Sunday, March 25, 2012

Tying Sexuality Lessons to Current News Topics

I recently learned that The New York Times publishes lesson plans and I was very pleased to see that several of them address sexuality topics. “Go New York Times!” The most recent, from March 7, 2012, is the first I’ve reviewed and it immediately piqued my interest. Jennifer Cutraro and Holly Epstein Ojalvo have created a lesson titled About Birth Control: Clearing Up Misconceptions About Contraception. If you overlook the lack of stated goals, objectives and rationale, the lesson plan is very good, in my opinion. At the least, it lays the groundwork for a potentially powerful lesson.

What most caught my attention is the fact that the current debate on health care coverage of birth control is integral to the lesson’s activities. Eggen and Kauchak, in Strategies and Models for Teachers: Teaching Content and Thinking Skills, noted that learning is most effective when real world topics are correlated with class discussions and activities (p. 30). Having now explored The New York Times The Learning Network section, all of the lessons are based on current news topics reported in The Times. While the lesson plans are not as comprehensive as we are instructed to create, the strategy of linking educational topics with current and real-life issues is excellent. This resource gathers related articles on a variety of sexuality topics into lesson plans that can be adapted to suit our student and teaching needs.

The article About Birth Control includes activities that can serve to engage the students in active discussion or debate about Health Care policy, gender issues, politics and religion, etc. These kinds of teaching methods encourage critical thinking, a more advanced and vital cognitive skill. Eggen and Kauchak list a number of abilities associated with critical thinking: identifying bias and propaganda, detecting assumptions and overgeneralizations, deciphering relevant from irrelevant information, etc. (p. 73). A lesson plan, such as this one, that incorporates opportunities for students to practice these skills serves to help prepare students to be critical thinkers. This lesson plan does just that and, as we all know, there are numerous hot button issues in sexuality that can be integrated into lesson plans for students to grapple with.

Curiously, a student raised the health care/contraceptive issue in class a couple of weeks ago and I was caught off-guard. They were more up on the debate than I was. That was a teachable moment for me! Since then, I have read more and have decided to implement this lesson plan, with added goals, objectives and rationale, into my curriculum. I am eager to see how it goes and if it is successful, I will work on bringing in more news issues of the day into my sexuality education classes. Even if the NY Times lesson plans have some wrinkles to iron out, they are a useful resource that we can use. I am convinced that tying sexuality lessons to current news topics is important in our teaching. What do you think? 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Creating Safer Spaces for our LGBTQ students

The Huffington Post recently featured an article and video  focusing on bullying in schools.  We have all heard a lot about this, especially in the last year or so with the string of publicized youth suicides and the recent conviction of Duhran Ravi for the death of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers.  In the video students discuss what it can be like for them to live in an environment where they feel little support or are not sure who to turn to.  They also discuss how they would like a teacher to reach out to them and offer support.

While we may not all work with young people, it is very likely that we will work with LGBTQ people at some point in our careers.  This means that there are many people that we are working with that may have had a history of bullying, silence, or a lack of support systems.  As educators, in all kinds of environments, we may find ourselves in situations where we have to figure out what exactly we are responsible for, what we think we should do, and what the messages are that the students getting from the ways that we work with them.

So what could we do to go beyond our lesson plans to connect with the LGBTQ people that we are working with?  Here are a few ideas:

1 – Understand that we are role models.
                When we walk into a classroom or workshop many participants may see us as models for how to interact with sex and sexuality.  This means that the information that we deliver as well as how we deliver it is important.  There are many ways that we can send messages to people about what it ok and what is not.  As part of the It Gets Better Project, Sarah Siverman posted a video about what this can mean on a national level.  In a classroom, this can mean addressing issues of inclusivity and acceptance not only to talk about them, but to show that talking about these kinds of issues is important and deserves time.

