Family Life & Human Development. What we once called Sex Ed.

The past few days, our 5th grader and his classmates have embarked on the district’s Family Life and Human Development unit – what we once called Sex Ed – and it’s provided for rich conversation on the car ride home from school as well as ’round the dinner table. I have been impressed with how this unit has proceeded, particularly as I remember what happened during my 6th grade year at Alice Peck Elementary School, when they divided the boys from the girls and had each group watch film strips in a darkened auditorium. I do not remember our teacher leading any sort of conversation about what we watched that day. We simply burst out onto the playground for recess right after our time in the auditorium, no doubt for our own lurid and incredibly misinformed conversations.

I think this unit has been successful for several different reasons – at least from what I can discern from afar. First, it comes near the year’s end, and there has developed in both 5th grade classrooms a tangible camaraderie among the kids and teachers, a deep trust in each other. It is safe to talk and ask questions in both classes, from what kids and parents tell me.

Wait, let me add a word to what I wrote above: There has been developed a tangible camaraderie, a deep trust, thanks to very thoughtful, very open, very trusting teachers. In some ways their work all this year has led to this unit, as the kids are simply responding to this new subject matter as they’ve been taught to respond to other subject matter – with respect, with curiosity, with honesty. I like how a good friend and 5th grade parent put it: “From my point of view, the best part [of this unit] is that my kid is unaware that these sessions are somehow separate from the rest of the curriculum. It’s just more of the same: classroom learning of information that she can integrate into the rest of her knowledge about animals and natural forces that are occurring around us all the time.”

So, again – what’s made this unit succeed? A good time of the year for it. Thoughtful teachers and kids that’ve become equally thoughtful, thanks to the teachers. I also think – again, just from what I hear from my kid, since I’ve not sat in on classes – that instruction has been thoughtful too, with lots of discussion, a video (shades of my film strip!), and questions on exit tickets that get answered right at the end of class. Another friend and parent wrote that “the strategy of asking students to write down their feelings and questions anonymously on an index card is a good one,” and I learned that several students (including our son) have put their names on their questions, again unafraid to share their misunderstanding or curiosity with the whole class. As another friend and parent said, “I asked my daughter if she felt OK about asking questions (what with the potential for nervous giggling and teasing), and she said, ‘Sure, why wouldn’t I?'”

Lastly, there’s been great communication from our son’s teacher, and I will assume from the other teacher to her parents, with weekly updates. For example, here’s the start to this week’s email to parents: “Hope you’re all well. We’ve completed three of our four days of Family Life instruction as of today. We covered the emotional changes that come with puberty and adolescence during the first two days, and started talking about the physical changes today. Today we learned the physical changes that boys go through, and tomorrow, we will learn the physical changes that girls go through.”

I’ll end with an obvious and perhaps unintended impact that this unit might have on families. One parent wrote that this “unit has opened dialogue between me and my son about the changes he can expect, which I think will serve us well when he enters puberty, because he knows he can be open and share his feelings and experiences.” I doubt, when the district developed the unit and trained teachers to deliver it, that they imagined it would serve as a jumping off point for kids and their folks, to give them the chance for more discussion about an important and not-often-discussed-enough topic. But then that’s how school should be, right? As a jumping off point for kids and their parents to discuss obtuse and acute angles, Romeo and Juliet, a tracking shot in a film, cool words like pugnacious and miasma, the Syrian conflict, and the human reproductive system, puberty, and all the other topics covered in Family Life and Human Development, which is outlined here. That makes me happy: School. Home. It’s all one and the same.

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