Talking about sex education in health class might send students into fits of giggles and cause them to shift around uncomfortably in their chairs, but to teachers and administrators, the subject is no laughing matter.
Sex education classes have become more important given the instant access to information — both correct and wrong — kids have today. And even within the context of Judaism, the conversation has remained open and students’ curiosities piqued.
Accordingly, Jewish day schools in the area don’t shy away from the conversation.
For Kim Gillio, who has been teaching health at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy for 18 years, the conversations have more or less stayed the same — open, informative and comfortable — but the topics have shifted to fit the times.
For instance, the school made national headlines in March with the opening of its first gender-neutral bathroom. In class, the students talk about sexual identity and orientation in different ways to follow suit.
The emphasis on subject matter has also evolved. Whereas in the 1980s and ’90s, HIV/AIDS would have been more heavily highlighted in class, today, sexual orientation and identity and sexual assault have taken the forefront whether it’s through figures like Caitlyn Jenner or through the seemingly never-ending litany of campus sexual assaults.
The students are usually eager to participate, she said.
“I teach health throughout,” she said, “so starting from sixth grade, I create a very open and respectful environment […] where the kids feel very comfortable asking questions. They’re very interested.”
The school’s sex education curriculum starts in sixth grade with lessons on puberty and body changes, and then picks up again in eighth grade where students learn about relationships, sexual orientation, sexual harassment and a program called Postponing Sexual Involvement.
In 11th grade, students cover sexually transmitted diseases, sexual assault and another unit on gender and sexual identity.
Students also analyze songs and media to examine messages about objectification and how different genders are treated in TV and movies.
The units incorporate Jewish values, particularly that of respecting the body, Gillio said.
A rabbi will come in for some lessons to connect what they are learning to corresponding Jewish texts and values. In eighth grade, for example, a rabbi will talk about the Jewish perspective on sexual decision-making.
Creating an open environment and talking about subjects that are relevant to the students is important to Gillio as she works to combat the proliferation of online options for students to satisfy their curiosity. “Especially in this day and age where the kids have so much access to the Internet,” she said. “If they have a question about anything, they’re going to the Internet for answers.”
Instead, she will give homework assignments that involve asking their parents or grandparents what dating was like for them.
The focus on relationships is important for Gillio.
“Beginning in sixth grade, every year we always talk about decision-making and respect for themselves and their peers in relationships,” she said.
At Perelman Day School, lessons start in fifth grade with topics such as personal hygiene and puberty.
The subjects used to go beyond learning the reproductive systems — which had also previously been taught to students — but as many students move on to schools like Barrack starting in sixth grade, they stopped covering those so it doesn’t become redundant, said Rabbi Chaim Galfand.
“We begin by suggesting what it can mean to be created in God’s image,” he said, “by suggesting that all of the physical dimensions of the body are so intricate and so profoundly amazing.”
The lessons are framed by Jewish texts, and they explore the topics within Judaism.
Galfand, too, mentioned that they also analyze media within the lessons due to constant exposure to sexual images and undertones.
“I would suspect it comes from what children are able to take in in terms of the media and the way the human body and relationships are presented,” he said. “For that reason, one element of our lessons with the children involves the portrayal of the human body in the media. We discuss what trends they see and what the messages behind the advertisements are.
“They’re able to see quickly that everything we see in the media is not always a picture they really want to emulate.”
The children respond to these discussions, and Galfand said they are very “sophisticated” in that regard.
Schools in other areas of the country keep the students educated about their own bodies, but perhaps not of others.
For instance, Melvin J. Berman Academy in Rockville, Md., begins its sex education program in fifth grade with a basic health class taught by a nurse and a teacher. Then, starting in sixth grade with programs every other year, students are separated by gender to learn about their bodies.
Abstinence is particularly emphasized in classes at the school, as well.
While the school’s headmaster, Joshua Levisohn, described the class as “nonjudgmental,” he said that the students are definitely told that sex before marriage is unacceptable. “We certainly don’t suggest” anything but abstinence, he said, adding, “We try not to be preachy.”
In Maryland and the District of Columbia, schools mandate sex education classes for public school students. Virginia does not, but individual school systems and schools may choose to include sex education, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
For Gillio at Barrack, even if the conversations aren’t always as lively as they could be, the payoff is that they are receiving an education in an open environment.
“Not every class goes well — there are some times where you can hear crickets, for sure,” she said with a laugh. “[But] the kids are always challenged in class, always into that critical thinking and challenging and going into the deeper levels. They always have a voice and they always know that they’re heard.”
Suzanne Pollak of Washington Jewish Week contributed to this article.
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