants remember and respond to only 7% of what is said.  The remaining 93% comes from how the teacher responds non-verbally, what Silberman defines as vocally, facially, and posturally.  He recognizes that for teachers changing habits that hinder learning is difficult because often they were developed over a long period of time, however, maintaining a constant awareness of body language in front of a group is a helpful first step to change.  I would take his suggestion further and say for sexuality educators, not only is it important to be aware of habits, but it is critical to also develop an awareness of personal opinions, beliefs, and emotional reactions associated with various topics.  Teaching sex and sexuality often bring up a wide array of personal feelings and responses, and it is critical for sexuality educators to be aware of themselves in order to expect their reactions and to think in advance how to manage them.
            For example, let’s imagine a teacher is discussing different physical expressions of love.  She details self-love, kissing, intercourse, and sensual massage.  A student raises their hand and asks, “What about BDSM?  Does that count as love?”  The teacher may have a personal reaction in which she says to herself, “Yikes!  I am super uncomfortable/opposed/uninformed about BDSM!”  The issue may be actual discomfort with the topic, not knowing what is appropriate to discuss in this setting, or not remembering what BDSM means.  Because she is front and center at that moment, her facial expressions (panic, fear, or confusion) may be conveying cues to the students that are helping to influence opinions about the topic.  There may be someone in the room who engages in BDSM activities or knows someone close to them who does, and the reaction of the teacher has the potential to impact and shape their feeling that they are in a safe space.  There may also be people in the room who have never heard of BDSM, but immediately learn from the teacher’s reaction that this behavior is not accepted.  This same scenario could occur with any number of topics – masturbation, sexual violence, polyamory, etc.
            Hedgepeth and Helmich (1996) say teacher comfort with sexuality education establishes the learning atmosphere and influences the students’ level of comfort.  Educators often communicate their feelings about a subject non-verbally, and that plays a part in how receptive students are to the message a teacher is trying to convey and how comfortable the students feel asking questions.  If a student picks up on an instructors feeling of embarrassment on the subject, regardless of what the teacher is verbalizing, the student will sense the feeling and the embarrassment or taboo-nature of the subject will be reinforced. Sexuality is a sensitive issue, and if the teacher is uncomfortable discussing the topic, the participants will likely reflect the same discomfort, which will interfere with the learning experience (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).  In this way, demonstrating comfort and knowledge through the lesson, regardless of the topic, helps to convey that the teacher is skilled, open-minded, and respectful.
            I believe as sex educators we want to be especially careful of our reactions because we are being judged intensely by people inside and out of the classroom.  The topics covered in sexuality education have the potential to be more explosive, sensitive, personal, and complex than in other subject areas. In the short amount of time I have with students I want to do my very best not to ostracize any person or activity, to help normalize less common ideas or behaviors, and to create a safe space for all students.  To do this I need to provide positive (or at the very least non-judgmental) information AND non-verbal responses.
            Silberman emphasizes the need to for teachers to be comfortable and familiar with their own course content.  He described the excitement and challenge of delivering a lesson for the first time as a combination of excitement of preparing and learning new material coupled with the nervous lack of experience in delivering that information.  In this situation, the teacher does not have any experience with students’ reactions to this information.  Silberman advised that if you feel concerned about the questions student might pose (such as with the above BDSM example) consider opening questions up to the group for discussion or writing down questions and promising to get back to the group with the answer as soon as possible.
            On the other hand, body language can convey messages and hinder learning when the teacher appears disinterested or has taught a lesson many times.  For example, teaching about STDs is not my favorite activity.  I can become very passionate and I have a high amount of energy in teaching about other sexual health topics, but STDs don’t excite me that much.  I spend all day talking about Syphilis at work, and I develop Syphilis-fatigue.  I try to keep in mind the purpose of my job is to educate about Syphilis and encourage risk-reduction.  Often, for the people with whom I speak, their time with me is their only opportunity for sexuality education.  If I speak to everyone in a monotone voice and convey my tired old speech about Syphilis, I won’t be conveying how serious an infection it can be, my desire to help people reduce their risk, or convey that I am interested and invested in them personally.  If I don’t act excited and convey thoughtful and non-judgmental responses, they may not open up to me and feel comfortable having a conversation, and an opportunity for education will be missed.
            Silberman addresses what to do if the content is boring because a teacher has taught the same thing repeatedly.  In this case he recommends that if you experience this, keep in mind that although the information is second nature to you, it is brand new information for your students.  Try to watch the ways people respond to what you say, provide plenty of opportunity for discussion, and incorporate what you learn from students into each new session.  He also provides three tips to avoiding burnout: be open and flexible with the lesson plan and try different ways to deliver information or new activities, vary the location and environment you teach in, and watch others teach the same material to get new ideas.
            To be effective teachers, we need to have a lot of practice.  Some ideas to help us become more aware of body language, reactions, and how we are subtly conveying messages to students include video taping yourself teaching a lesson so you can see first-hand how you act.   You could also ask a friend to watch you and critique your performance.  As Silberman suggested, you could observe someone else teaching a similar topic to get new ideas about how to act, react, or respond to difficult situations.  I also feel strongly that we should educate ourselves as much as possible on as many topics as possible.  This is part of the point of the Sexual Attitude Restructuring (SARs) we experience in this program.  By exposing ourselves to a wide array of topics and experiences we are desensitizing our reactions and thus developing a level of comfort and familiarity.  This is fortunate so that we will not have our first exposure and reactions in front of a classroom.
            Ultimately, a teacher is in the challenging position of role model.  The quality and effectiveness of their involvement in the material and ability to present can impact what the participants get out of the experience (Wong et al., 2010).  For this reason, I believe that it is critical for teachers to be intentional and thoughtful in their self-presentation and mindful of the messages, verbal and non-verbal, they may be sending to participants.  Awareness that we will have personal reactions is a first step to managing how we will deal with our reactions.  I believe that this is a critical piece of teaching that significantly impacts how successful teachers are in conveying their messages and how receptive student are to those messages.
            I’m interested to hear other people’s thoughts about being the center of attention in a classroom.  How do you manage your attitude, energy, and non-verbal reactions?  In what way do you manage both topic fatigue and disinterest?