2 – Know that we are walking into a culture with norms and history.
As was shown in the video from Cincinnati, we may be going into environments where norms and standards have been created, even if they have not been discussed.  I think that this is important to recognize because we, as educators, often feel pressure to create a “safe space” in our classrooms.   The reality is that this may not be possible.  We may walk into a space that, before we got there, was hostile to students.  There may be issues of bullying or harassment from students, other instructors, or administration.  These issues will continue to be a part of the environment when we are there, and will continue to be when we leave.  While this does not mean that we cannot make a difference (we can!), it means that we should be realistic about what we are capable of and work from there.  For instance, maybe we cannot change that there is bullying, but we can be there for someone who needs to talk about it, or a model that says that it is not acceptable.  This can help us move from the unrealistic pressure of creating a completely safe space, to a more realistic “safer space”.

3 – Consider the difference between tolerance and acceptance.
                I was once a part of an LGBTQ panel for high school students and the question was asked “Do you think that people are born gay, or do they decide to be?”  A lot of us were unsure and gave our personal answers, and then one panel participant said that while he was not sure about everyone, he did know that the idea of choosing to be gay would not be awful, because there are so many wonderful LGBTQ people that lead great lives.  He continued that many people claim that everyone is born the way that they are because there is legitimacy to that, but that the underlying argument is that being gay is so hard and so awful that no one would ever choose it, and that does a disservice to the LGBTQ community.  That completely changed the conversation because it was such a strong, passionate statement of love for the community that can sometimes be hard to come by in these conversations.  But it made the difference between having a conversation about “tolerating” people because they had to be what they were to accepting that what people are can be absolutely lovely.

4 – Don’t feel the weight of all the world’s injustices on your shoulders!
                We are not magicians, we are educators.  We cannot create a perfect place with perfect understanding through one swoop of the curriculum!  But we can realize that we can do our best and that we are working in many complicated systems.  I think that one of the worst obstacles to good work is guilt.  We are part of a large field making great changes and showing up for people that may not otherwise be heard.  The last thing we are trying to do, or to model, is more guilty feelings in people’s lives.  A lot of times just being there is making a huge difference.

Chelsea Williams-Varnum

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Following in the Footsteps of Study Abroad

In my undergraduate biology course I was required to do a presentation on a human sexuality topic.  I chose to present a PowerPoint on transexualism.  I chose the topic because I did not understand how a person could not identify with their biological sex.  Honestly, I remember thinking it was strange, weird, and not normal.  My opinions and values on transsexuals have changed drastically since I first came into contact with the concept, but it was a process that included educating myself, meeting transsexual individuals, and learning the unique language of this community. 

The feelings that I experienced are similar to my experiences with different ethnic, cultural, and religious groups that I have not had much exposure to in my lifetime.  Unfortunately, many people feel more comfortable discussing cultural, ethnic, and religious differences than sexuality differences.  The lack of awareness, language, and interactions with different sexual groups makes it difficult for people to fully understand the diverse sexuality spectrum.  Colleges in the United States place a large emphasis on the importance of study abroad programs, and the rate of American students studying abroad continues to rise ( and  The purposes of these programs are to broaden the students’ experiences and allow them to expand their understanding of the world, ultimately facilitating personal growth of the student (   

The use of experiential learning  ( to educate students on culture, religion, and ethnicity would be useful to educate students about sexual minority groups.  Providing students with an opportunity to meet sexually diverse individuals is an effective way to start a much-needed conversation.  A large amount of money is invested to ensure students the opportunity to learn outside their own environment.  Individuals who belong to a sexual minority group are everywhere and have voices that would love to be heard.  As an educator, we need to provide students with an opportunity to interact with what they are learning, hear personal stories, engage in dialogue, and ask questions ( It is the educator’s role to give the students the resources they need to understand the material.  I was lucky to have experiences to interact with transsexualism, so that my narrow-minded viewpoints could be expanded to create more accurate opinions and values.  My experience in the classroom where I was able to hear the story of a transsexual and ask questions was the moment that I decided that my opinions and values were uninformed.  Let’s give this opportunity to our students.

