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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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