Thursday, April 26, 2012

Our Kids Are Smart!

I recently learned a trick to getting middle schoolers engaged in class discussion... Candy.  I teach an after school community education program for Latina youth focusing on sexual health and self-esteem.  Working with a group of sixth grade students after they've already been in class for eight hours is a tall order.  For the past six months I've struggled to engage my group in class discussion.  The easy part is always the experiential part of the experiential learning cycle:  showing videos, reading stories or doing hands on activities.  After the fun part is over many times I loose my student's attention, transitioning between the experiential activity and discussion.  During one particular moment of frustration I took one of my students aside and asked her how I could get her peers more involved in class.  She said that one of her teachers focuses on rewarding kids whenever they offer a particularly thoughtful comment during class discussion.  I thought... Brilliant!  How easy!  So step one to getting my class engaged in meaningful discussion:  rewarding students' when they make a contribution to class, as opposed to disciplining them when they get off track.

Inspired by my student's suggestion of reward over punishment, I brought in a bag of candy into my next class.  We were talking about bullying and dating violence.  After showing a video I led the class through a series of questions and whenever a student said something that was really insightful or thoughtful I would throw him or her a piece of candy.  My student's caught on right away.  After a few student's received candy they began raising their hands more readily.  I could see them taking more time to think about their responses, as the name of the game was rewards only to those who shared thoughtful comments.  I learned another lesson the day I incorporated reward over punishment...  One of my brightest students said flippantly to the class, "Wow I'm really smart in this class.  I wish I could be this smart in school."  Her comment made think two things simultaneously:  1) Do teachers not commonly reward students when they are making great contributions to class?  2) Do students not participate in class discussion because they think they don't have anything smart to contribute?

The second question really stopped me in my tracks.  Maybe there is more to this notion of reward over punishment in an educational setting.  While kids all love receiving candy and are generally motivated by the opportunity to receive free sugar, I think what is more important in rewarding kids for their positive contributions is the act of reminding them they are smart and what they have to say is truly brilliant.  I wonder how often youth are told how smart they are and how often they are validated by their teachers, mentors and parents.  As educators we have a unique opportunity to inspire our students to perform well in school and make positive contributions to their communities.  One of the simplest ways to encourage our students to participate in class might be a candy incentive.  However, providing validation and support to our students by reminding them every day how smart and insightful they are will encourage students to do more than just speak up in class.  Who knows, they might just change the world!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Teaching sex ed from a different angle

My job consists of working on an evaluation project of a positive youth development (PYD) program.  I had never known what these programs were until I started working on this job.  PYD programs are intended to develop a youth’s sense of self for being a good person and productive citizen.  This particular one I am evaluating has, in essence, a side effect of preventing teen pregnancy in addition to its intended goals of decreasing school failure and dropout rates.  When I was talking to a friend about this it struck me that sex ed does not always have to be taught from a direct angle.  This program has taken a different approach to addressing youth about sexuality in that they address the outside factors facing a person and their influence on their decision to engage in sex rather than the traditional disease model.  The thought is that if youth develop a better sense of character in themselves, develop a greater appreciation for and connectedness with their school and community, and set life goals for themselves that either they may be too busy to have sex and/or they stop to take the time to think how getting pregnant, or getting someone pregnant, can help or hinder them in their life and with their life plans.  Granted this approach is not a fully comprehensive approach to sex and sexuality but I feel it is effective because it is a message that the youth are not expecting and it gives them the empowerment to make a decision to engage in sex as opposed to obeying a mandate that says to always use a condom if you are going to have sex.  Also, this program is intended to develop other skills within themselves so that making decisions in relation to sexuality are more thought-provoking such as thinking of the implications of using a condom or not rather than just choosing to use a condom because you told to do so.  I can see how a program like this can add value to the work we are trying to do with youth in educating them about their sexuality outside of a reproductive standpoint.  Getting them to see the impact their decisions have not only on themselves but also on others, especially in their community, can give them the perspective that has been missing in some of the traditional sex ed programs.  I would hope if given the opportunity to teach sex ed one day I can blend the best components of both the traditional and newer approaches into one to create a sexual PYD program.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

It's More Than Being a Teacher

The current culture in our education system is a complicated one.  School is not just about learning in reading and writing, but a setting in which students acquire social skills and knowledge.  It is a place where they learn to navigate the social mores and the community culture with which they have grown.  It is also an environment where students can seek support, if they so choose.

Over the past year I have been a sexuality educator and a counselor in schools throughout Delaware.  All of my clients seek counseling for mental health issues.  This is not uncommon.  The CDC estimates that nearly 1 in 5 children under the age of 17 experience some mental health issue that impairs their life.  As educators, it is our responsibility to promote their mental health wellness.  So what does this require, especially as sexuality educators?

