“GRRR, I hate Steve! I’m having mood swings, morning sickness. This is horrible!” writes Courtney, a pregnant ninth-grader. “Well, Steve is coming over, and thank god he’s bringing lots of hamburgers, yum.” As months go by, she tells her diary about her parents’ abusive reactions to the baby news, her pains, her indecision about adoption. The emotions are raw, the voice girlish. Courtney got 10 out of 10 on the assignment. Leanne Cooke, who teaches human sexuality at Dr. Gordon Higgins Junior High School in Calgary, considers this her most effective exercise: asking students to write journal entries from the point of view of a pregnant teen or her boyfriend. First, she collected real teen-pregnancy stories in an online forum and read them to her class. The kids were spellbound, she says. Afterwards, “even students who normally have difficulty with written assignments were doing their best to tell their story.” Sex education requires a creative, confident teacher to get past the giggles and squirming. Unfortunately, it’s often delivered by rookie teachers with minimal training in the subject, on the assumption that every adult knows the facts of life. “That’s the equivalent of asking me to teach geography just because I live on this earth,” says Stephanie Mitelman, a sex educator in Montreal. “Sex education is not about teaching how to have sex, it’s about teaching health and prevention.” Across the country, sexuality is a required part of the curriculum in schools, usually as part of a larger course on health and life planning. But there’s little consistency. Sex ed may begin in kindergarten or middle school. It may be taught by a dedicated health teacher or an art instructor, in a coed or single-sex classroom. The upshot: No two children learn the same things at the same age. Some parents are aware their kids are practising how to put on condoms using bananas, while others are appalled to discover their teenagers have never heard of gonorrhea.
The consensus among teachers is that starting sex ed early is smart because young kids are comfortable discussing the body. Saleema Noon, a Vancouver sex educator, notes that “by the time they get to grade four or five, children are completely grossed out about anything to do with private parts, relationships and especially S-E-X.” What’s more, it’s crucial to get the information to kids before they even consider becoming sexually active. The media and schoolyards are full of myths, such as the popular canard about Mountain Dew killing sperm. Typically, the sex ed focus with young kids is on basic anatomy, usually taught with the aid of props, such as a pop-up penis. As kids get older, the teaching becomes more structured, with assignments, role-playing exercises and videos. Many teachers rely on anonymous student questions to guide lessons. Cooke, who teaches grades seven to nine, encourages kids to speak up, but they don’t have to. “I know it’s embarrassing to talk about spongy erectile tissue or cervical dilation.” Educators stress that for teenagers, the material has to be vivid. The most effective lessons are visual, interactive and, importantly, sex positive (meaning taking a healthy approach, offering lots of info and not being judgmental about sex). Some schools have had success with “peer educators” — kids in higher grades who, after some training, make presentations to kids in lower grades. Students may tune out red-faced parents or teachers fumbling with diagrams, but will listen to teens who speak their language. While provincial guidelines require schools to cover prevention, pregnancy and STIs (sexually transmitted infections), the mandated “learning outcomes” for students are sufficiently vague that if instructors are uncomfortable with a topic, they can skip it.
Cooke, who minored in health education in university, says she hasn’t met a single sex ed teacher with post-secondary training in the subject. Instructors might take a health course through the teachers’ college before tackling sex ed, but rarely more than that. This lack of depth in the teaching is a dangerous trend, especially since research shows that STIs are on the rise among Canadian youth, while the age of first intercourse is dropping. The Nova Scotia government grew sufficiently alarmed by the statistics that it developed the handbook Sex? A Healthy Sexuality Resource, a widely praised primer handed out to middle school students.
Some schools bring in public health nurses or independent sex educators to tackle particularly tricky subjects. Linda Donaldson, a mother in South Surrey, BC, spearheaded a project through the school council, involving a visit by a sex educator. “I believe someone who is as trained, fluent and comfortable in the subject as a dedicated sex educator does a much better job getting the message across [than an untrained teacher],” she says. It cost the school $650 for a 1½-hour parent information session and a day of classes for grades K to seven. “She was awesome with the kids,” says Donaldson. “Everyone thought it was money well spent, including the teachers.”
For parents worried about their kids being exposed to lurid topics, Noon points out that the most common questions she gets are about methods and reliability of contraception, and about what’s normal — as in breast or penis size. However, to keep parents in the loop, most schools send out notices of an upcoming sex ed class, giving them the option of taking their child out.
Parents and teachers report that most families are glad their children learn about sex in school. Often, parents who get upset do so not because the information is excessive, but inadequate, and cite a range of concerns. One mother worried that her daughter, an “early developer,” might get teased. Another parent believes public schools don’t devote sufficient time to values and choices in teaching sexuality: “Kids need all components of information, not just the science, because they should never make a decision about sex solely on science.”