Last week, I had the pleasure of leading a workshop on Puberty: The Wonder Years at Eaton Regional Education Service Agency in Charlotte, MI. There, I worked with 41 teachers from 10 public school districts and one non-public school in the mid-Michigan region. The snow was high on the ground, but so were our spirits as we began digging into what teachers remembered about sex education growing up and what they hoped for their students in the future. Many of the participants cited humor as a way to talk about puberty when they were growing up. Others remembered having friends lay it out for them, watching frightening videos of births, and figuring it out on the streets themselves.
Everyone agreed that they attended the workshop to find new, more effective ways to teach about puberty, bodies, and sexual development. They want their students’ experience to be positive and comfortable, while eliminating misconceptions and creating a clear path for communication. They chose to spend the day with me to better understand how this curriculum and a structured, yet interesting approach to puberty could work inside the walls of their school – and how to better support the parent community, too.
Coed or Gender-Segregated Classrooms?
Every workshop I facilitate is different depending on the context of the group. I guide the conversation based specifically on their major concerns and questions, helping them leave feeling more confident to use and incorporate Puberty: The Wonder Years into their classrooms. At this particular workshop, attendees had many questions about whether to teach puberty lessons with coed classes or gender-segregated classrooms. It’s always a hotly debated topic, and I want to take a moment to shine some light on this, not just for my Eaton educators, but for everyone.
Given the lack of research on this question, I base the following information on my experiences in teaching sex education to students across grade levels and the extensive discussions I’ve participated in over the years.
- Removes the stigma and mystery of the topic
- Encourages learning to communicate together about sensitive topics
- Allows learning differing perspectives
- Develops empathy for students of other sex
- Ensures similar messaging and curriculum for both sexes
- Promotes maturity and understanding
- Avoids assigning transgender children to one group or another
- Simplifies scheduling and staffing when everyone stays together
- Results in fewer questions being asked about sex- or gender-specific topics
- Requires a prepared response to parents who don’t support co-ed sex ed
- Limits differentiation of instruction to meet unique needs of boys and girls
- Undermines “natural modesty” according to some parents
- Results in more questions being asked about sex- or gender-specific topics
- Prompts more parental support
- Allows for differentiation of instruction based on gender
- Produces greater comfort on the part of some parents and educators
- Perpetuates the aura of stigma, adding mystery to the topics
- Eliminates the opportunity to practice communicating with each other, something they will need to do as they grow older
- Results in a missed opportunity to learn about topics from each other’s perspectives
- Reduces chances to develop empathy and understanding around the changes and challenges experienced by students of the other sex
- Increases the probability of unequal, gender-based instruction
- Results in higher tendency to act out in single-sex classrooms, perpetuating certain stereotypical gender roles
- Creates discomfort if students are assigned to a class that doesn’t align with their gender identity
- Reinforces a binary notion of sex and gender
While I understand both sides of this coin, I think you can see which option I favor.
These are my recommendations for ideal puberty education for grades 4-6:
- Offer skills-based, research-based sex education in the same way, with the same content and
- strategies, to all students.
- Offer instruction taught by both male and female instructors who are qualified, prepared, and
- enthusiastic about teaching sex education. This is to model a stigma-free approach to talking about sensitive topics and to provide role models.
- Offer instruction to coed classes with all students together for the majority of the lessons.
- Offer one optional session with gender-segregated classes to allow students to discuss topics that are unique to their sex, such as menstruation and nocturnal emissions.
In this manner, students are together the entire time, learning from one another and developing much-needed empathy and understanding for students of the other sex. Separate classes reinforce the idea that men and women shouldn’t talk to each other about anything deemed “uncomfortable.” Sex, intimacy, body changes, feelings… we want to break down those walls preventing connection, not build them up. Using a question box allows students to ask questions anonymously that they might not want to say in front of the class.
That’s what I love about workshops like this, it gives participants a chance to ask questions and have meaningful discussions, all in the name of preparation – for the students and their families. Educators at Eaton reported feeling much more comfortable and confident about teaching the curriculum following the training, and that’s what it’s all about!