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The Answer Blog

Archive for June, 2015

An Educator Increases Her Comfort & Skill With Answer’s Online Professional Development

June 17, 2015

Health and Science educator, Sussex County Opportunity Program in Education (SCOPE)

The fields of sexual health and sexuality education are constantly changing. Consider how social media and other technologies have changed the way teens form relationships and interact with each other or how emerging methods of contraception have transformed pregnancy prevention. Taking these changes into consideration, how can school-and community-based health educators be prepared to provide up-to-date information and answer student’s questions with confidence and accuracy? We spoke with Jessica Hastings, who has been teaching health and science to grades 6 to 12 at the Sussex County Opportunity Program in Education (SCOPE) in Delaware. She just completed all seven of our online professional development workshops and has a unique perspective on how our online workshops can help increase school-and community-health professionals’ comfort and skill teaching sexuality education.

I asked Jessica to share her thoughts about the workshops and offer some advice for fellow educators who want to be on the forefront of using best practices to teach comprehensive sexuality education. Here’s what Jessica had to say:

Ty Oehrtman: What changes have you made in the way you teach sexuality education as a result of participating in Answer’s online workshops?

Jessica Hastings: The workshops offered games and lesson plans that I use in class, PowerPoint presentations, short videos (with teens sharing their views) and many useful resources for parents, staff and students. I have also new, up-to-date information, language and perspectives for teaching a diverse population of students. For example, the training on LGBTQ Issues in Schools included lessons on understanding male and female gender roles, which was great. There are very few resources for teachers and students on sexual identity, sexual orientation and gender roles. This year we had a transgender student who was born as a female biologically but is male. LGBTQ Issues in Schools helped me create opportunities for an open dialogue about terminology, experiences and opinions.

TO: What advice would you give a fellow educator who is considering using online workshops for their professional development in sexuality education?

JH: I highly recommend these trainings. I completed all seven this year, and each one is great. The workshop instructors provide immediate feedback, and the online format was easy to navigate, well organized, self-paced, fun and interesting.

Each unit within the trainings also offered current information focused on issues and questions that arise in the classroom with my 6th-to 12th-grade students. The courses gave me resources I could use to look up many of the questions students have asked me regarding sexual health. In the course about sexuality and anatomy, the myth buster activity was an awesome resource. The pregnancy course also taught me new information, which surprised me since I have been teaching for 13 years now. Another great feature in a couple of the courses was the state-by-state sexual health data and statistics.

I now feel very prepared to assist other educators and students with questions they may have because of these courses. I also enjoyed using the discussion boards to communicate with educators from around the country; this is a great way to get new ideas and advice. I am looking forward to participating in the new online workshops that will launch next school year.

TO: What are some of the things you enjoyed most about your experience earning professional development credit entirely online?

JH: I enjoyed the fact that while I was taking the course, I could use resources from the online workshop to supplement activities in my classes and have my students learn with me. This provided additional teachable moments by allowing the students to feel empowered to help the teacher with classwork. This also modeled the importance of education and learning, even as an adult.

TO: Based on your experience participating in the online workshops, what do you think is the greatest advantage of online professional development in sexuality education compared to other ways of earning professional development credit?

JH: My experience has been relaxed and stress free. The quick responses to emails, grading and discussion feedback from the instructors made the trainings feel comfortable.

I was able to complete the trainings around my schedule and in a reasonable time frame; I had 30 days to complete each topic. Being a teacher and mother of two, flexibility is very important. Personally, time was never an issue with these workshops. They are so quick, interesting and fun, so the units went by very quickly. One of the instructors offered some advice that I found helpful: complete the pretest, and the first three units as soon as possible then the rest is a piece of cake.

After finishing the trainings, I do feel as if I had professional relationships with the instructors, as if I was a student in a face-to-face professional development program. The online workshops also allow for interaction with professionals from across the country. I have taken online classes before, but these are by far the best in every area.

Take all of Answer’s online workshops and earn up to 42 hours of continuing education credit completely online. Learn more about Answer’s online workshops.