It means that we need to work with mental health professionals at schools.  There is often a climate in which mental health professionals are shunned, and not incorporated into the school environment.  A belief that we do not need to work together, because the two - education and mental health - have littlein common.  However, as educators, we should work together with counselors, to promote the wellbeing of the students we work with.  We are all aware that teaching about sexuality is a sensitive topic, and can often bring to surface issues that students either have not yet dealt with, or are still working through (sexual assault, bullying, gender nonconformity, etc.).  This is why working with the school mental health professionals is crucial.  Working together allows students to receive support on every end.

In an atmosphere where LGBTQ bullying is rampant and adolescent suicides are becoming more frequent than they are not, it is vital we provide these students especially with all the support.  Mental health professionals and educators can work together and aide students through navigating the incredibly difficult period of adolescence, and beyond.  My experience this last year has helped me realize how important this partnership can be, both for the school environment and more importantly, for the students we work with.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Sexuality Education: The Deal on Keeping it Fresh

It was not long ago that I had the opportunity to be the teaching assistant for the local university’s human sexuality professor. I’d say he’s in his in his mid forties and has been teaching sexuality since the early nineties. His teaching also consists of using research articles from the nineties! While having the opportunity in 2010 then again in 2011 for my practicum to facilitate seminars, I found myself being the new and upcoming sexuality educator, who needed to bring sexuality education back to the future!

How important is keeping ourselves “with it” and cutting edge? The majority of us have had the opportunity to purchase that assigned book made in the 80s because nothing new has been published. There is obviously value in original research, but there comes a time where having students discuss an article published by Sanders and Renisch (1999), which asks students to identify an event in the late 90s that started a public debate on whether or not oral sex was sex, becomes dated. This is because the majority of these students were roughly seven years old at the time! I was 12 myself, and I wasn’t able to recall the answer which was the Monica Lewinski and Bill Clinton scandal.

As sexuality professionals, Taverner (2006) suggested to  “try to expand your reading to equip yourself with greater dimension in understanding the field of sexology. I have heard this recommendation from both emerging professionals who are surprised at how little their fellow students read non- required books and fail to keep up with the news, and from expert colleagues who recommend reading that will enable you to understand the background necessary to become a leader in this field. Read about history, social issues, cultural issues, and psychology” (p. 3).   

While this professor sounded amazing back in the mid 90s because he was keeping current to create his original curriculum, he failed to continue to make continuous updates to bring his curriculum up to speed. Asking students to conceptualize Mazur (1986) focusing on the trends in female beauty from the 1950s to 1980s, was great, but was missing three more decades of trends. A great example is women starting to be more muscular which was a trend that was more prominent in the 2000s. Nonetheless, it was my job to go over and above and add these important tidbits so that students felt the information was relevant for them in 2011.

The importance of updating one’s curriculum is crucial. Of course, I know I will never know it all, but if planning on talking at conferences or teaching sexuality in secondary and post secondary institutions, I believe that using more current research will help to identify with students and will help with building a better report. I cannot express the number of times these students found the articles boring or irrelevant because of the time frame of the dated articles. To be the best sexuality educator, no matter how busy, take the time and invest in subscribing or reading online journals in our field. Sometimes you are able to sign up for RSS feeds that keep you informed on which new articles are out based on your topic of interest. Review your curriculum at least on a yearly basis. While reviewing, assess if the articles you are citing are exceeding five to ten years and if so, see if you can find something a little more current that may better relate to the group you are educating for the time being. 


Mazur, A. (1986). U.S. trends in feminine beauty and overadaptation. The Journal of Sex Research, 22,  281-303.

by Ashton F. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Specific Considerations in Sexuality Education for Homeless Women

Teaching homeless populations about sexuality has unique challenges. Sexuality education for this population is often overlooked. Many these individuals have not had formal or comprehensive sexuality education. Also, most of them have not graduated from high school or received their GEDs (Cleminson-Hernandez, 2004). Additionally, these individuals reading levels are typically below average, and financial disparities make access to healthcare and health promotion education very difficult. These challenges require specific considerations when adapting my lesson plans and educational strategies for this group.

