1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

My Past

I have been interested in health education since I began tenth grade. I spent the next three years of high school volunteering with my school’s chapter of Mentors in Violence Prevention. As a Mentor, I taught 8th graders to think critically about gender stereotypes and take an active role in preventing gender violence. From those early lessons, I realized how health education can bring to the surface conversations about the most vital and pressing issues in students’ daily lives.

In college, I volunteered as a health educator in the New York City public schools through Peer Health Exchange. I saw the transformation of ninth graders as they received basic health education. When our program started, they lacked basic information about how to care for themselves and their relationships. As they enthusiastically engaged with the lessons we taught, however, they reported change in their attitudes and their behavior. Students expressed the results of feeling empowered, whether through a vow to stop the cycle of teen pregnancy in their families or through more daily decisions to stop drinking soda.

Meanwhile, in my health education work on campus at Columbia University, I saw what happened to otherwise bright and aware people who had not received comprehensive health education as child or teenager. I worked with college students getting tested for HIV, often anxious and ashamed but unaware of the specifics of HIV transmission. In teaching incoming freshman about consent and sexual assault prevention, I encountered a plethora of young adults who could not talk about their bodies, neither with friends nor with partners. As a result, they suffered from heartbreak, violence and disease.

Health education is a basic tool to protect youth from a plethora of epidemics spanning obesity, sexual violence and HIV. But health education is also much more than that– it is a path through which to develop healthier, happier students and learning communities. As I taught health education full-time these past two years, my students developed basic social and emotional skills that immediately began to help them manage their emotions, relate positively to each other, and engage with their schoolwork. They brought to class many current, pressing issues in their lives, whether related to conflicts with friends, changes in their bodies, or concerns about their schoolwork and stress levels. In these ways, I saw the health education is a crucial part of helping a school become a positive and productive learning community.

When a health learning community thrives, it has the power to transform much more than just itself. Through our discussions in health class, my students became inspired to take a stand on issues, express themselves, and spearhead community service projects. For these reasons and others, my experience engaging in and reflecting on health education for nine years and has inspired me to pursue this path for many, many more.

4. Body, Movement, & Dance

Weighing in on the Weight Debate

Pediatricians discuss in New York Times this week how best to address weight with their patients. I’ve heard health and physical education staff debate without resolution how to communicate with students and parents about BMI measurements. Who knows how to do this effectively, supporting students’ health and well-being without spawning lifelong obsessions and insecurities? In her memoir Moose, Stephanie Klein recalls her childhood experience seeing weight management specialists and attending fat camps. She also poignantly illustrates how the cycle of weight loss and gain continued through college and adulthood to hurt her self-esteem, her relationships, and her family.


I believe that the values of transformative sex ed can inform how we address weight with children. I also believe that we have a lot of work to do before we can meet this challenge head-on. Furthermore, we will best cope with this epidemic of disordered eating if we can in turn allow our dealing with it to transform our thinking about bodies and relationships.


Teenagers must access positive feelings about their body in order to achieve a strong sense of sexual health and agency. As long as teens face an onslaught of messages criticizing their bodies and making them feel physically bad or unworthy, they will lack a basic motivation for taking care of their bodies and for choosing respect and safety over degradation in danger.

Distorted body image also grossly distorts the ways in which we relate to each other. Klein details how body hatred so painfully alienated her from her romantic partners. We need a new way of thinking about bodies that can serve as a basis for stronger, healthier, and safer relationships.

I don’t have the answers on this one, but searching for answers is essential. Any ideas?

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships

The Sex Ed Bookclub Reads Twilight

Alas, I never actually hosted a Sex Ed bookclub, but I would like to discuss the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. I read these novels because so many of my students absolutely love them. The story both thrilled and appalled me, and here is a little bit about why.

Brief summary: Edward, a century-old teenage vampire, falls in love with Bella, a local human high school student. The smell of her blood draws him in, and his urge to drink her blood is drastically opposed to his urge to protect her mortal life. This focus on Edward’s control over Bella’s mortality, his literal ability (demonstrated many times over) to save her life or take it, drives much of the tension in the series.

