This post is written by Maalika Bannerjee.
Maalika serves as a Sexual Health Program Assistant at Chicago Public Schools - Office of Student Health & Wellness.
I stand in front of an assorted group of adults, ranging from young female counselors to “old school” gym teachers to veteran educators. I ask them to pair up and discuss their past weekend. Sounds easy enough, right? The catch is that they can’t use gender pronouns, like “he,” “she,” “his” or “hers.” Also, I tell them to avoid gender-specific terms, like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” when possible.
There’s a pause. I notice some teachers begin sentences, and then stop. But after a few minutes, the conversations begin to flow. At the end, I ask them how it went. One gym teacher said he struggled with the activity. ‘I said ‘I’ a lot, and it felt really impersonal,” he said. Another person chimed in with some alternatives; he suggested the use of “they” in place of “he” or “she,” and “partner” or “significant other” in place of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” Another teacher said the activity helped her think about how difficult it is for some LGBTQ students, who may need to revise their language in school to avoid harassment from their peers. And yet another person said it made him think about using more inclusive language in the classroom, to make all students feel safe and comfortable at school.
This activity was part of a six-hour training devoted to exposing Chicago Public Schools (CPS) staff members to the new Sexual Health Education curriculum, which was passed by the district in 2013. It dictates that all students, grades K-12, are mandated to receive comprehensive sexual health education that is developmentally appropriate. At younger grade levels, students learn about healthy relationships and personal safety, for instance, and at higher grade levels, students learn about pregnancy, reproduction, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Included in this education is instruction on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation; specifically, the “Weekend Activity” was part of this module on gender and identity.
According to Youth Risk Behavior Survey data, over half (51.8%) of CPS high school students were sexually active in 2013. And among those students who have had sex in the last three months, 38.7% reported they did not use a condom. Studies indicate that comprehensive sexual health education, when implemented early, can have significant impacts. In this district, there is certainly a need for sexual health education, trained sexual health education teachers, and parents who are informed on instructional plans to increase academic success and reduce sexual risk-taking behaviors that lead to STIs and unintended pregnancies. As a Chicago Health Corps member based at CPS’s Office of Student Health and Wellness, I’ve been involved with training teachers to implement this new curriculum, while also co-teaching Sex Ed in the classroom with my fellow AmeriCorps members.
I am proud to be a part of this movement, of this progressive policy rollout. Though there are hiccups, and progress can take time, it’s happening. Even I, coming from a liberal school in Massachusetts, didn’t have a chance to discuss gender identity or consent or healthy decision making in the classroom. By 2015, students in over 600 CPS schools will be able to do just that. I’ve found both students and teachers to be energized by the material, eager to ask questions and engage in participant-driven discussion around difficult but important topics. For me, though teaching is challenging, it ultimately brings me joy. Indeed, I am increasingly convinced that health education will play a meaningful role in my career as a physician and public health practitioner in the future.