By Jamie Grimm
Sex ed. It's a popular topic in our society with strong opinions on what, where, and when it should be taught to young people. Most of the voices in these conversations are from adults. Rarely do we hear from the population that is most impacted by the decisions we make. In the fall of 2021, we decided to change this problem and develop a class for high school students to help us revise their sexual health education curriculum. This post will share the successes and challenges of utilizing students to help lead the work of revising curriculum at a district level.
With the help of counselors, SELS, schedulers, and science teachers, we recruited thirteen students from five high schools to participate in the Healthy Decision Making Leadership course. The course was run through Jeffco Virtual Academy as a .5 Leadership elective. Students met every other week in the evening with the Health Science Coordinator (the subsequent author of the unit), and Jaime Brenner, a social and emotional learning specialist from Alameda International Jr/Sr High School. The students had work outside of class that they had to complete each week as well.
Representation of student voices is incredibly meaningful. However, in order for students to have an impactful presence, they first needed to understand that curriculum is developed through the use of state standards, and in our case, state law. Having this background information and understanding helped students to better create validity to their revision suggestions.
Once students had a better understanding of what needed to be taught within sexual health education, their next hurdle was to develop student-centered activities to address the content. Through the use of student and teacher surveys, focus groups, and their own lived experiences, the students created and or revised existing activities that were relevant to their lives. Each of the ten lessons within the curriculum has a student-centered activity that was either created or revised by the students. This was the major focus of the course and took the most amount of time.
As most can imagine, bringing together students from different high schools, backgrounds, and experiences to revise a sexual health education curriculum can be, initially, really awkward! During the first couple of group meetings there was a lot of silence from the students and probing from the instructors. However, through team building exercises, laughter, and small group discussions, the students really emerged from their shells. The result was a group of students that knew their classmates were respectful, trustworthy, kind, and fierce advocates for the work.
Not only did we have a group of students that became leaders in the work, but we now have a curriculum that is incredibly student-centered, culturally relevant, and meaningful for the population that we seek to educate.
With any new endeavor there will be unanticipated setbacks. As most educators, we envision a lesson or training to go exactly how we have planned, only to realize that the best laid plans often go awry. The two biggest challenges I had was holding students accountable for their work outside of class, and being okay with changing my original expectations about what I wanted to accomplish during the course. If I was to host this course again, I would develop a better system for students to check-in with me about their progress. I think this would hold them more accountable, but also allow me to build better relationships with the students on an individual basis. Some of our students were not always comfortable sharing their opinions during whole group discussions, but when they were in a small group or one-on-one situation, they had a lot more to say.
I quickly learned that students in this class were way more involved in the work if it was through whole group or small group discussions. This was not what I had planned for each of my lessons! Therefore, in the future I would definitely build in more time for collaboration and group discussions. After a couple years of quiet students on a Zoom screen, the in-person group discussions were a very welcomed change!
Young people are incredibly knowledgeable and motivated to become agents of change. We must not use them merely as an act of tokenism, but rather a group of individuals with the foresight to recognize the challenges they will face in their present and future lives.
My last piece of advice for anyone who chooses to involve students in curriculum revisions/developments is to “feed them”. Feed them food each time you meet (quite literally…they’re always hungry) and feed them opportunities to be impactful within their community!
Curriculum & Instruction