Edward positions himself as Bella’s protector. Now, I’ve heard many people complain about Bella for being so vulnerable, dependent, and ready to give in. But how can his seductive (manipulative?) words and actions be her fault? We can’t blame Bella.

Bella recognizes the power imbalance in her relationship with Edward and speaks out against it. She repeatedly points out to Edward that he should not be the only one in the relationship who has power. She doesn’t want a relationship based on his constantly saving her from various dangers. But although she sees this problem, she does not know what to do about it.

Bella does not know how to develop a healthy relationship between a vampire and a human. She does not have the language or the skills to articulate what kind of relationship dynamic she wants and how she can get that. She does not even know why balancing the power between them feels important to her.

What does she do? She blames herself. She thinks, “Well, if I’m the weak one, then something is clearly wrong with me, so I should change.” She starts begging Edward to make her into a vampire. (He has the power to do this — he controls her very humanity, remember?) As a vampire, she dreams, she can be as powerful as he is, and their power imbalance can be righted.

Bella blames herself, but we know better. We have to show her that it’s not her fault. Even if he has more raw power than she does, even if he is stronger and wealthier and more attractive, it is his responsibility to renounce that power if he wants a healthy relationship with her. He must control himself to keep himself from controlling her, and he must make room for her agency. He needs to work to ensure that they are both equal partners, sharing decisions, communicating openly, and both giving support to the other and receiving support themselves. If Edward can not manage his power so that Bella can achieve equal partnership, then he should not be dating her.

When one partner in a dating relationship attempts to use their power to control the other partner, it’s called abuse. Why in this case is it called romance? Furthermore, how does presenting such a power imbalance as the ultimate in love and romance affect the children and teenagers who cherish these books? We need to help our children understand that it’s not Bella who needs to change what she’s doing and how she’s living, it’s Edward.

5. Connection/ Community, 6. Youth Development & Education

We are all potential acitvists

Dear students,

Remember that you are the ones with the most information about what’s going on in your lives and what you need. If you need better health education, speak up and ask for it. You told me that you felt sad and angry that the school committee had cut health class. You told me that you need to learn this health information, that you liked having a space to share your feelings and that you wanted more opportunities to ask your burning questions.

You deserve a health class, but you might need to fight for it. I’m not there to help you, but I do have some suggestions:

1. Start gathering your stories. Why do you need and want health class? Find examples from your experience this past year to show how health class helps you.

2. Work together. Share ideas, and encourage each other. Use the resources you always use to connect with your peers — the Internet, text messages, and gatherings at the mall or the park, for example.

3. Reach out to adults! They are the voters, the taxpayers, the ones with political power who are supposed to have your best interests in mind. Make sure they understand how you feel. Show them how health education gives you what they want for you. Get adults talking with each other, too.

4. Contact the press — the local papers, in print and online, are major venues for debates about public education. Use them to make your voice heard.

5. Convince the school committee. The school committee consists of elected adults from your city. It’s their decision, ultimately. Show them what you want and why you want it, and make them work for you the way they are supposed to.

To my students and to teenagers everywhere: Fight for the information, resources and support that you need in order to take great care of your health.

I believe in you.

With hope,

Ms. Arbeit

6. Youth Development & Education

A Letter to my Students

To my dear students,

I’m not coming back to teach health next year. In fact, you won’t have health class next year the way you have it this year. Your city government decided they can’t give the schools the money needed to keep everything like it is now. Faced with the need to make cuts, the school committee decided not to have health teachers in the schools anymore. Instead, physical education teachers will teach about health in gym class. I’m not quite sure what that will be like or what they will teach.

I really wish that you could still have health class next year. I’m worried that you won’t get the health education you deserve; I’m scared that without this education you won’t have the knowledge, skills and attitude that you need to take care of yourself. I’m angry at the school committee for taking away health class because I believe in the value of learning about and talking about our health. I’m frustrated that not many members of our community are fighting for your right to in-depth health education. I’m also very sad that I won’t personally get to teach you next year — I’ll miss you!

How can I inspire you to continue educating yourselves about health? Who will you go to with your questions? How will you figure out the difference between the myths and truths you come across? What will you do when puberty becomes overwhelming, confusing and frightening? What will you think and feel as you come face to face with desire, pressure and risk?

