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Seven Key Considerations When Schools Teach Sex Education

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

“Teaching Sex Education: 7 Key Questions” by Kim Marshall in Phi Delta Kappan, October 2018 (Vol. 100, #2),
In this article in Phi Delta Kappan, Kim Marshall argues that school-based sex education is an urgent priority. Why? Because tweens’ and teens’ brains are continuously bombarded with sexual stimuli:
- Their own hormonally driven desires;
- Provocative content in movies, TV shows, and advertisements;
- Readily available Internet pornography, serving as “sex education” for many;
- Social media rife with flirtation and sexting;
- Pressure for casual sex as part of the (much-exaggerated) “hookup culture;”
- Peers confidently spouting misinformation;
- Sexual harassment of up to 84% of girls and young women;
- Sexual abuse experienced by significant numbers of boys and girls.
Surprisingly, more than three quarters of U.S. parents are comfortable having schools guide their children through this wilderness. “But if educators are going to be the ones teaching sex ed,” says Marshall, “they need to get it right, and their track record is not encouraging. Teacher training and support are uneven, few schools go beyond the basics, and there’s timidity on the very subjects young people need to think through carefully.”
Drawing on his 25 years teaching sex education to fifth and sixth graders, Marshall argues that the key to an effective program is making good decisions in seven areas:
• The best age – Sex ed is often launched in fifth grade, but Marshall wonders if that’s a little too young: more parents opt their children out at this age, and parts of the curriculum may be confusing to the students who do take part. An alternative approach is phasing in the content grade by grade, starting in kindergarten. The problem here is that it’s difficult to get high-quality teaching and coordinate the content across so many grade levels. Marshall suggests that sex ed should be concentrated at three strategic points: a sexual abuse prevention module in second or third grade; a comprehensive course in sixth grade; and a follow-up course focusing on adolescent decisions in ninth grade.
• Purpose and content – Following the backwards-planning model developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Marshall built his own course around the following Big Ideas:
1. Sex is normal. The sex drive is a deep, powerful instinct that is at the core of our survival as a species. Sexual desire is a healthy drive, and having a satisfying sex life (quite apart from procreation) is an important part of adult happiness and self-esteem.
2. Sex can harm people. Despite its positive side, sex is sometimes one-sided, exploitative, hurtful, traumatizing, even life-threatening. A significant number of people have had bad experiences with sex, including harassment, abuse, and rape, all of which can leave lifelong scars. In addition, sexually-transmitted diseases can mess up people’s bodies and even be fatal.
3. Many people have difficulty talking about sex. The subject is personal and private, and a person may be dealing with negative past experiences, embarrassment, misconceptions, and shame. Euphemisms, slang, and jokes are common when people feel awkward about a subject.
4. The teen years are tricky. Twenty-first-century Americans reach puberty almost ten years before society considers it acceptable to have sexual intercourse. Teenagers have strong sexual urges and are bombarded with cultural messages (Just do it!). Dealing with sexual desire and pressure to have sex is a central task of adolescence.
5. Early sex is risky. One characteristic of adolescence is a feeling of invulnerability, which results in many teens becoming sexually active without thinking through the physical and psychological consequences. Getting pregnant or contracting a sexually-transmitted infection can negatively affect life options. Alcohol can cloud judgment and create dangerous situations.
6. Values matter. Strong moral beliefs (and common sense) are helpful as teens navigate these turbulent waters. Some areas are controversial (including premarital sex and abortion), but there’s almost universal agreement on these values: Sexual exploitation of children (or anyone) is wrong. Sex should never be non-consensual. Open communication is good and sexual dishonesty is bad. Sex is best in a loving, stable relationship. Marriage is a strong institution in which to raise children. Knowledge is powerful and ignorance is dangerous.
7. Assertiveness is an important life skill. Many teenagers will face situations in which they are tempted, pressured, manipulated, or forced to have sex that is harmful to them and their partners. Knowing how to avoid and/or deal with such situations is crucial.
Big Ideas like these should drive the content of a comprehensive sex ed course and help identify likely misconceptions. Marshall’s course for fifth and sixth graders had twelve one-hour lessons (a ninth-grade course would have somewhat different content):
- Lesson 1: Curriculum overview, Essential Questions, ground rules, and pre-test
- Lesson 2: Male puberty – physical and emotional changes
- Lesson 3: Female puberty – physical and emotional changes
- Lesson 4: Male-female similarities and differences; the issue of masturbation
- Lesson 5: Sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and childbirth
- Lesson 6: Sex at its best – falling in love, the nature of true love, marriage
- Lesson 7: LGBTQ and transsexuality – facts, attitudes, and myths
- Lesson 8: Birth control and abortion
- Lesson 9: Sexually transmitted infections
- Lesson 10: Sex without love – harassment, sexual abuse, and rape
- Lesson 11: Being assertive – dealing with pressures and deciding on values
- Lesson 12: Wrap-up, post-test, and an application challenge
Two important goals – becoming comfortable talking about sex and applying knowledge and skills in real-life situations – need to be integrated throughout any curriculum.
• Pedagogy – Choosing the right teachers is a crucial first step, says Marshall. Ideally, sex ed is co-taught by a male-female team, but that’s not always possible. Whoever ends up teaching should meet these criteria:
- Mature, authentic, and able to talk unblushingly about sex, but never sharing personal information;
- Committed to teaching students correct vocabulary and weaning them from profanity;
- A sense of humor but not allowing inappropriate humor;