Bandura, A. (1977).  Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J.  (1996).  Teaching about sexuality and HIV: Principles and                                    methods for effective education.  New York, NY: New York University Press.
Silberman, M.L.  (1990).  Active training: A handbook of techniques, designs, case examples and tips.  New York, NY: Lexington Books.
Stayton, W.R.  (1998).  A curriculum for training professionals in human sexuality using the sexual attitude restructuring (SAR) model.  Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 23 (1), 26-32.
Wong, N. T., Zimmerman, M.A., & Parker, E.A.  (2010).  A typology of youth participation and             empowerment for child and adolescent health promotion.  American Journal of             Community Psychology, 46, 100–114.

RealCare® Babies: A Teen Pregnancy Deterrent?

I currently teach child development in a mostly white, socially privileged high school. I have also taught child development in an urban setting with mostly black, under privileged students. Within the child development classroom, both groups have one common bond: they all want to have a baby.
No, they do not want to have a real baby but a RealCare® Baby, a baby doll crafted from “soft vinyl” that simulates newborn behavior from birth to three months old. These baby dolls come in an assortment of ethnicities within which there is a choice of male or female and the students cannot wait to take one home. This is the main reason why a 14 - 15 year old, largely female population with the occasional token male, whether privileged or under privileged, takes the class.

Their quest to take home a baby begins when they enter the classroom. Unfortunately, these students must wait almost six months, three months shy of a normal pregnancy to achieve their goal. Along the way they engage in many activities that help them to acquire knowledge regarding developmental theorists, types of families, female and male sexual anatomy, sexually transmitted infections, and how to get pregnant. More knowledge is acquired about how to have a healthy pregnancy, developing fetuses and birth defects, how babies are born, and what happens to newborns after birth. I say knowledge is acquired because a student must have at least a B average to take home a baby. This is incentive to learn as almost no one gets below a B. Once the baby has been “born” in class, the students finally get to pick a baby to bring home for the weekend.
The RealCare® Baby of choice is named by the student and programmed by the educator to “turn on” at 3:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon and to “turn off” on Monday morning at 7:00 a.m. when they are returned to school. The simulation is based on real babies’ schedules. Realityworks, the company that invented the RealCare® Baby, observed and recorded the timing and duration of activities such as eating, burping, urinating, defecating, and the amount of time the babies just needed to be held and comforted during a 24 hour cycle. A real babies’ 24 hour schedule is then programmed into a RealCare® Baby. If the RealCare® Baby is in use longer than 24 hours, a combination of schedules are used to prevent memorization of the schedule. There is actually a different cry used for each activity taped from a real baby and if the students pay close enough attention, they begin to discern the difference between the ‘need to be fed’ cry and the ‘diaper change’ cry. The educator can program easy, medium, hard or random baby schedules, allow for babysitting, or program quiet hours if necessary. There is an infant wardrobe, car seats, Snuggli baby carriers, and even a tab that can be pinned to a bra to simulate breast-feeding. 
To have a successful stimulation the student must:
  • NEVER drop the head.
  • Decide why the RealCare® Baby is crying...Does it need a diaper change? To be fed? Burped? Or just held and rocked?
  • Begin care within a minute or so or the RealCare® Baby starts to cry louder.... and louder.
  • Hold The RealCare® Baby during feeding as the simulator can tell if the bottle is propped.
If all goes well, the student returns the well-cared for RealCare® Baby, a report is generated depicting how well the student responded to the baby’s demands, and the simulation is finished. It is to be hoped that the teenage has had a stressed filled, sleep deprived, anxiety ridden weekend that will result in the obvious conclusion to ‘wait until you are older to have sex so you will not get pregnant and have to take care of a baby.’ 
All of this as a deterrent to teenage pregnancy: I am not allowed to teach about birth control or to bring in a speaker from Planned Parenthood. Realityworks is a research-based program. My question remains - Does the RealCare® Baby experience really discourage teens from getting pregnant?  Wouldn’t comprehensive sex education, which includes birth control information, be more effective? 
Dr. Peggy Drexler wrote about a cultural time slip in the 50’s when females began acquiring female sexual independence but lacked access to birth control. (The birth rate in 1957 reached a historic high of 96.3 per 1,000.) Sexual freedom was liberating but sometimes the girls ended up “in trouble.” The disgraced family would arrange an intervention in which the culprit was removed from the community and their life, along with their child were taken away. Nowadays teenage pregnancy is no longer a secret. It has risen from hidden shame to primetime programming beginning with Juno, which purported a happily ever after ending. Glee’s Quinn Fabray carries a baby to full term with no apparent consequences, a Juno reinforcement, and Teen Mom’s search for the next batch of actors has many girls asking what they can do to score a role. Legislating media content is no longer an option. Sex sells and these days media espouses increasingly more sex with inconsistent illustrations of condom use to anyone who has access to a screen.
While the CDC (2009) reported that birth rates for teenagers ages 15-17 declined in 31 states from 2007 to a historic low across all age groups, ethnicities, and races, the U.S. still has one of the highest overall rates of teenage births in comparison to other industrialized nations. 
Some facts associated with teen pregnancies:

$9 BILLION: Annual cost of teen childbearing to federal, state and local taxpayers in lower taxes paid and greater demands on public services.

25 PERCENT: Teen moms who go on welfare within three years of the child’s birth.

34 PERCENT: Teen moms who don’t earn their high school diploma or GED by age 22, compared to 6 percent of childless girls.

LESS THAN 2 PERCENT: Moms with babies before age 18 who earn a college degree by age 30.   

66 PERCENT: Children of teen moms who graduate from high school compared to 81 percent of children with older parents.

66 PERCENT: Families started by teens that live in poverty.
And what comes as no surprise given the current political climate; the current House-passed 2011 Federal Budget Bill is one giant step backwards in the fight to reduce teen-age pregnancy: 
  • “Family Planning: The bill entirely eliminates funding for the title X Family Planning program, which received $317 million in FY 2010. This program helps support family planning and reproductive health services to more than 5 million people annually at 4,500 community-based clinics. Grantees include state and local health departments, hospitals, community health centers, and private nonprofit organizations. Services provided include the full range of contraceptive services, as well as screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, cancer and HIV screenings, education, and other preventive services” (Doyle, 2011).
  • “Teen Pregnancy Prevention: The bill also eliminates funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program (which received appropriations of $110 million in FY 2010). This program makes competitive grants to public agencies and private nonprofit organizations to support evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention efforts” (Doyle, 2011).
Clearly we would be better off preventing teen-age pregnancies. I teach now in a predominantly white community within a privileged socioeconomic status. While no single program model is appropriate for all communities or teenage mothers the Rand Corporation reported that the choice of programs should reflect “community attitudes, dispersal of students, and number of pregnancies.” Culturally in my community, the teenage girls do not want to end up pregnant but they do want to enjoy sexual agency and they do want the experience of being a mom for a weekend. Why not use the RealCare® Babies to provide a pleasant interactive learning experience about caring for a newborn and let me teach about how to enjoy sex without the fear of pregnancy through the use of birth control?
Check out the following sites for additional information:               

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Teaching Sex Ed to Parents First

I want you to imagine that you are presenting a sexuality education workshop to a group of 100 college freshman.  You open up by asking how many of their parent’s talked to them about sex and sexuality before 11th grade.  How many would raise their hands?  20?  50?  All 100?  Chances are slim depending on the group, right?  Let’s say you continue presenting sexuality education workshops to college freshman once a month, with 100 eager students attending each session (a sex educator’s dream, I know!).  You begin your session with the same question each time asking who has the brave parents.  How long does it take before you begin to realize the pattern of silent parents?  Session number two, maybe three?  More importantly, when do you realize that you may be presenting to the wrong group of 100 participants?  Don’t panic, this doesn’t mean you are out of a job, it means you may have just created another avenue for sexuality education.  
It occurred to me recently, that for all the interventions and curricula designed to help young people navigate their sexuality (choices, decisions, feelings, etc.), we invest virtually no time and resources into helping parents help their children navigate their sexuality.  What makes this so interesting is, as educators when we sit down to develop a curriculum we are instructed to do research, research, research, add rationale, and do more research.  What better resource could you use to learn more about a child, than that child’s parent or guardian?  I am not sure if parents are the only experts on their children, but most parents and caregivers are the first to see how their child’s personality, speech patterns, anxieties, freedoms, questioning style, etc. develop.  If this be the case why not build a relationship between sexuality educators and parents that would work symbiotically, with the child as the focus.  Something like an individualized sexuality health plan.  
So, how would we actually teach this?  First, let’s think about a timeline.  There are some parents who are geared up and ready to teach about sex education 24-hours post delivery, while others may be ready when their children are of retirement age.  No matter when parents are ready (or need help getting ready), here are some helpful tips.
  1. Parents have feelings, too!  Discussion and education around what parent’s think and feel about sex and sexuality is a very important element.  If you dismiss their anxieties, questions, and concerns, you put parents on the defense.  This only heightens their discomfort about discussing sex and potentially slows or stops their feelings of self-efficacy.
  2. Adults need stages, too!  Remind parents that they may not have all of the answers now (or ever!) about sex and sexuality and that’s okay.  Remind them they are not only learning (or re-learning) about themselves, but they are also learning about their child, so  give themselves room to learn and make mistakes.  It is perfectly okay to move at a pace that is comfortable for them and their child.
  3. One size does not fit all.  Parents may be able to tell you that their first child learned to walk at 9 months and their third child learned at 13 months.  Teaching about sexuality is the same way.  Children will desire to learn different things at different times in their lives, so be patient with them and yourself when it comes to tailoring information to each child.
Now that you are armed with a few tips on how to teach sexuality education to parents, you are wondering where in the world do you recruit them?!  Well, let’s think of places parents with children of different ages may be.
  1. Daycares - Think of approaching daycare centers with organizing a “How-To” sexuality education workshop once a month for parents and daycare personnel.
  2. Faith Centers - If you, or someone close to you is a member of a religious organization, see if any parents would be interested in starting a group to share stories on sex education that are rooted in their particular faith.  This could also help parents of younger children get ideas and support from parents of older children.
  3. Local Libraries - Talk with your local library to see if you could survey parents who attend book clubs or reading groups for themselves or their children to gauge interest in learning how to better educate their children on sexuality.
  4. PTA Board - Yes, schools can be a scary place to bring up sexuality education, but if you, or someone you know has a group of parents that spend time together in or outside of PTA meetings see if they would be interested in learning more about teaching sexuality education to their children.
Some may dismiss this notion of teaching parents about sexuality education as too difficult or laborious.  That may be true, but when you think back on that imaginary story at the beginning of this blog, and you visualized how many students had parents who never talked to them about sexuality, it seems high time that we reframe the conversation.  Many sexuality educators entered the field because of a bad experience (or a series of bad experiences) around how they were, or were not educated about sex and sexuality.  At what point do we stop blaming the parents who never taught their kids about sexuality for all for the high rates of infection and pregnancy, and offer help to parents?  Silence can be seen as an answer, but if we asked a different question, we just may get a different response.