I’ve been working with the homeless population for almost a year now, and I’ve enjoyed teaching a Sexual Health class series at a local shelter as a part of my practicum and community partner project. During my time at the shelter, I’ve had to adapt both my teaching styles and lesson plan to fit the needs and capabilities of my marginalized audience. To design my classes to best serve my participants, three factors were important to consider:

First, I had to consider health literacy of my population (Perez & Luquis, 2008). As most of my participants had not earned GEDs and read under a 5th grade reading level, I had to adapt my worksheets and health pamphlets to avoid frustration and confusion in my learners. According to Perez & Luquis (2008), it is crucial to provide the educational materials that are appropriate for the comprehension level of my students. Initially, when I went in with pamphlets with language geared towards high school aged students. I quickly learned that the ladies were having difficulty understanding them. When this happened, they became frustrated and were discouraged from participating. To reconcile this, I started to use sexuality education materials geared towards 5th grade and middle school.

Next, it was important for me to consider the level of knowledge my participants already had (Perez & Luquis, 2008). While most of my students were reading below a fifth grade level, most of them were above 30 years old. Many of them also have had experiences that were not covered in teaching materials and curricula directed towards fifth graders. Most of my participants had children and knew the basics of sexual reproduction. Many also were knowledgeable about HIV and some were diagnosed as HIV positive. So, it was important for me to respect what knowledge they came in with as well as their experiences.

Lastly, when developing my lessons and strategies, I considered the structural obstacles my population likely faced (Perez & Luquis, 2008). Structural obstacles are barriers associated with structural issues in communities and cultures (Perez & Luquis, 2008). For example, many of my participants were homeless and did not have transportation to health centers. Also, even if they did have some sort of transportation, not having a home address made it difficult for them to secure benefits such as medical assistance in order to get the health care and education they need. Additionally, many of my participants were distrustful of medical systems, had some form of mental illness, and were victims of domestic violence and rape. When adapting my lesson plans and strategies, it was imperative that I considered and was sensitive to these obstacles.

By considering these factors and adapting my teaching accordingly, I have been able to better educate this population and improve the personal autonomy of my participants as they have been able to comprehend my lessons and relate the information to their own lives.

Cleminson-Hernandez, M. E. (2004). The relationship between fear and success and the identity style    among urban homeless and formerly homeless adults. Dissertation Abstracts International, 65 (2-B), 1023.
Perez, M. A., & Luquis, R. R. (2008). Cultural competence in health education and health promotion. Jossey Bass: San Fransisco, CA.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Teaching Understanding

School violence and the social climate of the public school system in the U.S. are often sensationalized and news-worthy topics.  Daily I work with drug addicted women who are slightly older than this age category, but the climate of judgement and bullying continue to exist.  This week I thought a great deal about how to teach understanding and acceptance, especially as it relates to the LGBTQ population, as these youth are often the recipients of violence, misunderstanding and are subject to the painful product of the ignorance of others.

The movie, “Bully”, set to come out in theaters nationwide on April 13th, exposes the stories of kids who have experienced bullying within the public school system.  Included in the film is Kelby’s story, a 16 year old lesbian who continues to be harassed by other students in her school system.  Kelby fights against the ignorance and violence of other students with support from a few close friends and her Parents, but many other students are not as lucky.

A heterosexist environment exists not only within our public school systems, but within the social climate in general, creating a hostile atmosphere for LGBTQ students (and adults, for that matter) to communicate honestly with those around them including Parents, friends and educators.  Further, a gender binary system also exists, representing a black and white thinking pattern within social stereotypes.  Students are categorized either “feminine” or “masculine”, with little room for androgyny, let alone the acceptance of identification with both or neither gender.

Which leads me to the question within sexuality education; How can we teach compassion and understanding of the unknown (or the “other”).  I thought about some of the strategies that would be most effective in doing so and which of these I could apply in my current work setting to foster increased unity within the population.

According to Anderson et al (2010), teachers rarely intervene when presented with bullying situations with school systems and approximately 1/3 of transgender youth within this study mention that bullying comes from the educators themselves.  First and foremost, educators need to have the knowledge required to live by example for their students and advocate for understanding, compassion and kindness among students.  We can’t teach what we don’t know. 

Some of the recommendations made by TYFA (Transgender Youth and Families Alliance) include:  educating parents, educators and students,  creating a gay/straight alliance, expose the rarity of LGBTQ characters, issues or concerns within the curriculum and teaching engagement, not simply content. (SITE TYFA)  I think the most important component of this type of both affective and intellectual education is beginning by showing students how similar they are and advocating for them to challenge their current belief structures, even if they don’t change them.  Uniting students with each other can be the beginning of life changes for them and social changes for us.

References:  Fabrikant-Eagan, Amy (2012, March 12). Changing social norms in school starts with a conversation.  Retrieved April 7, 2012 from:
Anderson, C.R., McGuire, J.K., Russell, S.T. & Toomey, R.B. (2010). School climate for transgender youth: A mixed method investigation of student experiences and school responses.  Journal of Youth Adolescence(39).