jennifer toadvine

Monday, March 12, 2012

Five Rules for Effective Sex Education with Urban Public School Populations

So, as part of my day-time work duties last month, I had the honor of conducting 5 in-class sessions with a 9th grade health cohort around sex, reproduction, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections. If you’ve spent any amount of time in this type of environment, then you know that this is no easy task in and of itself; beyond the average developmental challenges of hyper, attitudinal teens with way more mouth than critical thinking skills however, urban high school environments face the additional stressors of inadequate teaching resources, poor facilities, classroom overcrowding, and—more often than not—highly disgruntled, overworked and underpaid staff. With circumstances like these, one may figure it impossible to deliver effective sex education to students; after giving it my first college try however, I’m convinced it is possible—albeit, with a few small, yet critical considerations.

  1. Control the Climate. Eggen & Kauchak (2006) suggest that a classroom’s climate serves as a fundamental determinant of a motivated student body; nowhere is that more evident than in an urban classroom where a teacher has little mastery of her space. It wasn’t hard to understand why my students weren’t prepared to focus when they were entering the classroom poorly nourished from lunch, without a sufficient number of desks to use, or when I had to contend with scurrying mice for their attention. The original classroom teacher did not better things much, having resigned himself to accepting their behavior as par for the course, and taking no action beyond an occasional yell to influence positive changes. Beyond being prepared with enough engaging material to distract them from what wasn’t working then, it was important that I arrived to each class before students arrived, so I could create a physical space that successfully helped them shift into “Ms. Tracie’s class” mode. Moreover, while I could not circumvent the issues that students themselves brought to the classroom, I made sure to present an attitude that clearly communicated my intention to teach, and relayed my reciprocal intention for them to learn, and to respond in kind.

  1. Establish High Standards. Urban public schools are no strangers to rules and regulation; where they sometimes slip up however, is in enforcement consistency, or lack thereof. While cell phones use, for example, is a school-wide breach of policy, it was not uncommon for students to go unchecked in their use their phones in class, even going so far as to seek out outlets to sit next to when in need of a freshly-charged battery. When students know they can do whatever they want with no recourse they will; on the same token, students also respond appropriately to consistent order, particularly when exacted on classmates who do not have the common goal of learning. Though I could not always get that support from classroom staff, the most successful sessions I had with students were when they were gently and lovingly held to group ground rules, and when those who were willing to participate knew they could count on us to effectively deal with those who were not, without exception.

  1. Assume NOTHING. Perez & Luquis (2008) remind health educators of the need for consistent responsiveness to the communicative diversity (i.e., language) existing among our respective populations. I extend this argument to both cognition and comfort, as I came to face both while in my work this month. My class was not considered to be one for students who did not speak English as a first language; several of my students however were not English-speakers at all, which greatly affected how well I was able to translate the information I shared through handouts and classroom activities. My 9th grade level health class was populated with a sizable number of sophomores and juniors; many students of all grades did not read at grade level, which required consistently more rudimentary teaching materials in order to keep people from getting lost. With high rates of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy among teens in my students’ demographic, it was easy to make assumptions about how much they had already been exposed to about sex and sexual health; to my surprise however, I found that I often had to go back to the basics with them, to address questions like “So how does a baby have room to grow in the stomach if the mother eats so much?” Finally, while many students had no problem making lewd jokes about a whole host of sexual terms and activities, some were visibly uncomfortable with sex, and had no desire to discuss it, let alone engage in it. To address the latter, it was important that I stress sexual engagement as an informed and responsible choice that could be asserted or withheld at one’s personal leisure.

  1. Respect the Language. Urban public school kids curse. A LOT. Coincidentally, much of is used in the most traditional, “profane” sense of the word—as the common language of the community as a whole. My task, in this case, was to reserve my offense for situations when it was genuinely required—like students who banged incessantly on the door when they were late to class and we didn’t let them right away, for example. One of the most amazing learning breakthroughs I experienced during my stint was when a student referred to the egg as a “bad bitch” after receiving a female-centered description of the zona reaction; had I been quicker to censor, I could have not only de-valued her learning experience, but would’ve sent a clear negative message to the rest of the class about the safety of learning with authenticity.

