Thursday, May 21, 2009

Teaching Values

I’m writing to respond to CG’s comments on my last post. CG wrote that a major point of contention around sexuality education is the question of values: can we teach values in schools, or do parents have a monopoly on imparting values to young people? If we can’t teach values, which values are and are not acceptable to teach? Who gets to decide? As teachers all over attempt to manage student behavior and establish school culture, they teach values such as respect, obedience and getting work done, and very few people question these teachers’ right to do so. However, sex education is seen as different in that it can be a site for teaching students quite specific values. Indeed, I think part of the amazing power of sex education is its potential for teaching progressive, transformative values. But CG is right – the other disciplines can and should embrace this power as well.

Science classes teach values – in some senses adherence to the scientific method is itself a value, for believe in the Biblical creation story has long been pitted against belief in evolution in a struggle over science curriculum. Science teaches the values of objectivity, inquiry, and integrity. Scientists also like to categorize and theorize, and categories and theories of past scientists have the potential to become common scientific values as teachers pass them on to their students. And in so many scientific studies, one can see how the values of scientists color their interpretation of their findings.

We definitely teach values through the ways in which we explain history and social studies. Racial tensions might be deemphasized by the topic of multiculturalism. On the other hand, the same racial tensions might be explored through a critical view of slavery, segregation and immigration policies. Students can be empowered by learning about abolitionists, the civil rights movement, or feminism. And again the same topics can be used to emphasize nationalism, democracy and capitalism. Biases in the textbook and in teaching methods send value-laden messages that the students will absorb.

If it weren’t for my passion for sexuality and health, I would happily teach English for the very reason that I believe English classes serve as fabulous venues for teaching values. Character, emotions, relationships, conflicts, challenges and other aspects of life can all be explored through careful and appropriate selection of reading material. Through writing, students find value in expressing their feelings, voicing their opinions, and exploring new ideas.

Values matter, by definition. Values are the core of what we hold near and dear. What we don’t carefully select the values we want to teach, we risk teaching students values that can mislead, confuse or injure them as they develop. We must select core values with intention and care, and impart them to our students by all means possible.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sex Ed before Text Ed

The New York Times fashion section ran a very telling feature this weekend on “The Birds and the Bees Text Line,” a North Carolina public health program. As cool as all this texting might seem, teenagers would gain a lot more from living in a society full of adults they could discuss these issues with face to face.

According to the article, North Carolina public schools must teach abstinence only sex ed (although the legislature is debating an endorsement of comprehensive sex ed). Meanwhile, as teen pregnancy and STIs remain a problem, the public health officials freak out and are forced outside the schools for answers because all the programs within the schools are doomed to failure by law. I've got to say it again: The state restricts sex education in the public schools, which is arguably the best possible means of educating teenagers, and consequently the state encounters a health crisis and pours money into a much less-than-ideal means of reaching the same teenagers whom the state also spends money on actively not reaching in sex ed class. Why can't they just spend money on providing effective education the first time around -- in class?

One of the teen texters said that before texting the hotline she had asked her question to her health teacher, but was made to “feel ashamed.” What if her health teacher had been empowered to provide comprehensive information, and had been trained to discuss touchy subjects without judgment? What if her health teacher had approached sex education with the same pro-health, pro-teen attitude with which the adult texters treat their anonymous questioners?

What if the government put money into ensuring that every public high school has a staff member who encourages teenagers to ask all their questions in person? Such a staff member could use the process of sex education as a means of developing teenagers and emotional and social understanding of sexuality. Such a staff member could start conversations that allow teenagers to act on the “longing to unburden themselves.” Such a staff member could build long-lasting relationships with teenagers who need more loving adults in their lives.

The staff members of the text-education line offer important support to the teenagers of North Carolina. However, the support they offer should be available face-to-face in the public schools. Teenagers deserve adults in their schools who help them ask anything they want to without feeling shame. Teenagers deserve adults who provide them with positive feedback, accurate information and helpful referrals in person.

I do think it would be really cool to continue exploring how technology can help us promote sexual health, but we can't do this without teenagers and adults engaging conversation, in person and explicit, at times challenging and at times awkward, but always caring, truthful and attentive to the teenagers’ spoken and unspoken needs. They may ask a lot over text, but they will never ask enough in those short lines. We need to be there in person to help them understand what they cannot yet put into words.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Please comment on my blog!

I'd like to take a step back and explain why I'm blogging in the first place.
* I love talking about sex ed, and I'm excited for any venue that helps me do so.
* I find it helpful to have an outlet for my own weekly opinions and reflections.
* I want to tell you what I'm thinking about! Well, I'd actually rather have a conversation with each of you face-to-face, but blogging at least seems like a good way to start a conversation.

Those are three things that I get from blogging -- but I want things from you, too.

***I want you to comment! Is this too much to ask? I've been patient for the past two months, not pushing any of you. But I'm asking all of you, publicly, right now.

Please comment on my blog. I want to share my ideas and opinions -- but more than that, I want to read your ideas and opinions. If you want to share something privately, you can e-mail me.

Your comments can describe whatever thoughts or feelings you have while reading the posts, or other ideas you have on the topic. Sorry, now I feel like I'm giving you a prompt for a writing assignment. Ah, teaching. But really, I didn't intend for this to be such a one-way thing. I think there is much more transformational potential in processes of interaction.

I'm really enjoying the process of gathering my thoughts and expressing them, but I'd love even more to involve some interaction in this process. What do you want to read about? What kinds of things don't you want to read?

Okay, there is my shameless plea.

Once a term I send out a worksheet asking my students and their families for feedback. Every day I'm paying attention to the more subtle ways in which my students react to my tone of voice, my lesson plans, and my assignments. Maybe I'm just not used to discussing sex education without constant feedback and judgment. What do you think?