It IS a Democracy: The Value of Participant Input in Program Planning

I write this blog as someone who believes strongly in the power of democracy as well as in creating a learning environment that feels empowering. I also write it as someone who has delivered and seen thousands of hours of sexuality education programs, many of which involved an educator (sometimes that educator was me) coming into a classroom with a canned curriculum or a series of lessons already planned out and ready to go before a single interaction happened with the participants. Perhaps the content was chosen arbitrarily by the educator or by whoever invited the educator in. Regardless, I think in many cases, this is a mistake. I am advocating that you, the sexuality educator, should be asking your students what they want and need to learn and using that data to plan your programming. This may cause a panic for you if you lean towards essentialism as your educational philosophy, but hear me out.

A wise human sexuality professor once taught me that “Good Education is manipulation.” In essence, as educators, we know where we want our students to get and we take them on the journey. So if good education is manipulation, you may be thinking “Why should I be asking youth to tell me what I should be teaching them?” By asking youth for their input into what they need and want to learn, we instantly create a higher level of buy-in than we would have previously had. They are invested in the program before we even begin to teach.  We avoid being another teacher who comes in and arbitrarily gives them “what they need to know” based on our perspective. And as Hedgepeth and Helmich note, we actually encourage the very skills we are trying to build in many sexuality education programs- empowerment and self-efficacy.

Now to clarify, I am advocating for youth input into topic/content selection, not necessarily actual activities or teaching style. I’m not asking for students to write our lesson plans for us. That piece is for you, the expert, to determine. While youth may not be experts in developmental theory or learning styles, there are some things they are the expert on- their own interests and needs. Since sexuality education varies so drastically from school district to school district and family to family, we cannot assume that a specific “basic” sexuality education program will meet the needs of all youth. Some are coming to you having spent an entire semester studying contraceptive methods; some don’t know what the word contraceptive means. By asking for and utilizing student input into topics, you can attempt to avoid teaching a painfully repetitive subject or one that they are missing the conceptual foundation for.

So how can you put this idea into action? In a multi-session program, plan for it in your introductory session- an icebreaker, ground rules, and an activity that incorporates student feedback into what the upcoming sessions should focus on. There a multitude of means by which you can gather this data, but the important piece of the equation is actually using the data to plan your programming. While you need to be clear that it might not be possible to cover every topic they suggest, let students know that you will make an attempt to address the interests they’ve expressed in some manner throughout the course of the program. If you collect the information and then decide it’s not content you want to focus on, you’ve already discredited yourself in the eyes of your audience. So, bottom line, don’t collect it if there is a chance you might not be able to use any of it.

An example of where I’ve seen this work incredibly well is with adjudicated youth or those in drug and alcohol treatment facilities.  If these youth have been through the traditional educational system and it has not worked for them, why would they believe your program will be any different? To them you are another person there to lecture to them and they will likely smile and nod and completely tune you out. By asking what they want to learn, you are empowering them and respecting their opinions. You are saying, “I trust you to give me relevant and serious input.” That may not be something they are used to. Youth in these settings (and sometimes youth in general) are accustomed to adults expecting very little from them and not valuing what they have to say.  It can be incredibly powerful to give youth the gift of expecting more from them. Often their reaction is to give you their respect in return. The added bonus is, if behavior becomes an issue during future sessions, you can remind students that you are trying to give them what they asked for. The sense of “Oh wait, we did ask for this” can be an effective means of getting participants back on task. I can say firsthand that I have seen this work in groups I’ve taught.

This can also work well with youth who have already been taught a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum. The basic STI lesson may be old hat for them, however, they may benefit from a quick STI overview and an entire session focused specifically on HPV. This is often information youth will willingly share if asked and will allow you to make better use of the time you have with them. This also an effective means for you to build your repertoire as an educator. Often we can get into the rut of teaching the same lessons because, let’s face it, it’s easier. Asking for youth input may require you to seek out new information and design new lesson plans. It may, at times, really challenge you. For example, recently a group I facilitate asked for a session on Transgender Identities. I had not done a Trans specific lesson for teens before and had to put some real work into. The end result? I now have happy students, increased information and another lesson plan in my pocket. Win, win, win.

