Somewhere in Portland, teenagers are having sex right now. When the Oregon Department of Education surveyed eighth and 11th graders last year about their sexual proclivities, 45 percent of juniors and 26 percent of eighth graders said they'd already had sex at least once—and between 30-40 percent of those students did not use a condom the most recent time. Yikes! Didn't anyone teach these kids right? We talked to sex-ed teachers around Portland to get their perspectives.
Rachael Koeson and Austin Wells
Village Free School
The Village Free School is a progressive private school where students decide which classes should exist each year. The school's most popular class ever was last year's sexuality education course, taught by Rachael Koeson and Austin Wells. Out of the school's 11 students who're between the ages of 12 and 18, nine decided to take the class.
MERCURY: Since student input sets the curriculum, what did you decide to cover?
KOESON: Our very first class, we talked about language and all the words and euphemisms people have for penis, vagina, and intercourse. [We talked] about how language affects us, and how people respond to it, and it can be used to disempower people or empower people, and how that's off-kilter in relation to women's body parts.
WELLS: Part of what we did is we tried to roll with whatever the kids wanted. They asked for the STI [sexually transmitted infections] class—
KOESON: —and then they wished they hadn't! I brought in a bunch of pictures [of sexually transmitted diseases].
WELLS: Gender is a big thing. When you start talking about there's not just male and female, but kind of a construction of gender, it tends to blow people's minds.
What subjects were awkward for you guys?
KOESON: The day we did contraception was awkward, but it was really fun. We got this whole kit of every kind of contraceptive item imaginable, and passed them all around. There was definitely some kind of awkwardness [with] practicing using condoms. Not on yourself, but [the kit] comes equipped with—
WELLS: —a big wooden penis. [We were] like, who can put on a condom properly? Okay, who can put it on with one hand in the dark?
You guys actually turned out the lights?
WELLS: They had a blindfold and with one arm behind their back.
What topics do you personally feel it's most important to talk about in sex ed?
WELLS: One thing that was really important to me was consent, especially talking with the young boys. Trying to plant the idea that asking for permission is sexy—that asking for consent is what people want.
What were the kids most eager to talk about?
WELLS: They kept saying they wanted to talk about dating and "the game" and how to pick people up and stuff. But then when we got into it, they were all shy about it.
KOESON: I remember people saying they wanted to talk about sex. Which we did. We did a class about positions.
How did you even approach teaching a class on sexual technique?
KOESON: I brought in my copy of The Joy of Sex.
WELLS: We tried to set the atmosphere of any question people asked [would be] okay. So some people would be like, "I heard about this, what is it?" "What does '69' mean?" "What's doggy style?" I think that's information a lot of adults secretly want to know more about.
Portland Public Schools Health Curriculum Specialist
For the upcoming 2008-2009 school year, Portland Public Schools created the job of a full-time health curriculum specialist. That means Sydney York, a former Wilson High School health teacher, will be responsible for training public school sex educators.
MERCURY: How exactly do you teach how to use contraception and what the choices are?
YORK: I'm their mom's age, so I think it's a little weird for them to hear it from me. Number one, I had a "Burning Question Box" [in my health classes]. And they used it! I couldn't believe it!
What were some of the students' burning questions?
Well, honestly, I only got one last spring. And that one was, "Can you please define an abusive relationship?"
Geez, what did you say?
Well, first I said, "If you feel like you're being put down, if you feel like it's abusive, that's a good indication." That's the sad thing about health being [taught in] junior year. I had girls tell me, "Why didn't I learn this as a freshman?" So we're trying to move it, ideally, to having a half-year as a freshman and half-year as a junior. It's junior high where there are no health specialists. It's either up to the PE teacher or the science teacher.
What are kids' most common misconceptions?
Thinking that birth control protects against STIs [sexually transmitted infections]. You gotta use the condom.
Insights Teen Parent Program
As a client advocate for Insights Teen Parent Program, a private nonprofit, Kelly Smith teaches health and parenting classes to teen parents in local public schools. In 2007, there were 350 pregnant and parenting students in Portland Public Schools.
MERCURY: Do the students in your class often blame their pregnancies on bad sex education?
SMITH: It's really across the board. Some say, 'We had some people from Planned Parenthood come in when I was in middle school,' and some say the never got sex ed.
What kinds of questions come up?
Because they all had such different educations, they have questions about specific things. Like, how does this type of birth control work? Or, can I treat Chlamydia with antibiotics?
What surprised you during your classes?
I think a lot of times people do a disservice to teens, and I think it's tempting to say they didn't get the right education and that's why they got pregnant. But unintended pregnancies happen for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. A lot of adults get pregnant without meaning to. Teenagers are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. It's not necessarily true at all that they made this decision because they weren't thinking.
It sounds like your students impress you.
That's just the word for it. They impress me by their willingness to ask questions. I think if you set up an environment where students believe that they can ask you questions, they will ask.