Sexual education is a rite of passage for middle schoolers, but how it’s delivered varies widely from state to state and school to school. In the February, 2023 edition of Middle School Journal, Yvonne Allsop and colleagues describe how a collaborative, cross-discipline team worked together to create a virtual sexual health education curriculum for the middle grades. I sat down with Yvonne (YA), who was at the time a doctoral candidate at The Ohio State University, and fellow author Mary Kay Irwin (MKI), Senior Director of School Health Services at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, to talk about the project and what other educators and schools might be able to learn from their work.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can access the entire article online in Volume Volume 54 Issue 2 of the Journal through your AMLE Middle School Journal member subscription. Did you know, all school members also now receive a complimentary print subscription to Middle School Journal? Learn more about this and all of the benefits of AMLE membership.
SS: What would you say are the key takeaways from this article for a middle grades educator thinking about their sexual education curriculum?
MKI: Taking a collaborative approach is critical, especially in our current political environment. You need to make sure everyone is on the same page about what is being taught and how it’s being delivered. We’re also big advocates of incorporating youth voice in that plan. We need to be listening to the adolescents we intend to reach.
YA: I highly recommend teachers reach out to their colleagues in the district, including teachers, counselors, and administrators. Especially if they want to expand their knowledge and understanding of the content, health professionals that work in the school can be a great resource. I echo Mary in emphasizing the importance of everyone being on the same page.
SS: Collaboration was key to the success of your initiative. Can you speak more to those partnerships and how they were developed and sustained?
MKI: Our collaborations date back a number of years. In Columbus, we have a collaborative group that’s been meeting since 2018 to identify the best strategies to leverage reproductive health education as a preventative measure to improve our increasing teen pregnancy and STI rates. There have been multiple stakeholders involved, including hospital providers, school districts, The Ohio State University, Columbus Public Health, and the Mayor’s Office working together to lift up health education in an intentional way. This group has met regularly to create a comprehensive strategy and the work has included selecting a curriculum, identifying the age group it would be delivered to, and developing other supporting programs. Moving forward from that strategy, an intentional partnership with the teachers was key. They know their students best and are best positioned to carry this work out from a sustainability perspective. We needed to ensure that principals and teachers were part of the decision-making process.
YA: From The Ohio State University’s perspective, once all of the partners had decided on a curriculum we were confronted with COVID-19 and having to change our approach in how it would be delivered. We realized we had access to people who specialize in how to deliver curriculum, people who specialize in health education and sexual health education, others who knew how to create content. Working together we were able to protect the integrity of the curriculum while converting it into something that was appealing and effective for students in a virtual setting.
SS: Reading the article and about your approach reminded me of my own middle school days. I recall there being the anonymous questions box, but your fellow students could see you walk to the box to deposit your questions. So it wasn’t really anonymous. I appreciated that you provided students with a Google Form to submit questions. While you had to use that format for a virtual environment, that’s something I’d keep moving forward. What aspects of the delivery would you keep even if you weren’t in a virtual environment?
YA: Yes, we kept the Google Form after we went back to in-person instruction to help protect that anonymity. Another way we did that was by having teachers distribute a piece of paper to all students and then collect the papers at the end of the lesson. Students could submit their question, or a blank sheet if they didn’t have any questions. Again, this protected their anonymity. So there were definitely aspects we kept from the virtual environment.
MKI: Bringing an expert in e-learning development who knows how people learn virtually was critical. The end product was outstanding. In addition to not retiring the Google Form, we’re not retiring the wonderful graphics, slides, and other materials she made. Virtual learning pushed our team to think about how to engage kids interactively and keep their interest over time. We now use all those materials to enrich face-to-face instruction and it has enhanced our work significantly.
SS: Where would you see this work going next? If you were continuing to iterate on the project, what would be your next step?
MKI: We don’t have health education standards in the state of Ohio, so our work is never done. We’re actually the only state without them. We’re planning to move our work into the high school and into other districts as well.
YA: I’ll be moving on to be a professor of public health at Eastern Michigan University, but sexual education continues to be important to me. People often think you get your one sex ed class in middle school and you’re done. They don’t realize that sexual health is something that extends across the lifespan. I hope to continue to work in this important field and expand people’s knowledge and skills of how to better their health overall.
SS: Anything else you’d want readers to know about sexual education in the middle grades?
MKI: I think, working in the middle grades space, we achieved our goal of reaching kids before they make critical decisions that have finality for their lives. I’m most proud of that.
YA: I encourage teachers working in this space to reach out to their communities to collaborate. Often there are teachers who don’t teach health and are asked to deliver this content. Reach out to your local health department or hospitals. There are probably programs available that you can learn from or people willing to help. The health and wellbeing of your students is at stake.