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?