At the Intersection of Sex Ed and English

June 17, 2015

Al Vernacchio is an English and sexuality education teacher at Friends’ Central School in Pennsylvania and author of For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health. A veteran teacher with 17 years of experience, Vernacchio first realized he wanted to learn more about sexuality and teach sexuality education during his first teaching job.

“The human sexuality curriculum was taught at the end of the ninth grade religion class, which was a class I taught,” Vernacchio explains. “Once I started teaching it, I realized I knew a lot about the spiritual side but not so much about the sexual side of things. I wanted to learn more and help people grow in sexually healthy ways.”

Vernacchio went on to get a master’s degree in human sexuality education and, in his words, has “been teaching sexuality education ever since, whether in my sexuality classes or my English classes.”

It’s just this sort of expertise in cross-topic teaching that made us think Vernacchio was the perfect person to interview for our second installment of our series Inter(sex)tions, which explores how sexuality education intersects with core topics taught in schools.

Answer: As a teacher of both English and a course on sexuality at the high school level, how and in what ways do these two subjects overlap?

Vernacchio: Almost any text taught in a high school English classroom can be used to teach a lesson on healthy sexuality. It’s just a matter of whether the teacher is willing to “go there” when teaching the text and whether the school is open to the teacher doing that. Literature is all about the human experience, and at the core of that human experience is our sexuality. We are sexual beings every minute of every day, from birth to death. Everything we do and every interaction we have is influenced by our bodies, our gender identity and expression, and our sexual and romantic attractions. The study of literature becomes so much richer when we understand the characters as fully human, and that means fully sexual.

I talk about sexuality all the time in my English class, because it’s on every page of every text I teach. It’s hard to teach The Catcher in the Rye without recognizing that Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, is a confused, horny, 16-year-old virgin who has a lot of questions about sex and dating and life, and those questions have an impact on his interactions with every other character. The novel also gives students a glimpse into the world of 1950s America and how sexism and homophobia were present there just as they are today.

One of my favorite experiences of talking about sexuality in the context of literature comes in the 11th-grade American Literature class. We read that old chestnut, The Scarlet Letter, followed immediately by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. Both texts are about characters scorned by society because of sexual issues. Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter (“A” for adulteress) is mirrored by the Kaposi sarcoma lesions that mark the characters living with AIDS in Angels in America. Both texts talk about the conflict between the American Dream of living one’s life openly and honestly and the prejudice and discrimination that comes from a society that demands conformity and punishes those who stray beyond the boundaries of what’s deemed “acceptable.” Both ask what the price of freedom is and both ultimately give the message that being true to oneself is what is most important.

Answer: When teaching English, what texts do you find foster the most conversations about sexuality or topics related to sex ed?

Vernacchio: There are certainly texts that foster conversations about sexuality more easily than others because their subject matter is directly related to sexuality in some way (think Romeo and Juliet or Their Eyes Were Watching God). But I think what’s much more important is the attitude of the teacher and the community created in the classroom. Is it one that is safe for discussing “real” issues? Are the students encouraged to look at the way gender and sexual orientation may impact what’s happening in a novel or a story? For instance, when reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, of course it’s essential to talk about race and the dehumanizing effects of slavery in the United States. But Huck and Jim are also both men (well, a man and a boy), and that also impacts how they relate to one another. It’s also interesting to notice the place of women in that novel; they are oppressed by their gender in similar ways that slaves are oppressed by their race. Twain didn’t set out to write a novel about the place of women in nineteenth-century America, and I hope no teacher would avoid the racial issues in the novel to talk about that instead, but talking about the intersection of race and gender in the novel can enrich the experience and give students a new way of looking at issues of freedom, fairness and oppression.

Answer: For health teachers who are looking to more deeply engage students using content from other classes, what advice do you have?