I want you to understand that health isn’t something that you have, it’s something that you do. Living a healthful life is a constant process that you are just beginning. You will continue that process in physical education next year, and you must also continue on your own, both during and after middle school. I hope that you keep practicing all the amazing healthy behaviors you have impressed me with this year. Remember my goals for you: (1) love and respect your body; (2) express your emotions; and (3) build relationships based on open and honest communication.

If you start to feel that all this is too much or too hard, you’re not alone. The process of living a healthful life does not start and end with you in isolation — in order for us all to be truly healthy, we need to make some changes in our society. Your awareness and acceptance of your own needs, your hunger for accurate information, and your courage to ask questions will help you figure out what changes you need. Then, make yourselves heard. Make demands. In order for us all to be the healthiest and happiest people we can possibly be, we need a lot of change. We need you to make that change.

Love always,
Ms. Arbeit

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

I should not teach gym, so why should they teach sex ed?

Sexuality education has a long history of being put into other classes, specifically science and physical education. While I strongly support integrating a discussion of sexuality, sexual development and sexual health into many areas of the curriculum, I also believe that adolescents need a specific safe and supportive class in which to learn, think, and ask questions about this sensitive topic.

Does it matter what teachers’ backgrounds are once they’ve taken on the task of teaching sex ed? Technically, their particular degree might not matter as much as their knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subject matter. I offer my support and commendation to any teachers excited to bring discussion of sexuality into their classrooms. But I get a very different image from friends’ stories from about hesitant, awkward and grossed out teachers who just had to do the sex ed unit.

Not only the teaching style but also the curriculum changes depending on where the school puts sex ed. The aspects of the sexuality that are emphasized depend on the context in which the material is presented. While science classes might focus specifically on the reproductive system, a physical education class might stress how to take care of a growing body. Furthermore, students will expect the lessons to take on these tones and may not even think to ask questions about the social and emotional aspects of their sexual development.

How will students feel when they’re told that today’s gym lesson has been canceled due to the sex ed requirement? What attitude will they take toward sex ed and sexual health? What will they perceive about the value of sex ed and its importance in their lives? What will they do when they have questions or need help?

I chose this topic because I’ve been told to expect official notice that the school district I currently work in will not need me next year. Instead of hiring teachers specifically to teach health, they will instead require physical education teachers to cover my topic. While upset, I’m not that worried about myself and my career. But what will become of my students?

6. Youth Development & Education

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.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

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.

5. Connection/ Community

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?

5. Connection/ Community, 6. Youth Development & Education


I want my students to grow up valuing community. I want them to identify as members of a community, and I want them to experience the power of community as a site for developing love, health and activism. Understanding ourselves as in community with each other can profoundly affect the way we function in our professional, personal and sexual lives. However, before I can use the concept of community as an educational tool, I want to understand how this value manifests in my own life.

These days, I think a lot about what it means to be growing up. The gendered aspects of growing up are the first to pop out at me, but that’s another blog post. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of friends talking about wanting to achieve something they call independence. What is this independence of which you speak, and what makes it so cool? I seem to remember talk of such a thing back in high school, when I wanted to start buying my own clothes and driving myself around. But these days, I will only go clothes shopping with my mom, and if I can’t get a ride with friends then I just take public transit.

I enjoy these acts of dependence. The concept of dependence has been pathologized — if I wrote here that I feel dependent on a my mom, my friends, or my dating partner, many readers might judge that as unhealthy. But I do not desire independence. I am deeply connected to the people in my life, and they affect me emotionally, physically, professionally, and financially. I’m sensitive to the ebb and flow of these relationships, and I feel powerfully my potential to receive both pain and pleasure from my interactions with these people.

Wait… I started this argument with the concept of community, and now I’m at the concept of dependence. Let’s get back to community.

Just as I do not experience myself as an individual striving for independence, so too do I recognize that healthy relationships involve more than two people. All of my relationships have developed, healthy or not, in the context of a community. And just as I grow from embracing my dependence on my relationships, I believe that my relationships can grow from our mutual embracing of our dependence on community. For relationships to be healthy, the community that supports them must seek health as well . . .