Yesterday was the first day of classes! I am taking a seminar in resilience, which opened with ten minutes of free writing about what we think the concept of resilience entails. I love free writing as an educational technique, so I was thrilled. I also found it quite useful to take the time to frame my interest in resilience in terms of my mission of promoting positive adolescent sexual development:
Resilience is the process of getting through difficulty with continued strength and positive development. I think of resilience as a dynamic aspect of person and context that helps to foster positive development even through negative occurrences such as violence, trauma, illness, oppression, or other normal and abnormal challenges.
I believe resilience to be an important concept in the study of adolescent sexual development because adolescents must demonstrate resilient functioning in order to resist negative stereotypes and achieve personal agency within our sexist and sex negative culture. What characteristics of individual adolescents and of the contexts in which they live will contribute to their resilience and thus to their positive sexual development? How does resilience manifest in girls, boys, and transgendered youth? What kind of resilience do girls need in order to access positive feelings about their bodies and their sexuality?
We can ask questions such as the ones above in order to seek different approaches to promoting resilience within the realm of sexual development, and we can ask questions from a different angle. We might find that sex positive educators and activists are already engaged in promoting adolescent resilience in a variety of life contexts. How can sex education and, in particular, sex positive education, contribute to adolescent resilience overall? How can the knowledge, skills, and attitudes taught in a sex positive classroom or youth group help youth demonstrate resilience in a variety of situations in the realm of sexuality as well as in other aspects of their lives?
These two approaches to forming questions about the relationship between adolescent resilience and adolescent sexual development reflect the double meaning I intend in the title of this blog, “Sex Ed Transforms.” Through the reading, thinking and writing that I do in the process of blogging and in my other work on sex ed, I hope to transform the approaches we take to sex ed and our conceptions of what sex ed can entail. In addition, I believe that through reading, thinking, writing, and educating others and ourselves about issues of sexuality and sex education, we can transform our communities, our world, and ourselves. I am looking forward to discovering how the study of resilience can play an important role in both of these processes.
This week I had the honor of attending the 2010 Teen Pregnancy Institute: Expecting Success For Youth And Young Families, hosted by the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. I spent the day learning with other educators, counselors, researchers and advocates invested in improving the sexual health and well-being of teenagers in our state.
When we came together in one space, I really did start to feel like there are a whole lot of us – people who work with teenagers and care about them and have the courage to talk to them about sex. No, not just the courage, it’s more than that. The ganas. The instinct. The drive.
I wish I could take each one of the attendees out to dinner and hear their stories.
My day started in Consuela’s workshop on the importance of giving teenagers access to words, concepts, and images with which to imagine, assess, and ask for healthy relationships. She challenged us to discuss how healthy relationships look similar and different for teenagers than they do for adults. What are the components of a good date? What does a healthy first month of dating look like?
When I learned to play tennis at summer camp, the counselor assured us that she would tell us when she saw us swinging our racket correctly, so we could learn what the correct swing felt like.
Have you ever told a teenager that you thought something was healthy and positive about their dating relationship?
In my second session, I learned about specific ways to teach sexuality through a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) framework from Liz of Planned Parenthood. When her coworker Mindy took over to introduce the parent engagement component of their curriculum, Get Real, I was captivated by the overlap between our fears as sexuality educators and the fears that parents have when their children enter our classes. The tools that Get Real provides for parents are really just conversation starters. A simple question like, “Are there any kids at your school you don’t like?” appears not to be about sexuality in all, but it can clear the way for exploring relevant emotions and communicating core values.
In the afternoon, Kelly from the Cambridge Health Alliance launched a conversation about what a sex-positive national culture might look like, using slides from this Slate article. What would it take for American teens to start hormonal contraception before ever having sex? What would it take for American teens to carry a condom with them on a regular basis? And, how can we get from here to a place where American teens have an open conversation with their parents about what they want to do sexually and who they want to do it with before they actually start having sex.
Can such a world exist?
It can in the Netherlands. (Watch the Slate slideshow. Really.)