I know some will argue that they have to teach what the site or grant asks them to, that there is no time to teach to the specific needs of the group. As a community health educator, I certainly can sympathize with these restrictions. If you truly are limited in time or flexibility, consider negotiating with the site to build in 1-2 sessions that you will use to address the topics youth are most interested in. Youth can anonymously suggest potential topics and then you can vote on which will be taught, the topics with the most votes win. Isn’t democracy grand?

Alison Bellavance

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dropping the F-Bomb: Insight on Constructively Incorporating Swearing in High School Classrooms

Disclaimer: There will be swear words in this post.  Read at your own discretion.

This blog, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a blog dedicated to thinking critically about the craft of teaching human sexuality.  Although I write this post as a student earning their M.Ed in Human Sexuality Education, I’ve been rocking sex education in American classrooms since 2003.  So when the assignment of writing a ‘how to teach sex-ed’ blog post was given, my mind went in a million different directions.

As a sex educator, I have stood in front of a diverse array of American classrooms.  I have taught comprehensive sexuality education to high school freshmen.  I have taught adults how to become more fully orgasmic, love their bodies more than they thought possible, and how to pleasantly surprise their partners with a lil’ something extra in the bedroom (or on the kitchen counter).  I have fielded questions from 12 year olds to 80+ year olds about masturbation, BDSM, safer sex, sex toys and body hair. I have taken high-risk youth and given them sex education and community by being open and honest about sexuality issues that affected them.

Needless to say, that list isn’t exhaustive.

At the end of my reflection on my experiences thus far, the only thing that I could say was constant across all these interventions was swearing.

I am a huge potty mouth.  I am of the opinion that there are simply some emotions that cannot be expressed without letting a good four letter word tear across one’s lips. And although substitutes like ‘dang,’ ‘fudge,’ and ‘shoot’ can be used … it’s kinda like watching Arena Football* when NFL and/or NCAA ball isn’t in season.  (Or for those of you that aren’t football fans, it’s like drinking de-caf when the pot of caffeinated coffee is empty.)  It kinda gets the job done, but is not even half as satisfying.

I also reflected on how the bulk of my experience is in teaching high-school aged teens.

So, as the clichĂ© goes I’m going to write what I know.  I’m going to discuss how swearing – something normally forbidden within high school classrooms – can be utilized constructively within the context of a sexuality classroom.

First, I’m going to give you some context for how the use of swearing within my sexuality classrooms was done.  Then, I’m going to show you why I have support for allowing swearing in the classroom.  Finally, I’m going to pull it all together in a neat little package for your further consideration.

1. You can say, “Fuck Yeah,” but not “Fuck You”
When I told my students they could swear, it was within a context of a larger ground rule entitled, “Respect Yourself, Others, and our Space.”  Essentially, my students were told that non-directive swearing, or “bad” language, was fine so long as it was used within the context of respect.  Students were also allowed to express any particular words that triggered negative emotions so that other students would be aware and try not to use those particular words.

2. After-School Programming
This particular program was a once-a-week after school program that students volunteered to be a part of.

3. Group Rules vs Teaching Rules
Although I allowed students to swear in the program, I explained to them that it was not cool while they were teaching condom use in freshmen classes during school hours.  Although I told them I was aware that freshmen also swear, I elucidated for them that even though we had rules set-up for swearing, not all classrooms were set-up similarly.

4. When I Swore
(And oh did I swear.)  I swore judiciously.  I either did it as a natural part of my speech patterns during more informal parts of our session, or did it when emphasis that only swearing can provide was needed.  And I never, ever tried to use swear words or “bad” words that felt uncomfortable coming out of my mouth.

Other Considerations
·         I was a school district employee, but not an employee of any particular school.  I actually facilitated three different groups at three very different schools within one school district.  So while I tried to respect most school policies and rules, I was only partially accountable to the school administrations.
·         I was young-ish when I taught these classes.  My students ranged in age from 14-19, and throughout the duration of my teaching, I was anywhere from 23-25.
·         I grew up in the neighboring school district to the schools at which I was teaching.  I never attended any of the schools at which I facilitated these after-school groups, but I had a pretty good cultural understanding.

Now you know the how.  But … did it work?  And how do I know it works?

Not surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot on using swearing effectively in a sex ed classroom.  But what I do have is access to Hedgepeth and Helmich’s (in my opinion) amazing text that outlines strategies for making a classroom an effective space for sexuality education.

Thanks to the internet and facebook, I also have access to my incredible, amazing, fantastic, and extremely honest former students. (Yes, I am so biased in their favor.  Even though it’s been anywhere from 2-4 years since I’ve spoken to some of them, they continue to inspire me to this very moment.)  When I decided to write this post, I asked those of them who had the time to shoot me an e-mail or a facebook message telling me about their lives AND how they felt about being allowed to swear.  18 out of around 90 responded.