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Education 101

Education 101

I have had the pleasure of being able to observe and be a co-facilitator at a couple of educational facilities in the tri-state area. My experience has allowed me to teach sex-ed to a variety of young people from various educational and developmental backgrounds.  The methodology that I used I gained from my experience here at Widener, which has allowed me the opportunity to come in with at least some type of educational strategies from the beginning. One thing that I have noticed is that due to the lack of educational training many educators are not equipped to teach young people any subject let alone sex-ed. 

Due to these deficiencies, the educators are fighting a losing battle.  I have observed some professionals begin a new lesson or topic without even trying to determine the student’s prior knowledge or abilities. Also many teachers ignore the notion of ever trying to make the subject matter interesting or trying to attract the attention of the students.  Even though I know I have a lot more work to do as far as developing my teaching style, one skill I have learned is, preparation. This is a key concept to becoming an effective educator.

When beginning my classes I use discussions as a part of Direct Instruction in the “Warm-Up” or “ausubel” activity as a part of a concrete/shared experience.  This allows students to become engaged in the topic (Eggen & Kauchak, 2006). This concrete/shared experience appeals to the student’s affective (emotional) side to engage them and create a comfortable environment. Also, this gives students a chance for reflection and to establish prerequisite knowledge on the topic. Establishing prerequisite knowledge can serve as a “hook” for new learning as students can link prior knowledge to what they will soon learn (Eggen & Kauchak, 2006).

Also by using direct instruction, both concepts and procedural skills are being taught (Eggen & Kauchak, 2006). For example, concepts such as HIV and STI’s are being explained, and the procedural skill of putting a condom on effectively is being taught. This model is effective in helping to reach the learning goals and objectives because it helps to present the material in clear and logical steps (Eggen & Kauchak, 2006). Additionally, guided practice in the learning activities is useful in attaining the goals and objectives because it allows the students to practice procedural skills such as putting the condom on a woodie with the instructor to learn how to do it properly (Eggen & Kauchak, 2006). Also, modeling as a part of social cognitive theory is used in the condom demonstrations because people have the tendency to mirror behaviors they observe in others (Eggen & Kauchak, 2006).  This facilitates transference of these learned skills in the classroom to their being able to use condoms effectively at home or to teach others how to use one properly (Eggen & Kauchak).

Of course not all of the young people are actively engaged in any educational arena. But at least they were provided with auditory and visual stimuli. So they may have internalized the information in some way and are able to process that information at another time.  I know that I at least attempted to get their attention, listen to what they had to say, give them new information and skills, and allow them to demonstrate their newly learned skills.

REFERENCES: Eggen, P. & Kauchak, D. (2006).  Strategies and Models for Teachers: Teaching Content and Thinking Skills.  Boston, MA:  Pearson Education, Inc.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Culture of Power

                In working with teenagers I am learning about the importance of power. Teenagers often come in and discuss the difficulty with their classmates and teachers. When I ask what is going on with a teacher or in the classroom the teenager often replies that the teacher does not have control of the classroom and that the students walk all over him/her. Hearing these sentiments repeatedly from different people got me thinking about power while being a sexuality educator. In reading Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children: Cultural Competency in the Classroom (1995)  (Other People's children) and The Silenced Dialogue:  Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children (1988) I found these aspects of power from Delpit:
1. “Issues of Power are enacted in classrooms” (Silence Dialogue, 1988, p.281)
2. “There are codes or rules for participating in power; that is, there is a “culture of power” (Silence Dialogue,  1988, p.281)
3. “The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power” (Silence Dialogue, 1988, p.281)
4. “If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier” (Silence Dialogue,  1988, p.281)
5. “Those with power are frequently least aware of- or least willing to acknowledge- its existence. Those with less power are often most aware of its existence” (Silence Dialogue, 1988, p.281)
                These are aspects of power that an educator needs to be aware of while teaching. Number one speaks to being aware that classrooms from text books to curricula contain power. The teacher holds the power to shape students, the power to decide what students learn and ultimately what skills they will have once they graduate and enter the workforce. Being sexuality educators we have to realize that the education we provide is connected to the power we imbue on our students. We teach them about autonomy, advocating, and a myriad of other subjects related to power while teaching sexuality.
                Aspect number two speaks to learning how to operate within the culture power which is not of the culture of people of color.  This means there are codes for language, communication and various ways of expression that have to be observed, learned and even adopted. Now I’m not saying learn the slang words of the students you teach in order to use them if that’s not where your strength or social acceptability lies; but, it is important to know the language, subtle gestures and behavior codes of the classroom in order to communicate effectively and understand how the power is divided in the room.
                The third aspect is about understanding that being successful is based on the rules of the culture of power. Despite the wonderful cultures which people come from, without being able to learn the rules it is impossible to be successful in a world taught and run by those in the culture of power.
                Fourthly, there has to be some sort of transparency garnered when working with various cultures and this comes from communication. As a sexuality educator this is highly important when working with anyone-in this sense, the ones without the sexual knowledge and ‘know-how’- are the people in the culture of power.
I believe the last aspect is clearly stated. In reading these aspects as a sexuality educator it became clear to me that we sexuality educators are not in the culture of power and if we are not aware of the rules of the culture of power, we will not be able to educate the masses. We have to realize the power of the classroom and content that we teach. We also have to acknowledge the rules of the culture in which we are going to teach our sexuality content. This means that if we are going to teach in a corporate office an educator must determine whether or not a fucksaw is the appropriate tool to bring for a lesson on sexual devices.
                Furthermore in teaching within the culture of power we have to be able to communicate how knowing about sexuality creates success- however success is measured. Adults are interested in knowledge that is beneficial to them (Adult Learning Theory) and as educators we have to have a grounded and supported reason about why sexuality knowledge is important for success.
                I know that this sounds like a soap box, and I don’t know that we outside of the culture of power are not aware of these things, but I do believe Delpit’s aspects of power are applicable across cultures. Even though she looked culture through a lens of ethnicity we can be apply these aspects to a lens of sexuality knowledge.  Lastly, as the final aspect states, those in the culture of power are usually least likely to recognize that they have the most power, but I don’t want us who are not in the culture of power to feel powerless because we have knowledge, skills and voice. 