  1. Be Patient…and then patient some more. Even with the first four items in tow, it was downright difficult to teach this course under these circumstances—and that’s keeping it polite. By the end I knew that some kids would miss me, and wanted to learn and press more; that said, the likelihood is that even the best strategies in the worst foundational structure can only last but so long. Did my students learn enough to effectively change they way they view sexual engagement and their sexual choices? Probably not. Did they gain enough intellectual stoking to be more open to potential learning the next go ‘round? ABSOLUTELY…and in this case, that was really all I, or anyone, can ask for.

So this is just one educator’s perspective; if given space I’m sure I could come up with lots of other lessons learned. Anybody else out here familiar with this kind of environment though? How did you handle it, and what tips would you ask? Please share!

--Ms. Tracie G. :o)
  HSED 626, Spring 2012


Eggen, P. & Kauchak, D. (2006). Strategies and Models for Teachers (6th Ed.). Allyn & Bacon: Boston, MA.

Perez, M.A., & Luquis, R. R. (2008). Cultural Competence in Health Educaiton and Health Promotion. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fake it 'til you make it...But be Authentic

As an educator, I often think about who I am. That is, who I am compared to who my students are. As a well-educated, white, heterosexual, middle class woman, I have worried that my identity will somehow get me in trouble with my audience. In other words, because I belong to a number of majority groups, I have worried that I will not be taken seriously, that I will not be able to relate to my students, that someone will think I’m a fraud, or that I will be passed off as some outsider pushing condom use on at-risk populations.

These feelings became particularly troublesome during my practicum last fall. I was working at an organization whose focus was on education for at-risk youth, Latinos, and the HIV positive community. I was planning a late night event where I would be going into some of the gay bars to do sex education. During a meeting with my supervisor, she suggested that I should look the part, aka “queer it up”, before I went to the bars. At first I thought this was a great idea, remembering that sometimes education is like acting and I would be playing a role. The more I thought about it however, the more I became uncomfortable with the idea of faking me.

I brought my feelings of uncertainty to my practicum class and I was reminded by my professor that yes, as an educator sometimes you need to fake it til you make it. But that sentiment refers more to a person’s confidence and familiarity with content, not personality. After some further class discussion, I realized that “queering it up” would probably do more harm than good. Not only would I feel uncomfortable faking who I was/am, but I risked losing the respect of my audience. And without their respect, I sure as hell would not have their attention.

So, I decided to be authentic. Unapologetically me. Now, that doesn’t mean I went into the gay bars advertising all the ways that I represent majority culture. What it meant was that I felt like myself walking it. It meant dressing the way I like to dress. And it meant being the educator I want to be. When I walked into that bar, I was taken seriously. I didn’t stand out (in a bad way). I didn’t appear or act fake. I was approachable. And I got a great response.

As an educator, I know that I cannot expect to reach everyone. As a high school teacher, I was able to reach some teens but not others. As an outreach educator, some adults came to me while others shied away. After having this experience and really working on my authentic educator persona, I feel so much more confident in my abilities as an educator.

And since this is an online blog, I thought I’d share one more tidbit on authenticity in the online world, for those of you who do more blogging, tweeting, etc.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Being A Sexuality Educator Means Sometimes Having to Say "I Don't Know"

You know the feeling. The kid in the back of the room raises his hand. You feel your stomach flop. You know it’s going to be a doozy and you have to answer it. Out comes a bizarre, slightly inappropriate question that you’re not even sure you know what it’s asking. What do you do? Panic? Re-consider your career choice? Mumble some answer and dive into a new topic?