Vernacchio: Health teachers have the ability to be extraordinarily creative in their classrooms. Teaching from novels and real-world experiences is so much more effective than using an out-of-date health textbook. There are amazing young adult novels, poems and essays that cover topics like navigating puberty, coming out, surviving sexual assault, being transgender, etc. These are easy reads and can open up discussions among students in powerful ways. Beyond fiction, teachers can use things like advertising to teach about gender role inequity. I’ve sent my students out to look at the display of Valentine’s Day cards in a store and count how many cards can be used by people in same-gender relationships. Television commercials can be a great focusing tool for a class and cover every sexuality-related issue imaginable. You-tubers like Laci Green are another valuable resource. Websites like, Scarleteen and Go Ask Alice allow students to explore topics of their choosing and guarantee them accurate, thorough and up-to-date information.

Answer: What tips do you have for teachers fielding questions about sexuality when sexuality isn’t their area of expertise?

Vernacchio: Whether you know the answer or not isn’t the issue. It’s the way you answer the question or respond to the statement that’s important. If a teacher seems nervous, shocked or disgusted, that’s going to send a powerful message to the student. When we normalize students’ natural curiosity about sexuality, we do them a great service. It would also be great to have resources available in every classroom that answered basic questions about sexuality—pamphlets, books, posters. One thing every great teacher knows is that where to find an answer is just as, if not more, important than knowing the answer. Most of all, though, teachers who model authenticity and show their humanity to their students are teaching a terrific lesson about healthy sexuality.

Sex Education Must Work to Dismantle Rape Culture

June 12, 2015

I read Nicholas Kristof’s recent column “When the Rapist Doesn’t See It as Rape” with a heady mix of revulsion, familiarity and gratitude that such a widely read and respected journalist had devoted white space to this issue. Kristoff drew on Jon Krakauer’s new book Missoula to call attention to the discrepancy between the public’s perception of rapists as menacing strangers and the much more common reality of rape committed by acquaintances who often don’t perceive their actions as rape at all.

The cognitive dissonance that resides in many perpetrators’ minds is hardly news to those who have advocated, educated and fought to end rape and sexual assault for decades. This latest commentary brought to my mind a three-year-old Reddit thread in which rapists told “their side of the story.” Predictably, the collective effect of thousands of comments was chilling. Men (primarily) described plying women (nearly exclusively) with alcohol and physically overpowering them, and they excused their behavior by blaming peer pressure, biological necessity and, above all, the women they assaulted, whom they perceived as sending mixed signals.

While reading rape apologia ad nauseam can seemingly lead to nothing but despair, once you cut through the victim-blaming, I believe these accounts do a better job of laying bare the nature of our rape culture than many erudite feminist analyses. It is hard to deny the pervasiveness of gender double standards, biological determinism, slut-shaming and a good old-fashioned “boys will be boys” mentality when faced with such firsthand accounts.

So how should we respond? I believe that sexuality educators can and must play a fundamental role in dismantling rape culture by addressing these issues head on in the classroom. A good place to start is with age-appropriate discussions about gender and power. For example, educators working with elementary school students can ask students to reflect on the types of toys and clothing marketed toward boys and girls as a way to introduce the concept of gender roles and societal expectations about gender. In middle school, students will be ready for discussions about gender roles and stereotypes in friendships and romantic relationships. These conversations lay the groundwork for more detailed lessons for high school students to analyze the ways gender roles and expectations influence young people’s ability to refuse or consent to sex, negotiate condom use and set and maintain boundaries.

High-quality sex education can and should equip young people with the language and tools to understand and critique the roles of gender and power in their friendships and romantic relationships. Creating safe classroom spaces for students to explore these topics can begin to create cultural shifts in gender norms and related behaviors. Research shows that sex education that addresses gender and power is more likely to have positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Given that greater than ten percent of high school girls and four percent of boys report being forced to have sex, and more than 14 percent of girls and six percent of boys have experienced sexual dating violence, educators have an imperative to incorporate discussions of sexual violence into their curricula. Only by openly addressing these issues and laying bare the discrepancies and dissonance that underlie rape culture can we begin to create a new paradigm in which victims are believed, boundaries are respected and healthy relationships are established.

If you would like to learn more about teaching about healthy relationships and addressing the unique needs of boys in the sex education classroom, check out our online workshops Boys and Sex Ed and Relationship Skills for Teens.