Lexx Brown-James, MFT

Delpit, Lisa. (1988). The Silenced Dialogue:  Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children. The Harvard Review. 58(3).  p. 280

Monday, April 2, 2012

An Educational Experience with Immigrants

Last month, I had the opportunity to provide a training about Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) to staff and community advocates that work with refugees from Iraq, Nepal, and Burma.
When I was asked to do the training, I got excited and concerned at the same time. First, being an immigrant myself, I got very excited with the possibility of working directly with advocates that belonged to immigrant communities. However, after the initial enthusiastic reaction, I started to get nervous and insecure about the presentation.
My main concerns were:
1. Though I am an immigrant, my experience arriving to a country as an international student is probably very different than the experience of a refugee that had no other option than to leaving their war-torn home country to survive.
2. I had no familiarity with the Iraqi, Nepali, and Burmese cultures. All I knew is what the news says about their ethnic diversity, and their historical political struggles.
3. Intimate Partner Violence is always a difficult topic; especially because it is – as any topic related with human sexuality – surrounded by values and morals about dating relationships, family, gender roles, privacy, etc. which are highly influenced by culture. In this particular case, I was questioning myself about the possibility that some of the participants would understand IPV as an acceptable behavior because of their cultural norms.
4. I was asked to provide a three hour training, not to do a comprehensive intervention. In other words, it was out of my scope to use any of the Health Planning Models presented by Perez and Luquis (2008).

These are the steps that I did to take care of my anxiety, and to try to do a presentation as effective as possible:

1. I asked questions. I asked as many questions as possible to the contact person that requested the training: Who really asked for the training? Why? Who will be attending? What were their expectations and goals for the training? Were the participants fluent in English?
2. I did some research to educate myself. Not in the I-need-to-know-everything-about-those-cultures way; but in the What-do-we know-about-IPV-in-immigrant-and-refugee-communities? way. Lucky enough, I found a report from the Family Violence Prevention Fund (2009); and I used the information from the report to enhance the theoretical framework that I usually utilize. You can find the report at:

3. I had to be clear with myself that, while I could be the “expert” in the dynamics of IPV, I definitely was not the expert in how these dynamics could look like or be present in these specific communities and cultures.

The three steps lead me to design a presentation in which I offered a theoretical framework –informed by the report-; and then provided opportunities to participants to come up with their own examples and situations, and different forms in which the information could be helpful for their work.
The feedback from participants was very positive; and some of them stayed a little longer to ask more questions and talk about the topic.
I have to admit I learned from them as much as -or more than- what they could have learned from the training. Among other things, I had the opportunity to meet a woman who did domestic violence advocacy in Nepal; talking to her reinforced my belief that even if IPV is more acceptable in certain cultures, it does not mean that all the members of the culture like to keep it that way.
Overall, and from a selfish perspective, it was just such an inspiring experience to have a room full of people from different countries and cultures talking about how to stop intimate partner violence in their communities.
I hope sharing this experience could be useful for you.