So through the use of my (very informal and not scientific by any means) survey in conjunction with methodological considerations, I’m going to break down how swearing fits into the idea of an effective sexuality classroom. When I include how actual, real, living, breathing teens felt about being allowed to swear and hearing their facilitator swear, they will be directly quoted.  I will also include three pieces of demographic information about them:

  1. Gender (M or F)
  2. Ethnicity (A = Asian, B = Black, L = Latin, W = White)
  3. Year in Group (’07, ’08, or ’09)
I’m not including their names or the name of the group in order to protect their privacy.

Let’s get started.

Hedgepeth and Helmich (H&H) discuss how one of the elements of an effective sexuality classroom is the need for programming to respect and empower students.

Right away, H&H discuss how creating respect and empowerment within programming hinges upon interfacing with the reality of students.

Let’s take a look at what some of my students had to say about whether or not allowing swearing reflected their realities:

“I think swearing is an essential part of how teenagers communicate.  It is hard enough to be yourself in high school without being able to express yourself the way you want to.” (F, W, ’07)

“I feel like letting us swear … gave sex-ed [class] a sense of reality. ... In reality, most people, if not everyone curses.” (F, W, ’09)

“I think that swearing is just a part of teenage life.” (F, L, ’09)

“I know it makes me feel more real if I didn't have any vocabulary limited when I try to voice my opinion and experience out.” (#1 M, A, ’09)

“C'mon, these folks are in high school. Ya gotta understand that most teenagers incorporate cursing in their day-to-day 'language' …” (#1, F, A, ‘08&’09)

“but as for about swearing? i loved it, like to me swearing is nothing, its like talking regularly.” (#2, M, A, ’09)

It would appear that many of the students who responded to my query agree that allowing students to drop the occasional F-Bomb (that’s ‘fuck’ in case you were wondering) simply reflects the greater reality of how teens express themselves.

H&H also outline how the classroom that fosters “respect, confidentiality, openness, collaboration and mutual support” helps students to become comfortable enough to engage critically with the learning (pg 21). 

Amongst many of my students, there was an idealization that swearing fostered a sense of openness for how they could express themselves:

“In regards to swearing in Sex-Ed, I think it helps with allowing everyone to feel comfortable. It's better that you allow people to say what they feel and not let them feel contained in a box, … just knowing that it's allowed won't make students feel like they have to act a certain way, especially if not swearing is way far from who they actually are....” (#2, F, A, ‘08&’09)

“I'm a potty mouth. It was nice being free to express myself during sessions without being judged or hushed.” (#1, F, A, ’08)

“…i felt more free with my expressions. like if i was fairly pissed off, or extremely happy can say what i felt in the words that fit right instead of having to chose words with lesser meaning in my mind.” (F, L, ’08 & ’09)

“Swearing essentially allows everyone to talk about their passions more freely and creates a classroom environment when [sic] students are more comfortable having discussions.” (F, W, ’07)

“Being able to swear in class is awesome. Its like you bring the YOU out of you. You dont have to keep everything in and replace it with something your not, and that is just being true to yourself and everybody. It kept me confident knowing that i could say whatever i want comfortably in front of my peers, even outside of class.. HAHA! Its soooo AWESOME.” (M, A, ’08 &’09)

Although those are just a few quotes, almost every student responded with some form of affirmation that being allowed to swear helped them to be comfortable with either expressing themselves, being in the classroom, or engaging with the learning.

Some also spoke to the importance of the fact that swearing was set up in the context of fostering support, rather than being used for malicious purpose.

“[Swearing] should be used to bluntly express, not to belittle someone.” (F, W, ’09)

“Swearing should be used to empower, not to tear down.” (F, W, ’07)

“…there's a line between sprinkling swear words into a sentence and addressing someone offensively. If swearing doesn't interfere with the learning environment, then there should be nothing against it.” (#1, F, A, ’08)

Creating a Democratic Learning Environment
Within the context of empowering students, H&H discuss how many contemporary classrooms mirror “benevolent dictatorships” more than they mirror the democratic structure in which American students are expected to become a part in the future.  I agree with H&H in respect to their assertion that this means encouraging greater student agency over decision making and responsibility in the classroom.

Despite my agreement, I would actually take it a step farther and say that to truly demonstrate ideals of democracy, you have to allow and role-model them.  Freedom of expression is our 1st amendment.  The first one.  The one our ancestors wanted to make sure got on the books.  And yet in classrooms across the country we shut down certain forms of expression completely, rather than role modeling responsible, harm-free use of truly powerful ways to express oneself.

I didn’t, however.  As I said, I swore all throughout all three years of running these after-school programs.  Here is how it affected some of my students:

“You swearing like we did helped to create a bond.” (M, B, ’09)

“I think when you (Becca) used swear words, it made people more comfortable with you because it let people know that you were here to teach us, not to discipline us like the image people have of most teachers. It also put us all on the same level. Instead of being afraid of you we respected you.” (F, W, ’08)

“When you did it, i felt really comfortable being around you, since i didnt have to watch myself every single time and it felt like you were really one of us. You weren't our boring, get in class, read and get done homework "teacher" you were our mentor and I really did consider you as my friend, because of that I was more than glad to go to class and always excited to learn all the new things you were about to discuss. … I've always had and still do have a huge respect for you.” (#2, F, A, ‘08)

“…but also made me feel that you were one of 'us ' more then someone higher that we had to almost impress.” (#3, F, A, ’08)