- Good classroom management skills, including not overreacting to student giggling and quick to shut down teasing and ridicule;
- Confident and authoritative, but willing to admit gaps in knowledge;
- Committed to implementing the curriculum and not using unauthorized materials or speakers;
- Preparing thoroughly for each lesson and nimbly responding to unexpected questions;
- Encouraging student participation but stopping students from oversharing.
Marshall believes that sex ed calls for a more teacher-centered approach than teachers might use in other subjects. “That’s because the potential for teasing and inappropriate comments is very high when young people are exposed to sexual content in less-structured formats like turn-and-talk and open-ended discussions,” he says. PowerPoint slides with everyone looking together at well-structured print material and illustrations on a screen take the focus away from the teacher, and slides can serve as cue cards to prevent having to look down at notes.
It’s also good pedagogy to pose a set of Essential Questions (mirroring the Big Ideas) at the beginning of the course, referring to them throughout, and aiming to have all students be able to answer them at the end. These were the Essential Questions for Marshall’s course:
- Why was sex invented?
- How can sex, which is supposed to be wonderful, hurt people?
- Why are there so many swear words, jokes, and lies about sex?
- How can kids deal with having sexual urges way before they’re supposed to have sex?
- When is it okay for a person to have sex with another person?
- What’s love got to do with it?
- With sex, what’s normal and what’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong?
- Are bad sexual experiences inevitable and irreparable?
Marshall also suggests starting each lesson by reading aloud three or four newspaper advice column questions on the topic of the day (e.g., male puberty), and five minutes before the end of class, calling for volunteers to answer the questions. This gives students practice using the correct vocabulary and giving advice in a semi-authentic context, and reviews the key content of the lesson. Finally, it’s helpful for students to get a one-page summary of each lesson’s content to put into a folder that they will take home at the conclusion of the course.
• Assessment – Marshall recommends using a detailed pre- and post-test to bookend the course, and gives the following rationale for reading the pre-test aloud as students write their answers:
- The test is a shared rather than an individual experience;
- It supports students who are unfamiliar with the vocabulary or read at a lower level.
- It helps desensitize students to sex vocabulary that initially makes them uncomfortable.
- It gives students a road map to the curriculum and piques their curiosity.
- It gives a heads-up on some important misconceptions.
- It brings overconfident students down a notch; they realize they have a lot to learn.
- The teacher can reassure students that it’s okay not to know all this now (many adults don’t) and invite them to set a learning goal for the post-test.
- It provides data for an item analysis of students’ knowledge, targeting weak areas and making possible a before-and-after comparison.
During lessons, it’s essential to check for understanding, but cold-calling is not a good idea in sex ed classes. Anonymous response devices of some kind are the best way to display students’ answers and respond in real time to errors and misconceptions.
At the end of the course, Marshall suggests supplementing the post-test with a written application task. His scenario: Your 14-year-old cousin in another city says she’s in love with a 17-year-old boy and believes they are ready to have sex. What advice would you give her? “This task measures whether students can apply what they’ve learned in an all-too-realistic situation,” says Marshall, “understanding the emotions of the kids involved and thinking about how to present key information in a persuasive way.”
• Parent information – Mothers and fathers may not be doing a terrific job teaching their children about sex, but they are their children’s first and most important educators, especially when it comes to values and behavioral expectations. Parents need to know in advance what’s being taught, feel confident about the teacher, and be able to opt out with no stigma. Marshall suggests that schools send home a hard-copy information letter and consent form after the sex ed teacher holds a brief general information session with students.
• Ground rules – Students need to know up front that sex ed is different from math and science. Some suggested rules to review on Day One and post during every class:
- No teasing, put-downs, or harassment;
- No cold-calling by the teacher;
- There’s no such thing as a stupid question, but personal questions are not allowed;
- Only ask questions on the topic of the day;
- Respect different opinions;
- Outside the class, discuss sex only at appropriate times and places.
On the cold-calling rule, students should feel they can be silent throughout the course – although in practice, most students become increasingly comfortable with the vocabulary and ideas, and often end up raising their hands and participating.
• Coeducation – Some schools teach gender-separated classes on the theory that students (especially girls) will feel more comfortable with the opposite sex not present. Marshall disagrees. Students tend to be leery of co-ed classes before a course begins, but once they see that the teacher is comfortable and will not tolerate teasing and harassment, most kids prefer learning together. The strongest argument for co-ed classes is that the real world is gender-integrated and students need practice communicating across the divide. “If kids are flustered and tongue-tied talking about sex,” says Marshall, “they’re more likely to make poorly informed choices later on.” Another problem with single-sex classes: where do teachers place students who identify as nonbinary?
A high-quality sex education course is a “tremendously important contribution to young adolescents’ development,” Marshall concludes. “It will help them sort out the confusing messages they get from peers, social media, TV, movies, and the Internet; talk comfortably and knowledgeably about sex with family members, friends, and lovers; and greatly improve the chances of making it through the teen years without disturbing or traumatizing sexual experiences. Good sex education might even help them lead happy sex lives as adults. These are worthy goals!”

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