MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Sex education - the mention of it calls up images of giggling teenagers and unfortunate visual aids. But the classroom lessons can be an important part of what young people understand about their bodies and can inform their decisions. Today, our 50 Great Teachers project takes us to the Bronx, where we meet a teacher who uses sex ed to talk about the birds and the bees and much more. From the NPR Ed team, Jasmine Garsd has this story.
LENA SOLOW: So calm down. It's OK.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: It's after school at Rafael Hernandez in the Bronx, but room 421 is in an uproar, which is what you'd expect from a sixth-grade sex ed class that is learning how to put a condom on.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Before you even open the condom, you want to make sure that the packet has air in it.
GARSD: This is a topic often relegated to gym class, and it's the stuff of many teachers' nightmares. Lena Solow has been teaching it for 10 years. She teaches what you'd expect - how to prevent STDs, pregnancy - but Solow talks about way more than going all the way.
SOLOW: One of my biggest goals as a sex educator is to be sex-positive, meaning to talk about pleasure and to talk about sex not just as something that makes babies.
GARSD: Dressed in a leather jacket with tousled hair, Solow looks a little like the Joan Jett of sex educators. She remembers her own elementary school education was less than stellar.
SOLOW: We had mostly, like, the gym teachers were teaching us sex ed. I definitely had spelling tests as a big part of my sex ed when I was in middle school - like, spell gonorrhea, spell gonococcus. Now you pass or don't pass health. I mean, literally, that was what was prioritized.
GARSD: Solow now works for WHEDco, a Bronx-based community development organization that includes sex education in its programs for youth. Solow teaches along with peer educators - high schoolers who assist her teaching. And while her students are really young, she says they already have plenty of material. After all, if you have a smartphone, you have access to information about sex.
SOLOW: My seventh graders - every single boy in that class has asked me a very, like, explicit question about porn. Kids are getting information about sex and examples of what sex looks like in a lot of different ways already, right? So it's actually not even about saying, oh, we should be giving them information. It's actually about saying we need to be supplementing the information that they already have.
GARSD: No spelling tests in this class.
SOLOW: So someone asked a question about sexting. I'll just quickly say that one thing to just be aware of is that, like, if you are underage and you are, like, sending or receiving naked pictures of people, then, like, that actually - you can get in trouble for it being counted as, like, child pornography.
GARSD: If this is starting to sound different from your standard public school sex ed curriculum, that's because there's no such thing in the U.S. Sex education policies vary widely from state to state.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Can you re-use it?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Only use it once, and only use one condom at a time.
GARSD: Beyond the basics, Solow is delving into topics that many teachers would skirt, things like tolerance.
SOLOW: Do we think that LGBT people would feel comfortable in our school? And a lot of people said no, right?
GARSD: Solow is having the kids draw posters to make LGBT kids at school feel comfortable. This is where things start getting complicated.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: This is nasty.
GARSD: This is nasty, the boy says.
SOLOW: What's nasty?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Exactly. This doesn't make any sense.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: I don't know - just nasty.
SOLOW: What do you mean it's nasty? What's nasty?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: I don't know.
GARSD: Boys kissing each other is wrong, the student insists, something he says he learned at home.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: Because that's not natural. Like, our parents taught us not to become lesbian and gay.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Yes. You end up in the streets in the McDonald's store.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: We look up to them and, yeah, basically just listen to what they say.
GARSD: Solow pushes back.
SOLOW: But can you think about how, just like you don't like it when people say things like that about you, how somebody who is gay or lesbian would feel bad if they heard the things that you were just saying?
GARSD: The student shifts nervously in his chair and changes the subject. Later on, I ask Solow how she walks the line between teaching about sex without contradicting what's taught at home.
SOLOW: The conversation you want to have is not I want to have a fight with you about your parents. Listen, everybody has different ideas about sex and sexuality, and we're in this classroom to make it a space where people can figure out for themselves what makes sense for them and not judge the choices of others.
GARSD: Outside, the grown-ups can keep fighting over these issues, but Solow says, for a couple of hours in room 421 at Rafael Hernandez School in the Bronx, we can all agree to talk about sex respectfully. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.
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