“When you swore, it created a more relaxed environment and I felt the teacher/student divide lessened.” (F, A, ’07)

“when you swore along with us it made me feel like we were all on the same level, you werent any greater or lesser than us (even though you did have power haha) it didnt feel like we were being forced to be under your conrto [sic]” (F, L, ’08 & ’09)

“I can look up to you as someone that I can talk to as an equal. …  Not only that, when you talked about your day in SES, it was actually pretty amusing to hear a swear word here and there...having your period with the fucking cramps, It just made it more easier to understand how you're feeling and in all honesty, I can totally relate.”(#3, F, A, ’08)

As you can see, my use of swearing did a great deal to change the power differential.  Although the students cite respecting me, and looking up to me, there was less of a constraint around feeling like they had to express themselves the way they would to a teacher.  Which, going back to H&H’s previous point, also helps the classroom to be an open, comfortable space for exploration.

Let’s Bring This Home
As a potty mouth who had potty mouth students who all loved swearing … I am highly biased toward allowing it to occur.

But what about you and your sex ed classroom?  Keeping the aforementioned discussion of effective sexuality education classrooms in mind, here are some questions I would ask myself before hopping on the F-Train.

To Swear or Not To Swear
1.      What are your organizations’ rules around swearing?
a.       Is the language ambiguous to the point where swearing could be considered appropriate if properly defended?
2.      What are your students’ thoughts and feelings about swearing?
3.      If swearing is prohibited or frowned upon by your higher-ups, do you think you could convince your bureaucracy of why it’s a good idea?
a.       Despite my perceived benefits of allowing swearing to occur in a classroom, H&H do encourage having your administration on your side when setting up sex-ed.  I’d have to agree.  It’s better to keep your job and prohibit swearing than to allow swearing and risk your livelihood.
4.      Is swearing conducive to encouraging comfort and learning?
a.       Example: Reproductive biology is sex-ed.  Is swearing necessary to help students learn this?

If You Can Let Swearing Go Down
1.      Can you defend your reason for allowing students to swear?
2.      How can you set up ground rules that make swearing constructive and not destructive?
3.      How do you plan to enforce transgressions of any ground rules that occur?
4.      If having a power differential is a part of your educational style, how can you ensure that the power differential stays intact, despite allowing a broader range of student expression?

When You Swear
1.      What words are swear words that you use normally, if any?
2.      If you’re going to swear, what are your motivations?
a.       Are you swearing to ‘look cool’?
b.      Are you swearing for emphasis?
c.       Are you swearing as a part of your normal form of expression?
3.      Based on who you are, how do you think teens will respond to you swearing?
4.      How can you role model constructive, supportive use of swearing?
5.      Are you okay with allowing teens to swear even if you choose not to use swear words?

If the answers to the question are not conducive to increasing learning and engagement based on Hedgepeth and Helmich or the learning philosophy you live by in your classroom, swearing may not be the best strategy for you and your sex ed classroom.

However, if you can manage to make it something constructive, I hope that you’ve seen the possibility for how it can positively affect a classroom space.

Fuck yeah!

Becca Brewer

*My sincerest of apologies to any Arena football players or fans.

Teaching Students How to Evaluate the Evidence

Teaching adult learners how to evaluate research evidence is an important skill in sexuality education. The term “evidence-based” can be applied to many aspects of sexuality education, including public health practice, medicine, public policy, and curriculum development. For example, in medicine, this concept means “the conscientious explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients” (Sackett, Rosenberg & Gray, 1996). The application of evidence-based research is the gold standard for sexuality education.
However, in my sexuality education doctoral program at Widener, I often hear my fellow learners moan and groan during our required research courses. Many of them say that they are teachers by profession and do not plan to conduct research. So why is it important for them to learn to evaluate the evidence? Research is essential to furthering scientific knowledge, improving current education methods, and informing public policy – all very relevant aspects to being a teacher. However, too often, people hear about new research results through newspapers, broadcast news, or magazines. They may never get the chance to look closely at the methodology and research questions to determine the validity of the study. Convincing adult learners that they should take the time to evaluate the merit of the evidence can be a challenge for educators.
What are some ways to teach this skill to sexuality students? Judging the merits of evidence is a skill that takes practice. However, there are many peer-reviewed journal articles that describe a methodical review and evaluation of the evidence on a specific topic that can be used as teaching examples. One example is an article by Major, Appelbaum, Beckman, Dutton, Russo, & West (2009) which evaluates the evidence regarding abortion and mental health, a topic that has received much press in the sexual health landscape in recent years. The strength of the article is not just the conclusion (that there was no difference in relative risk for mental health problems between women who had abortion and women who did not) but in the way the authors painstakingly describe the various methodological problems with the published studies to explain why they did not pass muster as good evidence. They carefully review common methodological problems such as incorrect application of conceptual frameworks, inappropriate use of comparison groups, inadequate control of risk factors, sampling bias, and use of inappropriate, non-validated measurement tools in language that is clear, jargon-free, specific, and understandable. After reading this article, I came away with a new understanding of what to look for when evaluating published research studies.
This article would be a perfect learning tool for students to read before they practice critiquing published research on their own. Teachers can use this example, or a similar one, to help learners develop a personal checklist of themes or questions to use when evaluating research. For example, APA guidelines suggest looking at the methodology, authors’ framework(s), statistics, theoretical framework, and results (Driscoll, 2010). The acronym MASTR (pronounced “master”) may be a helpful reminder. A classroom exercise where learners must come up with one or two questions for each of those areas and then apply them to multiple articles could be an excellent way to increase their confidence in this important skill – evaluating the evidence.