One of the things I was most worried about when I started teaching at Planned Parenthood, was how I would answer a question calmly and efficiently, especially if it was something very charged or inappropriate. Luckily, one of the very first things we did while I was in training was to learn about how to answer sexuality questions. Cat Dukes, the VP of Education and Training at the Delaware Planned Parenthood developed a framework that I find particularly useful:

The very first words out of your mouth should always be “good question.” There are three reasons for this. First, if you do it sincerely, it’s very affirming to the person asking the question. They’ll feel good about themselves and that’s important because it may have been very hard for them to ask the question, even if it seems totally off-base to you. Second, it reassures the asker that you are a good, reliable source to sexuality information. Third, it gives you a chance to stall. Take a deep breath after “good question” and think before you speak! A lot of times we get nervous about the question, or about possibly saying the wrong thing, that we start to ramble without thinking about what we want to say first. (I know I’m guilty of that one at least!) Remember, you don’t want to end up on the news for something you said to a kid because they asked you a question about analingus.

If the question is a fact-based question—for example “If a boy and a girl both have HIV and they have unprotected sex can they give each other more HIV?” (real question I got yesterday)—and you are 100% sure that you know the answer, tell them the answer. However, if you’re not sure and it is a fact based question, say “I don’t know.” It is really important that we, as sexuality educators, get used to saying “I don’t know.” Of course we should be as well-versed in our subject manner as we can, but we are never going to know everything, and it is much better to admit to not knowing than to give faulty, possibly even dangerous, information out. As members of professional organizations, administrations and the Widener community, we should all strive to put out accurate information. That being said, if you don’t know, you should follow up with “but I can find out.” If possible, go home, do some research and return to the next class with the answer. A lot of the questions can be solved with a quick Google search or a quick call to a colleague with that particular sub-specialty. Your students will feel that you respect them by taking the time to get the answer, and if you still feel uncomfortable with saying I don’t know, you have the chance to “redeem yourself.”

Not all questions are fact based however, many are opinion questions. Whether these are personal questions (what kind of birth control do you use, Miss Kelly?) or permission seeking questions (is it okay if I masturbate?) or general opinion questions (is abortion good or bad?) there is no easy answer. “If you are a public educator, your charge is to illuminate the range of values that exist in the community and to assist students in examining their own values” (Hedgepeth and Helmich, 1996, p. 94). At PPDE, we are trained to use the following groupings: “for some, for others and for you.” In other words, you should cover both sides of the debate and then explain that the individual needs to make the decision on their own and encourage them to talk to family or trusted adults about the issue. So with the “is it okay if I masturbate” question a complete answer might go something like this: “Good question. For some people masturbation can feel very good and be a pleasant experience, for others they may not like to masturbate or may not believe it is a good idea because of religion or values. Only you can decide how you feel about masturbation, but you can also talk to your parents or other trusted adults to help you figure out what choice is right for you.”

You can use the framework for personal questions as well, as in the “what kind of birth control do you use” example. “Good question. Some people prefer methods such as condoms because they are cheap and very effective. Other people prefer hormonal methods because they don’t interrupt sexual play. For each person, the method that they are going to use with the highest degree of effectiveness is the best method for them. You can talk to your parents or the school nurse for more information on the different methods so you can choose the one that is right for you.” (I might also take this opportunity to remind the class about which methods protect against STD’s and HIV, just to use it as a teachable moment.)

I also think that having a question box is a great way to help handle difficult questions. If you have the opportunity to meet with a group several times, you can pass the box around once per session and then prepare to answer the questions at the beginning of the next meeting. This gives you a little more time to think and research your answers, and allows the questions to be anonymous. Also, you can use the question box in class if you have a student who keeps raising their hand to ask you difficult questions. Instead of interrupting the lesson (again), you can ask them to write it down for next week.

So the next time you get a difficult question from a participant, take a deep breath, say “good question” (and mean it!) and remember that being a sexuality educator sometimes means having to say “I don’t know.”

For more information check out:

Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV: Principles and methods for effective education. New York, NY: NYU Press.