Of all the subjects to share around the dinner table, or family desktop in the living room, sex education might make both students and parents squirm. However, with a little planning and sensitivity, this important topic can be handled and handled well, even in today’s world of learn-from-home.
“Let parents know their kids will need privacy, and urge students to wear headsets,” says Phyllis Fagell, LCPC, school counselor, psychotherapist, and author of Middle School Matters. “Even with these caveats, I've found that students are more guarded than they were pre-Covid. To ease their discomfort, use a Google doc so kids can pose questions anonymously. Offer the answers at the end of each class (or let them know you're looking into the answers if you don't know the answer on the spot). If you teach more than one section or grade, share the concerns that students in other classes have raised. This can embolden them if they're inhibited, too.”
We chat with middle and high school health and sex education teachers about best practices and strategies for teaching the subject remotely.
Matt Dupuis, Middle School Health Educator at Mercer Island School District, Washington
“Teaching sex ed is definitely a different experience this year. In one sense, students can be more comfortable because they can turn off their camera and listen through their headphones, and they don't have to look at their peers and just take the information in as if there were no one else in the room. I always save the sex ed section for the end of the course because by that time I am at peak rapport, I'm as connected as I'm going to be. This is going to be my best understanding of them individually, to make it as comfortable as possible.”
Out-of-the-Box Programs. “Every class is going to be different, they take on their own personality. Remotely, this is very apparent. I have two classes, same age group--one has a few very vocal students who were willing to talk and participate early on and that brought the rest of the students' voices out. The other class, I didn't have that and it can be really difficult to get anyone to say anything. I can't get a peep out of them. So now I will start off with a yoga routine, a visit to a virtual zoo, something to loosen them up and get them engaged. This weekend I came up with a new game, "What the Heck is This?" I just found random objects around my house and held them up to the camera and had them guess what it might be. An Amish nutcracker, a block of beeswax--I hold it up and suddenly kids I have never heard from are yelling out, "It's a piece of cheese!" At least I know they are able to turn their speaker on.”
Tech Helpers. “Most parents have their own things going on, so I haven't had any jump in mid-lesson (as a few teachers I know have). I have had parents message me asking why their kids are wandering around the house doing other things during school time, because their child simply turned off his camera and checked out telling them there was no work. This is when the Schoology page I use to organize all of my lessons and student work is great, because I can send parents there to see exactly what we are doing in the class and what their child has or has not participated in.”
Challenges and Solutions. “Our class time is cut in half. We had to make decisions and cut entire chunks of material. Fortunately, one non-negotiable is sex ed. It's part of my contract and fairly scripted as a state requirement. It’s not ideal, but I know kids are hearing me and I know they are learning since much of the participation is now done through trackable online worksheets. Some students who struggled in the classroom are thriving now. One student told me it was because she doesn't have the distractions of other students in the classroom, she can get the lesson and just work through it.”
Unexpected Perks. “As a teacher, I have embraced some tech I never would have touched or looked at. Now I learned how to use it and it will be another tool in my toolbox to add to my lessons when we return to the classroom.”
Drew Miller, Ninth Grade Faculty of Health Education at Bard High School Early College Manhattan, New York
“The thing I've loved and will help my program in the future is Google Classroom. I didn't start using it until lockdown. There's no way we can get through everything that's important, but we can teach them how to access valid and reliable information and post a lot of resources there that we wouldn't have time to cover. We have the class archived, so they can carry all of these resources we have gathered with them through high school. This may seem like, ‘I don't need this right now,’ but they may in the future so we tell them to hang on to this material. This has turned out to be a huge positive for the ongoing health and well being of the students.”
Admin and Parent Buy-In. “I teach in NYC so I am spoiled in having a lot of freedom with my curriculum and support from parents. For instance, in thinking what's important to talk about with kids suddenly on the screen all the time now, my co-teacher Rachael Gibson and I developed a pornography lesson plan—discussing how what's depicted is not necessarily real life. You get the kids who are shocked, but you also know that data shows the majority have been exposed in some form.”
Student-Centered Approach. “The biggest element for student success is the teacher's comfort with it. They have to know their stuff and if they don't know something, they have to be comfortable saying, ‘Let's talk about this and figure it out,’ or ‘Let me come back to you.’ This can model the importance of accessing resources for students and that it’s okay to reach out for help or information.”
- Take care with your expression. “We spend a lot of time teaching inclusive language: not assuming gender or sexual preference, using non-gendered references, such as ‘you all’ instead of ‘you guys.’”
- Understand a need for privacy. “I preface at the beginning of the unit, ‘Camera on if you can—if not, message us and let us know and we'll make it work.’ The Zoom chatbox is a life saver on that. I can call on someone and they can type their response instead of opening their mouth.’
- Avoid direct instruction as much as you can. “Give students a choice of activities and readings or breakout rooms (if allowed). Let them talk about it and digest together -- they learn a lot from one another, even if they are reading your Powerpoint or text together. Give them that organized time away from you to absorb.
Unique Tech Programs. “I have them pick a sex ed topic they are passionate about and make a ‘piece.’ This could be a video or infomercial, a song, rap, or poem -- they use cameras, audio equipment, FlipGrid, make TikToks and podcasts. It lets them express their mastery of the material through tech.”
Pro Tips. “The tech side was a challenge for me. I did my graduate degree in Sex Ed, but the tech took time to learn. If you can, join Twitter. There's a really solid health ed/sex ed community who post feedback, video links, and lesson ideas. I think Twitter has been a godsend—sharing ideas, registering for conferences, ideas of how best to use the tech. The answer and support can always be found. When we are back to face-to-face classes, I will continue posting their work and lessons to the Google Classroom and be a little more paper-free.”
Challenges and Solutions. “In class I always do a condom demo, so they can feel how it works for themselves and be prepared. Somehow despite doing this all the time in the classroom, it felt a little strange to be making that video myself, so I relied on one of the great videos through Amaze.org. They cover health topics so well, menstruation, gender, sexuality—teaching students how to access this information and what makes a quality source is an important skill we teach. Kids can then request condoms through the Condom Availability Program (CAP) of the NYC DOE and follow along with the video. CAP has set up ways for students to obtain condoms through the mail privately without parental involvement, so they are really trying to keep the kids as healthy, sexually, as possible.