To end the day, everyone gathered together to watch The Gloucester 18, a story about teen parents who made national news. I have so much to learn about the lives of pregnant and parenting teens. See this film, then help push back on the stereotypes.
Thank you so much to the Massachusetts Alliance On Teen Pregnancy for putting together this incredible day of learning and community-building. Thank you to each of the presenters for sharing your passions, and to everyone I met or reconnected with for showing up and stepping up.
About a year and a half ago, I began pursuit of a new stage of my career. As I spoke with other sexuality educators and activists, I became acutely aware of the need for research on adolescent sexuality that can inform effective sexuality education programs. I decided to apply to graduate school so that I could do this research.
I am honored to say that I just began a Ph.D. program in Child Development at Tufts University. Throughout my five years as a student at Tufts, I will be working as a research assistant at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, directed by Dr. Richard Lerner.
Dr. Lerner’s work appeals to me because of his strength-based approach to the study of adolescence, known as positive youth development (PYD). As the wording suggests, PYD is to the concept of adolescence what sex-positivity is to sexuality. What is “adolescent negativity,” you might ask? Dr. Lerner cites the stereotyping of adolescence as a period of “storm and stress,” one crisis followed by another, in which all that parents can do is make sure their kids aren’t on drugs or dropping out of school. But that’s not the whole story, nor is it the most healthy and helpful perspective. In fact, adolescents have all sorts of strengths and tons of potential.
Having a positive view on the potential of adolescents to be happy, healthy and productive people is a prerequisite to believing in the benefits of educating adolescents in a sex-positive way.
I plan to use the positive youth development approach for the study of adolescent sexual development, focusing on how school-based curricula and programs can proactively support adolescents in developing sexual agency, sexual ethics, and the social, emotional, and cognitive skills relevant to making healthy decisions and engaging in fulfilling relationships.
I face many challenges in pursuing this research, not the least of which is managing the sex-negativity that impedes even preliminary attempts to gather data from adolescents about their sexual beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. But I’m going to figure it out, and it will be worth it!
Puberty. Menstruation. Breasts. Sweat. Acne. Lack of coordination. Incessant hunger. Expensive sneakers. Pop music. Text messages. Swearing. Fist fighting. Exhausted teachers. School buses. Fear. Boredom. Failing grades.
I have a student who did really well in fifth grade and by half way through sixth, is now failing in both English class and math class. I have another student who falls on the floor, whines, and yells on a daily basis. I have two other students who want to go home early every time they have menstrual cramps. I have three other students who want to open the window even when it’s cold outside because they don’t know what to make of how much they’ve recently begun to sweat around their armpits.
And as I write this, I’m sitting across from a student who started out as one of my best but hasn’t spoken to me all afternoon and refuses to even look at the unsolved math problems on the desk.
My job is to try to ease the transition to middle school, but I’m just one person amidst this whole scene of stress. Last year, when my job was to teach about puberty and friendships and communication, I think I helped to ease some of the confusion. However, I still was not the guidance counselor, and I still was not the English teacher. Now, I’m an afterschool team leader, technically concerned with the whole child and technically only needing to focus on a dozen children — yet even now I know they need much more attention than I can give them.
They need more attention, more explanations, more validations, and much more tutoring. (Come tutor my students!)
Back to the point: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about school restructuring. What would middle school look like if we took what we know about puberty, adolescent emotional development, and peer dynamics and we structured a school with insight into these processes at its center, placing priority on meeting these social-emotional needs? What would middle school look like?
Several people have asked me what I think of the study that found one abstinence-only program to be effective in delaying sex for middle school students. See coverage from the Washington Post, the Salt Lake Tribune, and the New York Times. Here’s my response:
- This study looked at the effectiveness of just one program. It’s not a comprehensive study of what abstinence-only has come to mean in this country, meaning that we must not generalize the findings to abstinence-only education overall.