Driscoll, D. L. (2010, April 21). Social Work Literature Review Guidelines. Retrieved from
Major, B., Appelbaum, M., Beckman, L., Dutton, M. A., Russo, N. F., & West, C. (2009). Abortion and mental health: Evaluating the evidence. American Psychologist, 64, 863-890.
Sackett, D. L., Rosenberg, W. C., & Gray, J. A. M. (1996). Evidence based medicine: What it is and what it isn’t. BMJ, 312, 71-2.

-Shannon Criniti

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How to teach about love, sex and relationships to people with high functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

For the past year and a half I have been working with a teenage girl on the autism spectrum. Although I have had no formal education with developmental disabilities, I have learned along the way many things about autism, and find myself quite interested and passionate about it. Through my preliminary research that I have done so far, the only information out there for sexuality for people with disabilities concentrates on sexual abuse prevention. While preventing sexual abuse among people with disabilities (and in the general population) is important, they seem to forget that people with disabilities are sexual beings as well and may have the desire to have a sexual relationship with the same or opposite sex. Developing relationships requires a certain level of communication skill in order to do things like flirt and feel confident around someone you like. For typical people, having a conversation or flirting is something that generally comes naturally, but for people with autism this is a skill that needs to be taught and practiced.

For those of you who are not familiar with ASD, I will go over some basic information about the disorder: According to the United States Autism and Asperger Association, ASD is a “pervasive developmental disorder” that is generally characterized by impairment in communication skills, such as lack of eye contact, facial expressions and gestures that “regulate social interaction” (
Important things to know about ASD:
1.     Asperger’s is a high functioning form of ASD (although much debate surrounds whether or not Asperger’s should be on the ASD spectrum, for the purpose of this blog Asperger’s is a form of high functioning ASD). People with Asperger’s usually are of average intelligence or above average intelligence (try not to think of Rain Man or savants, that is usually not the case).
2.     People with Asperger’s don’t have a lack of interest in social communication, rather, they have trouble with making effective social connections, thus making friends and dating is difficult. They often misread social communication, which makes their responses and social interactions seem odd to others (Susan Stokes, 2011).

Sexuality education would serve two main purposes: the first, is educational and used to help them with their social skills, and the second, is to increase their confidence in social interactions. As educators, it is important for us to know the learning style’s and strength’s and weaknesses of people with ASD, and be sure to implement these concepts when teaching them about sexuality and relationships, and of course adapt the level to their cognitive ability:
1.     People with high functioning ASD usually have strong visual processing skills, so using a lot of visual teaching methods is important (Susan Stokes, 2011).
2.     Many times, teens with ASD exhibit low self-esteem; by adolescence they become very aware of social differences between themselves and their peers. It is important for educators to give tasks that are in small tangible steps and will increase their confidence level in eventually perusing more difficult social tasks (Susan Stokes, 2011).

Educational techniques to use:
1.     People with Autism are often uncomfortable with change and are generally stressed and scared when asked to perform a new task. I find it helpful to break down new tasks into smaller steps. Breaking the tasks down into small steps that they can accomplish will increase their confidence. In addition, it will make the new task seem less overwhelming and reduce their stress levels.
2. Typically developed people have certain social scripts that they have learned over the years through observing their surroundings where they learn how to behave in certain situations and places. People with ASD, typically need to be taught these social scripts, writing them down or drawing them out is helpful so that they can read and re-read them as many times as they need to (Stokes, 2011).
3. Many people with ASD have organizational difficulties, in order to help them learn what goes first, second, third, etc. Comic strips cut up into pieces will allow the students to have a visual representation of these social scripts that is broken down into steps, that they can put in the right order, which will help them practice the order in which social interactions occur (Stokes, 2011).
4. Role playing is a great technique for the students to practice the new skills and social scripts they learned in a safe environment (Stokes, 2011).
5. One of the typical features of Autism is the inability or difficulty in reading social cues such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Social media such as texting, instant messaging and Facebooking can be a great way for people on the autism spectrum to communicate with peers. Social media communication is not as socially demanding as face-to-face interaction, it does not involve the interpretation of social cues and making eye contact (Weisner & Volkmar, 2009).

 ** a really great book about teenage girls with ASD is "girl growing up on the autism spectrum: what parents and professionals should know about the pre-teen and teenage years" by Shana Nichols, Gina Marie Moravcik and Samara Pulver Tenenbaum.
this is a good book to learn specifically about girls with ASD, it is pretty comprehensive, it talks about friends, schools and even sexuality. most books and material out there is about boys (statistically there are  more boys with ASD than girls), but research shows that girls and boys manifest ASD symptoms differently, so it is possible that those statistics are incorrect. and it is also important to remember to adapt curriculum to the gender of the participant.

Weisner, L.A., and Volkmar, F.R (2009). A practical guide to Autism: What every parent, family member, and teacher needs to know. Honoken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Stokes, S. (2011). Special Education Services: Intervention and Strategies for success. Children with Asperger’s Syndrom: Characteristics/learning styles and intervention strategies. Retrieved from