Teaching Sex and Relationships Education to Year 8 is one of the joys of my job; I deliver the SRE programme to each Year 8 class on a carousel. I love it because the students are so eager to engage, it allows me to delve into a wide range of peer group issues, prejudices and taboos and, at the same time, I am imparting factual knowledge that really matters. I always try to make the atmosphere such that there is a lot of laughter and very open and honest discussion; it is a special kind of lesson that requires a special approach.
At KEGS we have a light touch PSHE programme with only one hour per fortnight in the timetable so SRE has to be done efficiently, spiraling each year so that the content keeps pace with the students as they grow up, albeit at different rates. This means I have two key lessons to deliver the content. This is what I do:
At the start of the year we issue parents with a link to our SRE policy. This sets out our approach to a range of issues including contraception, abortion and sexuality. We also issue the boys with these superb FPA leaflets.
They go home with a letter to parents so that parents can see the information we are giving the boys. Sadly one or two boys never get them back…until I give them another copy of their own in the lessons! All classes get the leaflets at the same time, even if their turn for SRE doesn’t arrive until later in the year… to avoid adding to the playground misinformation.
Lesson 1: Puberty
This starts with the ground rules – a key feature of any good SRE programme. Students are asked to list five rules of their own and then we compile a class set. I’m hoping for and usually get variants of the following:
- Be mature/sensible
- Use appropriate language – as if talking to a Doctor.
- No laughing at people..but laughing itself is fine.
- No personal comments or questions.
- Be open to a range of perspectives or opinions.
From the start, I set the tone, getting the balance of openness with safeguards against negative peer pressure. I then give the 4Boys 4 Girls leaflets out again… and ask them to open the front cover to see the bodies.
Their task is to list the five key changes that happen at puberty for boys and then for girls. They know a lot of this from KS2 and from Y7 science.. so it is quick re-cap. Two things usually emerge from this:
- a discussion about mood swings. It is a strongly held idea that girls have mood swings but this rarely is volunteered in relation to boys. We discuss stereotypes, Harry Enfield’s “Kevin” and various other features of this area.
- a focus on typical sizes ages for things to happen. I find a bell curve diagram is useful to talk about the idea of what is ‘normal’. Obviously it is all normal and the boys are reassured by this.
After this, we focus on girls; specifically the process and practicalities of menstruation. A key part of the lesson is to demystify the whole business of using sanitary towels and tampons by showing them how they work. Using a teaspoon, a glass of water and some sample tampons and pads, I show them how the products absorb water and are then discarded. One of the Great Mysteries is revealed and the boys are generally delighted to be let in on this secret. We talk about how girls might experience having periods and the appropriate attitudes and responses from boys. In about half the lessons of this kind that I’ve taught, one of the boys faints…. it is hard to predict but the idea of blood in this context very often sends someone to the floor; it is awkward for them but always educational for the others and we need to put our ground rules into effect.
[UPDATE May ’14: This week I did this lesson again with Jane Martinson, Women’s Editor from the Guardian visiting. The room was probably a bit too stuffy – but no fewer than five boys fainted – one at a time during the tampon/sanitary towel demo! It was chaotic for a while with boys dropping like flies and various medical people rushing in… The power of suggestion!? Anyway.. thanks to Jane for her understanding and to the other boys who just got on with the lesson! Great questions. ]
The latter part of the lesson focuses on The Questions Box. This is a superb device that allows students to ask questions in confidence.
I wrote a piece for the Guardian Teacher Network about this. The range of questions is always fascinating and leads us into discussions about physical and emotional aspects of sexual relationships, pornography and everyday aspects of growing up:
I challenge myself to give a straight answer without embarrassment to any question and, for the most part, this works well. There are still a few questions that are harder to answer than others, particularly those that feel they need a ‘Joy of Sex’ manual to answer properly. There is a line…. The key messages are:
- that sexual relationships are safer, both physically and emotionally, and more enjoyable if the emerge from stable loving relationships
- that sexual intimacy takes many forms, many of which do not require full-on intercourse as represented in pornography or biology text books
- that sex is fundamentally a private matter….so we need to be careful to avoid being judgemental
- that relationships are complicated and the associated emotional turmoil in one form or another is a common human experience….it’s all part of life.
- that sexuality is complicated but also a routine issue for people to deal with; questions about being gay arise naturally in discussions and we try to keep the discussion as general as possible whilst also tackling routine issues of reproductive sex.
Lesson 2: Relationships:
The second lesson begins by re-capping the ground rules. We then launch into a classic ‘diamond 9’ card-sort activity that generates enough discussion for most of the rest of the lesson. (I will cite the source when I find it.. but it is a superb activity that is perfect for this age group.) Each pair of students works out their responses before we share the outcomes with the class.
There is always a range of responses but with a fairly strong consensus that looks something like this:
In theory there are no right answers but actually there are some definite wrong ones. I challenge groups that go for ‘nice body’ near the top.. usually this is laced with some bravado and it brings the issue of peer pressure to the fore. Trust is another great topic. We talk about scenarios where intimate moments in relationships are shared with friends and how people feel about this. Interestingly, boys will admit that they might tease and talk about their friends as they enter into relationships even though they’d hate it to happen to them.. “I don’t know why; it’s just what we do” one boy said recently. This honesty and openness is very healthy and the discussions that surround it are powerful.
I have a range of scenario questions that spin-off from this activity including how people move from a friendship to a relationship. Boys love having the opportunity for a legitimate discussion about flirting, asking someone out, sharing your feelings, fear of rejection and the range of peer pressure issues that swirl around at this point.
The lesson ends by returning to the questions box from the previous lesson to answer the remaining questions. By the end of the two core lessons, we’ve covered a lot of ground. I hope they’ve learned a lot; they’ve certainly encountered some interesting and challenging ideas about relationships, sex and sexuality. They’ve had an opportunity to consider the extent to which they personally contribute to peer pressure as well as how they respond to it. So many of these issues are core to how any group of people interact, I often feel that, through SRE, we are actually teaching the students our core values in a very explicit way. This is where tolerance and understanding have meaning, alongside the science and the practicalities. That’s really why I love teaching it so much; it’s my chance to preach!