- The program studied did not follow the definition of abstinence-only under the guidelines for federal funding.:
o They taught students to be abstinent until ready to have sex — not abstinence until marriage. They did not condemn sex outside of marriage.
o They discussed with students the pros and cons of deciding to have sex. This conversation can be useful and powerful — and could not have occurred openly and honestly in federally-funded abstinence-only programs.
o The program was not sex negative and moralistic. Furthermore, they used only medically accurate information about condoms and contraception. Often, abstinence-only programs inaccurately present failure rates in order to discourage condom usage and scare students into feeling there is no such thing as safer sex.
All of these aspects of the program make it particularly hard to believe it in any way representative of what abstinence-only implies in practice.
- What did the control programs teach? The coverage reveals very little about the programs used for comparison. So-called comprehensive sex education can be fantastic — and can also be taught poorly and ineffectively, especially if taught for a study designed to disprove it. From news coverage, it seemed as if the control programs focused on teaching health information, with perhaps very little opportunities for discussion and emotional processing. If so, they do not represent the myriad of comprehensive sex education programs focused on supporting the development of social and emotional skills that can help teenagers stay healthy and safe.
- Let’s take a step back and look at our goals in teaching sex education. The coverage cited growing rates of unwanted pregnancy and STIs among teenagers. Decreasing these rates is a public health priority. However, the results of this study showed that the program did not have any effect on frequency and consistency of condom use. To quote directly from the abstract of the study itself: “Abstinence-only intervention did not affect condom use.” What the coverage calls evidence of success is evidence that the program delayed the onset of sexual activity for a certain percentage of participants. But when these teenagers to start to have sex, they need to know how to use and learn about condoms and contraception. If they don’t, they’re at risk for the very same unwanted pregnancies and STIs that we need to prevent.
I don’t want to discount the specific program studied per se; I do want to temper the myth that we now have scientific evidence in favor of abstinence-only education. We do not. What we might have, however, if we pursue this research further using responsible methods, is a demonstration of the power of training caring adults to facilitate intelligent conversations
My sixth-grade students need more attention. And I don’t just mean they need a better attention span or that they need to pay more attention in general, which are both true. I mean that my students need more adults in their lives who can listen to them, help them, and relate to them.
Here’s the good news: you can help. You can be one of those adults. I’m looking for volunteers to tutor my students for maybe just one hour per week. Mostly they need help in English, but also in math. I started looking for volunteer tutors because their homework and classwork are really hard for them and many of my students might not pass without extra help. However, I believe that tutoring also holds value beyond the academic.
When we get a chance to sit down with teenagers and pre-teens one-on- one, we get to teach them valuable skills about building relationships. A simple conversation about how their day went or how they’re feeling about class allows them to practice expressing themselves. By sharing examples of our own highs and lows, we can model tenacity and healthy coping.
I have seen my students work with tutors a couple times before, and it really makes their day. They’re proud of their accomplishments, they’re a little more calm and a little more comfortable in their own skin. And they’re even more ready to get to work and persevere on their own.
Try it! And spread the word if you know others who might be interested in volunteering. E-mail me at Mimi (dot) Arbeit (at) Gmail (dot) com for more information.
To a former health student, who asked me for advice about boyfriend troubles (by sending me a facebook message):
I wish I could sit with you in the cafeteria and talk about this like we would have been able to last year. I would like to ask you more questions and hear more of your thoughts. I still will — but since that takes a long time when we’re writing back and forth, I’m going to start by giving you some ideas to think about.
1. Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right to you, it probably isn’t. You don’t think it’s a good to fight with your boyfriend so much, or for him to try to make you feel bad, and you’re right.
2. You deserve the best. Imagine what a healthy, supportive, enjoyable relationship would look like. That’s what you deserve. Do you believe you can have that with your current boyfriend? What changes would you need to make in order to get that?
3. It’s not your fault. When relationships get hard, it’s important not to blame yourself for what the other person is doce of emotions, relationships, ing. He is responsible for his own behavior. When he does things that he knows you wouldn’t like, he is making a personal decision, and that’s his fault and not yours.
What do you think of these ideas? Have you thought about them already? How you feel as you read them?
