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


  1. Tracie,

    Very well written; I will definitely be using these tips while I teach in Baltimore City High Schools this semester.

    Today, I had a very similar experience in a 9th grade class room. First, I observed the the teacher was on maternity leave. This class is typically a biology class, but they had a substitute "teaching" the course. When the students walked in, the substitute sat at her desk and ignored them. After a few minutes of class time, the substitute stood up and said, "well, instead of doing book work today, we're going to have a presentation from this lady." The students went wild with excitement because they didn't have to do book work the entire class. The substitute also didn't do much to quiet them down so I could introduce myself-- this was very overwhelming. I was able to get the kids to attend to me by writing "safer sex" and "birth control" on the board. I started by asking the kids what they knew about these. Opening my presentation up by asking the students to share what they already know really helped to engage the students and build leaner's autonomy. Also, I used newsprint placed around the room, so I was moving constantly. This helped me control the climate and seemed to help keep the students engaged. Midway through my presentation, a mouse scurried across the floor-- I'm realizing now how common this is in these types of school environments. The students went crazy, so I had to be very patient when refocusing them.

    I'll continue to keep these tips in mind for future lessons with urban youth!

    1. Yes, Megan--PATIENCE IS so key! It sounds like you really did a good job--you even sound patient in describing how you handled that mouse, because I'm not sure I could've been the same!

  2. Wow! That is terrible that you both had to deal with such awful classroom conditions on top of the students. I didn't realize how bad it was in these classrooms. Thank you for opening my eyes and sharing your experiences. Tracie, you should publish a little brochure or pamphlet with these tips to give to new teachers, especially those entering these urban schools. You've given me some things to think about in relation to my professional work. I am attending a conference in Baltimore at the moment sponsored by the Office of Adolescent Health focusing on teen pregnancy prevention education. I am now wondering how many of these folks attending this meeting are in this same situation in their communities for their programs. You bring up a good point with this post too that how can we be expected for the kids to learn anything when their environment doesn't allow it? I know I wouldn't be in the mood to learn if I was hungry or knew someone was out to hurt me when I went home. Actually now that I wrote that it made me think that some of these kids may not even care to learn as they are using school and the classroom to escape the problems at home or to feel a little reprieve from the situation at home. Thank you for post, Tracie, as it brought up some great points and really got me to think.

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  5. Great post, Tracie! I think that the assume nothing piece is a huge part of sex education. It can be really easy to forget that "teens" are not one individual kind of thing. Remembering that not everyone has had sex and also remembering that some students have is a tough balance to attain. I'm reminded of something we talked about in our 592 class that has come back in just about every class since. If you are teaching about teen pregnancy, for example, you have to keep in mind that some of the students might already be pregnant or are already parents. If we assume that no one is pregnant in the room and then proceed to talk about how your life will be completely ruined if you get pregnant we do two destructive things: First, we immediately lose those students. They are no longer going to trust what we say or pay attention. Two, we risk scaring those students into doing stupid or dangerous things. If we tell a pregnant student that her life is over she may just believe us.

    I also think the being patient piece is key. I'm working with some urban middle school students right now and there is a new challenge every day: Behavioral issues, possible learning disorders, lateness, rudeness, comprehension issues, not to speak of the even greater problems we're having with the institution itself, it's always a challenge. After about day two though, I realized that I just need to be patient and do the best that I can. Even if just a tiny bit of this information gets in we've done something for these students, and for now, that's all I can hope for.

  6. Great post Tracie! I completely agree that urban learning environments can be quite difficult because of additional challenges faced. I work in an urban school and have been doing many of my practicum hours at urban schools. I have found that often teachers end up yelling to get students attention and it becomes an environments that is unhealthy. I recently did a presentation to some fourth graders. They began to take out paper and pens and started writing. At first I thought they were doing homework, but then I realized they were writing down the what I was writing and saying. Students want to learn but there can be many barriers to their learning, especially in urban settings. I think patience is key as you and Kelly said.

    1. Thank you Karen for your feedback; I think you hit something very important on the head, that I'm not sure I iterated well enough--that most urban school kids, despite all these challenges, DO still want to learn as much (if not more) than other kids! It is not lost on them what's happening around them; as such, any opportunity they can get to truly engage in learning is one that many will still gladly attempt, even if only half-heartedly. We will probably beat this horse to death, but it's true: PATIENCE IS KEY.

    2. I feel like there is little I can say about this that hasn't already been said. Great post, super useful! Since I have not had the experience of teaching in a school setting (just workshops so far) these guidelines are really helpful for setting expectations of my future experiences. Thanks!

  7. Tracie
    great post and advice for educators working in an urban school. I work in a district that is next to Philadelphia and it seems I run into many of these problems. Students are always using inappropriate language, speaking disrespectfully to an adult, or try to get away with anything they can. I think it's important to set ground rules, but do not yell or punish students for every little thing they do incorrectly. I like to give a reminder about appropriate language and that I have very good hearing. I also get more respect from students because I can relate to some of their complaints or what they're going through as a teenager. Many students don't respect teachers, resulting in the teacher handing out punishments over everything. You need patients and understand where they are coming from if you want to be able to teach them. Sometimes I think my students are going to force me into early retirement, but I try my best and hope I teach them life long lessons.

  8. Tracie,
    Great post! During my practicum and through my own volunteer work, I have now had many experiences working within urban schools, as well as with urban youth outside of school. I think you really hit the nail on the head. I only wish I had had these tips before! One thing that has been difficult for me are the classroom teachers being less than cooperative, or even "poisonous" to the classroom environment. One or two teachers have left the classroom to do other things, and I have found that the class goes so much more smoothly when their regular teacher is not present. However, while teaching at a residential facility for adjudicated youth, it was very necessary for a counselor to stay in the room with the students in order to help keep them focused and disciplined so I could keep my attention and energy on teaching.
    I'll definitely be keeping these tips in mind for next time!

  9. Thank you for posting this! I haven't had any experience so far teaching in a classroom setting but much of this advice can be transferred to the adult setting as well. There are many situation I have been in that require manipulation of the environment, control, and definitely being patient. It ceases to amaze me how many adults revert to a childlike attitude when sexuality related topics are brought up. Thanks again for this post and the really great advice.

  10. Those are really good guidelines, Tracie!
    Working in a domestic violence organization that provides educational workshops, my team and I have had the opportunity to experiencing the challenges of working with youth in public schools in Philadelphia.
    Two weeks ago, I was talking to one of our educators about how difficult our work is sometimes. As an organization that offers free presentations to schools, we mostly accept any opportunity that a school offers to us to provide the information to students. However, there are situations in which the setting is completely counterproductive: students are being sent to our presentation as a “punishment”, or because teachers do not know what else to do with them; our presentation is presented as a way to “kill time” while waiting for something else; or we are called to do a presentation after an “incident” (usually a physical or sexual assault has happened).
    The conversation ended up being focused on what conditions we should ask schools for before accepting doing any presentations. For example, if we are just going to have 35 minutes for our presentation, is it reasonable to ask for a teacher to be in the classroom to control the climate so we do not have to spend our time dealing with the discipline and enforcing the rules?
    However, our conversation ended with the realization that schools may not be able to offer those conditions, and that we may have to accept whatever they can offer to us.