Tag Archive for: school curriculum

I am writing this as a parent who is incredibly grateful that the school my girls attend teaches media literacy aggressively and early. Beginning in the 5th grade, the teachers present the students with examples of how we are barraged every day with messages that may or may not represent us, but whose sole aim is to sell us something, even if couched in the guise of “entertainment.”

And so I was not terribly surprised to see the article in this morning’s New York Times regarding the MTV reality series “16 and Pregnant.” (Disclaimer: I have never watched, nor do I anticipate ever watching this show. I cannot speak to the relative merits or pitfalls of it, and I’m more interested in the larger theme of media influence, in any case.) The Nielsen company, responsible for television ratings among other things, released a report suggesting that this show and others like it may have “prevented 20,000 births to teenage mothers in 2010.” Don’t ask me how they did the study. I didn’t delve too deeply in to it, but I suspect some other folks will, given the voices that have been raised in opposition to shows like this since their beginning. The people in that camp believe that these shows glamorize teen motherhood by featuring the teens on television, thus rendering them celebrities, and may convince young girls to go out and get pregnant before they are ready to.  Again, I don’t have a dog in this fight, at least not with regards to this particular blog post.  What strikes me is that what both sides have in common is the assertion that television shows, among other media sources, have a strong impact on their audience, so much so that they can influence major life decisions.  With that, I will agree.

Last week on the way home from school, Eve reported that the 8th graders had begun a new unit in their health class involving body image.

“We’ve had two classes on it so far and, man, there’s no way we’re ever gonna get through even fifteen minutes without someone bursting into tears. I mean, even though we know that pictures are Photoshopped and nobody looks like a Barbie doll, some of the girls in my class have such low self-esteem because they think their bodies are all wrong that they can’t stop sobbing.”

I confess to being surprised.  This is a school that has encouraged families to watch the critically acclaimed Miss Representation with their children, a school that has the 7th grade students create their own posters using images from magazines to demonstrate their understanding of media messages and how harmful they can be, a school that embraces and holds up diversity as a source of power. And yet, there are girls who are still so divided in their loyalties to themselves versus someone else’s idea of what they ought to look like that they can’t make it through a class on body image without feeling awful.

Let us not underestimate the power of both the media and the perpetuation of those messages among our youth. Let us continue to talk to our children about what is truly important and worthy. Let us help them to think critically about what they see and hear and decipher which messages are there to lift them up and which ones are there to tear them down and open their wallets.  As Stephen Colbert once said:

“But if girls feel good about themselves, how can we sell them things they don’t need?”

Sex Ed. Ooh, the phrase strikes fear in the hearts of so many for such a variety of reasons. I’ll admit that, as the mother of two daughters, I was a little afraid to broach the subject, too, and with Eve being the first of my girls to get any sort of formal sexual education at school, I was curious and a nervous. But, three weeks into the six week program, I have to say that I don’t even know why it is called “Sex Ed.”

Let me preface this by saying that my own personal experiences with Sex Ed are basically two: mine and Eve’s. I have no idea what the curriculum is like at most public schools these days. I only know what I got (an awkward, red-faced teacher whose attempt to educate us was limited to a thirty minute film coupled with two worksheets that basically described male and female reproductive anatomy), and what Eve is getting and the two are not even in the same universe.

Of course, any faithful reader of my blog has read my fawning words of praise for Eve’s school here and here, so I suppose none of the following should come as a surprise. But, that being said, I honestly think that even if half of the content given to Eve and her fellow students is presented in public schools today, we ought to rename the class itself and maybe douse that fear strike with a big ol’ bucket of water.

While the staff at Eve’s school do tackle those big scary concepts of anatomy and development and *gasp* sex, there is so much more involved. Like discussing how we make decisions and why. Like understanding that, in the heat of the moment, we often can’t rely on our brains to give us accurate enough information so it’s important to build a moral framework that will carry us through. Like learning to accept that our bodies and minds are changing and making friends and staying true to ourselves during those shifts is really, really hard. They ask the girls to think about whether the pediatrician they’ve seen since the day they were born is someone who they can comfortably talk to about their period and their body image. If not, they want the girls to explore whether they feel like they can talk to their parents or guardians about that and find someone who they can trust and talk to. They talk about peer pressure and nutrition and how they can take care of their bodies and cherish them, no matter the package they come in.

The lessons are also broken down into developmentally appropriate classes so that the eighth graders are getting slightly more sophisticated information than the 5th graders that makes sense to their lives and acknowledges the fact that they are moving on to high school where relationships are vastly different. Last week, the sixth graders wanted to talk about their periods, and the teacher divided the class into groups of three or four and asked the girls to put on skits about having their periods to demonstrate what they already knew, or thought they knew. One group of girls designed a show around a girl who lives with her dad and was mortified to have him take her to the local drugstore to buy tampons. The third member of their group was the nearly-deaf cashier who insisted on hollering, “TAMPONS? I THINK TAMPONS ARE ON AISLE THREE!” in the middle of the store. Another group showcased a young girl who desperately wanted to cancel a sleepover she was going to because she was having her period and was embarrassed to think about throwing away soiled maxi pads in someone else’s bathroom or leaking blood onto her pajamas unknowingly. Once she found the courage to confide in her girlfriend, it turns out they were both cycling right then and everyone had a good, hearty laugh.

These girls astound me with their cleverness and honesty. And the staff bring tears to my eyes with their willingness to listen to the concerns these young ladies have. There is an anonymous question box that has served to enlighten everyone simply because nobody has to raise their hand and ask the embarrassing question everyone wants the answer to.

More than anything, though, I am pleased that “Sex Ed” is treated like just another subject at Eve’s school. These girls are given information that they need just as much as long division or social studies and encouraged to participate by asking questions and exploring ideas outside of school. Eve asked me the other day, as I was driving her and five of her classmates in the carpool, about my first period. I told her honestly: I was in seventh grade and went to the bathroom during the break between Algebra and PE to discover a lot of blood in my underwear. Nobody had ever talked to me about menstruation, so the blood that showed up after a morning of back cramps told me one of two things – either I had some horrible childhood cancer, or God was smiting me for making doe-eyes at Eric during math class instead of listening to the teacher. Either way, I was going to die, but first I had to stuff half a roll of toilet paper into my pants before heading off to PE. The girls were mortified and they all vowed to bring pads to stash in their lockers the next day in case they started their periods at school.

When I think about the things these girls are learning that have nothing (or at least, very little) to do with actually having sex with anyone, it makes me sad to know that there are families in my neighborhood who purposely keep their own children home on the days Sex Ed is scheduled. I am disheartened that the curriculum is even saddled with that particular name, given that these are tremendously important life skills that are being offered, but that the politicization of sex has frightened so many into thinking that we are, instead, encouraging our children to think about sexual intercourse by teaching them about their bodies. What I see them learning is how to understand and care for their bodies, how to ask questions that are important to them (even if they prompt blushing), and the notion that adults in their lives trust them enough to give them this information that is vital to their well-being.