In terms of next steps, I have three very specific suggestions:
1. Get to know your feelings. This sounds like a tricky situation that you’re in, and I bet you are thinking and feeling a lot of different things right now. Writing to me is one good way to sort through your feelings. Keeping a diary is another great idea, or maybe even talking to a close friend. Your feelings are really important.
2. Talk to an adult that you trust. In person. Reaching out to me was a great first step, and you should be really proud of yourself for doing it. I will keep in touch, and I also want you to have an adult that you see in person that you can talk to. Is there a guidance counselor at school that you like, or a teacher or coach? Let me know what you think, and I can help you think of ways to approach that person and to start a conversation.
3. Talk to your boyfriend. This step is the hardest and the most important. But it’s going to be much easier to talk to him if you first take the time to know how you feel, know what you want, and know that you have adults who are helping you and care about you. It will also help to have a plan about when and where you want to have this conversation and how you’re going to start it.
What do you think? I don’t know if you were expecting such a long response from me, but there’s actually a lot more where this came from! I’d also like to keep hearing from you about what’s going on with you and your boyfriend right now. Please write back to me soon! I look forward to hearing from you.
Caring about you,
I have been steeped in grad school applications (and my job), and I’m really sorry I haven’t posted in so long! Here are a few thoughts, really briefly:
I just read a fabulous post on Feministing.com about sexist humor. It really gets to the core of why I protest offhand comments, jokes, and yes, it specifically mentions the ever-sexist Family Guy.
I’m beginning to enjoy the New York Times Style section more and more. I highly recommend a recent article about young adults increasingly popular androgynous clothing styles, and an article from a few weeks ago about high school students dressing in clothes more often attributed to a different gender.
In terms of my own job and my own thoughts… What can we do about sexual harassment on the middle school schoolbus? How can we create systems that support safety and accountability? How can we work to teach past and potential perpetrators new behaviors? How can we help the students who have been targeted and the other students who fear being targeted? This problem is far bigger than individual incidents, and the schools and bus monitors need to treat it as such.
I’ll start writing more frequently, and in more depth, in January. Thank you for your patience! Meanwhile… your responses to my brief ideas would be much loved!
Dear New Students,
I’ll meet you in a few days as your afterschool program leader. My job entails supporting your academic and emotional development. I hope this year that I can teach you to build healthy ways of relating — to express your feelings, to ask for what you need and want, and to listen to others. These skills will serve you academically and socially. In particularly, though, I want you to learn these skills because they can help you achieve sexual health.
Because here’s the deal: I am a sex ed teacher at my core. You are sixth-graders. Therefore, I want to teach you about puberty, reproduction, consent, and HIV prevention. I want to set up a question box and hold small group discussions. I want you to demonstrate mastery of relevant vocabulary and skills while demonstrating an open-minded and positive approach to the care of your own body and relationships. I know sexuality education is important; I know I have the ability to teach it to you.
However, my dear students, I’m not your sex ed teacher. Instead, health is part of your physical education curriculum. I’m here to care for you afterschool and to join you an other powerful and crucial learning adventures.
So what, I just forget my own priorities for a year? No! No, I cannot do that at all. I need a moment to reconfigure, to re-conceive of myself and my rules and to refocus on how I can do this job passionately and fully. Here are some of my initial thoughts about this dilemma:
You need many adults in your lives who advocate for sexual health and express sex-positive values. I’ve already started connecting with your school staff — today I spoke briefly with your nurse and she mentioned other teachers I might turn to as potential allies. My job also entails reaching out to your parents and guardians, and I will present myself as a resource to them. Most of all, I myself will become an important adult in your lives. As a “mainstream” mentor-figure, perhaps I can model discussing sexual health in a manner that helps normalize such conversation. Adults should not confine intentional teaching about sexuality to one unit or one class. Students, you and I together will figure out how to weave what I can teach you and what you want to learn into both structured and spontaneous lessons throughout the year as part of the dynamic we develop together.
Hopeful, curious, and eager to engage,